The Andrews Railroad Raid, better known as the Great Locomotive Chase, was one of the most daring adventures in a war filled with hazardous enterprises. Romantic details have since embellished it, but even with the fiction stripped away, it is still one of the war's most exciting stories.
The raid was conceived by James J. Andrews, a civilian spy for General Don Carlos Buell. His first plan, to capture a locomotive and destroy bridges of the Western & Atlantic Railroad, was abandoned when his party failed to find an engineer accomplice in Atlanta. He then proposed a more ambitious scheme to General Ormsby M. Mitchel, to wreck bridges between Atlanta and Chattanooga and thus isolate Mitchel's objective, Huntsville, Alabama.
Early in the morning of April 12, 1862, Andrews and nineteen disguised soldiers boarded a mixed passenger and freight train, drawn by the locomotive General, at Marietta. When they made a breakfast stop at Big Shanty, Andrews' party uncoupled the train at the third boxcar behind the tender and took off. Conductor William A. Fuller dashed from the Lacy Hotel to see the General vanishing around a curve. he and the train crew found a handcar and started in pursuit, hampered by crossties strewn in their path and occasional removed rails.
At Etowah they commandeered the small locomotive Yonah. Meanwhile, the raiders had been delayed for over an hour on a siding at Kingston to allow southbound freights to pass on the single-track line. When Fuller reached Kingston, he transferred to the William R. Smith and then, halted by a missing rail four miles out, met a freight, backed its cars onto a siding, and resumed the chase with the locomotive, the Texas, in reverse. Fuller sighted the General just beyond Calhoun. Andrews dropped off two boxcars, but the Texas simply shunted them into sidings. Nine miles above Dalton, fear of obstacles slowed the Texas through Tunnel Hill. But the General's fuel and water were running low, and two miles north of Ringgold the raiders abandoned their prize and fled on foot. The Great Locomotive Chase had ended, eighty-seven miles from its starting point.
All the raiders were captured. Andrews and seven others were hanged as spies. Those who survived received the new Congressional Medal of Honor when they finally returned.