Posted by: bkivey | 12 April 2012

The Great Locomotive Chase

As I’ve noted before, 12 April has amassed it’s share of historically significant events. Today marks the 150th anniversary of Andrew’s Raid, a.k.a The Great Locomotive Chase. It’s a story of daring, determination, bad planning, and worse luck. The protagonists are James J. Andrews and William A. Fuller, but the real stars are the locomotives General and Texas.

In the Spring of 1862, the Grand Army of the Ohio’s Third Division, Brigadier General Ormsby Mitchell commanding,  was attempting to capture Chattanooga, TN. The natural barriers around the city prevented Gen. Ormsby from encircling the town with the forces available, so he hit on the idea of sending a raiding party deep into Georgia for the purpose of capturing a train, and then wreaking havoc up the rail line to prevent Confederate reinforcement of Chattanooga. Civilian scout and part-time spy (I’d love to put that on a resume’) James J. Andrews volunteered, and rounded up 23 volunteers to make the raid.


On the morning of 12 April, 1862, the Andrews party rode the train headed by the General from Marietta, GA, to Big Shanty (now Kennesaw), where the train made a scheduled food and fuel stop. After the crew dismounted for breakfast, Andrews and company uncoupled the three coaches at the rear from the three boxcars behind the engine, and made off with the train. The  no-doubt surprised but maniacally determined conductor, William Allen Fuller, along with his crew, started running after his train. This wasn’t as foolhardy as it may seem. Trains at the time ran slowly, and the terrain north of Atlanta is hilly. To allay suspicion, Andrews had to maintain the train’s schedule, and sabotage takes time. Fuller and his men stood a fair chance of catching the stolen train.

Despite their desire to wreck the railroad as the fled north, the raiders hadn’t bothered to bring any tools along. They remedied this when the encountered a section gang along the way, but they also left the gang’s pole car (a precursor to the handcar) intact. When Fuller came upon the section gang, he took the pole car, and the chase resumed.

Andrews next mistakes occurred when he crossed the Etowah river. Not only did he leave the bridge undamaged, but also left intact the old locomotive Yonah working at the iron works on the north bank. Some of the raiders noted in their memoirs that they suggested disabling the engine, but Andrews didn’t act on those suggestions. As soon as Fuller made the scene, he commandeered the Yonah, and steamed north.

Andrews ran into trouble in Kingston, GA. The schedule showed only one southbound train, but the raiders were forced to wait in siding for an hour for two more unscheduled trains. As Andrews tried to keep up appearances by claiming to be rushing supplies to Chattanooga, and his men sweated in the boxcars, they were unaware of the chase behind. While some in town grew increasingly suspicious of the men, they were allowed to go on their way.

Those suspicions were confirmed shortly after the Yankees left when the Yonah rolled into town. Fuller immediately appropriated the more powerful William R. Smith, and took off after the raiders, now only minutes ahead. Not far out of town, he was forced to abandon the engine when he spied a section of missing rail, and resumed the chase on foot. This was one seriously determined hombre.

Andrews met a southbound freight outside of Adairsville, and talked his way past the crew. He again left that locomotive, Texas, intact. After running up the track for some three miles, Fuller and his remaining compatriot took charge of the Texas, dropped her train, and proceeded backwards at full speed after his quarry. The first inkling Andrews had of the chase came when he spied the smoke from Texas. Now he knew he had little time for escape, and less for sabotage.

The stretch between Calhoun and Ringgold was the climax of the chase. Andrews tried dropping boxcars to slow the pursuit, but each time Fuller was able to safely intercept the cars and shunt them into sidings. Not even crossties laid athwart the tracks slowed the Texas down much, as both locomotives raced north at speeds approaching 50 mph, a considerable pace at the time. Each time the raiders slowed the General to commit sabotage, they’d hear the Texas’ whistle, or worse, see her come into view.

A couple of miles north of Ringgold, the General, out of wood and water, slowed to a stop. Andrews and his men jumped ship and fled into the woods. All were caught within a couple of weeks. Andrews was convicted of spying, and hanged on 7 June. Seven of his compatriots met the same end on 18 June. Eight managed to escape and eventually work their way back to Union lines. The remaining men were repatriated in March 1863.

Nineteen of the raiders were awarded the first Medals of Honor. This seems curious, given that the raid was a failure, all of the men were captured, and the damage that was done was repairable in hours. The most curious awards were to four of the men, who overslept and didn’t participate in the action.

This is a good yarn, and the Disney treatment in the 1956 movie The Great Locomotive Chase is worth watching. Both the General and Texas have been preserved in museums in Kennesaw and Atlanta, respectively. I’m kicking myself a bit, because I was in Atlanta last year visiting friends, and I’d forgotten about this bit of history. We spent a day following Sherman’s march on Atlanta, which took place along the same route. Next time I’m in Atlanta, I’ll take a day to follow the Chase.

Tax Time

I paid my taxes today. Not the annual reckoning due on Monday, but the quarterly ones that I’m privileged to pay as a self-employed person. I also paid my annual dues to the local transit authority. Between 1862 and 1943, individuals paid income tax the same way businesses and the self-employed do today: with a check for the total. Realizing that it was going to need a whole lot of money for World War II, and also realizing that people have a natural aversion to writing checks to government, Congress passed, and FDR signed, the Current Tax Payment Act of 1943, authorizing income tax withholding.

While I might not like some, or even most, of the ways my money is spent by government, I don’t mind bearing my share of the burden. I do think that if everyone had to sit down and write checks to government for hundreds or thousands of dollars every three months, we’d have a whole new discussion on taxes and government spending.




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