Defense Media Network

The Great Locomotive Chase

Union Brig. Gen. Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel, a division commander in the Department of the Ohio and a West Point classmate of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston, had a plan – and it was a big one. He would take his troops into western Tennessee, march them east, capture Chattanooga, and then continue on across the Appalachian Mountains and into Virginia and end the war. It was a bold and reckless plan, reflective of the overoptimistic beliefs that prevailed on both sides in the days prior to the Battle of Shiloh. A key to his campaign’s success was the destruction or disabling of the strategic Western & Atlantic Railroad line that connected Chattanooga with Atlanta, thus preventing Chattanooga from being reinforced. On April 7, 1862, the same day the Union assault on Island No. 10 was launched, Mitchel met with the civilian spy and contraband dealer James J. Andrews to discuss a special operations mission known to history as the Great Locomotive Chase.

“Boys, we’re going into danger, but for results that can be tremendous.”

James J. Andrews

Historians regard the American Civil War as the first modern war because it’s the first conflict that employed the widespread use of many technologies, among them railroads. At the start of the war, the Union had 22,000 miles of track. The Confederacy had less than half that, and its 9,000 miles of track were owned and operated by 170 different companies. Complicating things further was the fact that there was no standard gauge for the tracks or a central authority to coordinate rail traffic. Thus the damaging of a strategic line like the Western & Atlantic’s, even temporarily, could have enormous impact on military operations.

Mitchel’s proposal to Andrews was for him to lead a group of volunteers to Atlanta, steal a train and head back to Chattanooga, burning railroad bridges, wrecking tracks, and cutting telegraph lines behind them. Andrews accepted the mission, and later that day got 24 volunteers from two Ohio regiments for it. The men were told to split up into small groups and reunite at the Fletcher House (now the Kennesaw House) in Marietta, northwest of Atlanta, on April 10.

The Great Locomotive Chase Raiders

Participants in the Great Locomotive Chase. A party led by James J. Andrews hijacked a Confederate train and navigated it northwards, chased by the train conductor. Several of the raiders became the first recipients of the Medal of Honor. Illustration courtesy of “Deeds of Valor; How America’s Heroes Won the Medal of Honor,” published in 1901.

Delayed a day by rain, all but two raiders, who were forced to enlist in a Confederate unit or risk revealing their identity, reached the Fletcher House by April 11. The next morning Andrews and 19 men (two others having overslept) boarded the train and headed north. When the train made a breakfast stop at Big Shanty, Andrews and his men made their move. While the train crew and passengers ate in the nearby hotel, the raiders separated the locomotive – named the General – the tender, and three boxcars from the rest of the train.

The conductor, Capt. William A. Fuller, heard the noise of the train leaving and looking out the window shouted, “Someone who has no right to has gone off with our train!”

The epic chase was on. Andrews and his raiders periodically paused to cut telegraph lines and impede pursuit by Fuller and the train crew by tearing up tracks and burning bridges, but a lack of proper tools and the ongoing rain frustrated their efforts. Even so, the raiders managed to travel 87 miles before the General ran out of steam less than 20 miles from Chattanooga. The raiders tried to escape by scattering into the woods, but most were soon captured.

Though their mission ended in failure, the audacity displayed by Andrews’ Raiders captured the public’s imagination, and both sides feted the survivors after the war.

Andrews and six raiders were tried as spies and hanged. Six other raiders were later exchanged for Confederate prisoners. Mitchel never did reach Chattanooga, in any event an unrealistic goal. After capturing Huntsville, Alabama, and the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, he was promoted to major general and reassigned to the Sea Islands of South Carolina, where he died of yellow fever in October 1862.

On March 25, 1863, the six raiders who were exchanged, Pvt. William Bensinger, Pvt. Robert Buffum, Sgt. Elihu H. Mason, Pvt. Jacob Parrott, Cpl. William Pittenger, and Cpl. William H. Reddick, became the first men to receive the new decoration authorized by Congress, the Medal of Honor. Ultimately 19 of the raiders received the Medal of Honor. On Feb. 28, 2007, Congress passed a resolution making March 25 National Medal of Honor Day.

Though their mission ended in failure, the audacity displayed by Andrews’ Raiders captured the public’s imagination, and both sides feted the survivors after the war. It eventually inspired two films: Buster Keaton’s 1926 acclaimed silent film comedy, The General, and, in 1956, Walt Disney Productions’ The Great Locomotive Chase.


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...