Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales, Vol I: American by Charles Morris
Historical Tales, Vol I: American by  Charles Morris

Stealing a Locomotive

On a fine day in April, 1862, a passenger-train drew out from Marietta, Georgia, bound north. Those were not days of abundant passenger travel in the South, except for those who wore the butternut uniform and carried muskets, but this train was well filled, and at Marietta a score of men in civilian dress had boarded the cars. Soldierly-looking fellows these were too, not the kind that were likely to escape long the clutch of the Confederate conscription.

Eight miles north of Marietta the train stopped at the station of Big Shanty, with the welcome announcement of "Ten minutes for breakfast." Out from the train, like bees from the hive, swarmed the hungry passengers, and made their way with all speed to the lunch-counter, followed more deliberately by conductor, engineer, and brakesmen. The demands of the lunch-counter are of universal potency; few have the hardihood to resist them; that particular train was emptied in the first of its ten minutes of grace. Yet breakfast did not seem to appeal to all upon the train. The Marietta group of civilians left the train with the others, but instead of seeking the refreshment-room, turned their steps towards the locomotive. No one noticed them, though there was a Confederate camp hard by the station, well filled with raw recruits, and hardly a dozen steps from the engine a sentinel steadily walked his beat, rifle on shoulder.

One of the men climbed into the engine. The sentinel paid no heed to him. Another slipped in between two cars, and pulled out a coupling-pin. The sentinel failed to observe him. A group of others climbed quickly into an open box-car. The sentinel looked at them, and walked serenely on. The last man of the party now strode rapidly up the platform, nodded to the one in the locomotive, and swung himself lightly into the cab. The sentinel turned at the end of his beat and walked back, just beginning to wonder what all this meant. Meanwhile famine was being rapidly appeased at the lunch-counter within, and the not very luxurious display of food was vanishing like a field of wheat before an army of locusts.

Suddenly the sharp report of a rifle rung with warning sound through the air. The drowsy tenants of the camp sprang to their feet. The conductor hurried, out to the platform. He had heard something besides the rifle-shot,—the grind of wheels on the track,—and his eyes opened widely in alarm and astonishment as he saw that the train was broken in two, and half of it running away. The passenger-cars stood where he had left them. The locomotive, with three box-cars, was flying rapidly up the track. The sentinel, roused to a sense of the situation only when he saw the train in actual flight, had somewhat late given the alarm.

The conductor's eyes opened very wide. The engine, under a full head of steam, was driving up the road. The locomotive had been stolen! Out from the refreshment-room poured passengers and trainmen, filled with surprise and chagrin. What did it mean? What was to be done? There was no other engine within miles. How should these daring thieves ever be overtaken? Their capture seemed a forlorn hope.

The conductor, wild with alarm and dreading reprimand, started up the track on foot, running as fast as his legs could carry him. A railroad mechanic named Murphy kept him company. To one with a love of humor it would have been an amusing sight to see two men on foot chasing a locomotive, but just then Conductor Fuller was not troubled about the opinion of men of humor; his one thought was to overtake his runaway locomotive, and he would have crawled after it if no better way appeared.

Fortune comes to him who pursues her, not to him who waits her coming. The brace of locomotive chasers had not run down their strength before they were lucky enough to spy a hand-car, standing beside the track. Here was a gleam of hope. In a minute or two they had lifted it upon the rails. Springing within it, they applied themselves to the levers, and away they went at a more promising rate of speed.

For a mile or two all went on swimmingly. Then sudden disaster came. The car struck a broken rail and was hurled headlong from the track, sending its occupants flying into the muddy roadside ditch. This was enough to discourage anybody with less go in him than Conductor Fuller. But in a moment he was on his feet, trying his limbs. No bones were broken. A mud-bath was the full measure of his misfortune. Murphy was equally sound. The car was none the worse. With scarce a minute's delay they sprang to it, righted it, and with some strong tugging lifted it upon the track. With very few minutes' delay they were away again, somewhat more cautiously than before, and sharply on the lookout for further gifts of broken rails from the runaways ahead.

Leaving the pair of pursuers to their seemingly hopeless task, we must return to the score of locomotive pirates. These men who had done such strange work at Big Shanty were by no means what they seemed. They were clad in the butternut gray and the slouch hats of the Confederacy, but their ordinary attire was the blue uniform of the Union army. They were, in truth, a party of daring scouts, who had stealthily made their way south in disguise, their purpose being to steal a train, burn the bridges behind them as they fled, and thus make useless for a time the only railroad by which the Confederate authorities could send troops to Chattanooga, then threatened by the Union forces under General Mitchel.

They had been remarkably successful, as we have seen, at the beginning of their enterprise. Making their way, by devious routes, to Marietta, they had gathered at that place, boarded a train, and started north. The rush of passengers and trainmen into the refreshment-room at Big Shanty had been calculated upon. The presence of a Confederate camp at that out-of-the-way station had not been. It might have proved fatal to their enterprise but for the stolid stupidity of the sentinel. But that peril had been met and passed. They were safely away. Exhilaration filled their souls. All was safe behind; all seemed safe ahead.

