The American Civil War was the most devastating and deadly war in American history, as well as the last to be fought on American soil. More than 618,000 soldiers died in its 10 years, along with countless civilians. It seems like the last thing that would ever spawn an event comical enough to be chosen as the subject of a Walt Disney movie or a silent film starring Buster Keaton.
Amidst all the destruction, there was one glorious moment of comic relief, and it was called The Great Locomotive Chase.
It all began on in April of 1862. The plan was for James J. Andrews, a civilian spy for the Union, to destroy the railways that lead from Atlanta, Georgia, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, thereby cutting off Chattanooga’s supply lines and making it easier for the Union to capture. Andrews recruited 22 Union soldiers from Ohio and one civilian, instructing them all to arrive in Marietta, Georgia, by April 10. They were delayed one day by rain, and two of the volunteers were forcibly pressed into the Confederate army on the way. The remaining 21 men aimed to destroy rail lines after Major General Ormsby Mitchel attacked Chattanooga but before the Confederate Army began sending reinforcements and supplies from Atlanta.
On April 12, Andrews and his men hijacked a northbound locomotive called the General when it stopped in Kennesaw, Georgia, to let its passengers eat at a local hotel (dining cars were not yet in use). They planned to run it north up to Chattanooga, periodically stopping to destroy bridged, telegraph lines, and track to stop Confederate trains from moving north. They abandoned all the passengers and crew of the locomotive before steaming northward and were immediately pursued by the train’s conductor, William Allen Fuller, who chased the train first on foot and then by handcar. In Etowah, Georgia, Fuller commandeered a locomotive called the Yonah. This caused a major problem for the General, since trains of the day traveled at an average of 15-20 miles per hour and Andrews’ men planned to stop periodically to destroy track, meaning a fast-moving pursuer could conceivably catch up with them. To increase their speed, they abandoned the idea of keeping the General‘s timetable to avoid suspicion and instead raised a red flag on the front of the train, a symbol used to mean a train was skipping a regularly scheduled stop because another train was too close behind for the first train to stop safely.
Meanwhile, Fuller had dropped off the Yonah at Kingston and switched to the William R. Smith before being forced to continue on foot (running for miles in a full conductor’s uniform, including a gold pocket watch and chain) due to the damage done to the track by Andrews just south of Adairsville. North of Adairsville, Fuller commandeered the southbound Texas and began chasing the General at full speed.
That’s right. Fuller had commandeered a southbound train, which meant that as he chased the General northbound, his locomotive was facing backwards and going full speed in reverse. Fuller completely abandoned all safety protocols and resorted to blowing through every station and crossing in reverse while blowing the train’s whistle constantly.
Andrews’ adventures, meanwhile, were just as desperate but significantly less comical. His men had no tools with which to destroy the track and were only able to leave superficial damage, not to mention that their two best engineers were the men who had been pressed into service before the raid began. The best they could do was to grab hold of telegraph lines as they passed them and tie the lines to the train, thereby ripping them apart as the train sped onward. They also aroused the suspicions of the Trainmen at the stations, who recognized every conductor on the track, which meant that they had no idea who these strange men were or why they were on Fuller’s train and assumed they were up to no good. The raid had also come a day late due to the rain. Andrews had assumed General Mitchel would also be delayed by the rain, but Mitchel had attacked on April 11 as planned, giving Confederate troops time to move supplies along the Chattanooga-Atlanta line before Andrews hijacked the General on April 12. Andrews was able to get by by claiming he had emergency orders to deliver munitions to General Beauregard, and this only worked because no station had a working telegraph to fact-check his claim, since Andrews had destroyed all the telegraph lines.
Andrews and his men grew desperate. They punched a hole into the back wall of the boxcar and tossed rubble onto the track to slow the Texas. However, the rubble they were tossing was wooden railroad ties, which bounced harmlessly off the track. They even unhooked boxcars and sent them rolling down the track toward the Texas, hoping to cause a collision, but the Texas, which was traveling in reverse at speeds which reached a seemingly impossible 60 miles per hour, simply joined with the boxcars and pushed them northward until the next station, where it dropped them off.
After about 8 hours of these shenanigans, the General ran out of fuel 18 miles south of Chattanooga, and Andrews and his men were forced to flee on foot. They were all captured within two weeks, including the two men who missed the raid entirely. Sadly, several were executed by the Confederates, but several escaped (two by following rivers south until they reached the Gulf of Mexico and swimming out to meet an anchored Union ship), and all received medals of honor for trying really hard but ending up looking really silly.