Two trains, one track, and 87 miles of hot Georgia pursuit.
Union Maj. Gen. Ormsby “Old Stars” Mitchel was, befitting the nickname, an astronomer at the Dudley Observatory in Albany, N.Y., when the war broke out and he resigned his position to go fight the Rebels. The 51-year-old Mitchel was new to neither the military nor astronomy. He’d been a classmate of Robert E. Lee at West Point; he published the nation’s first monthly magazine on astronomy in 1846; and for his achievements in astronomy, a crater and a mountain range on the planet Mars are named for him. But in the spring of 1862, his division was advancing, more or less, to a Confederate concentration at Corinth in northeastern Mississippi. His primary orders were to protect Nashville, but he had the authority to make trouble wherever trouble in the region might be made. After capturing Huntsville, Ala., Mitchel eyed eastern Tennessee, which was rich in resources and people who remained loyal to the Union. Time would show Mitchel had a propensity for jumping the gun; he couldn’t hold Huntsville, and he had inadequate support to make inroads into eastern Tennessee. But his dreams did not go unshared.
James Andrews was a Midwestern house painter and singing coach turned Union spy operating in Nashville. Andrews fixated on trains early on, figuring that if he could steal one he could go on a mad tear, cutting telegraph wires, burning bridges, pulling up rails and in general disabling Southern communications and transport. The Western & Atlantic Railroad, linking Atlanta with Chattanooga, was a major Confederate supply line—and the perfect target. Andrews approached Mitchel with a plan.
Mitchel liked the idea. He would attack Chattanooga after Andrews had stolen a train in Georgia and obliterated Confederate lines of support that could be called to the defense of the city.
As planned, Andrews and 24 men in civilian dress wandered, a few at a time, off into the countryside, the cover story being that they were headed to sign up for service in the Confederate Army. It was, as William Pittenger, then a corporal in the 2nd Ohio, later wrote, “a romantic and adventurous plan.” And not without pitfalls. A couple of the men were approached by Southern locals and dutifully spelled out their cover story—at which point they were dutifully marched to the closest recruiting station and pressed into service.
Rain poured down as the rest of the men made their final plans, and with the mud that reliably led to delays came the news (erroneous, as it would turn out) that Mitchel’s troops would be stalled an additional day. So the expedition was bumped back from Friday, April 11, to Saturday, April 12. No one could have known the cataclysmic difference this small change in plans would make.
Having arrived in Georgia, each man was given one last chance to back out. None did, even though they found themselves on a wet, rainy morning surrounded by Southern soldiers at every turn. At Kennesaw Mountain they collectively gulped at the sight of a vast Confederate encampment, in “a painfully thrilling moment.” At the Kennesaw Station in Big Shanty, the train stopped and the crew and many passengers got off to eat breakfast at the cafe.
Andrews had chosen to put his plan into action at Kennesaw Station because it had no telegraph that could be used to alert Rebel troops. His men, many of whom were experienced railroaders, got to work.
Some uncoupled the passenger cars as the undercover engineers and firemen darted into the locomotive and the rest of the men tumbled into a boxcar behind the tender. An armed Confederate guard stood a few feet away, but his eyes simply couldn’t make his brain adjust to the unfolding events in any way that made sense to him, and by the time he had pulled himself together enough to act, it was too late. Andrews’ engineer threw open the valve, and the General bolted ahead—in front of a stunned audience that had no idea what was happening.
What was about to happen was seven hours and 87 of the wildest miles in United States history.
Andrews had carefully studied the railway’s timetable and knew he would meet two southbound freight trains. But they would be expecting the northbound General as well, and so long as everyone kept to schedule and availed themselves of the proper sidings there should be no problem. Once the second freight had passed, it was full steam ahead to the key bridges leading into Tennessee. They were to be burned, at which point—any possible pursuit being cut off—Andrews anticipated a leisurely chug to Chattanooga. Everything was falling perfectly into place.
The rogue band of rail men was in good spirits and good order as they began their mission. They cut telegraph wires and took on some crossties to be used as kindling for future bridge fires. Cool as cucumbers, they filled up with wood and water at Southern stations, calmly stating that they were on a special mission carrying powder for General P.G.T. Beauregard.
But the raiders didn’t bargain on the outrage and determination felt back at the Kennesaw Station by two men named William Fuller and Anthony Murphy, who were members of the legitimate crew of the General and very much wanted their train back. They had taken off after the vanishing train on foot and then on a co-opted handcar, which proceeded slowly but surely until it spilled gracelessly into a ditch, thanks to a rail that had been dislodged by the departing thieves.
Meanwhile, this job of rail springing took longer than it should have because Andrews’ men did not have the proper tools. But the activity “possessed just enough of the spice of danger in this part of the run to render it thoroughly enjoyable,” Pittenger recalled. As they chugged into Etowah Station, they noticed on a siding an old beater of an engine, the Yonah, which was serving out its golden years in the employ of an iron mine. The Yonah’s steam was up, but the threat seemed minor, and disabling it would have attracted too much unwanted attention.
Had this been Friday instead of Saturday, the logic would have been sound.
The crew waited out the second southbound freight, but as it came into sight the men were dismayed to see it was displaying a red flag, which indicated another train still to come. And that train had a red flag of its own, which would lead to more downtime than the men of the General could afford. Andrews stepped in and asked station masters the reason for all these freights running south. After all, Beauregard was an impatient man and needed his powder. The answer, Pittenger noted, “was interesting, but not reassuring.”
Word had spread that Mitchel’s army was (as originally scheduled) approaching Chattanooga, and the Confederates were evacuating as many supplies from the town as possible prior to the attack. Andrews and company should not have delayed their plans after all. Mitchel was in transit and now they were stuck, a day late, while the Rebels got out of Mitchel’s way.
