It didn’t change the course of world history, or even the Civil War. It didn’t even end in success. But the Andrews Raid, sometimes called the Great Locomotive Chase, was certainly notable in its daring and how it almost succeeded.
In 1862, with the blessing of Union military commanders, recruited 20 soldiers. Their mission: capture a Confederate locomotive called The General not far from Atlanta and take it all the way to safety behind Union lines in Tennessee. Along the way, they would tear up track, burn bridges, and do whatever they could to disrupt the Western & Atlantic Railroad Line from Atlanta to Chattanooga. That line was a key supply line for Confederate armies in Tennessee.
It almost worked. Chased by Confederate soldiers upon a train pulled by The Texas locomotive, the raiders made it to within 20 miles of Chattanooga when they had to abandon the locomotive and scatter. Some were caught and imprisoned. Eventually, the survivors were the first to receive the newly created Medal of Honor.
In 1953, author and historian Robert Ashley published The Stolen Train, a fictional account of the raid. Most of the characters were based on real persons, including the raid’s leader, James Andrews, and the train engineers Andrews had recruited. The primary fictional character was a young, 15-year-old soldier named Johnnie Adams, who has two jobs, lookout atop the train and scrambling up telegraph poles to cut wires.
That a 15-year-old boy is the main character explains who the audience is – squarely aimed at boys in the 10-13 age bracket. I was 10 when I first read it, and even though I thought of myself as a loyal Southerner, I was thrilled by the story. And it is a thrilling story.
Lest you think a 15-year-old would have been too young to enlist, read Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era by Frances Clark and Rebecca Jo Plant. They estimate that up to 10 percent of both the Union and Confederate armies were comprised of boys aged 15 and younger. Ashley’s book for boys is more factual than it might appear.
A considerable number of my classmates read The Stolen Train; it was offered by Scholastic Book Service and widely distributed across the country. Rereading it more than half a century later, it’s still a thrilling and riveting read. Despite its ultimate failure, the Andrews Raid made Southern military and railroad authorities look foolish at best and incompetent at worst. But in their defense, who would have expected a raid to begin deep with the Confederacy itself?
The paperback copy I have is from a fifth printing in 1971, with a cover price of 75 cents. I believe my copy in 1961 cost 50 cents. An Amazon Kindle edition was published in 2020 and lists for $1.99, while hardcover and paperback editions were published in 2012 and a mass market paperback edition in 1997.
It’s a good story, and especially for boys. It’s good to see that it’s available.
Top photograph: The General, on display a few hundred yards from where it was stolen in 1862, at the Southern Museum of the Civil War & Locomotive History, Kennesaw, Georgia.