True, there was one peril close at hand. Beside the track ran that slender wire, a resting-place, it seemed, for passing birds. In that outstretching wire their most imminent danger lurked. Fast as they might go, it could flash the news of their exploit a thousand-fold faster. The flight of the lightning news-bearer must be stopped. The train was halted a mile or two from the town, the pole climbed, the wire cut. Danger from this source was at an end. Halting long enough to tear up the rail to whose absence Conductor Fuller owed his somersault, they sprang to their places again and the runaway train sped blithely on.

Several times they stopped for wood and water. When any questions were asked they were answered by the companion of the engineer, James J. Andrews by name, a Union spy by profession, the originator of and leader in this daring enterprise.

"I am taking a train-load of powder to General Beauregard," was his stereotyped answer, as he pointed to the closed box-cars behind him, within one of which lay concealed the bulk of his confederates.

For some time they went swimmingly on, without delay or difficulty. Yet trouble was in the air, ill-fortune awaiting them in front, pursuing them from behind. They had, by the fatality of unlucky chance, chosen the wrong day for their work. Yesterday they would have found a clear track; to-day the road ahead was blocked with trains, hurrying swiftly southward.

At Kingston, thirty miles from Big Shanty, this trouble came upon them in a rush. A local train was to pass at that point. Andrews was well aware of this, and drew his train upon the siding to let it pass, expecting when it had gone to find the road clear to Chattanooga. The train came in on time, halted, and on its last car was seen waving the red danger-flag, the railroad signal that another train was following close behind. Andrews looked at this with no friendly eyes.

"How comes it," he asked the conductor, somewhat sharply, "that the road is blocked in this manner, when I have orders to take this powder to Beauregard without delay?"

"Mitchel has taken Huntsville," answered the conductor. "They say he is coming to Chattanooga. We are getting everything out of there as quickly as we can."

This looked serious. How many trains might there be in the rear? A badly-blocked road meant ruin to their enterprise and possibly death to themselves. They waited with intense anxiety, each minute of delay seeming to stretch almost into an hour. The next train came. They watched it pass with hopeful eyes. Ah! upon its rear floated that fatal red flag, the crimson emblem of death, as it seemed to them.

The next train came. Still the red flag! Still hope deferred, danger coming near! An hour of frightful anxiety passed. It was torture to those upon the engine. It was agony to those in the box-car, who knew nothing of the cause of this frightful delay, and to whom life itself must have seemed to have stopped.

Andrews had to cast off every appearance of anxiety and to feign easy indifference, for the station people were showing somewhat too much curiosity about this train, whose crew were strangers, and concerning which the telegraph had sent them no advices. The practised spy was full of resources, but their searching questions taxed him for satisfying answers.

At length, after more than an hour's delay, the blockade was broken. A train passed destitute of the red flag. The relief was great. They had waited at that station like men with the hangman's rope upon their necks. Now the track to Chattanooga was clear and success seemed assured. The train began to move. It slowly gathered speed. Up went hope in the hearts of those upon the engine. New life flowed in the veins of those within the car as they heard the grinding sound on the rails beneath them, and felt the motion of their prison upon wheels.

Yet perilous possibilities were in their rear. Their delay at Kingston had been threateningly long. They must guard against pursuit. Stopping the train, and seizing their tools, they sprang out to tear up a rail. Suddenly, as they worked at this, a sound met their ears that almost caused them to drop their tools in dismay. It was the far-off bugle blast of a locomotive whistle sounding from the direction from which they had come.

The Confederates, then, were on their track! They had failed to distance pursuit! The delay at Kingston had given their enemies the needed time! Nervous with alarm, they worked like giants. The rail yielded slightly. It bent. A few minutes more and it would be torn from its fastenings. A few minutes! Not a minute could be spared for this vital work. For just then the whistle shrieked again, now close at hand, the rattle of wheels could be heard in the distance, and round a curve behind them came a locomotive speeding up the road with what seemed frantic haste, and filled with armed men, who shouted in triumph at sight of the dismayed fugitives. It was too late to finish their work. Nothing remained to the raiders but to spring to their engine and cars and fly for life.

We have seen the beginnings of this pursuit. We must now go back to trace the doings of the forlorn-hope of pursuers, Fuller and his companion. After their adventure with the broken rail, that brace of worthies pushed on in their hand-car till the station of Etowah was reached. Here, by good fortune for them, an engine stood with steam up, ready for the road. Fuller viewed it with eyes of hope. The game, he felt, was in his hands. For he knew, what the raiders had not known, that the road in advance would be blocked that day with special trains, and on a one-tracked road special trains are an impassable obstacle.

There were soldiers at Etowah. Fuller's story of the daring trick of the Yankees gave him plenty of volunteers. He filled the locomotive and its cab with eager allies, and drove on at the greatest speed of which his engine was capable, hoping to overtake the fugitives at Kingston. He reached that place; they were not there. Hurried questions taught him that they were barely gone, with very few minutes the start. Away he went again, sending his alarm whistle far down the road in his front.

