Exactly 153 years ago, a band of Union soldiers and two civilians launched an audacious raid to strike deep into Confederate territory, the success or failure of which hinged on an unconventional plan hatched by a civilian smuggler. The April 12, 1862, Andrews’ Raid, also known as The Great Locomotive Chase, is notable as a wild sequence of events where the military’s first-ever Medal of Honor recipients distinguished themselves.

That spring, a Tennessee civilian named James Andrews proposed a plan to help Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel capture Chattanooga, Tennessee, a railroad hub and valuable foothold in the South. Little is known about the intelligent and charismatic Andrews, who worked as a music teacher, house painter, and in other odd jobs, according to HowStuffWorks’ podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class. He claimed loyalty to the North, but also profited from a smuggling operation in the South.

Illustration of James Andrews who led the Andrews' Raid in 1862.

Military Awards photo

Andrews’ plan, for which he hoped to be paid, was to sever the vital railroad line from Atlanta to Chattanooga, thus preventing Confederate reinforcements from coming to Chattanooga’s defense.

Andrews chose one civilian and 22 volunteers from Ohio infantry regiments with experience working on trains to sneak with him into Marietta, Georgia, and hijack a Confederate train, sabotaging the rails, telegraph lines, and bridges behind them as they drove it northward to Chattanooga. There, they would link up with Mitchel’s forces advancing on the small city from the west.

Sneaking into Georgia proved difficult enough. The raiders disguised themselves in civilian clothes, knowing they would be liable to be hung as spies. They traveled south in small groups with the cover story that they were loyal Confederates traveling from the border state of Kentucky to Atlanta to enlist. The major problem with this story was the obvious fact that there were plenty of places to enlist without having to travel all the way to Atlanta.

Miraculously, all but two of the raiders made it to Marietta without blowing their cover. One unlucky pair ran into suspicious Confederate guards in Tennessee, who drafted them into Confederate service on the spot. Ironically, they were sent to defend Chattanooga against their former comrades.

On the morning of April 12, the raiders boarded the Confederate locomotive General as it left the station headed north. But once again, their number had dwindled; two of them overslept in their hotel rooms and missed the train.

When the train stopped at present-day Kennesaw, Georgia, to allow passengers to eat and refresh themselves, the raiders made their move. The train’s 25-year-old conductor William Fuller, a devout Confederate, watched in horror from his breakfast table as the men separated the engine, tender, and three box cars from the rest of the train and pulled away. With no telegraph cables at this station and no horse in the vicinity, Fuller took off running in pursuit, accompanied by a foreman and engineer.

For the next several hours, Fuller kept up his pursuit, at various points commandeering a pushcar, a switching engine, two locomotives, or running on his own two feet. Andrews, for his part, told confused passengers and railroad personnel at various stations he passed that the train was carrying priority munitions for Confederate Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutan Beauregard. He also attached a red flag to his train, a signal used for an emergency or to inform passengers waiting at stations that another train was following behind.

The most crucial moment of the raid occurred when a raider asked a suspicious railroad worker for a crowbar at a station a few miles into the chase where the train stopped — and the worker simply handed it over. This was the one tool the raiders needed to sabotage the track behind them, and they presumably didn’t bring one themselves on their journey to Georgia because they didn’t want to attract attention.

On foot, Fuller eventually came upon the locomotive Texas, which was powerful enough to keep up with the General, but was facing south instead of north. Without a turntable to change its direction, Fuller resumed his chase by running the Texas in reverse. Pushing it to its 19th century limit, a whopping 60 miles per hour, Fuller blew the train’s whistle almost non-stop to warn trains ahead to use railroad sidings.

Union Gen. Mitchel’s encroachment on Chattanooga had caused Confederate forces there to evacuate materials south from the city. That movement had delayed Andrews and his raiders at a busy railroad station, but they were forced to cooperate to maintain their cover.

Later, when Fuller and the Texas came into view of the General, the raiders decoupled the two box cars in the hopes of blocking their pursuers. But since the Texas happened to be traveling in reverse, Fuller could easily just slow down, link up with the boxcars, and keep going.

To make matters worse, the General no longer had enough time to adequately refuel, nor could it afford to stop long enough to destroy crucial bridges and railway behind it. In their haste, the raiders also left a telegraph line at one station uncut. Fuller, who had picked up a telegraph clerk earlier in the chase, dropped him off at this station to spread word of the raid. As a result, a Confederate garrison in Chattanooga sent troops southward to capture the raiders.

After seven hours and 87 miles, just 18 miles south of Chattanooga, the General ran out of fuel and the raiders scattered on foot. All were captured sooner or later and most were transported back to Atlanta on the same locomotive they had hijacked. Eight, including Andrews, were tried and hung as unlawful combatants, according to a New York Times account of the raid.

The rest were imprisoned in Atlanta, where ten of the raiders broke out in October 1862. Two were recaptured, but six found their way back to the Union by heading northward. Heading north might seem like the obvious direction, but not to the two raiders who escaped 400 miles southward along the Chattahoochee River even faster, and then paddled to Union blockade ships off the Florida coast.

Jacob Parrott was a Union Army soldier and first individual to ever be awarded the Medal of Honor.

Military Awards photo

The remaining six prisoners were eventually given back to the Union in a March 1863 prisoner exchange. Although the raid was a failure, both sides celebrated their respective participants as heroes. Eventually, nearly all of the non-civilian raiders were awarded the Medal of Honor, which Congress had just created in July 1862. One of the youngest raiders, 19-year-old Pvt. Jacob Parrott from Fairfield County, Ohio, was the first of a batch of six raiders to receive that new medal on March 25, 1863, making him the first U.S. soldier ever to be presented with it.

Parrott’s citation reads:

“One of the 19 of 22 men (including 2 civilians) who, by direction of Gen. Mitchell (or Buell) penetrated nearly 200 miles south into enemy territory and captured a railroad train at Big Shanty, Ga., in an attempt to destroy the bridges and tracks between Chattanooga and Atlanta.”

Parrott was severely beaten during interrogation after his capture but remained silent, according to the Military Times. He was imprisoned in Atlanta until December 1862, then transferred to the Castle Thunder military prison in Richmond, Virginia, an institution infamous for its brutal treatment of prisoners under Confederate Commandant George Alexander, according to Frances Casstevens’ book about that prison. After the war, Parrott’s only son married the daughter of fellow raider Wilson Brown.

Since then, more than 3,400 American men, and one woman, have received the Medal of Honor. Many are remembered for familiar, but no less heroic, deeds like diving on a grenade or capturing an enemy flag. But the wild action that resulted in the first Medal of Honor is truly without parallel.