A 120-Mile Journey Tracing the Civil War's Greatest Adventure
I started where it ended, in the rolling hills of the Chattanooga National Cemetery in Tennessee. There, under a great bronze statue of the steam locomotive The General, is a monument to one of the Civil War's most daring raids, an adventure that came to be known as "The Great Locomotive Chase."
Around the memorial are the graves of some brave men: James J. Andrews, the civilian spy who organized the raid, and seven of the Union soldiers he led. Some of them were the first Americans to ever receive our nation's highest award for valor -- the Medal of Honor.
They also share one other piece of history. All of them were hanged; seven of them were executed side-by-side from a single scaffold.
How the locomotive and these eight courageous men came together is a fascinating tale. Since it is also the story of the world's first high-speed chase, it can only be appreciated by following the trail of Andrews' Raiders over a 120-mile journey, from Atlanta to Chattanooga. Along the way there are visits to museums, several monuments, a chance to see two of history's most famous steam locomotives and even the opportunity to ride a golf cart through an historic Civil War era railroad tunnel – the same tunnel the chase went roaring through in 1862.
Some background is necessary before the first stop. In the early days of the Civil War, Chattanooga was an important rail junction that controlled food and supplies coming from the deep South headed to the Confederate armies in Virginia. Cut the rail lines in Chattanooga, and it could end the war.
The raid, as conceived by Andrews, called for 22 Ohio soldiers to dress as civilians and sneak 200 miles behind Confederate lines to Marietta, Georgia, just a few miles north of Atlanta. There, they would steal a train and race it north, burning the bridges behind them. With the railroad destroyed, Chattanooga would be cut off from Confederate reinforcements by train and easily captured by a coordinated Union attack advancing from the west under General Ormsby M. Mitchel.
It was a daring, but possible, plan, and Andrews set it in motion. The raiders, traveling in groups of two or three, made their way incognito in civilian clothes to Marietta and on April 11, 1862, they booked two rooms at the Kennesaw Hotel. This is where you can join them. The hotel room that Andrews occupied is now part of the Marietta Museum of History and is made up much like it would have looked the night Andrews’ Raiders slept there, complete with a mannequin of Andrews looking out the window on to the tracks below. It’s hard to imagine, as school kids move around the room laughing, the tension these 22 men must have felt. Several of them spoke up and said they thought the plan was hopeless and doomed to fail. But Andrews was firm, telling them any man could drop out, but “I will succeed or leave my bones in Dixie.”
So on the morning of April 12, in a light rain, each man stuck a pistol in his belt, and boarded the regularly scheduled north bound train. To avoid suspicion, they all bought tickets to different destinations. The train was pulled by a 25-ton, eight-wheel wood burning locomotive, The General. At this time, there were no railroad dining cars, so 12 miles up the line at Big Shanty, the train came to halt of hissing steam and smoke and all the passengers got off for a 20 minute breakfast break. You can follow the raiders to Big Shanty, now the town of Kennesaw, and home to the impressively named Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History.
There’s a barn full of exhibits here on the war and railroading, but for our purposes, one thing stands above all. The General. The gleaming black and red locomotive was destined to survive the raid, the war and even the burning of Atlanta. For years, it crossed the country touring at exhibitions, even appearing at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, before ending up back here in 1972, 100 yards from the spot where Andrews stole her. It’s an impressive and gorgeous machine. You can climb above it, around it, and peer into the cab. From its red "cow catcher" to the great bell smoke stack and huge five-foot-high red wheels, clearly this engine was built for speed. It's easy to imagine Andrews in the cab, clinging to the handrail as the locomotive screamed around the curves, yelling to the engineers at the height of the chase, "Push her, boys. Push her!"
The museum has put together a thrilling film, using accurate bits from the 1956 Walt Disney Movie The Great Locomotive Chase, edited with modern actors and narration to tell a completely historical tale of what happened next.
Andrews plotted to steal the train at Big Shanty because it did not have a telegraph station. When the other passengers and train crew got off for breakfast, the raiders stayed on board, uncoupled the passenger cars, climbed into the box cars, snuck into the engine, released the brake and opened the throttle. With a grinding of steel on steel, they were on their way, in front of the startled passengers and an entire camp of Confederate soldiers. A few miles up the line, they stopped to cut telegraph wires and rip up track. They were now confident that nothing could catch them from behind and it was clear sailing up ahead.
But the plan soon went wrong. Rain had delayed Andrews for a day, but the Union attack went ahead on schedule. Afraid of the approaching Union army, the Confederates in Chattanooga tried to save supplies by sending additional trains south, clogging the rail line. Andrews lost several hours in delays. But carrying forged documents and claiming his train had badly needed ammunition for the “front,” he continually bullied it past skeptical station agents. They were just above Adairsville, again ripping up track, when suddenly the raiders were startled by a shrill whistle from the south. One of them wrote, "No sound more unwelcome ever fell on human ears."
