April 12, 2023

The Great Civil War Locomotive Chase

The Great Civil War Locomotive Chase


Cold Open

It’s April 12th, 1862, a year to the day since the outbreak of the American Civil War. 

A steam locomotive called The General charges north through the mountains of Georgia. Inside the cab, a 33-year-old Union spy - James J. Andrews - frantically checks the power gauge. He’s running out of fuel, and fast. A few days ago, James and a group of Union soldiers snuck inside Confederate territory and stole this train. Now, they’re headed north to rendezvous with Union troops in Chattanooga. But they still have twenty miles of track ahead of them. And now, it seems The General is out of steam.

James listens as the engine produces a series of sputtering last gasps… before finally it gives out completely, and the train comes to a stop.

James is worried, in no small part due to the fact that there’s another locomotive on their trail. The pursuing train is loaded with heavily-armed Confederate soldiers. James’ men have done their best to damage the track as they go, hopefully slowing their pursuer’s progress. But there’s no way of knowing how effective their sabotage has been. Now, James must decide whether to stay and try to refuel or finish the journey on foot.

But as he ponders his next move… James hears a distant whistle. When he sticks his head out of the window to look down the track behind him… he sees the Confederate train burst from the mouth of a dark tunnel, firing on all cylinders. James knows he and his men are out of options. Their only hope of avoiding capture is to abandon The General and scatter into the surrounding woods. 

When James J. Andrews orders his men to flee into the woods from the train they captured, he brought to an end one of the most remarkable events of the Civil War: an 87-mile high-speed rail chase through the mountains of northern Georgia. Some of the Union spies will be captured and executed. But the survivors will become the stuff of legends, and their exploits will go on to inspire books, television shows, and even Hollywood movies – a lasting cultural legacy of the Great Locomotive Chase of April 12th, 1862.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is April 12th, 1862: The Great Civil War Locomotive Chase.

Act One: A Daring Scheme

It’s April 1862, in southern Tennessee, a few days before the now-famous train chase.

Inside his command tent, Major General Ormsby Mitchel of the Union Army scratches his chin as he studies a map of the surrounding region. The slight, wire-haired general is puzzling over a logistical problem, one that is beginning to seem intractable.  

For the past few weeks, Mitchel and his division have been advancing south from Nashville toward the town of Chattanooga. Chattanooga sits on the Western & Atlantic Railroad line – a vital artery that links Tennessee with Georgia, and keeps Confederate forces in constant supply of provisions and reinforcements. By capturing Chattanooga, Mitchel would be cutting off a critical Confederate supply line and, perhaps, bringing the war to an end.

But while the railroad is still operational, taking Chattanooga seems like an impossible task. The steady influx of Confederate reserve troops makes any approach by a Union Army feel like a suicide mission. Mitchel knows that to take Chattanooga, they first need to destroy the railroad. But with hundreds of miles of enemy territory surrounding the track on all sides, the task feels impossible too.

Mitchel is wrenched from his deliberations by a tentative knock on the frame of his tent. Looking up, he discovers a bearded young man in civilian clothing. He introduces himself as James J. Andrews, an espionage agent for the Union Army. James says he believes he has a solution to General Mitchel’s problem regarding the Western & Atlantic Railroad.

Mitchel listens with interest as James explains his daring scheme. It involves leading a small unit of Union soldiers, disguised as civilians, behind Confederate lines to Georgia. There, they will hijack a train before driving it north, sabotaging the track along the route, and leaving the path clear for Mitchel’s forces to advance. It’s a crazy scheme - but Mitchel is out of options, and this might be his last hope. So the general agrees to support James’ plan.

General Mitchel helps source volunteers from his Division, and the following day, James and his brave band of Union troops don civilian disguises and head off into Confederate territory. They know that if their cover gets blown, they’ll be hanged as enemy spies. So, to avoid attracting any unwanted attention, the saboteurs travel in small groups of two or three. When questioned at roadblocks, they claim to be Confederate sympathizers on their way to Atlanta to enlist. And slowly but surely, James and his men work their way south. All but two manage to avoid detection. And on April 11th, the remaining Union raiders rendezvous in the town of Marietta, Georgia, where they hole up in a hotel for the night.

