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155th Anniversary of the Great Locomotive Chase

155th Anniversary of the Great Locomotive Chase

Today, we commemorate the anniversary of a legendary event in our nation’s history: The Great Locomotive Chase.

The Civil War

On this day in 1862, exactly one year after the Civil War began at Fort Sumter, Union civilian agent James Andrews led a raid deep into Confederate territory to destroy the railroad line between Atlanta and Chattanooga. The Western & Atlantic Railroad (W&A) line was targeted because it was a critical lifeline for the western Confederate armies. Just as railroads today serve a vital role in our nation’s transportation network, so did the W&A. Destroying the railroad line would prevent the Confederacy from re-supplying and holding Chattanooga, a strategic location against advancing Union forces.

The General at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History.

Remarkably, while the Raiders were trying to destroy the railroad line, they still adhered to railroad operating rules to prevent train collisions and to allow southbound trains to pass.  This delay, however, allowed the General’s original crew, led by conductor William Fuller, and others to doggedly chase the Raiders.  Fuller chased the General using three different locomotives, while replacing track destroyed by the Raiders. The pursuers even ran one locomotive, the Texas, backward during the final leg of the chase in a remarkable feat of railroading.  After a chase of more than 80 miles, the Raiders exhausted their supplies of water and wood to power the General and were forced to abandon the train 18 miles from Chattanooga.  All 20 raiders and two associates were apprehended within two weeks.

Although ultimately unsuccessful, the raid caused alarm in the South, and Confederate forces considered the Raiders to be unlawful combatants.  Eight of the Raiders, including Andrews, were executed as spies in Atlanta in June 1862.  Eight others escaped from Confederate prison in October 1862, while six others were returned to the Union following a prisoner exchange in March 1863.  But the historic journey of Andrews’ Raiders would not end there. 

The Medals of Honor

Shortly after their arrival in Washington, D.C., the six released prisoners met with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who recognized the men for their courage in a way that none had been honored before.  On March 25, 1863, those Raiders were the first to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, with the very first presented to Private Jacob Parrott, who had endured particularly harsh treatment as a prisoner.  The men were then escorted to the White House for an audience with President Abraham Lincoln.  A total of 19 participants in Andrews’ Raid, all from Ohio, ultimately received the Medal of Honor.  Although he led the raid, Andrews was ineligible for the award because he was a civilian. 

Neither James Andrews nor his raid or Raiders are forgotten.  The General is on public display in Kennesaw, Ga., at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History. The State of Ohio continues to honor its volunteers who conducted the raid. In fact, they held an event in 2012 to honor the 150th anniversary of the chase.  And March 25 is commemorated as National Medal of Honor Day.  The Federal Railroad Administration is therefore proud to recognize the events that began 155 years ago during a routine railroad stop outside Atlanta and the sacrifices made to bring peace and prosperity to our nation.

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