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The Great Locomotive Chase

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 2 2

"Someone's Stealing My Train!"

Wars spawn many great tales (both true and fictional) though most are tragic.  However, wars also produce the bizarre, the quirky, and sometimes the downright comedic.  If not for the deadly serious objectives behind the Yankee hijacking of a Confederate train in the Deep South during the Civil War, the actions of this tale’s three Konfederate Keystone Kops would be hilarious.  In a mostly forgotten Civil War sabotage effort, The Great Locomotive Chase of 1862 immortalized three railroader’s dash to catch a speeding, runaway train, traveling a large chunk of an intrastate pursuit of many miles – on foot!

The General: Then & Now

The Civil War, for tragedians, is rife with tales of woe and death.  Sometimes, however, a war story comes along with some uncharacteristically humorous elements.  This is the case of the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862.  The goals of the parties involved were simple: a group of Union hijackers stole a steam locomotive, complete with its tender and railcars, intent upon ripping up track and blowing up rail bridges between Atlanta, Georgia, and Chattanooga, Tennessee.  This would effectively sever the South’s supply line (not having the miles of track the North had), crippling the ability to stock the Confederate Army.  On the other side of this equation were a train conductor and two other railmen, hell-bent on getting their train back any way they could.

Train travel in the mid 1860s did not include such luxuries as smoking and dining cars or toilet facilities.  Trains carrying passengers had to make relatively frequent stops for water and fuel.  Meals and “necessary” breaks were also scheduled into a train’s timetable.  Thus, on the morning of April 12, 1862, the passengers and crew of the northbound train pulled by the locomotive General breakfasted at the Lacy Hotel in Big Shanty (a whistle-stop, now Kennesaw, Georgia). 

A train’s conductor (no mere ticket puncher) held the same responsibility as a ship’s captain in those days – the conductor was responsible for the train and its complement, and the rail company for whom he worked held him liable for every aspect of the train’s operation and scheduling.  The General’s conductor this day was William Allen Fuller with Jeff Cain and Anthony Murphy (presumably the train’s engineer and fireman) as part of the crew. 

Conductor Fuller sat near the window eating at the Lacy Hotel when he noticed the General chugging out of the station.  As his engineer and fireman were likewise in the station he exhorted, “Someone’s stealing my train!”, and leapt into action.  The General, complete with its tender and rail cars, built up a head of steam and lumbered away from the station, gaining speed as Fuller, Murphy, and Cain ran after it. 

The hijackers were Union saboteurs specifically tasked with destroying the rail connection between Atlanta, Georgia, and Chattanooga., Tennessee.  This group of Yankees was lead by a civilian adventurer named James J. Andrews (a scout and part-time spy).  He had proposed destroying the Western & Atlantic Railroad link to Chattanooga (a major supply line for the Confederacy). The plan was endorsed by Maj. Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel (commanding Federal troops in middle Tennessee).  Mitchel planned a move south with his army; his target was Huntsville, Alabama.  He intended then to turn east, hoping to capture Chattanooga. Mitchel recognized the strategic value of seizing the rail and water transportation center of Chattanooga. The standard means of preventing Chattanooga’s reinforcement would have been its encirclement; its natural water and mountain barriers outside the city made this nearly impossible with the forces Mitchel had. If railroad reinforcement from Atlanta could be stopped, however, then Chattanooga could be captured.  And if Chattanooga was seized by the North the same tactical advantages would favor defending it. The Union would have a valuable rail supply line in its rear, directly leading back to the Union-held stronghold and supply depot of Nashville, Tennessee.

With tracks and bridges of the W&A destroyed Atlanta would be completely isolated.  Andrews recruited another civilian, William Hunter Campbell, and 22 volunteer Union soldiers (all from Ohio regiments) for his scheme.  Andrews gave his team orders to arrive in Marietta, Georgia, by midnight of April 10, 1862.  His plans were delayed by one day, however, by heavy rain.  When the saboteurs left Marietta they traveled in small groups and wore civilian clothing to avoid arousing suspicion.  All but two (Samuel Llewellyn and James Smith) arrived at the designated rendezvous point at the appointed time (Llewellyn and Smith had infiltrated a Confederate artillery unit, as they had been instructed).  Meanwhile, Gen. Mitchel in the north had already executed his assault plans for Huntsville and Chattanooga, and the one-day rain delay in Georgia would adversely affect the outcome of the planned railroad sabotage.

James Andrews and his men (knowing the train’s scheduling) selected the General as it sat idle at Big Shanty.  They chose this spot because it lacked a telegraph.  Andrews then planned to stop and tear up track, wreck switches, burn bridges, and send false telegraph messages as he drove northward on the W&A line to meet Gen. Mitchel’s command forces.

Among his plotters Andrews had an experienced train engineer, and he and Andrews swung into the engine compartment and wheeled away.  They steamed off leaving behind startled passengers and crew, as well as some onlookers (which also included a number of Confederate soldiers from Camp McDonald bivouacking trackside). Andrews possessed doctored documents saying the train carried a load of ammunition on behalf of the Confederacy to Chattanooga, and he was a smooth talker.  Andrews’ Raiders weren’t challenged very effectively when they had to stop occasionally.   

