The Train Robbery That Almost Won the Civil War

Union soldiers paid with their lives for their failed theft of a locomotive—and became America’s first Medal of Honor winners for their heroics.

Alexander Crosman peered through his telescope from the deck of his Union Army gunboat. What the commander of the USS Somerset saw bewildered him. Nearly 18 miles from shore, off the Confederate-held city of Apalachicola, Florida, Crosman watched two men standing in a small skiff and waving frantically at the military ship. Crosman ordered his ship’s guns leveled and an armed guard on deck. 

As the skiff drew closer, he looked down at the men. They were skeletal, naked excepting only rags for pants and vests made of moss. Their skin was bruised, raw, and bleeding from sores and cuts, covered with insect bites and blisters. The naval officer barked, “Who in hell are you, and what are you paddling under my guns in this manner for?” Their parched throats could barely gasp the words out. What they said shocked Crosman.

They claimed to be Federal soldiers, privates from Ohio. Their army was battling rebel forces in Tennessee, some 500 miles away. Thinking they were deserters, Crosman growled that they were a “damned long ways from camp.” Not deserters, they insisted—escapees. They were secret infiltrators behind enemy lines, part of the now famous Great Locomotive Chase, a daring but ill-fated raid Union forces hoped would cut the Southern rebellion’s throat.

Barely able to stand, the two men, Alf Wilson and Mark Wood, came aboard. They asked Crosman the date. It was Nov. 10, 1862. They had been on the run through the heart of rebel territory for 25 days, covering some 350 miles since escaping the prison where they and the other survivors among their fellow raiders had been held in Atlanta. They broke out with only the clothes on their backs just two days before they expected to be hanged. As far as they knew, they were the last alive of the 22 men who had set out eight months earlier through the Confederate lines on a secret raid that, despite its failure, would rattle the Southern rebellion to its core. Had the men succeeded in the daring operation, they might have ended the Civil War three years earlier and with hundreds of thousands fewer casualties than it took to finish off the Confederacy.

The Union raiders had succeeded in stealing a locomotive, the General, in what is today’s Kennesaw, outside Atlanta. They had then steamed back toward Union lines, all the while intending to destroy the single-line railway behind them. Those train tracks through the rugged cliffs, over the rivers and dense forests of northwestern Georgia served as the all-vital supply line to Confederate forces massed in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Only the swift action of a sharp-eyed railroad employee had kept the infiltrators from putting the rail line out of action.

Despite their ultimate failure, their raid continues to resonate to this very day. One of the locomotives involved in the Great Locomotive Chase, the Texas, which chased down and finally led to the capture of the Union train thieves, has just been completely restored. This past month, in early May, a gleaming Texas was trucked to its new home at the Atlanta History Center. The engine and tender will go on public display next year as part of the building of a new $32 million facility to house the refurbished Atlanta Cyclorama, the 359-foot-long, 42-foot-tall cylindrical oil painting with 3-D landscape foreground depicting the cataclysmic, July 22, 1864, Battle of Atlanta. That battle might not have had to be fought if the Union Army’s risky attempt to foreshorten the war on April 12, 1862, had not failed.

Despite poor planning, the behind-the-lines mission nearly succeeded. James J. Andrews, a shady, charismatic civilian who previously passed back and forth between the lines as a contraband runner and sometimes spy, planned the raid. His plot called for a team of Union soldiers to steal and ride a train back to Chattanooga, burning railroad bridges, blowing up tunnels, and cutting telegraph lines behind them. If they succeeded in severing the Western & Atlantic rail artery through the region, they would cut off the source of supplies and reinforcements for the Confederate army defending Chattanooga. Union armies just north of Chattanooga were mustering for an attack. If Chattanooga fell, with its major railroad junction for lines running from the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers to Virginia, and resupply from Atlanta cut off, the daring raid offered the possibility of toppling the Confederacy within short months, not years of a war of attrition.

The 20 Union soldiers and two civilians disguised themselves in civilian clothes and infiltrated Confederate lines on the night of April 7, 1862. Traveling in groups of two and three, by foot and cart, they made their way south through northwest Georgia under heavy rainstorms. Several of the men were stopped as they went and only managed to avoid capture by claiming they were on their way to join a Confederate regiment. Two actually chose to defect to the Confederate Army rather than risk being hanged as spies or deserters when confronted.

Early on April 12, 1862, the first anniversary of the shots fired on Fort Sumter at the start of the Civil War, Andrews’ raiders, all carrying revolvers, some with tools in bags, assembled as planned in a hotel room in Marietta. Tall, with a thick dark beard and deep voice, the leader spoke to the men, one of whom recalled, “There was suppressed fire in his low, almost whispered words, a calm confidence in his tone that was contagious.” Andrews conveyed no doubt about his plan, in fact displayed “an eagerness and joy that the time was so near at hand.”