Pursuit! Unknown to the raiders, the General's conductor, William R. Fuller, had watched his train being stolen and started off after it on foot. Since the average speed of a train at that time was 12 mph, this was not as crazy as it sounds, especially since the north bound train had to adhere to a schedule that Fuller well knew. The uneven race soon improved as Fuller came upon a rail push cart and then an old iron works locomotive, the Yonah.
Highway 41, "the Blue and Gray Highway," follows the route of the 1862 railroad and offers a number of opportunities to visit sites associated with the chase. Free “Great Locomotive Chase” brochures available at the museum have maps and detail 14 points along the route associated with the race. Dalton is good stop with a rail depot that was there in 1862, and Adairsville looks much like it did during the Civil War. The depot, which was also there in 1862, has some exhibits on the raid, including two toy train locomotives that chase each other around one side of the building.
It was here that Fuller got what he needed most for the chase – his third locomotive of the day, The Texas, a powerful new engine that matched The General in speed. The Texas had been heading south, but Fuller commandeered it, and through sheer force of character and courage, raced the engine backwards at 70 miles an hour on tracks where the safe speed was 18. With whistles blowing, steel wheels shrieking on rails and steam billowing, he was able to follow The General in the race across the Georgia countryside.
From Adairsville on, it was indeed a race for life or death. Andrews' men tried everything -- pushing ties on to the tracks, building barricades, and even throwing The General in reverse to fling empty boxcars charging back toward the onrushing Confederates, but nothing could stop Fuller.
Or The Texas. This engine also survived the war and for years was on display at The Cyclorama in Atlanta’s Grant Park, which featured the world's largest painting – a circular piece of art four stories high and longer than a football field depicting the Battle of Atlanta. Both the painting and The Texas are now headed to a new and better home in the Atlanta History Center. The Texas has undergone a complete restoration and was revealed to the public for the first time in two years at a recent ceremony in April 2017 at the North Carolina Transportation Museum, where it was restored. Later in 2017, The Texas will be unveiled in its new home, under a huge glass canopy at the entrance of the Atlanta History Center. Similar to The General, it is a sleek and economical machine – the fastest thing on earth at the time of the chase. Though it only worked for a few hours on the day of the chase, The Texas ran for decades as a working locomotive, and in its new home it will do a fine job of interpreting railroading in the period both before and after the Civil War.
One of the final and most dramatic moments of the Chase came at Tunnel Hill. This 1,477-foot- long tunnel was opened in 1850 and was the longest tunnel in the South. It was the raider’s last chance to win the race. The Union soldiers wanted to make a stand and fight it out with pistols at the end of the tunnel, or send The General backwards at full speed through the tunnel to crash into The Texas. But Andrews was by trade a spy. He had always talked his way out of any dangerous situation, and he believed their best chance was by breaking up into small groups and fleeing.
Today, the Western & Atlantic Tunnel has been restored. Closed in 1928, and saved from destruction in 1992, it is a wet, dripping, narrow dark and dank space. But you can travel through it for $6 on a golf cart tour. Along the roof, you can see where 20th Century rail cars were too high and scraped the rock, necessitating a new tunnel. When The Texas arrived at the edge of the dark tunnel, it was filled with smoke from The General. The Confederates riding with Fuller on The Texas were reluctant to enter what they were sure was a Union death trap. But Fuller, riding on the tender, forced them through. When they emerged from the tunnel back into daylight and could see The General ahead, Fuller could tell by its pale smoke that she was low on fuel and water and nearly finished.
And indeed they were. Just a short way past Ringgold, with all 22 Union men riding on the locomotive and tender, out of fuel and the Confederates in sight, Andrews gave his last order: “Jump off and scatter, every man for himself.” There is a historic marker at the lonely spot on a straight track where the chase ended.
Within a week, Andrews and all 21 of his men were captured. Caught out of uniform, they were considered spies and he and seven men selected at random were tried, convicted and hanged in Atlanta. The rest, fearing a similar fate, staged a desperate escape. Eight made it back to Union lines; the other six were captured again and eventually exchanged.
In the end, the failure of the raid led to two years of fighting before Chattanooga finally fell to Union hands. In all, more than 47,000 young men were killed or horribly wounded in these battles -- men who might have been spared had Andrews succeeded. Today, many thousands of them lay in the rolling grass slopes of the Chattanooga National Cemetery, surrounding Andrews and his men.
When the United States created a new medal to honor outstanding bravery, it was decided to present the very first ones to Andrews' Raiders. Secretary of War Stanton pinned them on the survivors himself.
Ironically, one of the raiders not honored was Andrews. As a civilian, he did not qualify. His medal is the judgement of history.
