Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on the Great Locomotive Chase.
The Great Locomotive Chase (also known as the Andrews Raid or Mitchel Raid) was a military raid that occurred on April 12, 1862, in northern Georgia during the American Civil War. Volunteers from the Union Army, led by civilian scout James J. Andrews, commandeered a train, The General, and took it northward toward Chattanooga, Tennessee, doing as much damage as possible to the vital Western and Atlantic Railroad line from Atlanta to Chattanooga as they went. They were pursued by Confederate forces at first on foot, and later on a succession of locomotives, including The Texas, for 87 miles.
Because the Union men had cut the telegraph wires, the Confederates could not send warnings ahead to forces along the railway. Confederates eventually captured the raiders and quickly executed some as spies, including Andrews; some others were able to flee. Some of the raiders were the first to be awarded the Medal of Honor by the US Congress for their actions. As a civilian, Andrews was not eligible.
After the Union capture of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in February of 1862, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston withdrew his forces from central Tennessee to reorganize. As part of this withdrawal, Johnston evacuated Nashville on Feb. 23, surrendering this important industrial center to Union Brig. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s Department of the Ohio Army and making it the first Confederate state capital to fall to the Union. After taking Nashville, Buell showed little inclination for further offensive operations, especially towards the pro-Union region of east Tennessee. On March 11, Buell’s army was merged into the new Department of the Mississippi under Gen. Henry Halleck. In late March, Halleck ordered Buell southwest to reinforce Grant’s army near Pittsburgh Landing on the Tennessee River. Buell departed, leaving a 7,000-man garrison in Nashville along with Maj. Gen. Ormsby Mitchel’s 10,000-man 3rd Division. Mitchel had earlier assisted in the capture of Nashville and accepted the surrender of the city. With the withdrawal of both Confederate and Union forces towards western Tennessee, central Tennessee became an economy of force operation. Facing minimal Confederate resistance, Mitchel moved his division southeast out of Nashville on March 18 towards Murfreesboro, arriving on March 20.
James J. Andrews was a Kentucky-born civilian serving as a secret agent and scout in Tennessee, for Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell in the spring of 1862. Sometime before Buell departed Nashville in late March, Andrews presented him with a plan to take eight men to steal a train in Georgia, and drive it north. Buell would later confirm in August 1863 that he authorized this expedition. According to Andrews, a train engineer in Atlanta was willing to defect to the Union with his train, if Andrews could supply a volunteer train crew to assist running the train, tearing up track, and burning bridges. The main target was the railway bridge at Bridgeport, Alabama, although future Andrews Raider William Pittenger believed Andrews also intended to target several other bridges in Georgia and Tennessee. The volunteers for this first raid all came from General Mitchell’s division, which was encamped at Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Moving south forty miles on foot to the Confederate railhead at Tullahoma, the raiders were then able to travel by train down to Marietta, Georgia. There, Andrews discovered the engineer had been pressed into service elsewhere. Andrews asked if any of the raiders knew how to operate a locomotive; when none did, he called the raid off. Two raiders were also confronted by Confederate soldiers while trying to cut the telegraph lines, but successfully pretended to be overworked wiremen. The raiders then returned north to Union lines, arriving about a week after they had departed. Andrews spent several additional days conducting reconnaissance on the Western and Atlantic Railroad before also departing back north to federal lines. None of the original raiders would volunteer for the second raid. One added that “he felt all the time he was in the enemy’s country as though he had a rope around his neck.”
Major Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel, commanding Federal troops in middle Tennessee, sought a way to contract or shrink the extent of the northern and western borders of the Confederacy by pushing them permanently away from and out of contact with the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. This could be done by first a southward and then an eastward penetration from the Union base at Nashville, which would seize and sever the Memphis & Charleston Railroad between Memphis and Chattanooga (at the time there were no other railway links between the Mississippi river and the east) and then capture the water and railway junction of Chattanooga, Tennessee, thereby severing the Western Confederacy’s contact with both the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys.
At the time, the standard means of capturing a city was by encirclement to cut it off from supplies and reinforcements, then would follow artillery bombardment and direct assault by massed infantry. However, Chattanooga’s natural water and mountain barriers to its east and south made this nearly impossible with the forces that Mitchel had available. When the Union Army threatened Chattanooga, the Confederate States Army would (from its naturally protected rear) first reinforce Chattanooga’s garrison from Atlanta. When sufficient forces had been deployed to Chattanooga to stabilize the situation and hold the line, the Confederates would then launch a counterattack from Chattanooga with the advantage of a local superiority of men and materiel. It was this process that the Andrews raid sought to disrupt. If he could somehow block railroad reinforcement of the city from Atlanta to the southeast, Mitchel could take Chattanooga. The Union Army would then have rail reinforcement and supply lines to its rear, leading west to the Union-held stronghold and supply depot of Nashville, Tennessee.
James J. Andrews, a civilian scout and part-time spy, proposed a daring raid to Mitchel that would destroy the Western and Atlantic Railroad as a useful reinforcement and supply link to Chattanooga from Atlanta and the rest of Georgia. He recruited the men known later as the Andrews Raiders. These were the civilian William Hunter Campbell and 22 volunteer Union soldiers from three Ohio regiments: the 2nd, 21st, and 33rd Ohio Infantry. Andrews instructed the men to arrive in Marietta, Georgia, by midnight of April 10, but heavy rain caused a one-day delay. They traveled in small parties in civilian attire to avoid arousing suspicion. All but two (Samuel Llewellyn and James Smith) reached the designated rendezvous point at the appointed time. Llewellyn and Smith joined a Confederate artillery unit, as they had been instructed to do in such circumstances. Andrews’ proposal was a combined operation; General Mitchel and his forces would first move on Chattanooga; then, the Andrews’ Raid would promptly destroy the rail line between Chattanooga and Atlanta. These essentially simultaneous actions would bring about the capture of Chattanooga. Andrews’ Raid was intended to deprive the Confederates of the integrated use of the railways to respond to a Union advance, using their interior lines of communication.
The plan was to steal a train on its run north towards Chattanooga, stopping to damage or destroy track, bridges, telegraph wires, and track switches behind them, so as to prevent the Confederate Army from being able to move troops and supplies from Atlanta to Chattanooga.
The raiders planned to cross through the Federal siege lines on the outskirts of Chattanooga and rejoin Mitchel’s army.
Because railway dining cars were not yet in common use, railroad timetables included water, rest, and meal stops. They planned to steal a train just north of Atlanta at Big Shanty, Georgia (now Kennesaw). They chose Big Shanty because they thought Big Shanty did not have a telegraph office and the stop would also be used to refuel and take on water for the steep grade further north.
The raid began on April 12, 1862, when the regular morning passenger train from Atlanta, with the locomotive General, stopped for breakfast at the Lacy Hotel. They took the General and the train’s three boxcars, which were behind the tender in front of the passenger cars. The passenger cars were left behind. Andrews had previously obtained from the work crew a crowbar for tearing up track.
The train’s conductor, William Allen Fuller, and two other men, chased the stolen train, first on foot, then by a handcar belonging to a work crew shortly north of Big Shanty. Locomotives of the time normally averaged 15 miles per hour, with short bursts of speed of about 20 miles per hour. In addition, the terrain north of Atlanta is very hilly, and the ruling grades are steep. Even today, average speeds are rarely greater than 40 miles per hour between Chattanooga and Atlanta. Since Andrews intended to stop periodically to perform acts of sabotage, a determined pursuer, even on foot, could conceivably have caught up with the train before it reached Chattanooga.
Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973.