O NE day, in April, 1862, a passenger train was on its way from Marietta, Georgia, bound North. At Marietta, about twenty men, in civilian clothes, had boarded the train, nobody paying any special attention to them. Yet these men were bent upon a desperate adventure.
Eight miles beyond Marietta the train stopped ten minutes for breakfast at the station, called Big Shanty. Everybody was hungry, and soon the passengers, the conductor, the engineer, and the fireman were in the breakfast room. The men who had boarded the train at Marietta quietly stole toward the locomotive, instead of following the others. No one paid any heed to their movements, in spite of the fact that a sentinel was walking his beat hardly a dozen steps away.
One of the men climbed into the cab of the locomotive, another slipped in between two cars and pulled out the coupling pin, while the others climbed into an empty box-car. Finally, the man in the cab laid his hand upon the throttle. The engine moved off with three box cars, leaving the passenger coaches standing on the tracks.
The sentinel, in alarm, fired off his gun, and the passengers ran out just in time to see the locomotive and cars disappearing in the distance. The engine had been stolen, and the men were on their way to the Federal lines. The conductor was so frightened by this disaster that he started on a run up the track, in frantic but useless haste to overtake the fugitives. The amazed passengers stood helplessly on the platform, quite powerless to do anything.
The men who had stolen the locomotive were a party of Northern scouts, who had made their way in disguise into the Southern lines, with the intention of stealing a train, burning the bridges behind them, and make useless the only railroad by which troops could be sent to Chattanooga to oppose the Union forces. Their enterprise had succeeded thus far, and they were rapidly making their way North.
Their only peril seemed to be the telegraph wires, by which information could be sent on ahead, and their flight arrested. Therefore, they stopped a few miles out of town while one of the men climbed a pole and cut the wires. Then they started again on their way. Occasionally, they had to stop for wood or water. The leader of the party, named Andrews, answered all questions by saying, "We are taking a train-load of powder to General Beauregard," and pointed to the box-cars as evidence of his statement.
At Kingston, thirty miles from Big Shanty, the party drew into a siding to let a local train go by. Andrews expected to move away after this, but, to his dismay, the train carried a red flag, showing that another train was just behind.
"How does it happen that this road is blocked when I have orders to hasten with this powder to General Beauregard?" he asked sharply of the conductor.
The conductor replied, "We have orders to move everything out of Chattanooga, and there are a number of trains on this track. You will have to wait, or run into a collision if you go on." This was bad news for the fugitives, for they had to wait an hour while train after train passed, carrying the red flag. At last, one went by without that signal, and Andrews and his men gladly leaped on board their own train and started wildly up the track, hoping to escape before they were suspected or pursued.
Yet they must guard against pursuit. Stopping their train, they sprang out to tear up the rails of the track in order to check any such danger. Hardly had they gotten out their tools before they heard, far down the track, the ominous whistle of a locomotive, evidently coming under full speed. Abandoning their intention, they sprang aboard in alarm and haste, and started ahead under full steam.
The race was on, for the conductor and engineer of the stolen train had secured another locomotive and cab, and, filling it with soldiers, had started in hot pursuit of the daring scouts. Andrews and his men well knew their fate if they were caught. They were not only robbers, but they were also spies, and capture meant death.
On went the fugitives at full speed; on came their pursuers hardly a mile behind! The locomotives were well matched, and thundered over the rails at a perilous rate. If the scouts could only stop long enough to tear up a rail, or even to pile up an obstruction of ties, all might be safe, but the pursuit was too hot, and there was no safety except in flight!
The race was on.
Andrews now uncoupled the rear box-car, hoping thus to wreck his pursuers by a collision. The Confederates saw the danger in time to slow down, pick up the car, and push it on ahead of their engine. Andrews tried the same trick a second time, but again the Confederates caught the box-car, and went on pushing two cars. On reaching a siding, at Resaca, the Confederate engineer pushed the two cars into a switch and left them there, while he started again in pursuit.
Not far beyond was a bridge, which Andrews hoped to destroy. Setting fire to the third box-car by means of oil, he stopped it mid-way on the bridge, and left it there in full blaze. The bridge was covered, but fortunately the roof was wet because of recent rains. Dense smoke poured from each end of the blazing car, but the Confederate engineer was not dismayed. Right into the smoke he ran, caught the box-car on his pilot, and pushed it off the bridge. In a few minutes, the flames were extinguished, and all danger was over.
The fugitives were now in a sad plight. Their wood and water were exhausted, and their steam was getting low. Their engine was slowing down, and escape was impossible. The men sprang from the engine, and rushed into the woods, scattering in every direction.
Soon, the Confederate engine arrived, and a hot pursuit of the fugitives began. The alarm spread rapidly, and the whole country was aroused. In a few hours several of the men were captured. The rest hid in the woods and swamps, and lived the best they could on roots and berries. But by the end of the week, all had been found, and put into prison. The leaders were executed "as spies and robbers."