The Great Locomotive Chase!

April 12, 1862 (Saturday)

The General, as seen at the centenial in 1962.

The General, a steam locomotive pulling two passengers cars, a mail car and three boxcars, left Atlanta, Georgia at 4am, chuffing north on its way to Chattanooga. By the schedule, she would reach the Tennessee city in a little less than twelve hours. In most respects, it was a typical day aboard the Western & Atlantic Railroad, with two notable exceptions. First, Anthony Murphy, locomotive foreman (basically the conductor’s boss), was on board. Second, Union spy, James Andrews, and nineteen others, mostly Ohio soldiers, planned to steal the engine when it stopped for breakfast and refueling at Big Shanty.

“Now,” said Andrews to his crew, before they made their way to the Marietta depot, “I will succeed or leave my bones in Dixie.”

They boarded the cars and the train pulled out, eight miles from Big Shanty. The conductor, a young Bill Fuller, took their tickets, paying the raiders little mind. They were dressed as country folk, and he assumed they were on their way to join the Rebel army.

Andrews' Raiders

At Big Shanty, most of the passengers, as well as the crew, detrained and entered the hotel for breakfast. Andrews and William Knight, an engineer before the war, made their way towards the front of the train, and found the cab empty. Knight decoupled the mail and passenger cars and climbed inside the General. The rest of the men took their places in the boxcars. On Andrews’ signal, Knight pulled the throttle wide and she slowly, but not quietly, began to leave the station.

The sound of steam and iron pricked up the ears of the foreman, Anthony Murphy, who looked up in time to see it passing by the window. “Someone is running off with your train!” he exclaimed to the conductor, Bill Fuller. Supposing that the thieves were merely Confederate deserters, the owner of the hotel mounted a horse and rode south to Marietta, the nearest telegraph station, to alert Atlanta, even farther south. Not knowing what else to do, Fuller, the conductor, chased after the train on foot. Murphy and the engineer, E. Jefferson Cain, quickly followed. The race was on!

Foreman, Anthony Murphy

Andrews and his stolen train were ahead of schedule, which would arouse suspicions and create possible problems. The first problem came quickly. Only two and a half miles into what was supposed to be a 110 mile trip, an unsuspecting work crew was repairing a switch. The General stopped long enough for them to clear the track. The locomotive’s new engineer, Knight, “borrowed” a crowbar from the workers before resuming their run. Not far after, the Union spies stopped again to inspect the engine and cut some telegraph wires.

When starting back up, Andrews cautioned Knight to keep the speed at the normal sixteen miles-per-hour, not wanting to draw attention. After passing Allatoona, twelve miles north of Big Shanty, Andrews stopped again. This time they tore up the tracks, hoping to stop any train from following them. It was no easy task, especially without tools, but they managed to pry up a rail and loaded it onto one of the boxcars. They moved on feeling more secure.

The General at the New York World's Fair.

A few more miles up the line, near Etowah, they passed a yard engine, the Yonah, which was working on a siding. Andrews had not expected to see another locomotive already under steam and ready to give chase, should she be commandeered by those in pursuit.

Meanwhile, Fuller, Murphy and Cain were still giving chase after the General, having found a hand car among the repair crew at the switch. This gave them hope and greatly increased their speed.

Andrews and his crew, after refueling at Cassville, and telling the station agent that they were heading for Beauregard’s Army with ammunition, were halted at the “Y” in Kingston to wait for a southbound freight to clear the line. It came through with bad news. Union General Mitchel had taken Huntsville and was moving on Chattanooga. All rail traffic was being sent south. They waited for over an hour and a half. They were prepared, if needed, to shoot their way out.

This was all avoided when the southbound train finally passed and Andrews was able to resume his northern run.

Bill Fuller, conductor.

Back near Etowah, after a harrowing tumble when their handcar met the missing rail, Fuller, Murphy and Cain commandeered the Yonah. They made the fourteen miles to Kingston in just fifteen minutes. But the traffic at Kingston slowed their progress as well. The Yonah was beat, and so they grabbed another engine, the William R. Smith.

At Adairsville station, sixty-nine miles from Chattanooga, Andrews learned that an unscheduled southbound express was fleeing Mitchel’s forces. Though he risked a collision, he and the General continued on, telling Knight “let’s see how fast she can go.”

It was all or nothing now as Andrews’ train, under full steam, stormed northward, passing station after station, nearly colliding with a southbound at Calhoun. They believed they were clear enough to begin their true mission, that of burning as many bridges behind them as they could.

