"The great changes of command and commanders here has well nigh overburdened me, but I hope yet to mark the enemy before I break down."
— General Braxton Bragg, writing to his wife from Tupelo, Mississippi, July, 22, 1862
The mail train from Atlanta to Chattttanooga rolled into Big Shanty, a whistlestop five miles north of Marietta, Georgia, and eased to a halt. In the misty, early-morning rain of Saturday, April 12, 1862, the crew and some of the passengers sauntered away to eat breakfast. The gleaming locomotive stood puffing quietly on the main line of the Western &apm; Atlantic Railroad, its cab emblazoned with the name General in foot-high letters. The train seemed safe enough. Armed sentries were nearby, and the station was surrounded by the massed white tents of a Confederate army camp.
But 20 of the passengers did not go to breakfast. Instead, they disembarked and ambled toward the head of the train with a casual air that aroused no suspicion. Swiftly, four of the men uncoupled the General, its tender and three empty boxcars from the rest of the train and climbed aboard the locomotive, while the other men boarded the third boxcar.
The guards were unaware that anything was amiss until the General suddenly belched steam and, with connecting rods pounding and the big drive wheels spinning and shrieking on the rails, jerked the cars forward. Before the sentries could react, the train gathered speed and clattered away.
It did not take long for the astonished Confederates to realize that the train thieves were Federal irregulars bent on railroad sabotage — and operating within 25 miles of Atlanta. The raiders were, in fact, attached to a Federal army force advancing eastward through Tennessee with no less an objective than the capture of Chattanooga, one of the vital rail junctions of the Confederacy.
With the exception of their leader, a spy named James J. Andrews, and one other civilian volunteer, the audacious men were soldiers from Brigadier General Ormsby M. Mitchel's division of the Army of the Ohio. In February, that army, commanded by Major General Don Carlos Buell, had descended from Kentucky to occupy Nashville. In March, Mitchel's command of about 8,000 men had been detached to secure central Tennessee, while the rest of the army marched west under Buell to join General Ulysses S. Grant's advance on Corinth, Mississippi — by way of the killing ground around Shiloh Church.
Even though he was caught temporarily in a backwater of the war, Mitchel was not a man to idle away his time. The slender, wavy-haired West Pointer had left the Army in 1832 to teach mathematics and had made a name for himself writing and lecturing about astronomy. Commissioned a brigadier general at the outbreak of the War, he had proved to be a temperamental officer given to self-promotion. In too many communications sent to too many people, he tended to overemphasize his burdens and his achievements.
General Buell, who would be involved in bitter arguments with Mitchel, and about him, for years, never did figure out quite what to make of his subordinate. "In spite of his peculiarities," Buell wrote after the War, "General Mitchel was a valuable officer. He was not insubordinate, but was restless in ordinary service and ambitious in an ostentatious way."
Once his forces of occupation had taken a firm grip on central Tennessee, Mitchel found himself with time on his hands and a great deal of discretion. He discovered that as long as he sent reports to General Buell, he was free to take any action. It was not long before Mitchel had hatched a bold plot to capture Chattanooga in East Tennessee, 113 miles southeast of Nashville and just above the Georgia line.
Mountainous East Tennessee was a hotbed of pro-Union sentiment. President Abraham Lincoln had expressed intense interest in freeing Union sympathizers there from Confederate domination. More important still, Mitchel understood fully that the war west of the Appalachians was being fought as much for the railroads as for territory and that Chattanooga was vital to control of the rails.
Whoever possessed the railroads in the west held a key to the struggle being waged east of the Appalachians. To sustain its campaign north of Richmond, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was dependent on a constant flow of food, munitions, manufactures and manpower from the south and west. Two of the major arteries of that flow — the Western & Atlantic Railroad from Atlanta and the Memphis &apm; Charleston from the Mississippi River at Memphis and points west — met just east of Chattanooga, at Cleveland, Tennessee; there the two combined to form the East Tennessee &apm; Georgia Railroad, which wound northeastward through the Allegheny Mountains to Virginia. "To take and hold the railroad at or east of Cleveland," President Lincoln would say, "I think fully as important as the taking and holding of Richmond."
Mitchel was gambling that the Federal armies to his west would have little trouble occupying their first objective on the Memphis &apm; Charleston Railroad — Corinth, Mississippi, just south of Shiloh — and that they would then turn eastward toward Chattanooga. And so in April of 1862, he set out on his self-appointed mission to lead the way to Chattanooga — and garner the glory.
Thus began a vicious, sprawling struggle between opposing armies that for the next eight months would seesaw through eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, spilling over at times into Alabama and Georgia. The Federal advance toward Chattanooga would be countered by Confederate incursions north toward Lexington and Louisville. And just as the proximity of Mitchel's Federal raiders had alarmed Atlanta in April, so in September the approach of a Confederate army would terrify the citizens of Cincinnati, Ohio, more than 350 miles to the north. In October, the enemy armies would collide in battle near Perryville, Kentucky. And the end of the year would find them back in Tennessee, locked in bloody combat on the banks of Stones River.
On April 8, the day after the Federals won the field at Shiloh, General Mitchel moved from his base near Nashville south to seize Huntsville, Alabama, a town on the Memphis &apm; Charleston line. From there he intended to push eastward and, if all went well, to take lightly defended Chattanooga and hold it until the main army arrived. The spy Andrews and his raiders had already been dispatched on a mission to destroy bridges and track along the Western &apm; Atlantic so that reinforcements could not be rushed to Chattanooga from the south.
