- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2007

STEALING THE GENERAL: THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE AND THE FIRST MEDAL OF HONOR

By Russell S. Bonds, Westholme Publishing, $29.95, 444 pages, illustrated

Few events of the Civil War have been so widely celebrated as a small Federal raid into Georgia in 1862 aimed at disrupting the Western & Atlantic Railroad, an important Confederate supply line. The appeal of this militarily insignificant event lies in the fact that it ended with the “great locomotive chase” of song and story.

On April 7, 1862, Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel asked 32-year-old James Andrews, a furtive character of uncertain loyalty, to lead a raid deep into the Confederacy. Mitchel planned to move Federal troops from western Tennessee to the eastern part of the state and to drive the Confederates out of Chattanooga. To prevent the Rebels from bringing up reinforcements, he sought to cut the rail line between Atlanta and Chattanooga.

Andrews was a curious choice to command the expedition, and his raid would be a rare instance of soldiers led by a civilian. Nevertheless, he proved to be an inspired leader and kept the confidence and respect of his men even after the mission collapsed.

Andrews recruited 22 volunteers from an Ohio regiment and sent them through the Confederate lines in civilian clothes — the first of several critical errors. By April 11, they had met up with Andrews at Marietta, Ga., and set about stealing a locomotive. The following morning, the Yankees bought tickets to Big Shanty, Ga., 25 miles north of Atlanta. There they found their target, a train of cars pulled by the locomotive called the General.

While the train’s crew and passengers ate breakfast at a restaurant, Andrews and his cohorts uncoupled most of the cars from the engine and headed north. The conductor of the General, William A. Fuller, rushed outside to see his locomotive departing, harassed by just a few ineffectual shots from Confederate sentries.

Because Big Shanty had no telegraph, Fuller and two others commandeered a handcar and began to chase their stolen engine. At Etowah, Ga., they found an aged locomotive, Yonah, that the raiders had failed to disable. The three Confederates raised steam and continued the pursuit.

The raiders stopped from time to time to cut telegraph wires to delay pursuit, but Andrews’ immediate problem was southbound traffic on the single-track line. He put the General on a siding to allow a southbound express to pass, but two more trains appeared. Andrews insisted that he be given priority, claiming that he was carrying munitions for Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. He was granted the right of way, but the General had lost valuable time.

To the south, Fuller and his companions also found their way blocked by southbound traffic. They abandoned the Yonah and seized a second locomotive, but they were slowed by broken rails and railroad ties that the Federals had cast onto the track. Fuller commandeered a third locomotive, the Texas, at Adairsville, concluding that it was faster than his own. Unable to turn around on the single track, Fuller continued the chase with his engine running in reverse.

The raiders again tried to delay their pursuers, but nothing worked. When they tried to burn a bridge, the rain-soaked wood refused to catch fire. So the race continued, with both engines at times reaching 60 miles per hour or more, a speed that few Americans had ever experienced. One of the raiders recalled after the war, “We sped past stations, houses and fields … almost like a meteor, while the bystanders who barely caught a glimpse of us as we passed looked on as if in fear and amazement.”

Just south of the Tennessee border, the General finally ran out of wood and creaked to a halt. There Andrews made a fatal miscalculation. Instead of fighting it out with his pursuers, whom he greatly outnumbered, he abandoned the General and ordered his men to scatter. Search parties captured most of the raiders within a few days, and because they were not in uniform, they had no rights as prisoners of war.

A handful of Andrews’ men made it safely to Union territory, but Andrews and seven others were tried in Atlanta and hanged. (Fuller was there and would recall that the raiders “were brave, fearless men, and met their fate as all true Americans do.”) Six others were exchanged for Confederate prisoners and became among the first recipients of a new decoration, the Medal of Honor.

The failed raid that resulted in the “great locomotive chase” was militarily insignificant. Indeed, Mr. Bonds’s 444-page tome will strike some students of the Civil War as a good article on steroids. However, the daring of the raiders and the persistence of their pursuers captured the imagination of both sides in 1862 and continues to do so today.

John M. Taylor, the author of several books on the Civil War, lives in McLean.

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