During the winter of 1861-1862, Kentucky resident James Andrews, recruited 23 volunteers from three Ohio regiments for a special secret mission behind Confederate lines. All three of the Ohio regiments were serving in Tennessee when James Andrews told them about the General and his mission.
With the backing of General Ormsby Mitchel, James Andrews recruited soldiers from Company H of the 33rd Ohio Infantry, the 2nd Ohio Infantry, and the 21st Ohio Infantry. The oldest man was 32 and the youngest 18, One man, William Campbell, was a civilian. All of them wore civilian clothes and were armed with pistols.
One of the soldiers described how impressed he and his comrades were with James Andrews. He noted that Andrews was about 35, “a large, well-proportioned, gentleman with a long black silken beard, black hair, Roman features.”
The recruiter with Roman features told his new recruits that their secret mission called for a hijacking, but not of a person, place, or living thing. General Mitchel and James Andrews wanted the Ohio volunteers to highjack a steam locomotive. The locomotive named The General, hauled supplies for the Confederacy between Atlanta and Chattanooga. Civil War conditions convinced James Andrews that he had to take the actions he did with is Ohio volunteers and The General.
The Civil War that divided the United States in 1861, also deeply divided Kentucky. Union and Confederate advocates competed for the loyalty of Kentucky citizens, and sowed the seeds for CIA type intrigue in the Blue Grass State. During the winter of 1861-1862, James Andrews participated enthusiastically in this intrigue. He smuggled medicines into the Confederacy and returned with intelligence reports for the Union forces Kentucky.
In the course of his intelligence work, James Andrews had seen many Confederate railroads and came up with a brash plan to sabotage one of them. He pitched his idea to General Ormsby Mitchel, then the head of a division of Union Forces in Kentucky. General Mitchel appreciated the possibilities of Andrews’ sabotage plan because he recognized that railroads were the key to winning battles. The South found itself at a railroad disadvantage to the North. It had less than half of the North’s railroad mileage and its system, at least for military purposes, was erratically laid out. Only one direct line linked the eastern and western theaters of the Confederate armies.
To complicate things more, only one line linked Atlanta, the second most important munitions center after Richmond, into the one Confederate line to the battlefront. Chattanooga, Tennessee was the tie in point for these important railroads. Chattanooga also happened to be just seventy miles from General Mitchel’s headquarters tent. Andrews and General Ormsby and according to his later report, General Buel, came up with a plan to eliminate Chattanooga from this important Confederate railroad equation.
General Ormsby Mitchel Helps James Andrews
Andrew’s focused his plan on the Western & Atlantic Railroad, which wound 138 miles north from Atlanta through the mountains of northern Georgia to Chattanooga. One of the premier railroads of the South, the railroad was financed and owned by the state of Georgia. Its single-track line with sidings at all principal stations crossed several major streams on covered wooden bridges and tunneled under Chetoogeta Mountain. It Chattanooga it tied into a line from Lynchburg, Virginia, and from Memphis, it tied into the Memphis & Charleston Railroad.
James Andrews Reveals His Plan
Andrews revealed his plan. They would form small parties and make their way through enemy lines to Chattanooga. Everyone would meet there the following Thursday afternoon. From Chattanooga they would take the Western & Atlantic evening train south to Marietta, Georgia, just above Atlanta. If anyone stopped and questioned them, the story would be that they were Yankee-hating Kentuckians on their way to enlist in the Confederate Army. On Friday morning at Marietta, they were to board the first northbound train and commandeer it. Their goal, Andrews told them, was to burn enough bridges behind them to cripple the Western & Atlantic. They would ride their stolen train through Chattanooga and westward on the Memphis & Charleston to meet General Mitchel’s division, which by then would have pushed southward across the Tennessee border to Huntsville, Alabama. This action would enable Mitchel to capture Chattanooga and move on through Tennessee and Alabama from there.
James Andrews and His Men Hijack the General
Although the party was two men short, Andrews and his men boarded the evening train at Chattanooga on Friday April 11, 1862. They rode without incident, noting the numerous bridges across Chickamauga Creek that had to be burned. At midnight they left the train at Marietta to barter for beds in the town’s two hotels. On Saturday morning, April 12, 1862, Andrews assembled his men in his hotel room for a final briefing. He told them to board the northbound morning mail train and get ready to act during the 20 minute breakfast stop at Big Shanty, Georgia, eight miles up the line. Andrews told them that when the crew and passengers left the train for breakfast, he and engineers William Knight and Wilson Brown and fireman Alf Wilson, all recruited from the Ohio Regiments for their previous railroad experience, would commandeer the engine. The other men were to move quickly into one of the head cars after the railroad men had uncoupled it from the cars behind.