The wood-burning locomotive General is displayed at a reunion of Federal veterans in Columbus, Ohio, after the War. Volunteers from three Ohio regiments served in the raiding party that stole the General from under the noses of the Confederates in April 1862.
On April 11, the day before Andrews and his men roared out of Big Shanty with the stolen train, Mitchel took Huntsville completely by surprise, seizing 200 prisoners, 15 locomotives and a large number of cars. Then Mitchel used his captured rolling stock to occupy key positions along 70 miles of the railroad in both directions, west to Decatur and east to Stevenson, just 35 miles from Chattanooga. Never one to understate his accomplishments, Mitchel reported to Buell's headquarters, "We have at length succeeded in cutting the great artery of railroad intercommunication between the Southern States."
Thus far, Mitchel had performed aggressively and well — and for his efforts was promoted to Major General. But then things began to go disastrously wrong, especially for Andrews' raiders. In their flight northward from Big Shanty, the raiders had been pursued so hotly that there had been no time to tear up track or burn bridges. Finally, 18 miles south of Chattanooga, they ran out of fuel, abandoned the locomotive and ran for their lives. All of them were captured. Andrews and seven others were hanged as spies; eight of the men later escaped and made their way back to Federal territory; and the rest were eventually exchanged.
Although he was only a few days' march from Chattanooga, Mitchel did not dare advance as long as the Western &apm; Atlantic line remained open to enemy traffic. His pleas to Buell for reinforcements were ignored; Buell's troops and other Federal forces under Major General Henry W. Halleck, now overall commander in the west, had been committed to an advance southward from the Shiloh battlefield to the railroad town of Corinth. This glacial passage of 15 miles began at the end of April and consumed the entire month of May; by the time the Federals arrived, the outnumbered Confederates had abandoned Corinth and retreated 50 miles south to Tupelo, Mississippi.
As he waited for reinforcements, Mitchel had his hands full trying to maintain his hold on the stretch of railroad he had seized. There were few Confederate troops in northern Alabama, but the thinly spread Federals were continually attacked by bands of guerrillas, who were supported and concealed by sympathetic residents of the countryside.
Mitchel's men reacted harshly to the assaults by the elusive irregulars. While Colonel John Beatty of the 3rd Ohio Infantry was moving his regiment to Huntsville during May, his train was ambushed near the town of Paint Rock, and several of his men were wounded. "I had the train stopped," Beatty wrote in his diary, "and, taking a file of soldiers, returned to the village. The telegraph line had been cut, and the wire was lying in the street. Calling the citizens together, I said to them that this bushwhacking must cease. Hereafter every time the telegraph wire was cut we would burn a house; every time a train was fired upon we should hang a man; and we would continue to do this until every house was burned and every man was hanged between Decatur and Bridgeport. I then set fire to the town, took three citizens with me, and proceeded to Huntsville."
Drastic as it was, Beatty's reaction was no less violent than that of another of Mitchel's officers, Colonel John Basil Turchin. In reprisal for a guerrilla attack on men of his 19th Illinois in Athens, Alabama, the Russian-born Turchin turned the town over to the regiment, declaring, "I shut mine eyes for one hour." In that time the vengeful troops stripped the residents of watches, jewelry and silver, and raped a number of slave girls. The citizens of Athens later filed 45 affidavits claiming that Turchin's men had stolen more than $50,000 worth of goods.
Protected by a detachment of infantry (left), men of the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics labor in the July heat to repair a railroad bridge across the Elk River in southern Tennessee. The bridge, which had been burned by the Confederates, was part of the tenuous life line between the Federal army at Decatur, Alabama, and its supply base in Nashville, about 100 miles to the north.
Despite the harassment by partisans, Mitchel tried to extend his occupation of the railroad — with mixed results. On April 17 a brigade commanded by Colonel Turchin headed east from Decatur and, without opposition, advanced 40 more miles down the railroad toward Chattanooga. But on hearing a rumor that Confederate forces were threatening from the direction of Corinth, Mitchel ordered his men back to Decatur, and there he had them burn behind them the railroad bridge over the Tennessee River.
Then, 12 days later, Mitchel led an expedition eastward beyond Stevenson and drove a small Confederate force away from Bridgeport; there he captured the railroad bridge over the Tennessee and burned a smaller bridge beyond the town. Then Mitchel proceeded to advertise his achievements. He had already begun sending reports directly to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and on May 1 he had stirring news for Washington: "This campaign is now ended, and I can now occupy Huntsville in perfect security, while all of Alabama north of the Tennessee floats no flag but that of the Union." Stanton was pleased, and he was not alone in his approval. The Secretary sent word to Mitchel that his "spirited operations afford great satisfaction to the President."
Doubtless Mitchel's lively reports provided a refreshing contrast to news of Halleck's plodding march from Shiloh to Corinth. Yet trouble lay in store for the boastful Mitchel. When the movement to Corinth finally concluded, Halleck, as expected, dispatched General Buell and his troops eastward to take Chattanooga. And Buell would be much less satisfied than Stanton or Lincoln with the accomplishments of his subordinate.