During the American Civil War an important point in the Union’s advance upon Atlanta was the city of Chattanooga. In order to cut off its supplies, a civilian scout, by the name of James J. Andrews, proposed a daring plan. He and a team of volunteers would sneak behind enemy lines, capture a train and destroy the track along its way. They called themselves the Andrews’ Raiders and dressed as civilians travelled to the town of Big Shanty, Georgia. Trains often stopped for a break there, but the town was pretty small and did not have a telegraph station. To keep a low profile, nobody in the group carried any tools or weapons.
On the 12 April 1862 they stole the locomotive “The General” and set off for Chattanooga. As soon as the missing train was noticed, the conductor, William A. Fuller, gave chase. He started off on foot but soon found a handcar. During those days a trains average speed was only 24 kmh, so catching up wasn’t that unrealistic. On top of that, to avoid suspicion the Raiders kept to The General’s timetable and made frequent stops to cut telegraph lines and do damage to the tracks. Along the way they passed another locomotive, “The Yonah”, but decided they did not have the time to destroy it.
Later the same locomotive was commandeered by Fuller, who was slowly gaining. In Kingston he even switched to a more powerful engine, “The Smith”, however he had to abandon it, as he reached a destroyed section of tracks. A short time later he boarded his third train, “The Texas”, which was facing backwards. In order to create more obstacles Andrews and his crew uncoupled their train carts, but The Texas, moving backwards, simply added them to his composition.
Finally, just 30 km from Chattanooga, “The General” ran out of steam and The Raiders scattered. Some made it to freedom, but sadly Andrews and seven of his men were tried for espionage and sent to the gallows. All of the party’s members, except for Andrews, who was civilian, were later awarded the first ever Medal of Honor for their bravery.
“The General” survived the war is intact to this day. The locomotive can be seen on display at The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw (formally Big Shanty)