Escapes, by John Buchan


The Railway Raid in Georgia

THE time is the spring of 1862, the second year of the American Civil War. The scene is the State of Tennessee; the Confederates are concentrating at Corinth, Mississippi, and the two Northern forces of Grant and Buell are moving on that spot. A month before Grant had won the important action of Fort Donelson. A month later he was to win the battle of Shiloh.

In Buell’s army was General O. M. Mitchel, commanding the Northern forces in Middle Tennessee and protecting Nashville with a force of some 17,000 men. Now, President Lincoln especially desired that Eastern Tennessee should be cleared of the enemy, since it was one of the latter’s chief supply grounds. General Mitchel believed that Corinth would soon fall, and that the next movement would be eastward towards Chattanooga, that key-point on the Tennessee river which was later the scene of one of Grant’s most famous victories. He thought, rightly, that if he could press into the enemy’s country and occupy strategical points ahead, he would pave the way for Grant’s march eastward.

On the 8th of April the Northerners won the battle of Pittsburg Landing. Next day Mitchel marched south from Shelbyville into Alabama and seized Huntsville. From there he sent a detachment westward to open up communication with the Northern troops at Pittsburg Landing. On the same day he himself took another detachment seventy miles by rail and arrived without difficulty within thirty miles of Chattanooga, two hours from the key position in the West, There, however, he stuck fast, and the capture of Chattanooga was delayed for two years. He failed because another plan had failed, the plan which is the subject of this story.

Chattanooga at the moment was practically without a garrison; but in Georgia there were ample Confederate troops, and the Georgia State Railway and the East Tennessee Railway could bring them up in great force at short notice. If Mitchel was to seize and hold Chattanooga these lines must be cut for long enough to enable him to consolidate his position. Now, in his army was a certain spy of the name of James J. Andrews, one of these daring adventurers who, in a civil war of volunteers, many of whom were as yet without regular uniforms, could perform exploits impossible in a normal campaign. Andrews conceived the idea of a raid on the Confederate railways, and Mitchel approved. Before he left Shelbyville he authorized Andrews to take twenty-four men, enter the enemy’s territory and burn the bridges on the vital railways.

The men were selected from three Ohio regiments, and told only that they were required for secret and dangerous service. They exchanged their uniforms for the ordinary dress worn by civilians in the South, and carried no arms except revolvers. On the 7th of April, by the roadside a mile east of Shelbyville, in the late evening, they met Andrews, who told them his plan. In small detachments of three or four they were to go east into the Cumberland Mountains and work southward, and on the evening of the third day rendezvous with Andrews at Marietta in Georgia, more than 200 miles distant. If any one asked them questions they were to declare that they were Kentuckians going to join the Confederate army.

The weather was bad and the travellers were much delayed by swollen streams. This led Andrews to believe that Mitchel’s column would also be delayed, so he sent secret word to the different groups that the attempt would be postponed one day, from Friday to Saturday, 12th April. Of the little party one lost his road and never arrived at the destination; two reached Marietta, but missed the rendezvous; and two were captured and forced into the Confederate army. Twenty, however, early on the morning of Saturday, 12th April, met in Andrews’ room at the Marietta Hotel.

They had travelled from Chattanooga as ordinary passengers on the Georgia State Railway. The sight of that railway impressed them with the difficulties of their task, for it was crowded with trains and soldiers. In order to do their work they must capture an engine, but the station where the capture was to be made, Big Shanty, had recently been made a Confederate camp. Their job was, therefore, to seize an engine in a camp with soldiers all round them, to run it from one to two hundred miles through enemy country, and to dodge or overpower any trains they might meet, no small undertaking for a score of men. Some were in favour of abandoning the enterprise, but Andrews stuck stubbornly to his purpose. He gave his final instructions, and the twenty proceeded to the ticket office to purchase tickets for different stations on the line to Chattanooga.

