The Great Locomotive Chase
In early 1862, Union forces had to account for the possibility of Confederate forces rapidly arriving at Chattanooga from Atlanta via the Western & Atlantic Railroad (W&R). James J. Andrews, a Union civilian scout, proposed a raid to sever that rail connection by seizing a locomotive in Georgia, then traveling north, destroying two connecting railway lines and their vital bridges.
The idea was approved, and in early April, Andrews recruited Union Army volunteers for his raid. Slipping through Confederate lines in civilian clothes, the men were to rendezvous in Marietta, Georgia. There, they boarded a train on April 11th, and when it reached a small stop called “Big Shanty”, selected by Andrews because it had no telegraph the Confederates could use to send out an alarm, the raiders sprung into action. Seizing the train’s locomotive, named the General, they uncoupled it from the rest of the train and took off, beginning the chase.
The raiders cut telegraph lines, and stopping along the way, removed some rail tracks. When a hue and cry were raised, the raiders led Confederate pursuers on a 90-mile chase on foot and on locomotives. In Big Shanty, the conductor whose locomotive they had hijacked, a William Fuller, organized a pursuit.
First by foot, then by handcar, until Fuller and posse reached an idle locomotive on a spur line, which they fired up and began the chase in earnest. Switching locomotives along the way, Fuller and the pursuers steadily closed the distance with Andrews and his raiders.
For some time, Andrews’ men managed to stay ahead of news of their raid because they had cut telegraph wires, thus preventing warnings and orders to block the raiders’ escape route from reaching Confederate forces ahead of the fleeing Union volunteers.
Things started going wrong for the raiders when they tried burning a wooden railroad bridge, but heavy rains had left the structure too waterlogged to catch on fire, so Andrews and his moved on, leaving the bridge intact behind them – and giving the pursuers a clear path to follow them on a stern chase.
When the pursuers finally reached an intact telegraph line, they managed to sound the alarm, and the raiders were blocked. Halting the train on the outskirts of Ringgold, Georgia, Andrews ordered his men to disembark and scatter into the wilderness. They were captured over the next few days, then tried by the Confederates for “acts of unlawful belligerency”.
Andrews and seven of his men were convicted and hanged in June of 1862. Eight of the raiders, however, managed to escape, and the remainder were released in a prisoner exchange in March 1863. Participants were among the first-ever recipients of the newly created Congressional Medal of Honor, but unfortunately, Andrews was not among them, because, as a civilian, he was ineligible.