"An Epic without Villains"

April 12, 1862

University of Texas professor H. W. Brands has written a number of histories that, in addition to receiving praise from fellow scholars, have also achieved a degree of popularity among the pedestrian public. In one of his latest works, American Colossus, he takes the position that the key to American growth and prosperity during the 19th Century was the West, the key to the West was the Mississippi River and its major tributaries, and the key to the Mississippi was the city of New Orleans. In 1860, New Orleans had only a few rivals as the first city of the South, the others being on the Eastern seaboard — so if the southern states left the Union, that city would go with them. Therefore, it was vital that the South remain in the Union if the United States was to grow and prosper. York University scholar Mark Egnal’s study Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War, published in 2009, tends to corroborate Brands’ view. After of lifetime of studying history both semi-professionally and as an avocation, there is no doubt in my mind the Civil War, as Margaret Mitchell’s character Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind put it, was, like all wars, about money. It ultimately was a clash between two economies: one semi-feudal and agrarian; the other a maturing, capitalist free-market and industrial technology based. Which one was the winner should be no surprise.
Some historians have opined that, had the Southern states’ politicians not compromised the issue of expansion of slavery into the western territories in 1850, secession then would have followed, succeeded and left the nation split asunder. One reason for that assertion is the transportation revolution brought about by steam locomotion. Railroad construction during the interim gave the North a distinctive advantage in the always decisive logistics capability of war-making nations. The importance of railroads in the American Civil War is hard to overstate.
Map: United States Railroads in 1860
(Oliver Jensen, History of Railroads in America, Am. Heritage Pub. Co. 1975)

