Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Civil War chase

Movies usually have happy endings. When I was a teenager, a friend of mine had a collection of 8 millimeter tapes (still the pre-video error) including a lengthy silent era film starring Buster Keaton, The General. It had a happy ending.

At the time I took the movie as it was and did not consider its historical basis. It was in fact loosely based on an actual event in 1862 during the Civil War. Sometimes it called the Great Locomotive Chase, and as is often the case, the true facts are more interesting than the movie, which was great for other reasons, all of them Buster. Two other film makers have recreated the great chase, but, according to accounts (I didn’t see them), none realistically.

One of the two heroes of this tale was James J. Andrews, a 33 year old spy who was assigned to the Army of the Ohio. His commanding officer, General Ormsby Mitchel, was trying to advance the Union’s lines to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and it seemed like a good idea to try and interrupt the Confederacy’s railway from Georgia.

Andrews, a native of Kentucky, was no novice as a spy, and had in fact made a number of trips into the South under the guise of a quinine salesman, as the South was in dire need of that drug to fight malaria. Not long before the raid, after a failed mission, he went to Atlanta where he was able to see and get copies of the railroad schedules. The plan was to steal a locomotive at a town called Big Shanty (now Kennesaw), Georgia and head for Chattanooga, burning bridges behind them as they went.

He suggested to General Mitchel that he and a crew of two dozen soldiers, dressed as civilians (which Andrews alone was) would make their way to Marietta, Georgia in small groups, where they would meet up under his command. In fact, the method they chose to get to Marietta, was to head to Chattanooga, and then take the very railroad they were intending to disrupt.

Nineteen of the twenty four men expected showed up, meeting up at a hotel. They were not all pleased, as the train ride revealed a large number of Confederate soldiers in that rail corridor, and a big military base at Big Shanty itself. They would have to steal the locomotive right literally under the Confederate army.

Andrews, who seems James Bondian cool in retrospect, and would calmly bluff his way past numerous suspicious Southerners, would not give up the plan, despite the likelihood of death, and even gave the typical speech that anyone who wanted out should leave, with no hard feelings. Naturally, no one did.

The scheme actually worked beautiful. Big Shanty was a scheduled stop, where everyone would get out to eat at the local hotel, including the train’s personnel. This was quite common in those days. When they did, Andrews and some of the men, two whom were engineers and one a fireman (meaning he would feed the fire, not put it out) went into the engine. The others jumped into a car and locked themselves in. Andrews stood with a foot on the step and waited until they all clambered on. The engineer, William Knight, set them off.

All this was actually done right in front of a Confederate soldier, with other troops moving about. But they moved to slowly, as frequently happens when a bold move is made, no matter how many guards there are. No one quite believes it until it is too late. After a brief problem, which almost stalled them and Knight rectified, off they went to the amazement of the real crew. The train had a name, later made immortal by Keaton: The General.

It so often seems to happen in warfare that one remarkable man will somehow come up against another equally remarkable one. To Andrew’s misfortune, the conductor of the Southern train was an indomitable soul by the name of William A. Fuller. Due to lack of a telegraph at Big Shanty, which was why it was selected by Andrews, he could not wire ahead to block off the train. Instead, Fuller and another man, without transportation started following the train tracks on foot. They weren’t crazy, as Fuller, familiar with the traffic going back and forth, was well aware that The General would eventually be stopped by congestion on the tracks. Except at stations, the trains were on single tracks, and there were trains due from the other direction.

Soon, the two men found a handrail and began moving faster along the track. At one point they were derailed at a spot where Andrews had stopped the train and broken up the tracks, sending the car and the two men flying. They were soon able to quickly right themselves and continue on.

Here’s where things started going awry for Andrews and the soldiers. The date of the raid was April 12, 1862. It was to coincide with General Mitchel’s own military attack on Chattanooga. Unfortunately, due to rain, the Army arrived late, and the confusion Andrews had counted upon did not occur. In fact, even the efforts of Mitchel, would have the opposite effect.

As The General moved along, Andrews would stop it every once in a while and tear up the tracks and telegraph wires. He also stole railroad ties for the fire and obtained water at scheduled stops, explaining always that he was in a hurry to bring powder to the front.

He also made a couple of mistakes, at least with twenty-twenty hindsight. At one station, another train was found, ready to go. Andrews could have easily disabled the train, but it would have given away his game, and he simply proceeded onwards. Not only was this a key mistake, but they also could not, in front of Southeners, stop and destroy a key bridge. Soon, they arrived at another station, where The General pulled over to a side rail as another train was due coming the other way, as Andrews knew from his schedule.

When the other train came, it had a signal up indicating it was being followed by yet another train. This meant that Andrews could not take off. He demanded to know what the hold up was, and was told that Mitchel was on the attack near Chattanooga (at Huntsville), and they were moving their things in his direction along the rail. This bode poorly for Andrews to complete his escape.

It got worse as Andrews had to wait until three trains passed before he could gain the right of way. He did not know yet how close his capture was.

