Jefferson Cain's long fingers easily wrapped around The General's throttle, slowly pushing it forward until the wheels of the 57-ton locomotive bit the iron rails that ran from Atlanta to Chattanooga. A gentle shudder and the train began to move away from the platform of the station. In the cars of this combined frieght-passenger train conductor William Fuller was checking with his passengers. As he moved through the cars he noticed a familiar face - Anthony Murphy - the mustachioed Irish foreman of Locomotive Power for theWestern and Atlantic Railroad. He was on his way to the yard atAllatoona Pass to pick up a part. As the train left the station a cool Spring rain pelted the windows. It was 4:15am.Crossing the Chattahoochee River at Bolton, then passing through Vinings, The General arrived at the depot in Marietta about 5:00am. At the time the wooden depot sat across the street from the Fletcher House (now Kennesaw House) on the outskirts of Marietta Square. 20 men, most out of uniform Union soldiers, boarded the train after carefully purchasing tickets in smaller groups (2 men were left behind). Their secret journey south had been to look for a unit in which to enlist from Fleming County, Kentucky, or so they said.
Leading these northern spies was James Andrews, an enigmatic Kentuckian who had made a name for himself by smuggling much needed quinine through the Union lines for Confederate soldiers and citizens. Also with him were three experienced engineers, William Knight, Wilson Brown and John Wilson. It was a short ride to the depot at Big Shanty, where the train would stop for breakfast. It was here that the General would begin its incredable ride into history.
Andrews choice of Big Shanty as the spot to steal The General might seem unusual at first. More than 300 recruits and officers called Camp McDonald home, training for fighting further north, and Camp McDonald surrounded the Big Shanty depot. A large, mobile force with arms and munitions could quickly bring an end to Andrews' plan, but it was what Big Shanty didn't have -- a telegraph -- that attracted Andrews. Without a telegraph someone would have a hard ride to Marietta to get the word out, giving him enough time to make his escape and cut the telegraph wires north of Big Shanty.
Lacey Hotel was an outpost for travelers between Atlanta and Chattanooga. There was little else in the area, besides the Lacey and the depot. "20 minutes for breakfast" came Fuller's call as the train slowed for Big Shanty. Once The General had stopped, the crew and some of the passengers headed to the hotel less than a block from the depot. A few minutes later Andrews signaled his men to take over the train.
Once the raiders had been given the signal they unhitched the passenger cars...they would be of no use to the raiders... while William Knight jumped into the cab, throwing the throttle wide open, lurching the train forward, slowly gaining speed. Quickly the train left the station but almost immediately began losing power. Knight brought the train to a stop while he corrected the problem, then returned to the cab and once again began to move.
"Someone...has stolen our train," William Fuller said with amazement as his train pulled away from the depot at Big Shanty. The W&ARR men stood up and quickly began the chase, Fuller leading the way with Jeff Cain close behind. Anthony Murphy paused briefly to get a man to ride to the depot in Marietta and tell them what happened. He then followed his friends up the track towards a work area known as Moon's Station. A small cavalry unit from Camp McDonald prepared to make chase.
Between Big Shanty and Moon's Station the General stopped twice, once for the mechanical problem and once to cut the telegraph wires to prevent the stations further north from receiving word from Marietta that a train had been stolen. At Moon's Station Andrews stopped and acquired a crowbar to destroy the rails between Atlanta and Chattanooga, for that was their mission. Union forces in Bridgeport, Alabama were advancing towards Chattanooga and the raiders job was to destroy bridges and tear up track to prevent reinforcements coming from Atlanta.
Andrews planned some aspects of the adventure very well. The General was an express train, so once past Big Shanty the number of stops was limited. This meant giving fewer explanations to curious stationmasters and a faster ride to Chattanooga. After the town of Allatoona he raised a rail so that any locomotive following them would be halted "in its tracks."
As Andrews and his men crossed the Etowah River they spotted the short-line locomotive The Yonah, used by Major Cooper's Iron Foundry. The presence of the engine and men meant that the raiders could not destroy the bridge they had just crossed, and a major target of the raid. Knight commented that they should return and destroy the locomotive to prevent men from following them. Andrews said no. As it turned out later, that was a big mistake.
Conductor William Fuller, a captain in the Georgia militia, was the first member of The General's crew to make it to Moon's Station. A brief discussion with foreman Jackson Bond secured a "pole car" for Fuller, who returned down the track to pick up his friends, engineer Cain and mechanic Murphy. They were joined by Mr. Bond for help in moving the car.
From Big Shanty to the Etowah River the grade of the Western and Atlantic Railroad is downhill -- an unusual 14-mile stretch. It would make no difference to a locomotive but on the pole car it was an important factor. In Acworth the car slowed to pick up two more men. Fuller's men did not slow at Allatoona and did not see the track raised by the raiders. The car flew into the air when it hit the empty space, throwing the pursuers into a ditch but damaging only their pride.
