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Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Great Locomotive Chase

April 12, 2012, will mark the 150th Anniversary of the famous "Andrews' Raiders" of the Civil War.  This military action, better known as "The Great Locomotive Chase," was an attempt to disrupt the Confederate supply lines along the Western and Atlantic Railroad in preparation for a massed Union movement against the Rebel stronghold in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  The idea was to steal a steam engine and accompanying cars in the area of Atlanta, Georgia.  This hijacked train was then to be used as the means of travel along the rail line while the raiders cut telegraph lines, dismantled sections of the railroad, and otherwise caused havoc well-behind Confederate lines.   It was hoped that this effort would delay the Confederate reinforcement of Chattanooga via the railroad from Atlanta. 

The group of Union Army volunteers was led by James J. Andrews, a civilian, who proposed the raid.  He solicited the support of 23 other volunteers...22 of these were soldiers from the 2nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, the 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, and the 33rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry.  The other volunteer was William H. Campbell, another civilian.   Following various routes, these men (except two who were detained and enlisted in the Confederate army to cover their activities, and two others who apparently missed the rendezvous by a short time) converged on the area of Marietta, Georgia.  

On April 12th, the steam engine "General," a northbound passenger train, arrived at Big Shanty, Georgia.  The crew and passengers disembarked the train to enjoy breakfast at a local hotel.  Andrews and his raiders hopped aboard the train and slowly steamed out of the town.  William A. Fuller, conductor, and two other men began a foot pursuit of the stolen train.   They then commandeered a handcar in an attempt to catch up with the locomotive. 

Fuller used two other available locomotives in his pursuit...the "Yonah" from Etowah to Kingston, and the "William R. Smith" from Kingston to a break in the rail line south of Adairsville.  He continued to that depot on foot, and there took command of the locomotive "Texas," which was originally headed as a southbound train.  Thus the "Texas" pursued the "General" while running in reverse.

With the telegraph lines cut, no Confederate forces along the route were aware that Union raiders had stolen the "General."  Fuller stopped in Calhoun, Georgia, and loaded aboard his train a detachment of 11 Confederate soldiers.

In the meantime, Andrews plan had been to destroy rails and burn bridges behind the fleeing "General."  However, Fuller's pursuit was fast closing the distance between the two trains.  This was partially due to the fact that the wood supply in the "General" was too damp from overnight rains to burn properly in the boiler.   Just 18 miles below Chattanooga, Tennessee, the "General" came to a halt.  Andrews and his men scattered throughout the countryside in attempts to escape.  Within the next two weeks, all were captured by Confederate forces.

Andrews was tried and convicted as an unlawful combatant and spy.  He was hanged in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 7th.    On June 18th,  seven others were hanged in Atlanta.  Eight men eventually escaped and made their way to the safety of Union lines.  Six others were held as prisoners of war until exchanged on March 17, 1863.

Nineteen of the men would eventually receive the Medal of Honor for their parts in the raid.  Andrews and Campbell, as civilians, were ineligible for that award.

The exploits of these men and their pursuers were memorialized in two motion pictures...a silent film starring Buster Keaton, and the 1956 Disney film "The Great Locomotive Chase," starring Fess Parker as James J. Andrews and Jeffrey Hunter as William A. Fuller

Chapter Two - The Sequel: 1962

In preparation for the 1962 observance of the 100th Anniversary of "The Great Locomotive Chase," the "General" was refurbished at great expense.  Plans were made to feature the locomotive in reenactments of the raid at Big Shanty (now Kennesaw), Georgia.  The train was also scheduled to travel the rails between Atlanta and Chattanooga.

In March, 1962, Milford E. Bowen, Jr., a history teacher at Triad High School (and a true railroad buff) decided to make the drive from Ohio to Georgia to witness "The Great Locomotive Chase." 
He talked about his plans during history class sessions, and eventually approached two students to see if they wanted to join him.  Mike Chamberlain was one of those students, and I was the other.  We were both in our junior year at Triad High School, and thought the trip would be both informative and exciting.

Mr. Bowen had already made arrangements to be absent from school during a portion of the trip south.  It was left to Mike and me to work out our own absences.  Accordingly, I approached Mr. Mendell E. Beattie, Principal, seeking permission to participate in the trip.  "I don't think it would be fair to the other students," was Mr. Beattie's reply.  I noted, however, that although he did not give us explicit permission to be absent, neither did he say "No."

There is an adage that "It is easier to ask forgiveness than it is to ask permission."  Mike and I decided to accompany Mr. Bowen on the trip, and to seek forgiveness later.

We had to make arrangements with Tom and Evelyn Arthur, our employers at Arthurs' IGA in North Lewisburg (we were both stock boys and clerks) to miss a few days of work.  Mike and I visited Tom and Evelyn at their home one evening, shared with them how important this trip would be to us, and convinced them that the store could do without us for a few days.

On the appointed day and at the appropriate time, Mike and I linked up with Mr. Bowen in Urbana.  Mr. Bowen, a large man in both height and weight, had his little, four-passenger Renault (a French automobile) prepared for the road trip.  Behind it, he had attached a single-wheeled utility trailer to hold all of our personal gear, camping gear, food cooler, and such.  He had even created a triangular pennant, with the "General" in silhouette, which flew from the radio antenna on the front of the car.  Loaded up at last, we headed out for Georgia.

We drove to Atlanta, stopping along the way only to refuel the car, to eat, or to otherwise make use of facilities.  In the city, we visited a huge department store where there was a display of model railroad set ups, engines, cars, and other railroad memorabilia.  We also took time to visit the Cyclorama, a gigantic painting which commemorated the "Battle of Atlanta."   Then we continued our journey to Big Shanty, Georgia, where festivities and the arrival of the "General" were scheduled for the next day.

