150 Years Ago This Week: The Great Locomotive Chase

April 1862

In the week following the Battle of Shiloh/Pittsburg Landing, Island No. 10 in the Mississippi River was finally overtaken by Federals under Maj. Gen. John Pope on April 7. Seven thousand Confederates, 25 artillery guns and a large quantity of military arms and supplies were taken.

On April 8, Brig. Gen. Henry Sibley’s Army of New Mexico, on its retreat southward along the Rio Grande from Santa Fe, engaged in a skirmish with Federals at Albuquerque. In Virginia, Gen. McClellan continued his siege at Yorktown; President Lincoln and his cabinet in Washington discussed Gen. McClellan’s inactivity there. The president was dismayed at the discrepancy between McClellan’s reports of the size of his army and those of Secretary of War Stanton.

The Confederate Senate in Richmond called for the first conscription of troops. Many Southerners opposed the move bitterly, saying it was an infringement of liberties, while others recognized the limited manpower in the military, and knew that armies had to be raised somehow.

At Savannah, Ga., Confederate-held Fort Pulaski, at the entrance to the harbor, was under attack by Federals under Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore. In the fort, Col. Charles Olmstead had 385 men and 48 guns. The masonry walls of the fort were no match for the Federal rifled guns with long and penetrating shells. The fort was taken on April 11, and Savannah as a Confederate port was closed.

Maj. Gen. David Hunter ordered that all slaves in and around Fort Pulaski be confiscated and declared free.  This was one of several such orders by Gen. Hunter which were overruled and rescinded by President Lincoln, who believed that it was well beyond the provenance of military commanders to free slaves.

At Big Shanty, Ga., two dozen Union volunteers sneaked behind Confederate lines in civilian clothes on April 12, cut the telegraph line and stole a locomotive called the General as its crew and the train’s passengers had stopped for breakfast. Their plan was to disrupt Confederate rail lines supplying Confederate troops in northwest Georgia.

Confederates mounted a pursuit using a second locomotive, Texas. The Great Locomotive Chase lasted most of the day until the General ran out of fuel near Ringgold and the raiders fled into the woods. All were soon caught, including James J. Andrews, their leader. Andrews and seven others were hanged; another eight escaped. All of the raiders were later to be the first awarded the Medal of Honor.

The California Column, with more than a thousand Federal troops under Col. James H. Carleton, left Southern California on April 13, on the march into Arizona and New Mexico, to engage and defeat the Confederate Army of New Mexico.

Federal troops evacuated Jacksonville, Fla., and there was a skirmish near Fernandina in the “small war” which plagued Florida. The U.S. Navy flotilla on the Chesapeake Bay carried out a reconnaissance on the Rappahannock River, and Gen. Sibley’s troops clashed with Federals at Peralta in the New Mexico Territory.

On April 16, President Davis approved an act of the Confederate Congress calling for conscription of every white male between the ages of 18 and 35 for three years’ military service. Initially there were no exemptions, but later several lists of exemptions were established. The same day, President Lincoln signed a bill ending slavery in the District of Columbia.

As the third week in April drew to a close, it was clear that a major Federal offensive was going to be launched from Ship Island, Miss., against New Orleans. A large Federal naval fleet under Adm. David Farragut, accompanied by a fleet of mortar boats commanded by David D. Porter, and transports loaded with troops of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, were gathering in the vicinity.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.