I’ve just finished a book I’d forgotten I had in my library, an 1863 account of the daring attempt by a group of some 20 Union soldiers to steal a railroad locomotive near Marietta, Georgia, and hightail it back toward north Alabama and Union lines, burning bridges and destroying the rails along the way.
It’s called “Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railroad Adventure,” and it was written by William Pittenger, one of the soldiers who took part, after he was released from a Confederate prison almost a year after he was captured when the raid failed.
If you grew up, as I did, in north Georgia, you know the outlines of the story (or if you ever watched the Walt Disney movie, “The Great Locomotive Chase”): J.J. Andrews, a civilian Union spy from Kentucky, led a group of 20 men, almost all of them from an Ohio regiment, who took over a train, the General, in the midst of a Confederate military camp in Marietta, near Atlanta, and then headed north, cutting the telegraph line to prevent anyone from alerting those along their path.
If Andrews had succeeded, Chattanooga would have been cut off from reinforcements and perhaps would have fallen to Union forces, Knoxville might have been taken, and Union troops could have swept up the Shenandoah Valley, attacking Robert E. Lee in his rear and ending the war.
But that did not happen.
Instead, an intrepid railroad conductor, William Fuller, chased Andrews and his men in the locomotive Texas, the General ran out of fuel just south of Chattanooga, the raiders fled, were captured and eight of them, including Andrews, were hanged and eventually buried in the military cemetery in Chattanooga. The survivors, including Pittenger, were the first U.S. troops to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The General now resides in the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, in Kennesaw, while the Texas graces the front of the Atlanta History Center, which also includes the gigantic Cyclorama painting of the Battle of Atlanta.
Pittenger’s account includes details of how the raid failed as well as how close it came to success, plus a good look at life in northwest Georgia during the war. As one example, he notes how many Union sympathizers there were in East Tennessee, many of them imprisoned for their views, and even insists that there was a group of about 400 Unionists in Atlanta, some of whom smuggled cash and provided other assistance to the “engine thieves,” as Confederate newspapers called Andrews’ raiders, when they were imprisoned there.
He reveals that his raid was actually the second attempt to destroy the rail line–Andrews was in Atlanta with a group of raiders months earlier but the engineer who was to meet them and drive the train north was assigned elsewhere so they returned to the Union troops who at that time had advanced past Nashville to Murfreesboro.
The raid failed, according to Pittenger, for two reasons – Fuller’s unexpectedly energetic pursuit, but also the unexpected presence of three southbound trains on the single Chattanooga-Atlanta rail line, that required them to stop and allow them to pass.
According to an excerpt from an Atlanta Confederate newspaper’s account of the raid (which Pittenger includes), the troops, railroad personnel, and passengers were stunned when Andrews’ men uncoupled all but three cars from the engine and suddenly steamed northward. There was general laughter however, the newspaper reported, when Fuller and an engineer started out in pursuit, on foot.
But after running several miles, Fuller encountered a work crew with a hand car that could be propelled on the rails manually, which speeded his chase.
Andrews, expecting no immediate pursuit, stopped to destroy the rails, but his men had no specialized tools and it took longer than expected to bend them out of shape. Fuller’s handcar plunged down an embankment when it encountered the gap in the rails, but no one was hurt, the handcar was placed again on the tracks, and the pursuit continued.
Again Fuller was fortunate in that a few minutes later, he encountered a locomotive on a siding, at full steam and ready to roll.
From that point, Andrews and his men never had enough time to destroy the rails or any bridges sufficiently to halt Fuller’s chase. They loaded cross ties into one of the cars they were still pulling and tossed them on the tracks behind them, but most of them bounced off the metal. An attempt to embed a rail end-on toward the pursuers failed by a matter of inches when the cowcatcher on the front of the Texas pushed it aside.
In Dalton (where I am writing this about a block and a half from the rail line used by both the General and Texas), Fuller dropped off a telegraph operator who had joined him earlier to send word ahead to Chattanooga about the raiders, only two minutes before Andrews’ men cut the line.
But the General never made it to Chattanooga, instead running out of fuel a few miles south of the city in Ringgold. Andrews’ men might have still had a chance to escape, but military authorities in Chattanooga, alerted by telegraph from Dalton, quickly organized a widespread search effort. By chance, the militia from the surrounding area were all gathered in town that day, and they spread out over the countryside, using bloodhounds to track down Andrews and his men.