For eight miles they rode in comfort as passengers, till at Big Shanty they saw the Confederate tents in the misty morning. It had been a drizzling April dawn, and a steady rain was now beginning. The train stopped at Big Shanty for breakfast, and this gave them their chance, for the conductor, the engine-driver, and most of the passengers descended for their meal, leaving the train unguarded.

Among the twenty were men who understood the stoking and driving of railway engines, and it did not take long to uncouple three empty vans, the locomotive, and the tender. Brown and Knight, the two engineers, and the fireman climbed into the cab, and the rest clambered into the rear goods van no easy job, for the cars stood on a high bank. A sentry with rifle in hand stood not a dozen feet from the engine, watching the whole proceedings, but no move was made until it was too late. Andrews gave the signal, the wheels slipped at first on the greasy metals, and then the train moved forward; and before the uproar in the station behind began it had gathered speed.

The first and worst problem was the passing of trains coming from the north. There were two trains on the time-table which, had to be passed at certain stations, and there was also a local goods train not scheduled, which might be anywhere. Andrews hoped to avoid the danger of collision by running according to the schedule of the train he had captured, until the goods train was passed, and then to increase to topmost speed till he reached the Oostenaula and Chickamauga bridges, burn them and pass on through Chattanooga to Mitchel as he moved up from Huntsville. He hoped to reach his chief early in the afternoon,

It was a perfectly feasible plan, and it would almost certainly have been carried out but for that fatal day’s delay. On Friday, the day originally fixed, all the trains had been up to time, and the weather had been good; but on that Saturday, as luck would have it, the whole railway was in disorder, every train was late, and two “ extras “ had been put on, of which the leader had no notion. Had he known this, even a man of his audacity would scarcely have started, and the world would have been the poorer by the loss of a stirring tale.

The party had to make frequent stops, particularly between stations, to tear up the track, cut the telegraph wires, and load on sleepers to be used for bridge burning; and also at wayside stations to take on wood and water. At the latter Andrews bluffed the officials by telling them that he was one of General Beauregard’s officers, and was running a powder train through to that General at Corinth. Unfortunately he had no proper instruments for pulling up the rails, and it was important to keep to the schedule of the captured train, so they tore light-heartedly past towns and villages, trusting to luck, and exhilarated by the successful start of their wild adventure.

At a station called Etowah they found the “ Yonah,” an old engine owned by an iron company, standing with steam up; but their mind was all on the local goods train, so they left it untouched. Thirty miles on from Big Shanty they reached Kingston, where a branch line entered from the town of Rome. On the branch a train was waiting for the mail that is to say, their captured train and Andrews learned that the local goods was expected immediately; so he ran on to a side track, and waited for it.

Presently it arrived, and to the consternation of the little party it carried a red flag to show that another train was close behind it. Andrews marched boldly across to its conductor and asked what was the meaning of the railway being blocked in this fashion when he had orders to take the powder straight through to General Beauregard? In reply he was told that Mitchel had captured Huntsville and was said to be marching on Chattanooga, and that everything was being cleared out of that town. Andrews ordered him to move his train down the line out of the way, and he obeyed.

It seemed an eternity to the party before the “ extra “ arrived, and to their dismay when it turned up they saw that it bore another red flag. The reason given was that it was too heavy for one engine and had therefore to be made up into two sections. So began another anxious wait. The little band Andrews with the engine-drivers and fireman in the cab, and the rest taking the place of Beauregard’s ammunition in the goods vans had to preserve composure as best they could, with three trains clustered round them and every passenger in the three extremely curious about the mysterious powder train into which the morning mail had been transformed. For one hour and five minutes they waited at Kingston, the men in the goods vans being warned by Andrews to be ready to fight in case of need. He himself kept close to the station in case some mischief-maker should send an inquiring telegram down the line. At long last came the second half of the local, and as soon as it passed the end of their side track the adventurers moved on.