After darkness has fallen, James stands at the window of his room, peering through a gap in the curtains. A sliver of moon hangs in the coal-black sky, casting a pale glow across the train tracks not far from the hotel. At thirty-three years old, James’ life so far has been one of aimless drifting. Before the war broke out, he was working odd jobs around Virginia and Kentucky. But following the outbreak of hostilities, James saw an opportunity to finally do something worthwhile. He became a spy for the Union, leading scouting missions behind Confederate lines. Still, he felt as if he had more to give. When he caught wind of General Mitchel’s difficulties reaching Chattanooga, the idea for the train raid struck James like a thunderbolt. Now, for the first time in his life, James believes he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be; that this is his destiny.

But his men don't share his conviction. They've gathered and talked it over. And one of them explains to James that they’re having doubts about tomorrow’s raid. The venture is too ambitious; it's doomed to fail.

James studies the men’s expressions and admits the scheme is dangerous, maybe even foolhardy, some of them may very well die. But James says this mission is far greater than the life of any one man. The future of the Union is at stake. Finally, James says, “Any man is free to drop out.” But James insists he will press on and either succeed or “leave his bones in Dixie.”

The men appear to be roused by James’ speech, and the following morning, every last one of them reports for duty. Together, James and his men leave the hotel for the train station. On the platform, they split up and spread out among the civilian passengers waiting for the locomotive, The General, to arrive. When it finally pulls into the station, James and his men climb on board and disperse further so as to not arouse suspicion. James finds a car that’s empty except for an elderly couple. He wishes good morning to his fellow travelers, before sitting down in the window seat. 

Soon, The General pulls out of the station with a shrieking whistle and a billow of steam. James glances down and notices that his hand is trembling. He balls it into a fist and tries to steady his nerves. Soon, the train will arrive at the next station, where the driver has scheduled a twenty-minute pit stop for breakfast. That’s when the next stage of the plan will be set in motion, and the fate of this entire scheme - and perhaps the outcome of the Civil War itself - will be decided.

Act Two: The Texas Gives Chase

It’s almost six in the morning on April 12th, 1862, in northern Georgia.

James J. Andrews sits on board The General as it wends its way through the countryside. The Union spy gazes out at cotton fields whipping past the window. On the surface, James appears calm. But beneath his cool exterior, he is coiled as tightly as a spring.

After a short journey, the train rolls to a stop in a cloud of hissing steam and smoke. They’ve arrived at Big Shanty, a small town just north of Atlanta. The conductor has scheduled his twenty-minute pit stop here - an opportunity for the passengers and crew to disembark and eat some breakfast at a nearby hotel, before continuing their journey north. James waits until the train is empty of passengers. Then he leaps into action. He removes the pistol tucked inside his belt and then rushes through the train to the engine room, where three of his men are already waiting.

James and the others begin firing up the coal furnace. They open the cylinders and pump the pistons with steam. Several other of James' men jump down from the train and detach the engine car, the coal tender, and three boxcars from the rest of the locomotive. They have been over this plan countless times. But the pressure they’re feeling now is almost unbearable. The men work with the knowledge that the train’s crew could glance over at any second and catch them red-handed…

But meanwhile, in a nearby hotel, The General’s conductor is happily eating his breakfast. 25-year-old William Fuller is a devout Rebel who is proud to work for the Western & Atlantic Railroad, one of the vital suppliers for the Confederate Army. So William chews a biscuit, content in the knowledge that he is doing his part to achieve a victory for the South. But as he reaches for his coffee, William glances up absentmindedly at the train tracks through the window, when something unusual catches his eye…

Several figures are moving around in the shadows between the boxcars. William watches as these figures duck beneath the train and vanish from view. The young conductor jumps to his feet and cries out with alarm. Somebody is hijacking his locomotive!

William bolts from the hotel, followed swiftly by his engineer and another crew member. The three men chase after The General on foot, but it’s no use. The locomotive leaves the station, picks up speed, and pulls away until it’s just a speck in the distance. But William and his colleagues don’t give up. They continue chasing the train on foot until they come across a hand-car. William climbs on board and begins furiously working the crank. As they slowly make their way along the track, they pass severed telegraph wires and stretches of gnarled, twisted rail.

Seeing this, William suspects that the train thieves are Northern soldiers attempting to disable the railroad, likely ahead of a Union Army advance. But whatever these men are up to, William is determined to thwart them. As the conductor of The General, the locomotive was stolen under his watch. And therefore, it’s his responsibility to get it back. But his arms are growing weary, sweat drips from every pore, and he knows he’ll never catch them in a slow-moving hand car.

