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A Day Away: The Great Locomotive Chase

By Mike Steely

Civilian James Andrews was born in what is now West Virginia. He became a merchant in Kentucky and was recruited by the Union Army. He operated along the Tennessee-Kentucky border as an agent, trader, and intelligence spy.

It was 1862 and the Union and Confederate forces were battling it out in Chattanooga, with the Union concerned that the enemy would get resupplied from Atlanta. A secret plan was made to send a small group into Northern Georgia to destroy the only railroad track linking the two cities. Andrews devised this plan and was given 24 soldiers from different units and the men came from Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

The idea was brilliant but dangerous. Sending Union soldiers behind enemy lines dressed as civilians could mean death to those men if they were caught.  The “Andrews Raiders” made their way to Big Shanty (now Kennesaw) just north of Atlanta. There, they stole a train and headed north with the idea of destroying the track behind them as they went.

But conductor William Fuller saw the men commandeer the train and quickly starting following them with other men by handcar and then another locomotive which ran in reverse trying to catch the “Yankee” spies. The Andrews party did manage to tear up some of the track and delay the chasers and even set fire to some of the box cars they were pulling, but shortly after passing through Tunnel Hill near Ringgold, Ga., just short of their destination, their locomotive ran out of steam.

The Union raiders abandoned the train only to be caught, one by one, and most were taken to Atlanta where they were tried and hanged.  Their bodies were moved to the National Cemetery in Chattanooga after the war and some of the men were posthumously awarded the “Medal of Honor,” becoming the first soldiers ever to receive the honor. Andrews, being a civilian, could not receive the honor.

Some of the original raiding party lived to tell about it. They were held by Confederate forces in Knoxville but, due to Union victory there, escaped to live out the rest of the war.

Kennesaw, Georgia today displays the locomotive “The General,” which was taken by Andrews and his men along with photos, letters, and artifacts from the “Great Locomotive Chase.” It is at The Southern Museum in Kennesaw, next to the original location of the depot there. The museum also tells of other railroad incidents in the Civil War, the importance of railroad bridges during the conflict, and has a short film about the “chase.”

The General has a long and exhaustive history. It was built in 1855. After the raid it was returned to Confederate service but partially demolished when the Union was about to take the town.  The Union repaired the engine and put it to work. It was rebuilt a few times over its history and rested for 50 years at the Chattanooga Union Depot. The General appeared at the 1939 Chicago World’s Fair and in 1964 at the New York World’s Fair. It was displayed in Louisville, Ky. in 1971 but, finally, it returned to Georgia and the town from which it was commandeered in 1972 and dedicated there by then Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.

It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

You can visit the Museum and see the historic old locomotive, in all its glory, Monday through Saturdays from 9:30 until 5 p.m. and Sundays 1 p.m. until 5:30. Kennesaw is just about 2 miles off Interstate 75 at exit 273. You can find the museum on the internet at SouthernMuseum.org.

 

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