Pittenger leaps from the train before it stops and quickly heads off into the woods. He is an amateur astronomer in his native Ohio, able to navigate by the stars. But on this day it is overcast and raining, and the sun provides no guidance as to north or south. At one point he walks for an hour, only to end up at the place from which he started. He knows he needs to head northwest, south of Chattanooga, to ford the Tennessee River and look for the Union lines, but he keeps ending up on the road to Chattanooga.
He hears the dogs in the distance and says he understands for the first time what it feels like to be a slave, trying to escape.
He is cold, soaking wet, hungry and exhausted from lack of sleep when several men on horseback confront him and ask where he is heading. He tries a bluff, saying he is from Kentucky, hates the Yankees, and is looking to enlist in the Confederate Army, but they are suspicious. They take him to a nearby hotel and question him about Kentucky, asking what county he is from, about its county seat, about the names of the surrounding counties. Finally he gives up, telling them he is a Union soldier but will only discuss his mission if he is taken to proper military authorities.
Pittenger is at extreme risk. He is traveling in civilian clothes, with no proof that he is a soldier, and it is easy to accuse him of being a spy, punishable by death. Once he admits his identity, he is threatened with hanging, but cooler heads prevail and he is taken to Chattanooga, where he ends up in a dismal below-ground prison with several of his fellow raiders.
From that point on, his book details almost a year in captivity. When an attack on Chattanooga seems imminent, the prisoners are moved through Atlanta to Madison. When the threat recedes, they go back to Chattanooga, where Andrews, their leader, attempts a desperate escape, fleeing from his jailers and swimming across the broad Tennessee River and hiding out on an island near present-day Moccasin Bend. He is hiding in a tree and his pursuers appear to have given up the hunt when two young boys see him and he is captured, taken to Atlanta, and hanged.
The other raiders are hauled off to Knoxville, where seven of them, chosen for no apparent reason, are courtmartialed. But there are Union attacks nearby and the raiders are moved back to Atlanta. Unexpectedly, the seven court-marshalled prisoners are taken out and hanged, leaving Pittenger and his fellows fearful of their fate.
At one point, they learn from a guard that the Secretary of War has sent a note to their jailor, asking why they have all not been executed, and they decide to make a daring attempt at an escape, overpowering their jailer and several guards. Eight of them do get away, but Pittenger does not.
He is later moved to Richmond, to a jail opposite the notorious Libby Prison where several hundred Union soldiers and Union sympathizers are held, and is eventually released in a prisoner exchange.
Pittenger’s view of the South in general and northwest Georgia in particular is not a sympathetic one. There are a few “chivalrous” Confederate officials who treat the prisoners kindly, but many are filled with hate, he says, and often drunk.
He occasionally mentions “poor whites” who are illiterate and struggling to eke out a meager existence and avoid military service.
He is struck by the horrid fate of loyal Unionists, many of whom have been imprisoned in wretched conditions since the war began. Unlike the Union prisoners, they have no friends in the North or South to argue on their behalf. For much of his time in prison, he and his fellow “engine thieves” are accompanied by a group of east Tennessee Unionists, some of whom are eventually released in a prisoner exchange.
Given that his book was published in 1863, before Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, he is circumspect about his friends there, except to claim that an active group of at least 400 Union supporters exists.
They provide money and information. At one point, he says, a gentleman tosses a newspaper into their cell and whispers “from a friend” before disappearing.
There are also several spies. One joins the crowd of locals crowding into the jail to see the Yankee thieves, but he is confronted the following day and makes his escape only by dashing aboard a train pulling out of the station. Another, arrested and confined with Pittenger, pretends to be drunk and then steals the coat of his jailer to saunter past the unsuspecting guards.
Pittenger is a devoted abolitionist and is pleased that most of the African-Americans he encounters understand that the Union is fighting for their freedom. He initially underestimates how much they know about the progress of the war, but in prison soon learns that while they may be assigned to menial labor, they are valuable allies in smuggling in contraband and local newspapers.
Pittenger survived the war and became a minister, his faith strengthened by his experiences.
His book is a reminder that while there are over-arching themes to history, there are also hundreds of thousands of individual stories, where the slightest change in circumstances are the difference between life and death.
But it is also a testament to the determination and bravery of the U.S. forces who persevered to destroy the privileged Southern planter aristocracy and end the wretched institution of slavery. That they did not also demolish the oppressive economic system in the South that impoverished both poor blacks and whites and persisted for another 100 years is not the fault of Pittenger and the other courageous soldiers who accompanied him. Their Medal of Honor and the thanks of their countrymen and women were justly deserved.