We had planned to camp that evening in a forest area north of Big Shanty.  However, we changed our minds once we saw the community of Big Shanty (Kennesaw) and all that was going on there.  We parked the car and trailer (our Ohio license plates very conspicuous in this Dixie setting), and walked to the "downtown" area of the town.  We were amazed to see all of the booths, and displays, and other activities which were prelude to the arrival of the train the next day.  Mike and I were promptly "arrested" by the local authorities for failing to sport the mandatory beards or other facial hair.  We were incarcerated in a make-shift "jail" which was built of railroad ties.  We were required to remain there until we each paid a fine of fifty cents to be released.  (I still have the receipt for that fine, although it's faded a bit over the past fifty years).

Mr. Bowen approached a group of Confederate re-enactors who were seated around a campfire on a patch of ground adjacent to the railroad tracks.  He asked them if there was a place in town where we could camp for the night.  The men, members of the 1st Georgia Cavalry, invited us to pitch our tent and share the campsite with them. 

Later, when we had set up our small camp, we rejoined the men at the campfire.  Some provided banjo, harmonica, drum, and "spoons" music as they sang Confederate songs.  It was an impressive thing to be a part of it all!

Mike and I decided to walk across the tracks and window-shop along the storefronts.  As we started in that direction, there was a sudden commotion behind us.  We both turned to see a horde of Confederate soldiers, armed with pistols, muskets, and swords, running toward us.  "Yankees!" they yelled as they thundered on toward us.  "Yankees!"

Mike bolted to the right, as I stepped aside to the left.  The soldiers ran right past me, and I hollered "Go get him, boys!" thinking that they were after Mike!  They soon outdistanced him, however.  Their attention was focused on a scarecrow which appeared on the second floor balcony of the hotel.  The scarecrow had been outfitted with a Union blue uniform and hat.  Some soldiers shot at the figure while others continued running toward it.  Eventually, some Confederates grabbed the figure, and threw it from the balcony to the street below.  There was a great deal of noise, including what I believed to be the infamous Rebel "yell" as the street erupted with cheers and gunfire.

The activities mellowed  as the evening progressed.  Final songs were sung around the campfire, and everyone settled in for the night.

The following day, the "General" steamed in to the town, whistle blowing and bell clanging.  There was a renewed spirit of jubilation and celebration from the townspeople and the many thousands of visitors who had come to see this spectacle.   Photographs were quickly snapped.  Home movies were filmed.  Sound recordings were made.  It was so very exciting to be a part of it all.

All too soon, the train slowly rolled northward, picking up the speed which it would need to "make the grade" heading into Atlanta.  We had already dismantled our campsite and reloaded our trailer.  We said goodbye to our Confederate friends, hopped in the little Renault, and began to shadow the "General" on the roadways which led to Atlanta.  Periodically, we pulled ahead of the train's route, parked at the side of the road, and took photos, movies, and recordings of the train as it progressed along the rails.

After Atlanta, we continued our journey back toward home.   Later in the day, it rained.  But even the dark clouds and gray skies above the Great Smoky Mountains did not dampen our spirits.  We had been a part of "The Great Locomotive Chase," and reveled in our opportunity to do so.

Special Notes:

Johnny Cash narrated the story of "The Great Locomotive Chase," as one of the stories within the movie "Ridin' the Rails," in 1974.  Click on this link to watch and listen as Johnny speaks about this historic event.

In the tail end of this particular clip, Johnny also tells the story about the building of the transcontinental railroad, and the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869.  Why is this important to you, the reader?  Well, I actually appeared in this segment of the movie as an extra!  The scene was placed at the actual "Golden Spike" site at the present-day Golden Spike National Monument at Promontory, Utah, when filming was conducted in 1974.  When Johnny is approaching the trains which are featured, while narrating this story, I can be seen atop the cowcatcher on the front of the train on the right.  I'm the guy dressed in dark trousers, white shirt, vest, brown boots, and a broadrimmed hat, sporting a mustache.  As Johnny talks, I can be seen taking off my hat while waving it and my arms wildly.  You might also notice a champagne bottle in my hand.  I was re-enacting the character in the 1869 photo who appeared to be extending two bottles (due to the old time photo exposure period) toward my counterpart on the train on the left side of the photo.

When it was announced in the local newspapers that extras were being recruited for the film, I decided to audition.  (I was a school teacher at the time in Brigham City, Utah).  On the night of the auditions, I drove from my home in Honeyville, Utah, to the audition site at the Junior High School in Brigham City, Utah.  I got out of my car, already dressed for the part.  I was wearing a faded pair of blue jeans, a ragged flannel shirt, scuffed and dusty cowboy boots, with my Stetson rim bent down and flapping.  I had a full mustache, two days' growth of chin whiskers, and a pick ax slung over my shoulder.  I made my way toward the long, long line of people who were waiting to get into the building.  I heard a man (later identified to me as Nicholas Webster, producer and director of the film) shouting for me to stop.  He quickly approached me, along with one of his aides.  "I don't care who he is or what he does," Webster exclaimed.  "I want him in the movie!"  I was  encouraged to follow him to the building, and given the privilege of "bucking" the line to go to immediately sign up as an extra.  I worked on-site at Promontory for two full days, and in the process had the opportunity to meet Johnny Cash, his wife June Carter Cash, and son John Cash.  At the end of shooting, I was given a check for my services which amounted to over $100.  I never cashed the check, but have lost it in the years which followed. 

"Ridin' the Rails," with narrations and songs performed by Johnny Cash, is available online.

For additional reading on the raid, check out the memorial page on Find-A-Grave at this URL:


or Google "Andrews' Raiders"