A few miles out he stopped the train to rip up more tracks. While they were occupied doing this they heard a whistle behind them. They knew what it meant. Someone was pursuing them. They were right. It was Fuller. Arriving at the station where the train awaited that Andrews could have put out of commission (The Yonah), Fuller alerted some soldiers and took the train. When he got to last the next station, where the three trains that had blocked Andrews were, he simply skipped ahead to the last train and reversed it in pursuit.

Fleeing now, The General came to yet another station where a train had pulled over to the side. He learned that an express train was coming from the next station. Andrews gambled and won. He arrived at the next station nine miles away just as the express was pulling out. He had to persuade the conductor of that train to get out of the way.

In the meanwhile Fuller and his team came to where Andrew’s had torn up the track and had to stop. Again, unrelenting, they pursued on foot. Eventually they came up to the train from which Andrews had learned about the express train ahead. They were permitted to take the train, known as The Texas, and reversing, headed after The General.

The General’s delay waiting for the three trains to pass had taken so much time that even though temporarily stopped, Fuller still caught up. At this point, now past the express, Andrews had clear sailing to Chattanooga. Not wanting to take a chance, they stopped again to take out another rail.

While doing so they heard the whistle again and saw the steam from The Texas, close behind them. They were close enough to see well armed men on board. They jumped back on the train and fled again. Not having had the time to pull out a rail they instead tried the tactic of dropping cars along the track. It did no good. Fuller merely picked up the two separate cars and pushed them ahead.

Andrews stopped to take on more water and destroy more telegraph wires, and got away ahead of Fuller who dropped off the cars in his path at another station. Now, it became a real race as the two trains raced through the local towns, with Fuller keeping a steady whistle blowing, perhaps in frustration or to frighten Andrews. At some point he dropped off one of the men and told him to find a way to telegraph Chattanooga, which Mitchel had not captured. The message, which was only partially received said “My train was captured this a.m. at Big Shanty, evidently by Federal soldiers in disguise. They are making rapidly for Chattanooga, possibly with the idea of burning the railroad bridges in their rear. If I do not capture them in the meantime, see that they to not pass Chattanooga.”

Now Andrews was, unbeknownst to him, in a pinch, as troops at Chattanooga were bracing to stop him. They needn’t had bothered. The General was going to run out of fuel, if it did not have time to pick more up.

In desperation, the men on The General dropped a rail which Fuller’s train merely bulled aside. Stopping now, right near a Confederate encampment, Andrews men set a car on fire and pushed it into the middle of a wood bridge hoping to set the whole thing on fire. As they got away, Fuller was approaching. Rain had started and retarded the fire. Fuller again was able to simply push the obstacle out of his way.

Time was running out for the Northerners. The General’s running out of fuel was imminent. The men got together to decide what to do. Two suggestions were made, fight it out with their revolvers, which seemed suicidal in the middle of the South, or, simply head for the Northern lines en masse. Andrews vetoed both and told the men to simply head North, but split up, every man to himself.

Knight, before he got off, set the train to running backwards, so that it would smash into the pursuers. But running out of fuel, it slowed down, and Fuller merely picked it up like the other cars. Realizing that it was empty, they began pursuing the raiders.

They caught most of them quickly, and the rest within a week or so. In June, Andrews, who had a fiancée waiting at home, actually managed to escape from jail, which we do not have an account of, but was recaptured the next day. He was hung a few days later with seven others, including the one other civilian.

Fourteen others were imprisoned in Atlanta and managed to escape by attacking their guards. Six were recaptured and later paroled. One of those recaptured, Private William Pittenger, 22 years old at the time, became a Reverend and lived until 1904. He published a book and an article, from which much of the material retold here comes from.

The men who returned to the North were treated as heroes, and many given the medal of honor. They were young men and some of them lived into the twentieth century, the last dying in 1923. General Mitchel died the year of the raid, but of yellow fever.

William Fuller lived a long time, until 1905. His grave marker says as follows: “On April 12, 1862, Captain Fuller pursued and after a race of 80 miles from Big Shanty Northward on the Western & Atlantic railroad, re-captured the historic war-engine General which had been seized by 22 Federal soldiers in disguise, thereby preventing the destruction of the bridges of the railroad and the consequent dismemberment of the Confederacy.”

After the raid, Fuller, was made captain of a special guard to protect the railway. In 1950, long after his death, his son accepted a special gold medal issued by Georgia in his honor.

In the obvious sense, Fuller won the contest. He lived and Andrews died. Perhaps the plan was foolish, as General Buell, no fan of Andrews, later said. Then again, Buell was soon forced to retire due to his great unpopularity. Or maybe it was just a dangerous mission, and Andrews should get full credit for his fearlessness and cool under fire. Had the rain not kept the car they put on fire and the bridge from going up too, or had they had a few minutes more at any spot to destroy the tracks, it might have turned out differently. Perhaps Fuller was successful because of his perseverance and would have been under any circumstances. It is somewhat like debating who was greater, Grant or Lee. Grant won, but you can find many Lee men to this day.

The General and The Texas both still exist, the former kept on display at Kennessaw, Georgia, after a long stay in Chattanooga, and the latter, in Atlanta.

I have never understood why movie makers need to change historical events, or great literature like The Three Musketeers or The Last of the Mohicans in making movies, when the original stories need or admit of no improvement. Time for a new, and accurate film.

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .