The Great Locomotive Chase – Could it ever have succeeded?

Report on the ACWRTUK February 2006 Tony Daly Lecture by Greg Bayne

The surprising thing about the recent lectures is that I found that my preconceived ideas have been consistently challenged and I have come away much the wiser. With the theft of the General I thought that we would be served some standard action fare. How wrong could I be? The story is one of deception, bad planning, bad luck, bad weather, and persistence of the highest order...

The story starts with James Andrews. Described as strong and silent, he was soft spoken, even effeminate, and stood six foot tall. Moving to Flemingsburg, Kentucky, in 1859 he taught singing schools and was a house painter, hotel clerk and lawman before the Civil War. He was engaged to be married to Miss Elizabeth Layton of Flemingsburg. At the outbreak of war he found himself sponsored by Federal officers engaging in espionage in the guise of a merchant of contraband materials for the South. He was a spy for General Don Carlos Buell in the Fort Donelson Campaign. He appeared to have that innate ability to ingratiate himself with the hierarchy of both sides. He supplied information and goods to all and needed to be liked by everybody.

There were in fact two locomotive raids.

In March 1862 Andrews set out for Atlanta with 8 men from the 2nd Ohio (Sill's Brigade, Army of the Ohio), with the intentions of burning bridges in North Georgia and in Bridgeport Alabama. There he failed to find an engineer who had agreed to help steal a locomotive and the plan was given up. Andrews overlooked the need to recruit an engineer from the volunteers. During his trip Andrews manages to share dinner with General A S Johnston and also attend a rally whose guest of honour was Robert Toombs.

When he returned to Tennessee he found that General’ Buell had left for Shiloh Tennessee. In his place was General Ormsby Mitchel with ten thousand Ohio troops were at Shelbyville Tennessee. This army was to protect Nashville from Confederate attack. Mitchel had an independent command with a number of options:

1) To cut the Memphis-Chattanooga Railroad

2) To capture bridges over the Tennessee River at Decatur and/or Bridgeport

3) Capture Chattanooga

4) Move on Knoxville

5) Drive towards the Cumberland Gap

Andrews convinced General Mitchel that with more men and his own engineers he could destroy the bridges on the W. & A.R.R. putting the road out of commission, thus isolating Chattanooga from Atlanta and the South. Chattanooga had only 3000 Confederate troops only 1500 were armed. The nearest reinforcements were in Atlanta. If the raid was successive the war could be shortened by two years. It seemed like a workable plan. No doubt Mitchel was anxious for his own piece of glory and saw Andrews as a heaven-sent opportunity. He sanctioned the raid for immediate implementation. Mitchel also had the opportunity to use Andrew's as an expendable diversion should things go wrong. And go wrong they would, as unknown to the planners the bloody battle of Shiloh was raging. One hundred thousand men had fought two days leaving twenty four thousand wounded and three thousand four hundred and seventy-seven men dead. The implications for the W. & A.R.R would be very serious.

On April 7, 1862, volunteers were selected from the ranks of the Ohio army. Sill's Brigade was again chosen. The 21st paraded and in front of the regiment the mission was outlined and volunteers asked for. From the 2nd Ohio, 1 man per company was selected. The original eight were asked but refused. A civilian named William Campbell also volunteered. They were warned of the hazardous nature of the raid and if caught dressed as civilians, they would be considered spies not soldiers and would probably hang. They went into Shelbyville to purchase civilian clothing. Rumour spread through the camp and the volunteers carried on with normal duties until needed. On that dark night one mile east of Shelbyville they met their leader James J. Andrews for the first time. He gave them his final instructions. They were to work there way to Marietta Georgia, by midnight of April 10th. Early morning April 11th they would seize a train and begin their destructive ride north, burning bridges, tearing up telegraph lines and railroad tracks. Their raid and Mitchel's assault on Huntsville were to be simultaneous. When Andrews and his party would show up in Huntsville with a captured locomotive and word that the W. & A. R.R. was in ruins, Mitchel would then safely move on Chattanooga with ease. If captured, they all had the same cover story; they were rebel sympathisers from Fleming County, Kentucky and moved south to enlist. Andrews knew there were no Confederate soldiers from Fleming County. This story would later become part of their downfall. As the meeting ended, a heavy rain began to fall. It would rain for the next ten days.

The group separated into twos and threes. They had three days to travel over 100 miles. The constant rain slowed their progress. Mud and swollen streams made travel difficult. The men frequently came in contact with each other. By Wednesday (April 9) Andrews had decided that the weather would delay Mitchel's attack and passed the word that they had an extra day to reach Marietta. This proved to be a crucial error in judgment and was to have a disastrous effect in the outcome of the raid. By midnight Friday, April 11, Andrews and 21 raiders had made their way to Marietta. Two had managed to get through on time arriving at Marietta on April 10. Two others had been stopped near Jasper Tennessee, and failing to convince their questioners of their need to join up with a Kentucky infantry regiment, they were impressed into a Confederate artillery unit.

At his point, Tony put out his views on why the raid was a complete fiasco and doomed to failure:

1) There were no officers in the group

2) They were not trained to carry out this type of commando raid

3) There were no designated leaders and both railway engineers were put in the same group

4) No one was designated a specialist task

5) There was no disaster strategy

6) The men were unrested

7) They were underfed

8) They were unfamiliar with the area

9) They had no escape and evasion briefings or equipment

At Marietta, in the Fletcher House hotel (Kennesaw House) Andrews learned that Mitchel had not been delayed but had indeed, taken Huntsville. With the raid's timing off, some raiders now wanted to back out. In a meeting in Andrews's room he tried to help them overcome their fears. "Boys,” he said, "I tried this once before and failed. Now I will succeed, or leave my bones in Dixie." At 4:00am, Saturday, April 12th the regular mixed passenger and freight train pulled by the locomotive the General steamed out of the car shed in Atlanta. At the throttle, engineer Jeff Cain, Fireman Andrew J. Anderson, and the Conductor who would figure so prominently in the chase William A. Fuller. Riding that morning was Anthony Murphy, forema