The morning mail train from Atlanta arrived at Marietta station right on schedule. Pulling it was a locomotive called the General, a powerful wood burner built for the Atlantic & Western in 1855 by Rogers, Ketchum and Grosvenor Works in Paterson, New Jersey. The General pulled three empty boxcars which were to bring commissary stores out of Chattanooga on the return trip, and a string of passenger cars. The Yankees boarded the train, still two short, and rode to Big Shanty. When the train hissed to a stop at 6:45 a.m., everyone hurried over to Lacy’s Hotel for breakfast. The train crew consisting of conductor William Allen Fuller, engineer Jeff Cain, and foreman of the W & A’s machine shops went for their breakfast as well.
As soon as the hotel door closed behind the last person, Andrews, Knight, Brown, and Wilson swiftly got down on the off side of the train, pulled the coupling pins from the three boxcars and made sure the switches were in their favor. The other Yankees sauntered up to the General and climbed aboard and Andrews waved the rest of the men into the third boxcar. They did this right under the puzzled noses of sentries at a Confederate training camp just 50 feet away. Andrews signaled and Knight threw open the throttle. The General’s wheels spun for a minute, and then the locomotive chugged away.
The Confederates Pursue the General
Meanwhile, in the hotel dining room, Murphy shouted to conductor Fuller and his crew that someone had moved the General. The crew piled out to the platform, rousing the nearby Confederate camp. The sentries fired a few futile shots at the General, disappearing around a curve. Fuller, Cain and Murphy decided to pursue the stolen train, but they had to immediately find something to use for the pursuit. Big Shanty didn’t have a telegraph station so they couldn’t even send a warning up the line. Conductor Fuller, 25, didn’t give up, though. He took the hijacking of his train personally, so he acted personally. He started running along the track, and Cain and Murphy tagged along. The Yankee hijackers, in the meantime, rolled towards the North and freedom and fame. They stopped to get a crowbar from a repair crew working on the track and tore up rails to slow down anyone chasing them. They stopped again past the first telegraph station to cut the telegraph wire. They rushed on towards Kingston, thirty miles north of Big Shanty. According to their timetable, at Kingston they would meet the first of the southbound trains from Chattanooga.
In the meantime, conductor Fuller continued to pursue the trainjackers. He ran two and a half miles down the track and reached the repair crew. They told him about their earlier encounter with the train, and Fuller began to suspect that he was dealing with professional trainmen and not Confederate deserters heading for home. Fuller took the repair crew’s pole car, a small handcar pushed along by poles, and hurried to pick up Murphy and Cain. They headed north and discovered the break in the telegraph line. This made Fuller even more certain that they were chasing a band of Yankees bent on serious mischief.
The Yankees and Confederates Fight over the General
During the next six hours, the fortunes of the chase seesawed between the Yankees and the Confederates. Fuller and his two fellow Georgians managed to impress a small switching engine named the Yonah from Etowah station, which made it easier to pursue the Yankee hijackers. The Yankee hijackers themselves were delayed for over an hour at Kingston by extra trains on the line. Fuller and his small crew were stymied by the extra trains and switching problems as well and once again, Fuller had to take to his feet to commander a train at Rome, Georgia to continue his pursuit.
The Yankee hijackers continued on their mad dash for Chattanooga, now pushing hard for Adairsville, which was ten miles north of Kingston. So far as they knew, there was no pursuit. They had a good cover story about hauling extra ammunition for General P.G.T. Beauregard, commander of the field army at Corinth, Mississippi, and they had cut the telegraph lines and torn up track as extra precautions. Just to be safe, Anderson stopped four miles short of Adairsville to take up more rails and load up with crossties to use as fuel for their bridge burning.
While the men were busy taking up the track, they spotted the smoke of a pursuing train. They wretched the last rail loose and continued their trip to Adairsville. Stopped by the wrecked track, Fuller abandoned the Rome engine and once again headed north on foot. He felt both anger and desperation. He knew the timetable and he realized that once the General got beyond Adairsville, the Yankees would have a clear track all the way to Chattanooga. The Yankee hijackers pulled into the Adairsville station and found the local freight waiting on the siding. There was still confusion in Chattanooga because the high command in the city was evacuating stores and rolling stock to counter the threatening Yankee force at Huntsville. The confusion meant extra trains and more delays for the Yankee hijackers.
Andrews talked his way out of the Adairsville station by promising to run slowly and send a flagman ahead at every curve. As soon as they pulled out of Adairsville, he ordered Knight to open the throttle wide, because they had to reach Calhoun station before the Chattanooga train did or they would be blocked in. The Yankees reached Calhoun by a narrow margin. The southbound passenger train had just pulled out of the station when its engineer heard the General’s whistle and moved far enough to clear the siding switch.