Just about then, William sees something up ahead that lifts his spirits: a train, abandoned by the side of the track. The three Confederate men race to the locomotive and climb inside. She’s rusty and old, but functional - and considerably faster than the hand car. So they fire her up and push her as fast as she’ll go.

A few hours later, William and his colleagues pull into a rail depot. There, they stop a southbound train, the Texas, and exchange their old junker for this faster vehicle. Though the tracks they’re riding on are only built to accommodate speeds of 18 miles per hour, William drives the Texas at 70 miles per hour in reverse. With whistles blowing, smoke billowing, and steel wheels screaming along the rails, the Confederate train races after the General until they’re just minutes apart.

Union spy, James J. Andrews blinks sweat from his eyes and screams at his men to “push her, boys, push her!”. But the train is running out of fuel, they’re still about thirty miles from Chattanooga, and the enemy train is gaining on them.

Up ahead, James spies a rail bridge approaching. Seeing this, an idea strikes him - one that could be his final chance to shake off their pursuers. He orders his men to set fire to the train’s coal tender, and then detach it from the locomotive. Once it’s done, James watches a blazing rail car recede into the distance, hoping that the burning coals spill out and set the wooden bridge on fire. If that doesn’t stop his pursuers, James will be out of ideas, The General will be out of fuel, and their ambitious scheme will be doomed to end in failure. 

Act Three: Capture and Execution

It’s the afternoon of April 12th, 1862 in the woods of northern Georgia.

James J. Andrews scampers through the dense forest, thorny branches whipping his face and tearing at his clothes. Close behind him, he can hear the footsteps and raised voices of his rebel pursuers as they run through the woods after him and his fellow Union raiders. But James finds himself slowing down wincing with discomfort. He must’ve sprained his ankle leaping from the train. And now, that the adrenaline is wearing off, the pain is becoming intense.

Shortly after James’ attempt to burn the bridge, his train ran out of fuel. The General passed through a tunnel and rolled to a stop. Moments later, the pursuing rebel train burst through the mouth of the same tunnel - and James realized that his last-ditch effort to stall the Confederates had failed. Left with no other choice, he ordered his men to jump from the train and scatter on foot.

Now, alone in the woods, James hopes that his men avoid capture and somehow make it back to Union territory unscathed. But he’s finding it hard to run on his sprained ankle. Thinking fast, James climbs a tree and hides among the leaves.

Moments later, a group of Confederate soldiers pass by. One of them, a young dark-haired man with a patchy beard, is wearing the uniform of a train conductor. James holds his breath and waits until the search party is well out of earshot, before climbing down the tree and setting off in the opposite direction. At the first opportunity, he turns north.

But James never reaches Union territory. Within days, he, along with the rest of the Union raiders, are rounded up and transported back to Atlanta. After it’s determined that James is the ringleader of the scheme, he is convicted of sabotage and sentenced to death. On June 7th, 1862, James and seven of the more senior raiders are hanged as Union spies. The remaining raiders, mostly younger recruits, are locked up in a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp, where they’re expected to languish for the remainder of the conflict.

But shortly after their incarceration, the Union men manage to escape from the POW camp. Eight of them make it to Union territory, while the rest are caught once again and brutally punished. Later in the war, these re-captured Union soldiers are released as part of a prisoner exchange. But their story is so remarkable that the US Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, feels moved to honor their service with a brand new award, one recently approved by Congress. Stanton is especially touched by one particular prisoner who was tortured during his time in captivity. So, in March of 1863, Secretary Stanton makes this soldier the first-ever recipient of the Medal of Honor. Shortly after, most of the remaining raiders are also presented with the same distinction.

The attempted theft of The General will go down in history as one of the most remarkable events of the Civil War. Today, at the Chattanooga National Cemetery in Tennessee, a bronze statue of the steam locomotive, The General, stands as a memorial to the thrilling 87-mile journey, and to the brave men who dared to attempt the Great Locomotive Chase of April 12th, 1862.


Next on History Daily. April 13th, 1970. An oxygen tank explodes on Apollo 13 leaving the spacecraft crippled, and the lives of the crew in peril.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.

Sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.