For the raiders Kingston would be a major hurdle. There was a switching station here that coordinated trains from Rome, Chattanooga and Atlanta and even under normal conditions it was difficult. But these were bad times for the Confederacy -- General
When the pursuers arrived in Kingston Andrews had just left. Fuller's veteran eyes quickly sized up the situation in Kingston. Getting the Yonah through would be impossible but the mail train to Rome, the William R. Smith, was in position and fired up with a full head of steam. Oliver Harbin and his crew, including brakeman Joe Lassiter, a free black, did not hesitate to help Fuller. The William R. Smith then started north to Adairsville.
Andrews and the raiders knew they had to block a possible pursuit. The men in Kingston had be very inquisitive and one even refused to switch Andrews to the correct track at one point. Things were going so bad at the stop that the men in the boxcar had been told to be ready to fight. The General was halted while a rail was removed and ties thrown into the boxcar. Then, from the south came the plaintiff cry of a locomotive whistle. No northbound train should be following them but one was...and not that far behind. Off sped The General.
Having learned a lesson at Allatoona, Fuller chose to ride in the cab to check for problems on the track. This time he saw the missing rail and had Olly Harbin stop the locomotive in time. Once again the pursuit was on foot, only Jeff Cain decided to return to Kingston. Fuller doggedly continued with the others but now Andrews and his raiders were gaining precious time with every minute that went by.
The General arrived in Adairsville quickly but now the questions were mounting. Out of touch with Atlanta for hours and now being unable to reach Kingston, the stationmaster and workers were understandably suspicious of the crew of The General. They barraged Andrews with questions, but the Kentuckian convinced them of his mission and he found out that Mitchel indeed was moving on Chattanooga. As the southbound freight train "The Texas" cleared the depot's platform Andrews and the raiders headed north.
By the time Peter Bracken, engineer of "The Texas," saw William Fuller from the cab of his locomotive Fuller and his pursuers had added a couple of miles on foot. Fuller, gun in hand, stood on the track in front of Bracken. The engineer recognized his fellow worker and stopped. A quick explanation and the Texas was off after picking up the men with Fuller. There had been no place nor time to turn around, so The Texas returned to Adairsville in reverse, where they dumped the freight cars off on a siding.
William Knight had been carefully following the rules of the railroad, but once north of Adairsville Andrews told him to open up the throttle on The General. There would be ample opportunity to see any oncoming smoke plumes in the short, rolling hills in the Great Valley of northwest Georgia. Near Calhoun they narrowly avoided colliding with The Catoosa, and after a brief exchange of words the spies continued north.
After passing The Catoosa on a siding, The Texas was now in hot pursuit of the raiders with The Catoosabehind it, both chasing The General in reverse! North of Calhoun the Southern pursuers and the Northern spies first spotted each other. Andrews and his men set fire to the car at the end of the train and dropped it in the middle of the covered railroad bridge over the Oostanaula River just south of Resaca.
Smoke billowed out of both ends of the bridge but Captain Fuller and his men entered the structure and pushed the car out. The bridge had not been in peril from Andrews actions because of the steady rain. AsThe General moved north through the town of Resaca the raiders tried to block The Texas by dropping railroad ties. This effort failed to slow Fuller and his men.
The diligent pursuit of Captain Fuller was beginning to pay off. Andrews had exhausted his wood supply trying to set the car on fire to burn the Oostanaula Bridge and water was in short supply. A quick attempt to replenish the thirsty locomotive and refill her tender was made at Green's (for wood) and Tilton (for water). For the raiders Dalton was the next major obstacle.
Edward Henderson began a southbound journey from Dalton when the telegraph to Atlanta went out. Henderson was surprised when The General steamed by at full speed with a crew he did not know. WhenThe Texas approached the 18-year old telegrapher just north of Calhoun, Fuller told Bracken slow to pick the boy up, then wrote out a message to General Ledbetter, commanding the troops in Chattanooga. In DaltonThe Texas slowed to dropped the young man off. He ran to the telegraph office and sent the following message:
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.
Before the entire message got through Andrews Raiders, fearful of an attempt to warn the Rebel forces in Chattanooga, cut the wire north of Dalton, but enough of the message was received in Chattanooga that General Danville Ledbetter sent troops south along the Western and Atlantic right-of-way to halt the engine by force if necessary. It was not. With wood and water running out, William Knight and James Andrews knew the end was near. Then, just after the Ringgold Depot a small valve blew and the locomotive quickly lost power.
The General came to a halt about 2 miles north of Ringgold Gap. Andrews and his men fled. They moved west for two reasons: it was towards the closet pocket of Union control in the South and the rugged mountains south of Chattanooga could cover their movements and help prevent cavalry patrols from finding them. In spite of their plans a massive search netted all the participants, including the two men left on the platform in Marietta.
On May 2, 1862, The General returned to Atlanta. In early June, Andrews escaped from the Swims Jail in Chattanooga. He would be hung on June 6, 1862. 6 other men, tried and convicted of being spies, were hung in Atlanta. 6 men would escape prison and 8 would be exchanged for prisoners. All the men except Andrews, who never enlisted, were awarded the Medal of Honor.