A glance at this map of U. S. rail lines as they existed in 1860 shows the already complex and extensive network in the northeastern and midwest states in contrast to the paucity in the South. A closer look reveals that there are only a few North-South connecting lines, and only one line connecting the Atlantic seaboard states with the Mississippi Valley. The latter line, which connected Richmond in Virginia with Memphis, Tennessee via Chattanooga, where it connected with the Western & Atlantic to Atlanta, and thence to Charleston and Savannah, set the stage for one of the most interesting and boldest adventures of the War. It was an earlier day version of our recent Cold War era missions impossible – and it turned out to be just that. It was the Andrews Raid, or the Great Locomotive Chase, that occurred one year to the day after Fort Sumter – 150 years ago.
While General U.S. Grant was moving up the Tennessee River to engage P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederate army at Shiloh in the spring of 1862, a division commanded by General O. M. Mitchel was left to defend the recently occupied capital at Nashville. Mitchel, believing that he was defending Nashville by moving further into Confederate territory, came up with a scheme he believed would shorten the war by taking Chattanooga and interdicting vital rail communications in the Confederacy. At the time, Chattanooga was garrisoned by a small contingent of troops commanded by one Colonel Danville Leadbetter. These troops had the defensive advantage of the terrain around the city, and while small in number and ill-equipped, they could be reinforced and supplied relatively quickly from Atlanta via the Western & Atlantic Railroad. Mitchel believed he could better his odds of success by disabling Leadbetter’s lifeline with a clandestine attack to burn railroad bridges over Chickamauga Creek in the rugged north Georgia hills
To accomplish such a plan, Mitchel sought the help of one James J. Andrews, a civilian contraband runner and spy, what we who grew up in the Cold War era might call a double agent. Mitchel allowed Andrews to recruit volunteers from among his division to carry out the plan. Andrews and these soldiers, dressed as civilians and claiming to be Confederate sympathizers from Kentucky, traveled to Marietta, Georgia where on the early morning of April 12 they boarded a train heading to Chattanooga. At Kennesaw (then known as Big Shanty), while the train crew stopped to eat breakfast, the raiders disconnected the locomotive, named the General, and three boxcars, from the rest of the train and left heading north without the crew. Andrews’ cover story was that he was an emissary of the Confederate war department tasked to run a special ammunition train to Beauregard in western Tennessee. They would cut the telegraph wires along the way so word could not be sent ahead of the train’s theft. When they reached the Chickamauga bridges, they planned to burn as many of them as possible, one after the other. General Mitchel, who was to capture the east-west railroad at Huntsville, Alabama in the meantime, would launch an attack on Chattanooga, trapping and overwhelming Leadbetter’s sparse and ill-equipped troops. The raiders would then join Mitchel’s forces.
The plan failed for three reasons. First, the spring rains had delayed Andrews and his men from reaching Marietta on Friday, April 11, the day planned for the raid. Andrews went ahead the next day believing that the weather would similarly delay Mitchel. It did not, and by Saturday, word was out about the Union army’s capture of Huntsville, causing increased traffic on the single tracked railroad, thus delaying Andrews significantly at a critical point. Second, the rain itself soaked the bridges. The raiders managed an attempt to set one afire, but it was too wet and failed to burn.
But the main reason for the raid’s failure was William A. Fuller, the stolen train’s conductor. Seeing his locomotive and three boxcars leaving without him, Fuller started running after them on foot. He ran for several miles until he came upon a track crew with a hand car. Fuller took the car, picked up two other railroad employees – one being his boss – who had followed him on foot, and continued after the raiders. Farther up the line, Fuller found an old yard locomotive used by an iron foundry which he commandeered and continued the pursuit with. Because the raiders’ train was delayed nearly an hour at a junction waiting for southbound trains to pass, Fuller almost caught up to Andrews at that point. The pursuers took over another locomotive, named the Texas, that was the equal of the General in size and power, and stayed on Andrews’ heels from then on. Fuller managed to get a telegraph message to Leadbetter from Dalton, Georgia, and, with the help of Confederate militia, finally ran down Andrews and the raiders just south of Chattanooga.
Facing the prospect of an alerted and reinforced garrison, Mitchel’s scrubbed his foray and withdrew back into central Tennessee. The Confederate Army recovered after the Shiloh setback, and won some important battles. The Union advance in the West fizzled for the time being. All of the raiders were captured. Andrews, another raider who was a civilian, and several soldiers were hanged as spies and saboteurs. The others escaped or were exchanged for Confederate prisoners of war.
All of the Union soldiers who participated were awarded the first Medals of Honor, today the highest United States military decoration for bravery in action above and beyond the call of duty.
In preparation for, during, and in the immediate aftermath of the raid, no shots were fired, and no one was killed. There was enough bravery to go around on both sides. Andrews and the Union soldiers, knowing that undercover action – spying and sabotage – was against the rules of war in those days and a capital offense, chose to go ahead anyway. Fuller and his fellow railroad employees, were intrepid, courageous, and persistent. And they foiled the plot. As one historian wrote “This is an epic without villains, and one in which there was glory and pain enough to be shared by all those in it, without diminishing the common supply.”
In the decades after the War, the surviving adversaries met for a number of commemorations and reunions. As would be expected, a number of the participants sought to profit from the notoriety, with varying degrees of success. A number of them wrote accounts of the raid. William Pittenger, a Union corporal who may have known Andrews prior to the raid, wrote a number of separate works. In 1956, Charles O’Neill published Wild Train, essentially an edited compilation of various participants’ accounts. The Andrews Raid has been the subject of two motion pictures, The General with Buster Keaton in the 1930s and Walt Disney’s The Great Locomotive Chase with Fess Parker (as Andrews) and Jeffrey Hunter (as Fuller) in 1956. A fictionalized account, based on the Disney film, was also published that year. That account contains numerous historical inaccuracies, but has an interesting postscript by Atlanta resident (and Fuller’s son-in-law) that gives a factual synopsis detailing the history of the W & A Railroad and some of the subsequent events.
The most researched and comprehensive history of the Andrews Raid is Stealing the General by Atlanta lawyer and historian Russell S. Bonds, published in 2007. Bonds draws on many sources, provides comprehensive references, and crafts a readable narrative. Without diminishing the heroism of both sides, he corrects a number of inaccurate claims made by earlier writers.
The General itself, along with a great deal of other memorabilia, is on display in the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Georgia. I spent an afternoon there about two years ago, and it is well worth the visit. For those interested, nearby is the Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield National Park, where the last battle prior to Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in 1864 occurred.

The General today

One comment on “"An Epic without Villains"

  1. “several soldiers were hanged as spies and saboteurs”

    “an epic without villains”

    How incongruous. Is history just a reduction of life to the status of a comic book? Do you know what it feels like to be hanged?

    Dulce et decorum est…

    Like

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