The conductor Fuller (with Cain and Murphy behind), on foot, began the race to catch their train. This action may seem hopeless and foolhardy – who can catch a train on foot?  At the time, though, trains traveled an average speed of about 15 miles per hour, with “bursts” of up to 20 mph.  Also, trains were slowed by steep grades and the need to stop often to take on water and fuel.  So, the three running Confederates actually did stand a chance of catching their train if luck was with them.  A foot-chase would not have been untenable; as Andrews intended to stop periodically for sabotage, it might be possible for a determined pursuer, even on foot, to catch up. 

Fuller and his two comrades came upon a Confederate work crew repairing a switch near the General’s next known stop.  Fuller explained to the road crew what had happened – he learned the General had just cleared the area.  The road workers gave Fuller a handcar to use.  This “handcar” had no means of locomotion except manpower.  Unlike the handcars one sees with the see-saw hand pump, this handcar functioned by “poling” (much in the same way a gondolier poles his boat along the Venetian canals).  The three men hopped aboard the handcar and began poling their way northward, still trying to catch the General

Andrews and his men, however, had failed to bring proper rail wrecking gear to tear up tracks.  Just before Fuller’s commandeering the work crew’s handcar, this same work crew had given Andrews a large pry bar upon his request (he had given them a story about saboteurs).  They stopped long enough south of Etowah to pry loose a few rails – the pry bar they had, however, was not terribly effective as it lacked the claw end used in pulling spikes free.  The men spent significant time loosening and finally removing a single rail before boarding the General again, heading north.

Fuller and his poling buddies came upon the missing track.  They simply lifted their handcar clear of the ruined section, put it back on course, and continued poling north.  They got their first break in luck when Fuller spotted the locomotive Yonah at Etowah (several miles north of the train’s hijacking point).  They abandoned their handcar, and after telling the conductor what was happening they hitched a ride in pursuit of the General.  Fuller then switched to the locomotive William R. Smith at Kingston and headed north to Adairsville.

Fuller and his men came upon more tracks broken up (two miles south of Adairsville) by Andrews’ Raiders.  They left the William R. Smith and resumed the chase on foot.  They then gained access to the Texas locomotive (which

Map of "chase" route
was headed southbound). The Texas crew had been bluffed by Andrews into taking the station’s siding, thereby allowing the General to continue northward along the single-track mainline.  Andrews' party had managed to cut some telegraph lines along the way; no train crews, station masters, or W&A management to the north had any idea the General had been captured. The hijacked train had literally just left this station five minutes before Fuller and his friends ran up (the General itself had been delayed for about an hour as southbound rail traffic was given the right of way, forcing the General to sit on a sidetrack). 

Because the Texas was facing south, its engineer and Fuller (along with his compatriots) arrived at the unique solution of racing the train backwards (traveling north) to catch up to the general.  Trains of the era were dangerous enough moving forward; a train at full speed in reverse would be doubly precarious.  Fuller rode in the cab with the Texas’ engineer.  Cain and Murphy stood atop the tender and served as lookouts. 

The raiders never got too far ahead of Fuller.  The time spent destroying tracks behind the hijacked train was slow going. Also, the raiders had swiped a regularly scheduled train on its route; to avoid arousing suspicion as they breezed into and past depots they had to stop for appearances’ sake.  If the General arrived at a siding ahead of schedule it had to wait at the siding until scheduled southbound trains passed them before they could continue north.  The train traffic, heading south, was heavier than usual.  This is because trains were running resupply for the Confederates engaged by Gen. Mitchel.  Andrews’ rain delay of one day caused him to end up in a huge rail traffic jam

All the time, Fuller gained on the General.  In the Texas Fuller now had eleven Confederate troops he’d picked up in Calhoun, Georgia (about eight miles north of their start).  With this backup, Fuller fully intended to regain “his” train and bring down the General’s hijackers. 

Andrews and his men were unaware of any pursuit until the Texas, roaring backwards toward the General from the south, hove into view.  Andrews ordered a full head of steam.  The engineer pushed this train to the unheard of speed of sixty miles per hour – the Texas, behind them, did the same, and the backwards engine raged. 

For the rest of Andrews' men, stashed in a box car, the speed of the engine was terrifying.  None of them had ever traveled at such speeds in their lives, and furthermore with the rough condition of the tracks they were thrown around inside the box car like dolls.  Conditions on the Texas were no better – the Texas was only a backward facing engine with its tender car in front of it, a very unstable situation.  Fuller, Cain, Murphy, and the Confederate soldiers all hung on for dear life as the two trains raced along, the Texas gaining on the General.

Andrews’ attempts to outrun the Texas were ill-advised.  The Texas was fully stocked with fuel and water at Kingston.  The General was burning through its fuel and water at an alarming rate given the demands thrust upon it.  And Andrews could not afford to stop for the time it would take to restock – if he did, capture and execution were certain. 