Again, Andrew’s used his story of rushing to General Beauregard’s rescue and again gained the main line. The hijackers had a clear track ahead, but behind them the Confederates worked steadily to equalize the race. Just below Adairsville Fuller and Murphy had met a southbound local freight. It was pulled by a locomotive, the Texas, the same class as the General. They hurried aboard, put all of the freight cars off at the Adairsville siding, and raced north. Now the Georgians commanded a locomotive capable of overtaking the General. They too, stopped at Calhoun, and told the local militia about the Yankee hijackers.
The long trestle over the Oostanaula River, five miles north of Calhoun, about halfway between Big Shanty and Chattanooga, was one of the Yankee Bridge burner’s main targets. They stopped to cut the wire, and take up rail for what they hoped was the last time. As they bent their backs, prying up the spikes with their crowbar and trying to wrench the rail loose with a fence rail, they heard the whistle of the pursuing Texas, loud and clear from the south.
Here, James Andrews seemed to lose his nerve. He had brought his nineteen men through improbable adventures and peril. He had every reason to believe the track ahead was clear. The rail they were trying to lift was nearly loosened and just needed a few more minutes of effort to come off. When this rail was off, they could go about their bridge burning in peace and safety. But Andrews didn’t stand and fight long enough to finish tearing up the rail. None of the men knew why. One of the men wrote that Andrews “delighted in strategy” rather than “the plain course of a straight out- and-out fight with the pursing train.”
The Locomotive Texas Finally Captures the Locomotive General
The General started up again, leaving the rail loose but still intact. The pursing Fuller and Murphy guided the Texas over the loose rail and continued the chase. Andrews tried to take advantage of his dwindling lead. He ordered the last boxcar uncoupled, reversed the General, and sent the boxcar hurtling down the track toward the Texas. Fuller too reversed course, skillfully picked up the runaway boxcar in full flight, and headed after the General, pushing the boxcar ahead of him. The Yankees dropped a second box car in the middle of the covered bridge over the Oostanaula. Fuller just shunted the two cars off at Resaca and continued north. Above Resaca, the Western & Atlantic wound through rough country.
The Yankees tossed crossties on the track behind nearly every curve. Fuller perched on the tender and signaled to Murphy and Pete Bracken, the Texas’ engineer, when the track ahead was blocked. They heaved over the forward lever, and the Texas, spinning its driving wheels, would stop, sometimes on a dime. On a straight stretch of track near Tilton, the Yankees lengthened their lead enough to stop of wood and water. With their engine refueled, they tried again to stop Fuller’s pursuit. One team of men cut the telegraph line, another pulled up wood on the track, engineers Knight and Brown checked and oiled the locomotive, and the rest of the party labored to lift a rail.
Several of the Yankees pleaded with Andrews to conduct an ambush assault on the Rebel train, but he refused to do so. The pursing Texas chugged into view. and the Yankees chugged off, leaving the track undamaged. The General and the Texas thundered on, sometimes running a mile a minute. They raced through Dalton, through the long tunnel under Chetoogeta Mountain, across the first of the long bridges over Chickamauga Creek, and past Ringgold Station. Near the Georgia-Tennessee border, about a mile short of Graysville, the General started to slow down. Water for the boiler was low and the firewood gone. The General had carried them nearly one hundred miles from Big Shanty, but now it could carry them no further. Later, fireman Alf Wilson testified that “Andrews now told us all that it was ‘every man for himself,’ that we must scatter and do the best we could to escape to the Federal lines.”
Before dashing into the woods, engineer Knight threw the General into reverse, but by now steam pressure was very low. The Texas easily picked up the slow moving engine. Fuller sent a messenger back to the militia garrison at Ringgold to order a roundup of the fugitives. “My duty ended here,” he said. After six hours of pursuing the Yankee hijackers, he had recaptured his train.
The Yankee hijackers didn’t fare well in Georgia. Within hours, Confederate cavalry patrols guarded every crossroad and examined every farm lane. The farmers formed posses and tramped the fields with tracking dogs, hunting the Yankees. James Andrews posed as a Confederate officer and got within 12 miles of Bridgeport, Alabama, with two of his men before they were captured. All twenty two of the Yankee raiders were captured in civilian clothes deep inside Southern territory.
