The Great Locomotive Chase!
I actually noticed the monument as soon as we entered the graveyard at Chattanooga. “Look,” I pointed it out to my husband. “That stone has a train on it!” Indeed, a shiny, brass locomotive sat on top of one of the big graveyard stones, standing front and center of the place. Hard to miss, really. Yet it wasn’t until several minutes later, when we were actually preparing to leave the cemetery, that I finally made the connection. And it was only because my husband happened to mention that he was reading about a monument dedicated to some men who had done something… well, pretty wild. Even by Civil War standards. As he read off the graveyard’s page, describing this monument, I gasped.
“Of course,” I said as I slapped my forehead. “It was that stone we saw right at the entrance with the train on it! It commemorates the Great Locomotive Chase!”
The Great. Locomotive. Chase. Probably one of the craziest stories to come out of the western theater during the Civil War, if not the entire war all together. A story that resulted in the awarding of the first-ever Congressional Medals of Honor. After visiting the monument in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I brushed up on my reading of this incident, and it is indeed quite a tale. One very worthy of its monument in that graveyard. So cue your Indiana Jones theme song, ladies and gents, and get ready for one wild ride (allll abooooard!)
It all started one fine April morning in 1862, when a Confederate locomotive called “the General,” towing a passenger train from Atlanta, stopped for a leisurely breakfast at Northern Georgia’s Lacy Hotel. While passengers enjoyed a morning meal inside, and the train’s engineers and conductor cooled their heels for a bit, a band of Union men under the command of Civilian-turned-spy James J. Andrews crept onto the scene. They cast hasty glances at one another. Some of them quietly hopped on board the steaming locomotive, while others went in the back and detached the cumbersome passenger cars. There were no doubt a few squeaks and groans. Maybe a cheeky blast of the train whistle. Then, before anyone could do a single thing to stop them, twenty-two Union men were dashing down the tracks aboard the stolen General locomotive. Probably having a good laugh as they rode off into Southland.
Their motives weren’t as simple as hacking off a couple train engineers either. In fact, the entire thing had been carefully planned to a T (as in train… tee hee) over several weeks. The Union Army in Tennessee, under the command of Major General Ormsby Mitchel, had long been trying to shrink the Confederate territory by cutting them off from the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. One of the ways Mitchel wanted to accomplish that was by attacking the Confederate stronghold of Chattanooga. However, that would be a challenge, given that it was a natural fortress – surrounded on all sides by mountains and hills. The Confederates also had the advantage of an impressive supply line from the railways out of Atlanta.
Which became the key to Mitchel’s attempted invasion. If the Confederates in Chattanooga could be cut off from their supplies, the Union could eventually overwhelm them. Enter James J. Andrews. Not an official member of the Union Army, Andrews had still made quite a reputation for himself as a civilian scout and spy. He proposed the daring plan of recruiting some guys, posing as Confederate soldiers, capturing a rebel train, and using it to tear up tracks and burn the bridges into the city of Chattanooga, virtually cutting it off from any resupplies or reinforcements. Which would clear the way for Mitchel and his men to move in. I mean, it sounds pretty simple. Right? Right?
Well, Mitchel must have thought so. Because he gave the proverbial green light to the hairbrained scheme, and Andrews managed to recruit over twenty other men that were apparently just as crazy as he was. Together they trained, together they learned all about the Southern territory they would infiltrate, and together they went down South to wreak some real havoc. Which led them to the Lacy Hotel on April 12, 1862.
Perhaps more than aware that anyone who steals a locomotive must have some foul intentions, the Confederates wasted no time pursuing the stolen train. The first efforts were on foot, since there was really little else to be done. I can’t help but chuckle when I imagine stunned, slack-jawed Confederates angrily sprinting off after the train, no doubt waving their arms and cursing up a storm. While it is kind of laughable, it’s also prudent to remember that trains of the time, especially in Georgia’s hilly landscape, couldn’t go much faster than 15 to 20mph. Which is why the train’s conductor and two other men beat all hell after the locomotive, eventually commandeering a handcar from a nearby work crew to aid in their chase. It is actually conceivable that they could have caught it.
But they didn’t. They soon realized they would need a lot of help to catch the literal run-away train, which would be difficult, as it turns out. Because the Union raiders were already snapping communication wires all along their route. They also got down to business tearing up the tracks, making pursuit exceptionally difficult, as if it wasn’t already to begin with.
