On April 7, 1862, two dozen men met near Shelbyville, Tennessee, to hatch one of the most audacious schemes of the Civil War: slip deep behind Confederate lines into Georgia, steal a locomotive, and run it north to Chattanooga, destroying track along the way to cut a vital Southern supply line.
“Boys, we’re going into danger,” Union spy James Andrews warned, “but for results that can be tremendous.”
The raiders, mostly Union soldiers in civilian clothes, made their way to Marietta, Georgia, where they boarded a northbound train pulled by the locomotive the General. When it stopped at Big Shanty, where the crew got off for breakfast, the raiders uncoupled the passenger cars and steamed away pulling three empty boxcars. The General’s astonished conductor and two others sprinted after them. The Great Locomotive Chase was on.
Andrews’s raiders chugged north, stopping every once in a while to tear up track and cut telegraph wires. The pursuers kept on their tail, first on foot, then on a handcart, then an engine. When they met torn-up track or obstructions, they ran ahead and jumped onto another engine. Running the locomotive Texas backward, they caught up with the General. Andrews tried uncoupling boxcars and throwing rail ties onto the tracks to stop the Texas, but 87 miles into the chase, the General ran out of fuel.
“Every man for himself!” Andrews ordered, and the raiders scattered. Within a week, they’d all been captured. Several, including Andrews, were hanged as spies. The rest eventually escaped or were exchanged for Confederate prisoners.
In March 1863, six of the raiders met with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who explained that Congress had created a new medal to honor valor. “Your party shall have the first,” he said as he pinned one onto Pvt. Jacob Parrott – the first-ever recipient of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration.