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Escape of the locomotive raiders November 18, 2009

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, history, railroads.
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The "General," April 12, 1862

I have been reading Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor by Russell Bonds (Westholme, 2008).  It is an account of the raid led by James J. Andrews on April 12, 1862, to capture a train on the Western & Atlantic Railroad in north Georgia and run it up to Chattanooga, burning bridges and damaging the line that was key to Confederate movements of supplies and troops.  The raiders hoped to coordinate with Union general Ormsby M. Mitchel as he moved his troops east with the aim of capturing Chattanooga: the destruction of the line would hinder the Confederates in their efforts to defend the town.

In a daring feat, the raiders did manage to capture the locomotive called the “General” and to run it up the line as far as Ringgold, Georgia—not far short of Chattanooga—before they used up all their fuel.  But the intrepid crew of the captured train, who’d been caught off guard when they got off the train for a breakfast stop, were determined to chase them down. They commandeered a series of locomotives and followed in hot pursuit.  When the “General” ran out of steam, the pursuers were just behind.  All of the raiders were captured.  Andrews was hanged, as were seven of the raiders who were convicted as spies.

It was in October, 1862, when the ones not yet hanged heard their turn could come next—and soon—that they decided to escape from their jail in Atlanta.  And this part of the story fascinates me even more than the locomotive chase itself.  In the day before they made their escape, they decided among themselves to form pairs, and they discussed the different possible routes.  They were hoping to connect with Union troops they believed to be as close as northern Alabama or east Tennessee, but in fact Union forces under the indecisive leadership of Don Carlos Buell had retreated, and the troops were no closer than Mississippi and Kentucky.

Imagine this: you are weak from your six-month imprisonment.  You have no map or compass, your clothes and shoes are tattered, you have no food, no weapons.  You are deep in hostile territory, and you can only guess at the location of the blue army.

The astonishing thing is that of the 14 raiders left at that point (two more had been captured who were part of the conspiracy but hadn’t actually been in the raid), eight of them—four pairs—managed to travel hundreds of miles and to reach Union lines.  And they went in several completely different directions, ending up in Corinth, Mississippi; Somerset and Lebanon, Kentucky; and all the way down at the mouth of the Apalachicola River.

Their journeys were entirely improvised.  They had no information.  They woke each morning wondering which way fortune would take them.

Porter and Wollam went west to Corinth, Mississippi.

Dorsey and Hawkins went north to Lebanon, Kentucky.

Brown and Knight went north to Somerset, Kentucky.

Wilson and Wood went south to the mouth of the Apalachicola River.

(Please go here for the continuation of the story)

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Comments»

1. Roon - November 24, 2009

Great story, Jenny. Let’s see more!

Jenny - November 24, 2009

Hi, Roon!
Glad you’re interested. I’ll be coming back to the raiders soon, after putting up a post about a recent hike.
By the way, you might be amused to know that the two Ruritania posts are still getting visits every day. I’m sure the interest is partly due to your lengthy and ingenious comments.


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