Georgia's Bloody Ground
Few areas in North America have experienced as much violent conflict as the 120-mile stretch between Chattanooga and Atlanta. The battles for Chattanooga and the Battle for Atlanta stretched back and forth over this land from 1862-1864 in some of the Civil War's most savage and confused fighting. Several of the war's best preserved battlefields are just a few minutes drive from the route of the Great Locomotive Chase. The Blue & Gray Trail lists 74 historic sites. Among them:
Chickamauga National Military Park: Located just south of Chattanooga, the fields and woods of this battlefield were filled with smoke on Sept. 19-20, 1863, when 66,000 Confederates defeated and almost destroyed a Union army of 58,000. Casualties were among the highest in the war with 34,000 men falling. This was the first battlefield preserved in United States and is the largest. An excellent museum sets the stage, while an observation tower overlooks and explains the entire strategy of the conflict. Highlights include Snodgrass Hill, where General Thomas, "The Rock of Chickamauga," fought a rear-guard action that saved the Union Army and perhaps the war. The park also features one of the largest and best Civil War bookstores.
Point Park and Lookout Mountain: Part of the Chattanooga National Military Park, this battlefield has a gorgeous view of the Tennessee River. From a tower, it is possible to understand the geographic difficulties that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant faced in trying to dislodge the Southern army from the hills around the town. The November 1863 campaign was one of Grant's most brilliant and set the stage for the Battle of Atlanta.
Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park: Located 10 minutes from the site where The General was stolen at Big Shanty, this beautiful park preserves just one of the dozens of areas that saw heavy fighting in the Battle for Atlanta. Here in July 1864, General Sherman threw wave after wave of blue-coated troops in hopeless assaults against strong Confederate lines. The panoramic sweeping views from the mountain stretch to Atlanta and beyond. A museum attempts to explain the confusing campaign, but to truly understand it, head to the Atlanta History Center.
The place to stay in Atlanta is the Georgian Terrace Hotel, Atlanta’s old grand dame. Located across the street from the restored Fox Theatre, the elegant and beautiful hotel opened in 1911 and has hosted everyone from presidents to rock stars. It is just down the street from the home were Margaret Mitchell wrote the ultimate Civil War novel, “Gone With the Wind,” and this is where Clark Gable and most of the cast stayed for the premiere of the film in 1939. Ironically, it is also within a pistol shot of Third and Juniper, the obscure corner in midtown Atlanta were James J. Andrews was hanged. There’s a historic marker, slowly being overgrown by bushes, to mark the spot. .
The Marietta Museum of History is housed in the old Kennesaw hotel, where Andrews' Raiders spent the night before stealing The General. They have restored Andrews’ room as it might have appeared and have good exhibits on the raid.
The Southern Museum of the Civil War and Locomotive History originally opened on April 12, 1972, exactly 110 years to the day that Andrews and his men stole The General, 100 yards from this site. The museum is the permanent home of the locomotive The General, and contains hundreds of artifacts connected to Great Locomotive Chase, as well as an 18-minute video and a full documentation on the role that railroads played in the war. Kennesaw is a historic town; a free walking tour brochure available at the museum points out 32 historic sites. Don't miss Wildman's Civil War & Relic Shop, the "Best Little War Store in Kennesaw, as it bills itself, directly across the street. Possibly the most politically incorrect museum you’ll ever see, it’s still a “don’t miss” one-of-a-kind attraction.
The Atlanta History Center is magnificent and worth a half day. There are gardens, historic homes, an excellent strategic interpretation of the Civil War and documentation of the important role Atlanta played in it. This will be the new home of The Texas and the world’s largest painting.
The Tunnel Hill Heritage Center & Museum is a hoot. The museum has exhibits on the raid, the tunnel, and the later Civil War battle fought here. But the highlight is riding a nine-passenger golf cart through the actual tunnel. Once you see the landscape, you can understand why Andrews baulked at fighting a battle here. There was little cover, and the raiders could see that the Confederates riding The Texas had long range rifles, whereas the raiders were armed only with pistols.
Chattanooga National Cemetery is open every day. There are 33,000 men buried here, including 12,000 from the Civil War. A memorial with a bronze statue of the locomotive The General honors the Great Locomotive Chase. James J. Andrews and the seven raiders who were executed are buried here in a small semi-circle around the monument.
ATLANTA: Atlanta has transformed in recent years into a major tourism destination. The best deal to visit Atlanta is CityPASS, which saves time and money and provides admission to all the top attractions, including the world class Atlanta Aquarium, the Civil Rights Museum, CNN Studios, the World of Coca Cola and more. You can base in Atlanta and follow most of the Great Locomotive Chase on easy day trips.
BEFORE YOU GO: The 1956 Walt Disney movie, "The Great Locomotive Chase," is surprisingly accurate and gives a good look at Civil War locomotives in action.