When the South seceded from the Union, thousands of Northern men and boys rushed to enlist, convinced the war would be over within a matter of months. However, by early April 1862, the Civil War was already a year old, and it was going badly for the Union. Then, through the implementation of a wild and unlikely plan, there arose a chance to shorten the conflict. Its success depended on a small band of Yankee raiders, led by a courageous Kentuckian. All that stood in their way were several days of torrential rainstorms and a feisty Rebel railroad conductor who simply refused to quit.
At this time, the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, served as a major Confederate railroad hub through which were channeled Southern troops, ordnance and other war materials. Union control of Chattanooga could very well lead to a major Northern victory. While the battle of Shiloh raged some 200 miles away, a civilian scout named James J. Andrews hatched a bold and daring plan for an operation to be conducted behind enemy lines that would result in the capture of Chattanooga.
At 33, Andrews cut an imposing figure, standing some 6 feet tall and weighing around 185 pounds. His face was striking, with piercing gray eyes and a full, curly black beard. Although he was born in what is now West Virginia, Andrews had moved to Kentucky, where he made his living as a singing coach and house painter. He also courted Elizabeth Layton of Flemingsburg, and the two became engaged.
Although it had officially declared itself for the Union in 1861, Kentucky—perhaps more than any other state—held deeply conflicted loyalties throughout the war, with some of its citizens supporting the North, while others sided with the Confederacy. The border state was mainly pro-slavery, although its economy was largely tied to the North. Ambivalent though Kentucky might have been, no one questioned the vital position the state held for the Union. President Abraham Lincoln himself was reported to have stated, “I hope to have God on my side[,] but I must have Kentucky.”
He was not officially in the Union Army, but Andrews was firmly loyal to the North. As a civilian, and at great personal risk, he smuggled contraband merchandise—including medicine—between the lines and served as an agent, spy and scout for Yankee Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell.
In early April, Andrews met with Gen. Ormsby Mitchel in Shelbyville, Tennessee, and unfolded his ambitious plan for the capture of Chattanooga. As Mitchel was aware, Chattanooga was held by only a small Rebel force, making it an obtainable objective for the Union Army, provided the city didn’t receive reinforcements by rail. Andrews proposed to organize a small cadre of raiders, who would work their way south into Georgia and commandeer a Confederate train. They would then steam toward Chattanooga on the single line, tearing up the tracks and burning the railroad bridges along the way, thereby denying the Rebels the means of relieving the city from the South. Without the hope of reinforcements, Chattanooga would easily fall to Mitchel’s army.
Mitchel gave the plan his approval and arranged to march his troops toward Chattanooga, where he would meet up with Andrews’ stolen train. It was a bold plan, with timing a crucial factor, but given a little luck, it stood a fair chance of success. Andrews formed his band of 24 raiders from the 2nd, 21st and 33rd Ohio infantry regiments. He then divided them into smaller units of twos and threes and ordered them to make their way down to Marietta, Georgia. This required passing through enemy lines dressed in civilian clothes. By every rule of war, they would now conform to the accepted definition of spies. The penalty for discovery was death.
The weather could not have been worse, as the men crossed the Cumberland Mountains in a steady, drenching rain. Progress was slow, and Andrews pushed the operation back a day. It would prove a costly decision. He expected that the weather would delay Mitchel as well; it did not. Mitchel proceeded to take Huntsville, Alabama, cutting off the Chattanooga-to-Corinth railroad and effectively blocking Rebel aid from the West. Unaware of Andrews’ delay, he then marched his column to within 30 miles of Chattanooga to await the raiders’ arrival.
Mitchel’s movements immediately set in motion a Rebel response, with a number of Confederate trains shipping men and munitions along the railroad line in support of Chattanooga. The trains would clutter what Andrews had assumed would be a clear track, and facilitate pursuit.
Weather aside, Andrews and his men made it through the enemy ranks without incident, except for two men who were obliged to enlist in the Confederate Army rather than risk exposure. The others arrived in Marietta on April 11. Early the next morning, all but two (who overslept and were left behind) boarded the Tennessee-bound train, pulled by an engine named the General. The train stopped 8 miles up the track, at Big Shanty—present-day Kennesaw—and the crew and passengers disembarked for breakfast in the station’s dining room.
Three empty boxcars separated the locomotive from the passenger cars. Andrews’ men quickly released the coupling behind the last boxcar, separating the passenger cars from the rest of the train. Three of the raiders were experienced railroad engineers, and the train soon was rolling north toward Chattanooga. As he watched his train steam out of the station, the horrified conductor, a young Confederate captain named William A. Fuller, reportedly shouted, “Someone who has no right to has gone off with our train!”
The raiders, unaware of both the increased Rebel activity on the rails and the earlier arrival of Mitchel’s troops, stopped the train several times to cut the telegraph lines, burn the bridges, and tear up the tracks. Andrews, who already was running a day behind schedule, discovered that the process of ripping up the rails was more time- and labor-intensive than he had anticipated. Otherwise, as far as he could discern, the raid seemed to be proceeding apace.