But the alarm had now been raised behind them. From the midst of the confusion at Big Shanty two men set out on foot along the track to make some effort to capture the Northerners. They were railwayman one the conductor of the train, W. A. Fuller, and the other a foreman of the Atlanta railway machine shops, called Anthony Murphy. They found a hand-car and pushed forward on it till they reached Etowah, where they realized that the line had been cut by pitching headforemost down the embankment into a ditch. A little thing like this did not dismay them, and at Etowah they found the “ Yonah,” the iron company’s old locomotive which, as we know, was standing with steam up. They got on board, filled it up with soldiers who happened to be near, and started off at full speed for Kingston, where they were convinced they would catch the filibusters. The “ Yonah “ actually entered Kingston station four minutes after Andrews had started, and was of course immediately confronted with the three long trains facing the wrong way. It would have taken too long to move them, so the “ Yonah “ was abandoned, and Murphy uncoupled the engine and one coach of the Rome train, and continued the chase. It was now any one’s race. Andrews and his merry men were only a few minutes ahead.

Four miles north from Kingston the little party again stopped and cut the wires. They started to take up a rail and were pulling at the loosened end when to their consternation they heard behind them the whistle of an engine. They managed to break the rail and then clambered in and moved on. At the next station, Adairsville, they found a mixed goods and passenger train waiting, and learned that there was an express on the road. It was a crazy risk to take, but they dared not delay, so they started at a terrific speed for the next station, Calhoun, hoping to reach it before the express, which was late, could arrive.

They did the nine miles to Calhoun in less than nine minutes, and saw in front of them the express just starting. Hearing their whistle it backed, and enabled them to take a side track, but it stopped in such a manner as to close the other end of the switch. There stood the two trains side by side almost touching each other. Naturally questions were asked, and Andrews was hard put to it to explain. He told the powder story, and demanded in the name of General Beauregard that the other train should at once let him pass. With some difficulty its conductor was persuaded, and moved forward.

They were saved by the broken rail. The pursuit saw it in time and reversed their engine. Leaving the soldiers behind, Puller and Murphy ran along the track till they met the train which Andrews had passed at Adairsville. They made it back in pursuit, and at Adairsville dropped the coaches and continued with only the locomotive and tender, both loaded with a further complement of armed soldiers. They thought that their quarry was safe at Calhoun, but they reached that place a minute or two after Andrews had moved out.

Everything now depended on whether the band of twenty could make another gap in the track in time, for if they could the road was clear before them to Chattanooga. A few minutes ahead of them was the Oostenaula bridge, and if that could be burned they would soon be safe in Mitchel’s camp.

But the mischief was that they had no proper tools, and the taking up of the rails was terribly slow. Once again they heard the whistle of a locomotive behind them and saw their pursuer with armed men aboard. Another minute would have removed the rail, and their victory would have been assured; but they could do nothing more than bend it, and were compelled to hurry back to their engine.

Now began one of the most astounding hunts on record. At all costs Andrews must gain a little time so as to set fire to the Oostenaula bridge; so he dropped first one car and then another. The pursuing engine, however, simply picked them up and pushed them ahead of it. There was no time to do anything at the bridge. Over its high trestles they tore, with Fuller and his soldiers almost within rifle shot.

Soon it appeared that there was no difference in the pace of the two engines. The Confederates could not overtake the filibusters, and Fuller’s policy was therefore to keep close behind so as to prevent Andrews damaging the track and taking on — food and water. Both engines were driven to their last decimal of power, and Andrews succeeded in keeping his distance. But he was constantly delayed, for he was obliged to cut the telegraph wires after every station he passed, in order that an alarm might not be sent ahead; and he could not stop long enough to tear up rails.