However, the Union boys soon encountered their own bumps in the road, which is to be expected when dealing with a stolen locomotive, deep in enemy territory, with very little time to keep ahead of your pursuers. The biggest problem being the constant stops at stations along the one-way track. After all, not like they could just blow past them. That would raise a pretty big red flag, and send the entire Confederate army onto their tail. So, at each stop, Andrews burned precious time bluffing his way through security and station masters, saying that his train was an urgent ammunition supply on its way south, at the command of General Beauregard. It satisfied most station masters, who let him hurry on his way. Only to find out moments later, when the pursuers caught up to them, that they had been duped. Boy that must have made them steaming mad (train pun!)
Meanwhile on the stolen locomotive, the Union raiders continued to wreak havoc any and every way that they could, while their pursuers snatched another locomotive (the Yonah), and were hastening pace in the chase to catch up. But more things had started to go wrong aboard the hijacked General. First of all, the raiders weren’t exactly well equipped to carry out their mission. Tearing up and disabling tracks took considerable time and effort, and they didn’t have enough man power to adequately destroy much of anything. They also encountered problems trying to burn bridges, as all the wood nearby had been soaked with a recent rain and was painfully slow to catch. The only major damage they had caused thus far was cutting telegraph wires and breaking a few rails, which allowed them to stay on the run for as long as they did, but didn’t accomplish much else.
After just eighteen miles of riding their stolen mount, causing some minor damage along the tracks (and probably some rail-splitting headaches for the Confederates), the General ran out of steam. Their mission a failure before it could even really get started, Andrews and his raiders were forced to abandon ship and scatter. The Confederates, who had finally managed to get word out on an undamaged telegraph line, mounted a huge man hunt and one by one, chased down the wild Yankee raiders. Within two weeks, every single one of them sat languishing in a Confederate jail, awaiting a fate they knew would be bad, since the raid had infuriated their gray-clad enemy.
Indeed, in the aftermath of what became known as the Great Locomotive Chase, all of the raiders were charged with spying and “acts of unlawful belligerency.” I’ll say. Eight, including fearless leader Andrews, would face the hanging rope as punishment for their crimes. Another eight, somewhat luckier than their counterparts, eventually escaped and made their way back to Union lines. The remaining half dozen or so were swapped in a prisoner exchange in 1863.
Once they returned safely home, one of the surviving raiders, named William Pittenger (see sources below), wrote a long letter to the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, divulging every particular of the daring raid, heaping praise upon all the participants, especially James Andrews. Once the details were corroborated, the story soon began floating around in prominent military circles, and the surviving raiders were invited to Washington. Edwin Stanton told them that they would be receiving a freshly-minted military award, designed to commemorate extreme acts of heroism and bravery. They called it… the Congressional Medal of Honor. Most raiders, even the ones who had died, would eventually receive the medal, although Andrews didn’t qualify, since he was a civilian. Afterwards, the surviving raiders went to meet Abraham Lincoln at the White House, establishing the long-held tradition of medal recipients meeting the President, a tradition still in practice today.
So… what to make of all this? What’s the lesson in it? I mean, those boys all wound up captured. A lot of them wound up dead. Their mission, as bold as it looked on paper, was a failure.
But the story…..
The story is a good one, isn’t it? And it obviously had an impact on a lot of people, working its way into Civil War legend and living on through the generations. It also started a proud, honorable tradition that is still in practice today. That little brass train sitting atop the cold stone in the quiet cemetery still inspires people to do something bold. Small, little people like me. Because I’ll admit that a writer’s life is difficult. Like those Union boys aboard their stolen train, I’ve encountered my fair share of foul-ups lately. Sales have slowed for my first book. I’ve had a heck of a time getting my second book off the ground, and it’s starting to make me feel like my own mission might be in danger of failing.
But as I read about the Great Locomotive Chase, I found comfort in the fact that even if I fail, even if I don’t wind up where I thought I would, I can still inspire people. I can still make a difference. A failure here or a missed opportunity there doesn’t mean it will all amount to nothing. All I have to do is keep on riding that rail. And try not to run out of steam!
Chattanooga Military Cemetery Visit
Daring and Suffering – W. Pittenger