The wait continued. Andrews’ men didn’t know who might be after them by now. They didn’t know who in the gathering crowd of their enemies knew what. The men in the boxcar, who had no clue what the problem was, grew anxious. Andrews had been able to give them only a brief message: Be ready to fight. “So intolerable was our suspense that the order for a deadly conflict would have been felt as a relief,” wrote Pittenger. At last the final freight pulled in, and with unspeakable relief the crew of the General was off again, leaving the increasingly inquisitive and suspicious crowd behind.
Back at Etowah Station, two excited and exhausted men ran panting up to the platform with a wild story to tell and some sharp shouted orders. The Yonah, whose career as an industrial workhorse was winding to a well-earned retirement, was about to become a pursuit vehicle for a band of Confederate commandos.
At a less intense pace now, the General was stopped on the road north as the men set about cutting telegraph wires and pulling up rails. Again, it was a time-consuming process, performed as it was without proper tools. At this crucial juncture, the men were startled by the scream of a locomotive whistle to the south, where no train should have been. This increased interest the crew had in popping the rail, and with one superhuman effort it was dislodged, the equal and opposite reaction sending the men tumbling down a bank.
The pair of intrepid men who were the rightful operators of the General slammed on the brakes of the Yonah in time to avoid disaster, but there was no time to try to patch up the Yankees’ vandalism. They abandoned their locomotive and once again set off at a sprint, leaving their team of commandeered soldiers from Etowah behind. Even at the trot, they would soon be making better time than the General, which became snarled in southbound traffic, her crew peppered with questions that were getting harder and harder to answer with any degree of credibility. Finally the traffic cleared. The next station was nine miles distant, but an express was due from that direction at any time. Word was that it was running a bit late. It was a gamble Andrews had to take.
The General gave everything it had. Engines in those days had to sweat to break 20 mph, but Pittenger believed they covered the nine miles in nine minutes, arriving just as the express was pulling out. Hearing the shriek of the whistle, the conductor of the express stopped and backed up on the siding far enough for the Federals to get mostly, but not entirely, past.
So many strange things were happening that Saturday morning that Southern antennae were up and functioning with full force. Getting away took Andrews’ best performance yet. General Beauregard needed his powder, dammit! The express allowed them to pass.
Fuller and Murphy had not counted on the Yankees’ ability to slip past the express. But the General had gotten away, with nothing but open road between it and the safety of Mitchel’s troops. One more stop was needed—to burn the Oostanaula Bridge—and the rest of the journey, Pittenger reckoned, would be “simple manual labor, with the enemy absolutely powerless.”
That harmonious dream was again shattered by a screaming whistle and a train bearing down on them “at frightening speed.” Backward. What the…?
Fuller and Murphy had had their own problems with congestion until they grabbed a southbound locomotive named the Texas and ran it to the north as fast as it would go. Sure enough, the General was stopped ahead, and just coming into rifle range. Two more minutes were all the Yankees needed to spring the rail. They didn’t have it. All piled back into the train and the race was on. Andrews still hoped to stop and burn a bridge, and to buy the time he uncoupled a car from the General to block the way—and watched incredulously as his pursuers barely slowed but slammed into the car and pushed it back the way it had come.
The Confederates couldn’t pass, but they could press the General until it ran out of fuel and water. Or so they thought.
But Andrews still had some tricks up his sleeve. Every so often he’d toss some crossties onto the tracks, compelling Fuller and Murphy to stop and clear the rails. These measures delayed Fuller and Murphy enough to allow the crew of the General to twice take on wood and water and cut the wires after passing each station. The two most effective measures would have been to pop a rail or burn a bridge, but there wasn’t time for the former, and the day was too wet for the latter.
“Thus we sped on, mile after mile, in this fearful chase, around curves and past stations in seemingly endless perspective,” Pittenger recalled. “Whenever we lost sight of the enemy beyond a curve we hoped that some of our obstructions had been effective in throwing him from the track and that we would see him no more; but at each long reach backward the smoke was again seen, and the shrill whistle was like the scream of a bird of prey.”
Trains of that day were not intended for such breakneck speeds, especially if there might be something in the way. On a particularly sharp curve, Andrews’ men threw down a tie, knowing there was no way their pursuers could see it and stop in time. Sure enough, they hit it square. Sometime after the fact, Fuller admitted it caused quite a jolt, and swore that the train popped up in the air and settled, roughly, back on the rails. At this point, several of the Confederate soldiers who were along for the ride said they believed they would like to stop and get off, but “their wishes were not gratified.”
In the end, the raiders were doomed for want of the railroad equivalent of a simple claw hammer, which would have allowed them to quickly pull up spikes and sabotage the road.
In one last, desperate effort, they tore up half of the last wooden boxcar and threw it in the tender for fuel, setting the rest on fire and releasing it from the train under a covered wooden bridge. They rooted hard as they could for the bridge to catch before their pursuers caught up, but it didn’t. The Texas pushed the flaming car out of the bridge and onto the next siding. Without time to stop for wood and water, the General’s miles were numbered. The raiders milked all the steam they could out of the General before throwing it in reverse toward the oncoming pursuers and scrambling from the scene. In one last fillip of bad luck, there wasn’t enough energy left in the General’s boiler to crash the Texas.
The manhunt for the raiders was, Pittenger said, “prompt, energetic and successful.” All were captured and tried as spies. Andrews and seven others were hanged, while the rest were exchanged or escaped. Many were among the first recipients of the newly created Medal of Honor.
Adapted from Strange and Obscure Stories of the Civil War, by Tim Rowland, Skyhorse Publishing, 2011.
Originally published in the January 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.