All that man could do in the way of obstruction he did, for at all costs he must gain enough ground to destroy the Chickamauga bridges. He broke off the end of their last goods van and dropped it and various sleepers behind him, and this sufficiently checked the pursuit to enable him on two occasions to take in wood and water. More than once his party almost succeeded in lifting a rail, but each lime Fuller got within rifle range before the work was completed. Through it all it rained, a steady even-down deluge. The day before had been clear, with a high wind, and a fire would have been quick to start, but on that Saturday, to burn a bridge would take time and much fuel. On went the chase, mile after mile, past little forgotten stations and quiet villages, round perilous curves, and over culverts and embankments which had never before known such speed. Hope revived whenever the enemy was lost sight of behind a curve, but whenever the line straightened the smoke appeared again in the distance, and on their ears fell the ominous scream of his whistle. To the men, strung to a desperate tension, every minute seemed an hour. If the Northerners’ courage was superb, so also was the pursuit’s. Several times Puller only escaped wreck by a hairbreadth. At one point a rail placed across the track at a curve was not seen until the train was upon it, when, said Fuller, “ the engine seemed to bounce altogether off the track> and to alight again on the rails by a miracle.” A few of the soldiers lost their nerve and would have given up the chase, but the stubborn resolution of their leader constrained them.

Some of Andrews’ party now proposed that they should turn and ambush the enemy, getting into close quarters so that their revolvers would be a match for his guns. This plan would probably have succeeded, but Andrews still hoped to gain sufficient ground to achieve his main purpose; and he feared, too, that the country ahead might have been warned by a telegram sent round to Chattanooga by way of Richmond. He thought his only chance was to stake everything on speed. Close to the town of Dalton he stopped again to cut wires and confuse the track. A Confederate regiment was encamped a hundred yards away, but, assuming that the train was part of the normal traffic, the men scarcely lifted their eyes to look at it. Fuller had written a telegram to Chattanooga and dropped a man with orders to send it. Part of the telegram got through before the wires were cut and created a panic in that town. Meantime, Andrews’ supply of fuel was getting very low, and it was clear that unless he could delay the pursuit long enough to take in more, his journey would soon come to an end.

Beyond Dalton the adventurers made their last efforts to take up a rail, but, as they had no tools except an iron bar, the coming of the enemy compelled them to desist. Beyond that was a long tunnel which they made no attempt to damage. Andrews saw that the situation was getting desperate, and he played his last card.

He increased speed so that he gained some considerable distance. Then the side and end boards of the last goods van were broken up, fuel was piled upon it, and fire brought from the engine. A long covered bridge lay a little ahead, and by the time they reached it the van was fairly on fire. It was uncoupled in the middle of the bridge, and they awaited the issue. If this device was successful there was sufficient steam in their boiler to carry them to the nest woodyard.

But the device did not succeed. Before the bridge had caught fire Puller was upon them. He dashed right through the smoke and drove the burning car before him to the next side track.

Left with very little fuel and with no obstructions to drop on the track, the position of the adventurers was now hopeless. In a few minutes their engine would come to a standstill. Their only chance was to leave it and escape. The wisest plan would probably have been to desert the train in a body, move northward through the mountains by tracks which could not be followed by cavalry, and where there were no telegraphs. But Andrews thought that they should separate. He ordered the men to jump from the engine one by one and disperse in the woods. So ended in failure a most gallant enterprise.

Melancholy is the conclusion of the tale. Ignorant of the country and far from their friends, the fugitives were easily hunted down. Several were captured the same day, and all but two within the week. As the adventurers had been in civil dress inside the enemy’s lines they were regarded as spies, court-martialed, and Andrews and seven others condemned and executed. The advance of the Northern forces prevented the trial of the rest, and of the remainder, eight succeeded in making their escape from Atlanta in broad daylight, and ultimately reaching the North. The others, who also made the attempt, were recaptured and held captive till March 1863, when they were exchanged for Confederate prisoners.

I know of few stories where the enterprise was at once so audacious and so feasible, where success turned upon such an infinity of delicate chances, and where it was missed by so slender a margin.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32