Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Great Locomotive Chase

A century-and-a-half ago this fine spring day (Saturday, April 12, 1862), an early morning passenger train pulled out of Atlanta, Georgia, bound northward for Chattanooga, Tennessee. After making several stops just north of Atlanta, including Marietta, where a somewhat curious party of about twenty men boarded, the train rolled into Big Shanty (Kennesaw) at about 6AM for a scheduled 20 minute breakfast stop (for crew members as well as passengers) at a hotel adjacent to the tracks. The sumptuous southern fare had barely been served when the train’s conductor, William A. Fuller, happened to glance out the window, and then cried out in disbelief as he saw the locomotive, manned by some of the strangers who had boarded at Marietta, speed away, carrying with it three empty freight cars that were coupled behind the tender, and leaving the rest of the train behind.

Conductor Fuller, along with the engineer and another railroad official, at first believing the thieves were likely deserters from a nearby Confederate training encampment, set off in pursuit on foot. In fact, the score of men who had hijacked the General, as the engine was called (locomotives in the romantic, early days of steam typically had names in addition to mere numbers), were Yankee spies whose audacious design was to tear up track, burn bridges and cut telegraph wires all the way to Chattanooga, in coordination with a planned surprise attack toward that city from the west, along the Tennessee-Alabama border, by a modest-sized Union force. With the railroad severely disabled, it was supposed, the Confederates at Chattanooga would be unable to receive vital supplies and reinforcements from Atlanta, and the city would readily fall into Federal hands.

And the scheme almost worked. James J. Andrews, the charismatic leader of the raid, managed to connive and sweet-talk his way through and around every difficulty and every suspicious objector they met along the way. But despite this, several key factors began to work against the raiders. The recent rainy weather hampered their attempts to set fire to the bridges and trestles. The track was also jammed by a series of unscheduled freight trains being rushed south from Chattanooga, which caused significant and unexpected delays. (The raid actually occurred a day behind that which had originally been coordinated, and the Confederates at Chattanooga had already been spooked by the Union force's capture of Huntsville, Alabama the day before.) But perhaps most significantly, the tenacity of the pursuing railroad crew had been wholly unanticipated. Having started the chase on foot, Fuller and company soon commandeered a pole car, then a series of locomotives, and steadily gained on the raiders throughout the day. As the afternoon wore on, the pursuers, now aboard the locomotive Texas, which they were obliged to run in reverse, began to draw within whistle shot, and finally within sight of the fleeing raiders. But the General was running critically low on fuel and, with the pursuers hot on their heels, the raiders were forced to abandon it a few miles short of the Tennessee line and scatter to the woods, “every man for himself”. All 22 of the conspirators were eventually captured and eight of them, including Andrews, were hanged as spies.

The General, after repairs for minor damage sustained during the course of the raid, went promptly back into service for the Western & Atlantic Railroad. It sustained heavy damage during the conflagration of Atlanta in 1864, as can be seen in this photograph, which shows it (or what is left of it) parked on the tracks close to an exploded ammunition depot. After extensive rebuilding, it continued active service for a couple more decades, and then, over the next eighty years, underwent at least two refurbishings, touring the country for various Civil War commemorations. Today it rests in The Southern Musem, in Kennesaw, just beside the tracks and only yards away from the spot where Andrews and his fellow raiders made off with it on that April morn long ago. (The Texas, following a somewhat parallel fate, now resides inside Atlanta’s Cyclorama.)

The illustration at top was done by myself a number of years ago to hang in my sons’ bedroom.

One of the greatest films of the silent era, Buster Keaton’s The General was inspired by and (very) loosely based on the events of the Andrews Raid. That film in turn inspired the iconic 1972 poster art shown above, by master designer/illustrator David Lance Goines. Disney’s 1956 film version of the adventure is quite faithful to the actual events, and also a must-see. Here’s a great clip, featuring Slim Pickens as Texas engineer Peter Bracken. (Note the bacon frying on the the firebox door.)

1 comment:

  1. Love this post, and my delight to see my longtime favorite David Lance Goines mentioned knows no bounds! Have worshipped him from afar since college. Thanks, Abe!