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History hides at the edges of every day life.

Despite its status as Civil War Icon via “Gone With the Wind”, Atlanta has a long standing reputation as a City more concerned with building the future than preserving its past.

Still, there are  fascinating bits history to be found in the city’s nooks and crannies, if you know where to look.

One such place is the corner of   Juniper and 3rd Street in Midtown Atlanta. There you will find a plaque  commemorating the execution James J. Andrews  by Confederate authorities for the crime of being a Union Spy.  Those raised in the 1950’s on a diet of  Walt Disney may recall the name. In 1955 Disney released “The Great Locomotive Chase” based on the case. Their Grandparents might have seen Buster Keaton’s silent film classic “The General” which was likewise drawn from Andrew’s actual war time exploits.  Few are aware that Andrews met his end in what is now one of Atlanta’s premier Intown residential neighborhoods.

Moonlight and magnolias not withstanding, the Civil War has been called the first “modern” war.  Andrew’s Raid is a good illustration of why. Andrews, a civilian scout employed by the Union Army, planned and led what could  be described as a commando operation over seventy years before the British would popularize the term and tactic during World War II.

Andrews is said to have been an“enigmatic” figure. Aged about 33 at the time of the raid, he hailed from Kentucky (a slave state, though remaining with the Union) and is described as six feet tall, weighing about 185 pounds with a clear complexion, gray eyes, thick black hair, and a curly  beard. He was engaged to Elizabeth Layton of Flemingsburg, Kentucky. Prior to the raid Confederate authorities had known him as a Contraband merchant who smuggled supplies through Union lines to the Confederacy.

Conceived as part of a larger Union strategy to capture Chattanooga, the storyline  of “The Great Locomotive Chase” rivals such cinematic war tales as “The Guns of Navarone” or the “Dirty Dozen”.   In April of 1862, Andrews and twenty  Union Soldiers, who had infiltrated the South disguised as civilians, made rendezvous in Marietta. There, they boarded a train pulled by a locomotive called The General. At a breakfast stop in Big Shanty (now Kennesaw), they seized the Engine along with three box cars and headed north. Their goal was to cut telegraph lines, rip up rails and burn every bridge between Big Shanty and Chattanooga before linking up with Union forces advancing from Huntsville Ala.  A plan as audacious as any dreamed up by a Hollywood screen writer. An entire army’s campaign dependent on 22 men cutting the enemy’s main supply line.

The raid failed, due in large part to the tenacity of The General’s crew.  Led by  Conductor William Fuller, they  pursued Andrews, first on foot, then by handcar and finally by commandeered locomotive. Fuller harried the Raiders until they ran out of firewood north of  Ringold Gap and abandoned The General. Andrews and his men were all captured within days. They were  imprisoned in Chattanooga where Andrews was quickly Court Martialed and sentenced to death.  Seven other raiders later received the same sentence. The nearness of  Union Forces prompted  Confederate Authorities to send the condemned south.  Andrews and the other condemned men were hurriedly shipped to Atlanta over the very rails they’d intended to destroy.

Upon arrival in Atlanta the prisoners were taken to the Fulton County Jail. For Andrews it was a short stay. Within the hour he was bundled into a wagon and taken to the present day intersection of Juniper and 3rd Streets, at that time a wooded area. There, on the afternoon of  June 7th, 1862, he was executed by hanging and buried in an unmarked grave.  According to contemporary accounts, he was composed save only for a slight tremor as the noose was put around his neck.  

On June 18th, Andrews was followed by the 7 condemned prisoners who were hanged en mass at what is now the corner of  Park  St. and Memorial Drive near Oakland Cemetery. They were buried on the spot in an unmarked mass grave.  Several of the condemned were posthumously  among the first  recipients of  the Congressional Medal of  Honor.  Not Andrews though. As a civilian he was not eligible for the honor.

Perhaps inspired by the fate of Andrews and their comrades, the remaining 14  Raiders staged a daring jail break. Eight of them made good their escape, reaching Union territory.  The final six gained freedom through a later prisoner exchange.

In April of 1866, the bodies of the seven  executed raiders were recovered and sent to Chattanooga for reburial. Andrews was not among them. His homecoming was to wait for another 21 years.

On October 16, 1887 Andrew’s bones were finally exhumed from beneath a blackberry thicket and sent to join those of his men. They now lie in common rank at the National Cemetery in Chattanooga beneath a memorial to their raid.  

Originally posted to WB Reeves on Sat Oct 13, 2012 at 12:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Barriers and Bridges and Community Spotlight.

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