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


37 Comments on “The Great Locomotive Chase!

  1. Heck of a story. And the Congressional Medal of Honor has gone on to become a very big deal as the highest honor a military person can be awarded. Well done.

  2. That IS a great story! It should be made into a movie. Sorry to hear things are frustrating at the moment, but keep riding M.B, & dig in! There’s a mixed metaphor, but you know what I mean!

    • I think they actually did make a movie of it – I’m pretty sure based off Daring and Suffering, the book written by Pittenger. I haven’t seen it but I bet it’s great! 🙂 And I sure know what you mean, I appreciate the support! <3

  3. An incredible story, SO well told by you, MB!

    And wishing you the best of luck in emerging from what you’re currently facing in your writing career.

    • Thanks Dave! Life is filled with peaks and valleys I guess 🙂 🙂

    • What a great way to look at it! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post

    • Glad you liked it Lee! 🙂 And I do always have to work puns in, it was surprisingly hard with the train ones haha!

  4. That was a thrill to read, M.B.! All’s fair in war, I suppose, but it’s a shame they didn’t have the equipment (explosives in particular) to succeed, and that some lost their lives for it.

    When I saw your post, I immediately wondered how things were going with the books. Thanks for the update. I’ve had some frustrations along similar lines, so I feel your pain! Keep chugging along and I’m sure you’ll make the station on time.😊

    • Sorry we’re both in equally frustrating points of our writing career! But you’re right, we just have to keep chugging along 🙂 IT’s all we can do! Thanks so much for reading and I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

  5. Great story. Don’t give up on your passion for research and writing. You’ll figure it out eventually, I’m sure.

    • Thank you so much <3 I have to say the encouragement I find on WordPress is always a huge help!

  6. Taking us right into history as usual, M.B. Beautifully brought to life. As you said on my post, this was a happy coincidence.

  7. That is an outstanding story! Amazing piece of history.
    I like how well kept that cemetery is. I saw an old one (about the same era) in central Florida that was disheveled.

    • It really is an amazing story! Before I brushed up on it, I had no idea that it spawned the first Medals of Honor, that was fun to learn. And yes, this graveyard was incredibly well kept, and for that we are always thankful.

  8. Great story MB, and hilarious were in not for those who were executed – they probably didn’t see the funny side.

    • Yeah, probably not!! 🙁 🙁 Glad you enjoyed it despite the more tragic parts!

  9. Anything having to do with trains fascinates me, and the old steam-powered trains are favorites. I’d never heard this story, and loved all the details you provided. I dug into my video favorites for a song your story reminded me of: “The Wreck of Old 97”. It’s a good story itself, and a heck of a song, but I thought you’d enjoy the historical photos of some trains that had their own adventures, thanks to the humans responsible for them — not to mention being responsible for the damage some of them caused!

    As for your writing, here’s another little story for you. I once wrote a post about my inability to keep my shoelaces tied, and my mother’s constant nagging about it. Eventually, I said to my mother, “There are problems to be solved, and there are facts of life. My shoelaces aren’t a problem, they’re a fact of life, and I’m not going to worry about them.”

    You might think that’s the end of the story, but it’s not. A reader gave her own compulsive mother that post to read, and after laughing herself silly, her mother began asking the question — “Is this a problem, or a fact of life”” — on a regular basis, until the day she died. Nancy said it helped her deal with life a whole lot better. Which is to say: we never know how our writing is going to affect people. It often happens in unexpected ways. Carry on!

    • What an amazing story about your writing, and one I can assure you that I’m going to take to heart. I guess you never know how your writing is going to affect someone, even the smallest things that we may not think that much about can impact someone else profoundly. I’m so glad you shared that here, as it’s given me a lot to think about with my own writing, and the impact I know I’ve had even right here in the WordPress community. Thanks so much for that reminder! <3

  10. MB,…this is fascinating! My friend, you are way more than just a “trained” writer. You engage us with vibrant words and amazing history and truth! I don’t see you running out of steam anytime soon (although I’ve been derailed on some of my goals) . I hope to keep encouraging you. I love being here and soaking in the history with you. I’ll share this with my Dad, too. The Congressional Medal of Honor has an amazing “track” record of sung, and unsung heroes. I love the plots~the ingenuity (of the times 🤭) and the plots used to “go the distance” in our country altering war. Your pictures are beautiful! I’ll not forget this history now. BTW, your puns made it roll smoothly down the track! Sending you love and prayers as you continue your marketing journey. Hang in there, my friend. I decided to move forward with a project. It’s my own~I don’t have a publisher, although I met a local one. Hope you’re well, my friend, otherwise. 💚💕🙏🏻

    • Ha!! Love your railroad punning there Karla. Very well done, I applaud you 🙂 And thanks as always for your kind words, your encouragement, and your visits to my blog. It’s always nice seeing you! I’m very grateful for your support!

  11. Whew! That is an exciting tale! I think – but don’t quote me – that the Buster Keaton silent The General is loosely based on this chase.

    It’s a beautiful monument.

    • Buster would do an excellent job with that – I’ll have to check it out!

  12. What a great story, MB. You had me at the title. I love the old steam trains. It is amazing what folks will do when thier back is against the wall!

  13. Neat story M.B. I think I heard this one on a podcast recently while I was recovering from my eye surgery. My wife read your first book after I had finished it liked it very much as well, I hope you can get your next one of the ground soon!!

    • Me too!!! Thanks so much for reading and for supporting my work, it truly means the world!

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