Fuller and Murphy (having left Cain behind at the break in the tracks), flagged down a southbound train pulled by the Texas, rather than fix the missing rail pulled up near Adairsville. Though they had to run it backwards, they lost little time and were catching up to the unsuspecting Andrews. At Calhoun, they picked up eleven Confederate infantrymen, who loaded themselves into the tender. Now, the chase was truly on.

A mile and a half north, Andrews had stopped yet again to pull up more track, hoping to buy the General even more time. As before, without the proper tools, this was a difficult task. As the men were working – as Andrews himself was prying up the rail – they heard the whistle of a coming, northbound train. Looking up, they saw her screaming towards them. Leaving their work, as well as a boxcar, behind, they took off towards Resaca.

The Texas, running backwards, was hardly slowed by the boxcar. It was just coupled to the tender and away they went, chasing the Yankees, whose plan to burn the bridges was quickly be cut short.

Attempting (and failing) to burn a bridge.

The General was running low on water and wood, so at Tilton, they stopped to refuel, throwing wood into the tender at a furious rate until they saw the Texas coming fast behind them. Not half finished, they pulled out for the “Y” at Dalton. After a short bit of banter, they figured out which line to use and steamed north, the Texas about two miles to their rear.

The Union raiders passed through Tunnel Hill, but it was clear that they were still low on fuel and water. Andrews ordered the last boxcar to be set ablaze, but due to the rain, now heavily falling, it would not catch.

Slower and slower, the General struggled on, to Ringold, where she finally died after a run of eighty-nine miles. “Jump off and scatter!” yelled Andrews to his crew. “Every man for himself!” The Texas was in sight, just two hundred yards behind.

William Knight, the General's short-lived engineer.

They scattered, but had no real idea where they were. Three or four were caught almost immediately, being of a stature not fit for speedy travel on foot. Confederate soldiers had been alerted and soon arrived on the scene, aiding the chase. Over the course of the following week, a posse rounded up the rest.

Andrews and Knight, captured after a few days, had nearly escaped. They were taken not a dozen miles from the Union lines near New England, Georgia. All were held in Chatanooga and awaited a court martial, and, for some, death.

The Great Railroad Chase had closed, quickly becoming an American legend.1

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  1. Though it seems sort of ridiculous to do so, this accounting was gleaned from one source. It was, however, a trusted source, which used many firsthand accounts. Stealing the General by Russell S. Bonds, Westholme, 2007. If you chance upon it, give it a good read. It’s well worth it. []
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7 thoughts on “The Great Locomotive Chase!

  1. This line is still owned by the State of Georgia, and is still, technically, the Western and Atlantic Railroad and leased to CSX. Much of the original route is still in use and is the CSX main line between Chattanooga and Atlanta, seeing upwards of 30 trains a day.

    1. That’s great that the original line is still in operation. So many of the older lines aren’t (we recently drove much of the old transcontinental line through eastern Utah, but that was gone by the late 1800s). So does the State of Georgia own the line to preserve it or did they get into the railroad business as some point?

      1. The State of Georgia built the line in the early 1850’s and still owns it. It is leased to CSX and they are responsible for its upkeep. The lease will be renewed in 2019. Presumably, CSX will want to keep it. The line was built as a 5-foot gauge line and that is how it ran during the war. The line was converted to Standard Gauge (4′ 8 1/2″) by the early 1880’s; along with the locomotives General and Texas, which both served for many years after the war. The General was even restored to steam and pulled trains during the centennial observances in the early 1960’s. The rail line follows the original routing; except for line re-locations for new bridges over the Etowah and Alatoona Rivers and a new tunnel at Tunnel Hill, GA. The outer suburbs of Atlanta now reach nearly to Adairsville, GA, and the whole area is now heavily developed.

  2. Quite familiar with this story. I had worked up William Pittenger’s book with the intent of publishing an version with additional materials that I had found. Then Google Books happened and realized that republishing old books was not going to be something to get into.

    1. Very true. Unless you do some sort of really nice facsimileing edition, it’s hardly worth it. That said, I don’t know where I’d be without Googlebooks. Some library on the east coast, probably. šŸ™‚

  3. I can’t believe I forgot about this. Also you ever see the Buster Keaton movie that was based on the chase?

    1. Oh I have seen it! I actually went through a HUGE silent film stage, and this was, of course, required watching. Love Buster Keaton, but found myself more of a Larry Seamon fan. He’s not nearly as well known, but every bit as funny. Sort of along the lines of Harold Lloyd.

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