James Andrews and His Volunteers Are Tried and Convicted of Spying
The Confederate authorities were urged to try them as spies. The Yankees realized their one hope was the claim that they had acted under orders and were subject to the rules of war for military prisoners. James Andrews knew this line of defense wouldn’t work for him. The Confederate authorities knew about him because of his earlier medicine smuggling into the South. It was now obvious to them that he was a double agent, and he knew exactly what they would do to him. Late in April, 1862, a military court in Chattanooga tried him as a spy. Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker and President Jefferson Davis reviewed the case and on May 31, the verdict was announced. James Andrews was found guilty as charged and sentenced to death by hanging.
On the night of May 31, 1862, James Andrews and Private John Wollam used a jackknife they had managed to conceal to pry the bricks loose in the wall of their Chattanooga jail and escape. The Confederates recaptured JamesAndrews two days later and John Wollam a month later.
James Andrews wrote two letters from prison before he died. He addressed the letters to County Attorney David McGavic of Flemingsburg, Kentucky, and said that he was to be executed. James Andrews asked Attorney McGaiv to settle his affairs and sent regards to Mr. and Mrs. Eckels, and the young ladies of Flemingsburg, “especially to Miss Kate Wallingford and Miss Nannie Baxter.”
In another letter, James Andrews asked Attorney McGavic to take possession of a trunk and black valise at the City Hotel in Nashville and asked him to take an empty lady’s trunk he would find at the Louisville Hotel to Mr. Lindsey’s near Mill Creek Church on the Maysville and Flemingsburg Pike and “request him to present it to Miss Elizabeth J. Layton for me.”
Perhaps the most interesting request James Andrews made of Attorney McGavic was dated Flemington, February 17, 1862 and directed the cashier of the Branch Bank of Louisville, at Flemingsburg, to pay to David S. McGavic a sum of twelve hundred dollars. When he gave Attorney McGavic the note, James Andrews told him that he was engaged in a rather critical business and might never get back. If he should not get back, James Andrews said, “I want you to draw the money out of the bank, loan it out and the proceeds to go to the poor of Fleming County perpetually.”
On June 7, 1862, James Andrews was taken to a gallows a block from Peachtree Street and hanged. Conductor of the General, William Fuller, said that he “died bravely.”
The determined Confederates hunted down the remainder of the Yankee hijackers. John Alfred Wilson and his comrade Mark Woods eluded capture for almost two weeks, traveling through dense woods and foraging food wherever they could. They were finally captured within five miles of the point where they had left the General.
After spending many months in Southern prisons, and after seven of their fellow soldiers, including James Andrews, had been hanged at Atlanta, the 14 remaining raiders escaped from the prison at Atlanta. Six of them were recaptured, but John Wilson and Mark Woods managed to elude the pursuing Rebels. They spent two weeks traveling through the countryside, receiving but four meals and sparse shelter from Union sympathizers.
Finally reaching the Chattanooga River, they traveled down it at night until they reached the Gulf of Mexico where they located the United States fleet. The gunboat Somerset picked them up and the government sent them to Key West , Florida and eventually back home to the Northern states.
John Wilson returned to his company, Company C, 21st Ohio Infantry and in September 1863, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in the face of the enemy. He continued to serve the Union until he mustered out of the service on September 18, 1864, Eventually settled in Perrysburg, Ohio.
John Alfred Wilson wrote the story of his adventures as a member of the band of Mitchel’s raiders which the Toledo Blade serialized and then printed as a book that he called “Adventures of Alf Wilson, a member of Mitchel’s Raiders During The Dark Days of the Rebellion.”
In the preface of his book, John Alfred Wilson wrote: “I am not , however, aware to this day, what effect our efforts had, if any, on the stock of the Georgia Central Railroad , yet had we succeeded, I do not think it would have been beneficial to the owners of that time. I need not perhaps, say to the reader, that I never have had any further desire to engage in railroad enterprises, and all the credit I claim for myself in this expedition, is that I believe I cheated the rebels out of the pleasure hanging me, and did all in my power to carry out the orders of my General, and I tried to serve my country faithfully.”
John Alfred Wilson died on March 28, 1904 and he is buried in Union Hill Cemetery in Bowling Green, Ohio.
The General survived the Civil War and all of its soldiers and enjoys a permanent home and visitors at The Kennesaw Civil War Museum in Kennesaw, Georgia.
Bonds, Russell. Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor. Westholme Publishing, 2006.
O’Neill, Charles. Wild Train: The Story of the Andrews Raiders. Random House, 1959.
Pittenger, William. Daring and Suffering: A History of the Andrews Railroad Raid. Cumberland House Publishing, 1999.
Rottman, Gordon. The Great Locomotive Chase – The Andrews Raid 1862: The Andrew’s Raid 1862. Osprey
Wilson, John A. Adventures of Alf. Wilson, Dark Days of the Rebellion. Toledo Blade Printing & Paper Company, 1880.