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Escape of the locomotive raiders (Part 2) November 30, 2009

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, history.
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In November 1862 Brown and Knight went through the Nantahala mountains

This is a continuation of my post about the Andrews raiders, who hijacked a locomotive in April 1862 with the intent of disrupting Confederate movements of supplies and troops.  They were all captured; eight were hanged; another eight escaped from prison in Atlanta (in four pairs) and made remarkable journeys to freedom.  Photographs of the raiders can be found here.

Although the four pairs of escapees went in very different directions, their journeys were remarkably similar in distance, all in the range of 300 to 350 miles.  But some took much longer than others to cover that distance.  Wilson and Wood, who went south to the Gulf of Mexico, reached the safety of the U.S.S. Somerset in just 22 days, while Brown and Knight, who went north through North Carolina, took 47 days to find Union troops.  Dorsey and Hawkins took a route not so different from that of Brown and Knight, but travelled over lower mountains and reached Union lines in 33 days.  Porter and Wollam went west and floated down the Tennessee River for the second half of their trip, which overall took exactly the same amount of time as that of Dorsey and Hawkins.

Travel by river was faster.  Wilson and Wood used the Chattahoochee River for most of their trip: even though it seemed counterintuitive to go south, that turned out to be the smartest move any of the escapees made.  Wilson was the one who pushed for that strategy, and the English-born Wood went along with it.  They averaged more than 16 miles a day, even though they were starving and could travel only by night.

Porter and Wollam hit the Tennessee below Chattanooga—it would have been nearly impossible to float past that troop-heavy town—and spent 11 days travelling twice the distance they had covered in the previous 22.

Dorsey and Hawkins travelled through the mountains close to where the westernmost protrusion of North Carolina meets the Tennessee state line.  Those mountains are in the 2000-3000′ elevation range.  They continued north through the Cumberlands and crossed the Sequatchie before reaching safety in Kentucky.

It is the journey of Brown and Knight that most intrigues me.  They crossed the heart of the Nantahala Mountains, where those peaks rise to 4000 and 5000 feet.  It appears they took a route not far west of the current path of the Appalachian Trail, passing somewhere near Andrews and Robbinsville, NC, and getting around the worst of the Great Smoky Mountains near Tapoco.  They averaged less than seven miles a day.

After fending off pursuing bloodhounds with stones, they faded into the North Georgia wilderness and ate chestnuts and roots, stealing green corn from the fields of small farmers.  They crossed the upper Chattahoochee,  had a stroke of luck and captured a wild pig, then crossed the Hiawassee.  Then deep into the Nantahalas they went, fighting

Laurel thicket in the Nantahalas

through thickets of laurel, briars, and rhododendron. As they passed through a deep river valley—perhaps the Little Tennessee—they met two men “armed to the teeth,” but the two parties passed each other in silence.

As they got further north, they received aid from Unionist families, who hid them in caves and supplied them with torches and quilts.  They were passed from house to house, finally reaching Union troops in Somerset, Kentucky.

The pair of Brown and Knight stood out from the others also in the friction that developed between the two in later years.  Brown published a series of stories about fighting Confederate bushwhackers with clubs and knives, fending off giant snakes, and of himself rescuing Knight from being burned at the stake.  Unfortunately, this exciting version of the journey doesn’t mesh with either Knight’s account or Brown’s own earlier unpublished letters.

It was John Porter who had the best description of the moment when the four pairs of escapees broke out of jail in Atlanta.  “Everybody was wild with excitement, women screaming, men running, bells ringing, drums beating, dogs barking, in fact a regular stampede.”*  But as they all ran into the woods, eventually the bells of the town stopped ringing, and then they all had to deal with the silence of the wilderness.

For each pair, the moment of setting eyes on Union troops—or a Union ship anchored in the Gulf—was highly emotional.  Daniel Allen Dorsey wrote, “I would like to tell how the old Star Spangled Banner looked to me as we saw it floating grandly in the evening breeze at Lebanon on that day—the 18th of November, 1862—but language fails me.”*

*Quoted in Russell S. Banks, Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor (Westholme, 2008).  The details of places in Brown and Knight’s journey are extrapolations made by me in looking at Banks’ map.


1. Brian - December 3, 2009

Fascinating, I never knew that part of the story. Somewhere I once saw a showing of “The General”, the famous silent film portrayal. Probably not historically accurate in the least but quite a show.

Jenny - December 4, 2009

If you google “Buster Keaton General,” you’ll find various YouTube clips from it. Really funny—and the amazing thing is, he did all the stunts himself. No double, no special effects.

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