The men boarded the early northbound train out of Atlanta, sitting near each other in the same passenger car. Once at Big Shanty, today’s Kennesaw, they would have to move quickly to take the locomotive, uncouple the train’s passenger cars, hide within the boxcars, and start out of the station before guards had time to react. There were bound to be plenty of them on hand. Big Shanty held a Confederate Army encampment of about 3,000 soldiers. “If anyone interferes,” Andrews admonished, “shoot him, but don’t fire unless you have to.” Most anticipated having to shoot their way out of town. Some expressed their worries. Andrews intoned, “Now, I will succeed or leave my bones in Dixie.” There was no turning back.

Pulled by the locomotive General, the train came out from Atlanta, 20 miles to the south of Marietta. The Union men boarded in the predawn darkness. The train puffed slowly into Big Shanty. “Big Shanty! Twenty minutes for refreshment!” called the conductor. While the trainmen and most passengers disembarked for breakfast, Andrews and two men moved swiftly to board the General, while the others waited in the passenger coach. Andrews found the General’s cab empty. The other men uncoupled its mail car and two passenger coaches, leaving the tender and three boxcars. A sentry walking alongside the tracks never noticed the operation. Andrews returned to the passenger coach and told the waiting men, “Well, boys, I guess it’s time to go.” 

Nobody challenged them as 16 men hoped into an open boxcar. The General hissed, blew out steam. “All right,” said Andrews to his engineer. “Let her go.” Slowly, the General chugged out the open track north.

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Bill Fuller, a conductor on the W&A line, was sitting at the trackside Lacy Hotel starting in on his breakfast. He heard the engine but paid it no heed until he glanced out the window at the far end of the room to see the locomotive, tender, and boxcar in motion. Another trainman cried out to Fuller, “Someone is running off with your train!” Fuller leaped up in the confusion of the dining room and ran out the door. His train quickly disappeared from sight. No shots were fired, no alarm sounded—nobody understood what had just happened.

Fuller did. He had no idea to what end, but his train had been hijacked. If not for Fuller, the raid might have succeeded. Much to the hilarity of the large crowd that gathered on the track, he raced after the train on foot. “This seemed to be funny to some of the crowd,” he said later, “but it wasn’t so to me.” He proved relentless.   

Aboard the train, one of the raiders believing they were in the clear whooped and said, “Thank God, boys! We’re done playing Reb! We’re blue-bellied Yankees again!” They stopped, cut the telegraph lines, continued on, running by station after station as passengers and trainmen looked on in bewilderment.

Fuller ran on for two miles until he found a work crew along a siding. They had seen the train go by. The intrepid conductor told them what had happened. He commandeered the workers’ handcar. He and one of the men pushed along the tracks for more than a dozen miles. They came to a train that idled on a siding under a full head of steam, explained the situation. The engine with Fuller aboard steamed out in pursuit of the General.

Andrews’ raiders ran on. They were obliged to halt to allow other southbound trains to pass. They explained to trainmen who were surprised to see the unannounced northbound train that they were speeding boxcars full of gunpowder, desperately needed by Confederate forces at the front. They continued on. However, at Kingston they were hung up for more than an hour as they waited for a southbound freight train and another engine to clear the track. One of the men inside the box cars recalled, “We waited a long time here in awful suspense, not daring to speak, move, or scarcely breathe, lest those whom we heard tramping around our train should hear us, and thus explode Andrews’ powder story.”

While the General sat, Fuller was on the move. Coming upon another, faster locomotive that the General had passed earlier, he took it. He was steaming at full throttle up the tracks.

Andrews slowed or stopped his train several times to try to damage the railway. His men tried to tear up the rails. They figured they had at least an hour’s lead on their pursuers, time to lift several rails free. They worked without the right tools to pry the iron bolts loose, however, or to pull out the heavy spikes from the solid oak ties. In the distance they heard, “faintly but unmistakably,” a train whistle approaching from the south. They succeeded in breaking just a single rail before leaping back aboard the train.

They knew that the broken rail would not slow their pursuers for long. Only burning a bridge down, Alf Wilson realized, “would save us and to do this we must outrun them far enough to burn the bridge before they came up.”

They pulled into Adairsville. On the siding the Texas waited panting with its 21 cars of passengers and freight bound for Atlanta. The Texas had pulled off to allow a high-speed southbound train to come through. The clever Andrews repeated his tale that his trainload of ammunition must get through to the fighting front at all costs. The Texas’ conductor let them pass on their urgent army business.