The race was now one for life or death. Andrews and his men well knew what would be their fate if they were caught. They dared not stop and fight; their only arms were revolvers, and they were outnumbered by their armed foes. Their only hope lay in flight. Away they went; on came their shouting pursuers. Over the track thundered both locomotives at frightful speed. The partly-raised rail proved no obstacle to the pursuers. They were over it with a jolt and a jump, and away on the smooth track ahead.

If the fugitives could have halted long enough to tear up a rail or burn a bridge all might have been well; but that would take more minutes than they had to spare. A shrewd idea came into Andrews's fertile mind. The three box-cars behind him were a useless load. One of them might be usefully spared. The rear car of the train was uncoupled and left behind, with the hope that the pursuers might unwittingly dash into it and be wrecked. On they went, leaving a car standing on the track.

Fortunately for the Confederates, they saw the obstruction in time to prepare for it. Their engine was slowed up, and the car caught and pushed before it. Andrews tried the device a second time, another car being dropped. It was picked up by Fuller in the same manner as before. On reaching a siding at Resaca station, the Confederate engineer switched off these supernumerary cars, and pushed ahead again relieved of his load.

Not far beyond was a bridge which the raiders had intended to destroy. It could not be done. The pursuit was too sharp. They dashed on over its creaking planks, having time for nothing but headlong flight. The race was a remarkably even one, the engines proving to be closely matched in speed. Fuller, despite all his efforts, failed to overtake the fugitives, but he was resolved to push them so sharply that they would have no time to damage track or bridges, or take on wood or water. In the latter necessity Andrews got the better of him. His men knocked out the end of the one box-car they had left, and dropped the ties with which it was loaded one by one upon the track, delaying the pursuers sufficiently to enable them to take on some fresh fuel.

Onward again went the chase, mile after mile, over a rough track, at a frightful speed, the people along the route looking on with wondering eyes. It seemed marvellous that the engines could cling to those unevenly-laid rails. The escape of the pursuers, was, indeed, almost miraculous, for Andrews found time to stop just beyond a curve and lay a loose rail on the track, and Fuller's engine ran upon this at full speed. There came a terrific jolt; the engine seemed to leap into the air; but by a marvellous chance it lighted again on the rails and ran on unharmed. Had it missed the track not a man on it would have lived to tell the tale.

The position of the fugitives was now desperate. Some of them wished to leave the engine, reverse its valves, and send it back at full speed to meet the foe. Others suggested that they should face the enemy and fight for their lives. Andrews was not ready to accept either of these plans. He decided to go on and do the work for which they had set out, if possible. He knew the road. There was a covered bridge a few miles ahead. If they could burn this all would be well. He determined to try.

There was one box-car left. That might serve his purpose. He had his men pile wood on its floor, and light this with coals from the engine. In a minute it was burning. The draught made by the rushing train soon blew the fire into a roaring flame. By the time the bridge was reached the whole car was in a fierce blaze.

Andrews slowed up and uncoupled this blazing car on the bridge. He stopped the engine just beyond, and he and his companions watched it hopefully. The flames curled fiercely upward. Dense smoke poured out at each end of the covered bridge. Success seemed to be at length in their hands. But the flames failed to do their work. The roof of the bridge had been soaked by recent rains and resisted the blazing heat. The roaring flames were uselessly licking the wet timbers when the pursuing engine came dashing up. Fuller did not hesitate for a minute. He had the heart of a soldier in the frame of a conductor. Into the blinding smoke his engine was daringly driven, and in a minute it had caught the blazing car and was pushing it forward. A minute more and it rolled into the open air, and the bridge was saved. Its timbers had stubbornly refused to burn.

This ended the hopes of the fugitives. They had exhausted their means of checking pursuit. Their wood had been all consumed in this fruitless effort; their steam was rapidly going down; they had played their last card and lost the game. The men sprang from the slowed-up engine. The engineer reversed its valves and followed them. Into the fields they rushed and ran in all directions, their only hope being now in their own powers of flight. As they sped away the engines met, but without damage. The steam in the stolen engine had so fallen that it was incapable of doing harm. The other engine had been stopped, and the pursuers were springing agilely to the ground, and hurrying into the fields in hot chase.

Pursuit through field and forest was as keen and unrelenting as it had been over iron rails. The Union lines were not far distant, yet not a man of the fugitives succeeded in reaching them. The alarm spread with great rapidity; the whole surrounding country was up in pursuit; and before that day ended several of the daring raiders were prisoners in Confederate hands. The others buried themselves in woods and swamps, lived on roots and berries, and ventured from their hiding-places only at night. Yet they were hunted with unwearying persistence, and by the end of a week all but two had been captured. These two had so successfully eluded pursuit that they fancied themselves out of danger, and became somewhat careless in consequence. As a result, in a few days more they, too, fell into the hands of their foes.

A court-martial was convened. The attempt had been so daring, and so nearly successful, the injury intended so great, and the whole affair so threatening, that the Confederate military authorities could not think of leniency. Andrews and seven of his companions were condemned to death and hung. Their graves may be seen to-day in the Soldiers' Cemetery at Chattanooga, monuments to one of the most daring and reckless enterprises in the history of the Civil War. The others were imprisoned.

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