With the Texas chasing the General tender-first, the trains plowed through Dalton, Georgia, and Tunnel Hill, Georgia. The Andrews’ bunch weren’t able to burn any bridges or to dynamite Tunnel Hill as planned.  The wood the Raiders had hoped to burn was soaked by rain.  Both trains sped north toward the Oostanaula River near Resaca where the hijackers set one of the General’s wooden box cars on fire.  They left it on a bridge, hoping the blaze would spread to the structure.  The Texas pushed the car off the bridge before the fire completely took hold, and the pursuit continued. As the chase sped through Dalton, then Tunnel Hill, the trains were within sight of each other.

Andrews' group abandons the General

By now, Confederate troops had been notified of the theft.  Two miles north of Ringgold, Georgia (a few miles from Chattanooga) the General ran out of fuel.  It slowed to a stop with the Texas right behind.  Andrews and his gang abandoned the stolen locomotive and scattered into nearby woods and across fields.  The men of the Texas raced out to catch them.  Fuller recovered his train, and it was none the worse for wear. 
Andrews and all of his men (including the two who had missed the hijacking that morning) were caught within 12 hours of fleeing the General.  Andrews’ Raiders faced charges of engaging in acts of unlawful belligerency.  The civilians working with them (Andrews and Campbell) were also termed unlawful combatants and spies.  All of the captured Raiders were to be tried in court. Andrews' case was heard in Chattanooga; he was  found guilty and executed by hanging June 7, 1862, in Atlanta. On June 18, 1862, seven others (transported to Knoxville and convicted as spies) were returned to Atlanta and hanged. These men were initially buried in an unmarked grave (later reburied in Chattanooga National Cemetery).

Eight raiders managed to avoid execution by escaping custody.  They split up and, in pairs, traveled for hundreds of miles, arriving safely behind Union lines.  Two were aided by slaves and Union sympathizers; two others floated down the Chattahoochee River until rescued by the Union blockade vessel USS Somerset. The remaining six of Andrews’ Raiders in Confederate custody were exchanged as prisoners of war on March 17, 1863.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton issued the very first Medals of Honor to some of Andrews’ Raiders.  The very first was

Andrews Raiders & Railmen
given to Private Jacob Wilson Parrott because of the severe treatment he had endured as a Confederate prisoner-of-war.  All but two of the other enlisted raiders later received the Medal of Honor (posthumously for the ones who had been executed). Two soldiers (also executed) did not get them because their participation in the General theft was apparently lost in War Department bureaucracy; it took much lobbying for them to receive the award.  As civilians James J. Andrews and William Hunter Campbell were not eligible. Considering the ignominious failure of the operation it isn’t quite clear why any of these Union operatives would receive such an award.

Newspaper reporting of the Great Locomotive Chase was voluminous at the time.  The exploits of Andrews and his party, and of Fuller and his men, were splayed on front pages across the United States and the Confederacy.  Unfortunately today, not many people know of this fascinating incident. 

The story does carry its comic imagery.  Certainly, chasing a train on foot is absurd, and the pursuit of Andrews' Raiders was the central story in Buster Keaton’s silent comedy, The General (1927).  In 1956 Walt Disney made the movie The Great Locomotive Chase.  This film starred Fess Parker as Andrews and was a serious treatment of the events (albeit somewhat fictionalized and romanticized). And today, the General sits in the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Georgia.  

The real heroics of the Great Locomotive Chase were performed by conductor William Allen Fuller, along with his crewmen Jeff Cain and Anthony Murphy.  These men tenaciously, stubbornly, and in the face of a completely ridiculous pursuit (chasing a train on foot) refused to stop.  Some Medal of Honor equivalent should have been awarded to them, but it was not.   William Allen Fuller acted above and beyond the scope of his job, a responsibility he apparently took very seriously.  His honor was not in question – someone stole his train, and he did everything in his power to get it back.  That speaks volumes, certainly in the face of tough odds. It is worthwhile to note the memory of these three men, running after a train, ultimately catching it, bringing its hijackers to justice.   That, indeed, is heroics.




Aug 21, 2012 6:53am
What a great story. Has it ever been made into a film? I should think it would make a great movie - especially with the guys running along on foot. Another feature coming up I'd say.
Aug 21, 2012 8:41pm
Barring the Buster Keaton thing and the Disney movie mentioned in the article, I know of no big-budget action film done on this. Hollywood could do worse than give this thing a huge treatment. Hell, I just saw the movie "Runaway Train" with Denzel Washington on TV a couple of days ago, and THIS story stpmps that one all to pieces!! Thanks for reading.
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  1. "Great Locomotive Chase." en.wikipedia.org. 22/06/2011 <Web >
  2. "The General Locomotive and the Great Locomotive Chase." southernmuseum.org. 22/06/2011 <Web >
  3. "Andrews Raid (The Great Locomotive Chase)." civilwartraveler.com. 22/06/2011 <Web >

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