Despite the danger of an oncoming train, Andrews ordered his engineer to run the General up the track as fast as she could make. One of the men in the boxcar recalled, “Sometimes it seemed that our car was off the track, or literally jumping along. We were tossed from side to side almost like beans in a gourd.” They covered the nine-mile stretch of track to the next town at an astonishing, literally breakneck 72-mile-an-hour pace, whistle blaring the whole way.

At the next town, Calhoun, the southbound passenger train had already pulled off on a siding. The rear of the passenger train still extended out on the mainline. The General slowed and stopped before striking the other train. The raiders’ train was stuck for the moment.

Meanwhile, finally reaching Adairsville, Fuller and an engineer, Anthony Murphy, commandeered the Texas. However, the engine was pointed south. Without a turntable, they pulled the locomotive out onto the mainline and steamed after the engine thieves, running backward with tender-first.

The Texas was a powerful iron horse, with a full head of steam. What forever after became known as “the Great Locomotive Chase” was on. Puffing and rolling at full speed to the north, one engine backwards the other forward, the two iron horses ran on and on, whistles echoing through the rocky countryside. Desperate to block his pursuers and to carry out his mission, Andrews stopped his engine after crossing a bridge. His men attempted to set the wooden ties and bridge supports on fire. The wood had been soaked so thoroughly by the heavy storms of the last several days, however, that the raiders couldn’t ignite the fire. Hearing the approaching Texas, they returned to the General. The two locomotives ran like lion and gazelle on through Dalton and Tunnel Hill.

Running low on water for its boiler and wood for fire, the General lost steam pressure as she ran up the grade through the highlands of Northwest Georgia. Her speed fell. Finally she slowed to a halt, two miles north of Ringgold. Just 18 miles short of Chattanooga, Andrews and his raiders abandoned the locomotive and fled into the surrounding countryside.

Within two weeks, all of Andrews’ raiders were hunted down and captured. Courts martial were held for the men in different groups. On June 7 Andrews their leader was hanged first as a spy in Atlanta. On June 18, seven others were convicted and also hanged, their bodies tossed together into a grave.

The others languished for months in a fetid, airless Atlanta prison. Fearing they were next, the remaining raiders attempted a mass escape. Eight succeeded, fleeing in pairs into the countryside. Helped by slaves and Union sympathizers, all the men eventually made their way back to Union territory and safety. Alf Wilson and Mark Wood, the two who reached the Somerset, ate just five meals while sneaking barefoot only at night, some 350 miles south through the rebel heartlands of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. They floated many nights down the rushing Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers, smashing through unseen rocky gorges and toppling over mill dams.

Word of the daring raid and the dramatic locomotive chase spread throughout the North and the South. Three days after the thwarted plot, Atlanta’s Southern Confederacy daily newspaper recognized the danger the raid posed to secessionist ambitions, writing, “The mind and heart sink back appalled at the bare contemplation of the consequences which would have followed the success of this one act. We doubt if the victory of Manassas or Corinth were worth as much to us as the frustration of this grand coup d’état.” 

A few weeks after being rescued by Crosman and the Somerset, Wilson went to Washington, D.C., intent on rejoining his regiment. Learning of Wilson’s presence in the city, President Abraham Lincoln invited him to the White House. Wilson recalled the president “seemed perfectly familiar with all the details of our expedition—the cause of its failure, and the good results that would have arisen from its success.”

A few months later, in 1863, a report on the mission to Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, declared, “The expedition itself, in the daring of its conception, had the wildness of romance, while in the gigantic and overwhelming results which it sought, and was likely to accomplish, it was absolutely sublime.” Had the raiders succeeded in their mission, the report concluded, “The whole aspect of the war in the South and Southwest would have been at once changed.” Stanton tapped Wilson and other soldiers in the raid as the first recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s newly created highest award for military valor. (Andrews and other civilians were not eligible for the honor.)

The story of the Great Locomotive Chase continues to touch the popular imagination 155 years later. After the war ended, several participants—Union and Confederate—wrote accounts of the events. The former enemies even held reunions before large audiences, Northern and Southern, the last taking place in 1906. Buster Keaton’s silent classic The General turned the daring raid into a romantic slapstick adventure, with Keaton as Fuller furiously chasing down the stolen locomotive. A 1956 Disney movie starring Fess Parker as Andrews, The Great Locomotive Chase, sanitized the bitter and bloody national conflict. Several history books cover the subject, but Russell S. Bonds’ 2006 narrative history, Stealing the General, is the most comprehensive and readable I’ve found. My own account of the rise and fall of Atlanta, The Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta, narrates how that once tiny railroad terminus became the focus of Union military strategy in the Deep South, including the Andrews’ Raid.

The General remains the centerpiece of the Southern Museum in Kennesaw. In 2018, the Texas will stand proudly within its new home at the Atlanta History Center, next to the Cyclorama depicting the horrible battle Andrews and his daring men hoped would never prove necessary.