Andrews was euphoric. As far as he knew, his plan was working, and he anticipated no interference. “For once, boys,” he told his men, “we’ve got the upper hand of the Rebels!” Unfortunately for the Yankee raiders, they hadn’t reckoned on an outraged Fuller, who refused to countenance the theft of his train. He quickly enlisted a few volunteers and set off in hot pursuit of the General. No train was immediately available, and, incredibly, their chase commenced on foot until they were able to procure a push-car.
They were making decent progress when the push-car was abruptly thrown into a ditch at a spot where Andrews had torn up the track. Undeterred, Fuller’s men put their crude conveyance back on the tracks and propelled it north to the next station, where they traded the push-car for an old switching engine and resumed the chase. At Kingston, Georgia, they switched to a second, bigger engine. The raiders, unaware they were being pursued, continued to uproot the occasional track. Meanwhile, Fuller, narrowing the gap, kept close watch on the tracks ahead, stopping to replace a rail or tie when necessary.
Both pursuer and pursued met with obstacles. Andrews was delayed by a southbound Rebel train but bluffed his way through. At one point, congestion on the line forced Fuller and his men to leave their engine and again proceed afoot. Following a 3-mile run, they met and took control of the southbound engine, Texas, and after sidetracking its cars, reversed direction and steamed north—backward. Fuller blew the whistle loudly and often to warn southbound trains that he was highballing north.
South of the Oostanaula Bridge, Andrews first heard the Texas’ whistle and released a boxcar, assuming it would block his pursuers. Fuller, however, merely hitched the boxcar to his backward-running engine and continued the chase. The raiders made one last desperate attempt to stop Fuller. They uncoupled and set fire to one of the two remaining boxcars in the hope that it would burn the bridge. However, the constant rain had soaked the wood, and Fuller merely took the smoldering car along with him as well. He soon left both boxcars on a siding and steamed on.
At Dalton, Georgia, Andrews again cut the telegraph lines but not in time to prevent Fuller from alerting the troops in Chattanooga. Soon, a company of Rebel soldiers set out to capture the raiders. Within a short time, the engines were within sight of one another and heading north at a dizzying speed. The General tore through Tunnel Hill and Ringgold, Georgia, with the Texas close behind. Andrews’ engine needed fuel and water, but there was no time to refuel. Finally, after a chase that had covered nearly 89 miles, the General slowed and then stopped on a long, uphill curve 2 miles north of Ringgold.
There was no contingency plan; it was every man for himself, as Andrews ordered his men to scatter. The raiders, however, were unfamiliar with the countryside, and within two weeks, all of the men who had participated in the raid were captured. Eight of the raiders, including their leader, were condemned and hanged as spies. Andrews suffered a particularly gruesome fate. Apparently, his captors lacked the expertise to properly execute a man and miscalculated his height. According to a later military report by one of Andrews’ surviving raiders to Secretary of War William S. Stanton, “On the 7th day of June, 1862, Andrews was taken out and strangled to death. It cannot be called hanging, for the cord was so long his feet touched the ground so heavily they had to dig the earth away from under his feet and let him gradually strangle to death.”
Fearing a similar fate, the badly shaken prisoners broke from jail. Six raiders successfully made their way north to the Union lines, while two went south, following the Chattahoochee River. For 22 days, they traveled by night, living on berries and avoiding human contact, finally arriving in Apalachicola on the Gulf Coast. Starving and badly dehydrated, they were picked up by a Yankee gunboat.
The remaining escapees were recaptured and later exchanged. Although Andrews had failed to deliver Chattanooga, he and his band of raiders electrified the Union with their audacious attempt. The federal government presented 15 of the raiders, two of them posthumously, with a newly minted citation—the Medal of Honor. Ironically, Andrews was not awarded the medal, since he was a civilian. The following year, one of the survivors, William Pittenger, penned a thrilling account of the raid, which he titled Daring and Suffering, a History of the Great Railroad Adventure.
Elizabeth Layton reportedly never recovered from her fiancé’s execution and followed him in death two years later. Her family would always believe she perished from a broken heart.
The indomitable conductor William A. Fuller had foiled Andrews’ plan almost singlehandedly. He received a commendation from the Georgia State Assembly and, later, a captain’s commission in the Independent State Road Guards. When he died in 1905, his tombstone was inscribed:
“On April 12, 1862, Captain Fuller pursued and after a race of 90 miles from Big Shanty northward on the Western & Atlantic Railroad, recaptured the historic war-engine “General” which had been seized by 22 Federal soldiers in disguise, thereby preventing destruction of the bridges of the railroad and the consequent dismemberment of the Confederacy.”
In 1926, famed comedic actor Buster Keaton co-wrote, co-directed and starred in The General, a silent film version of the Andrews Raid, in which Keaton portrays a character much along the lines of William Fuller. Thirty years later, Walt Disney produced The Great Locomotive Chase, a fact-based vehicle starring Fess Parker—Disney’s Davy Crockett—as James J. Andrews.
Today, the Texas can be seen at Grant Park in Atlanta, while the General sits at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw. Both are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Some chroniclers claim, not without some justification, that the General was the first train in railroad history to be hijacked.