Four local men were among the first American soldiers awarded the nation’s highest military honor, but the man who foiled their mission during the Civil War should also be remembered.
That man, William Fuller, was conductor of The General, the southern train stolen by Andrews Raiders in 1862.
Fuller thwarted a daring attempt by 22 Union men who went under cover into Georgia, stole The General and attempted to destroy the rail line and bridges connecting Chattanooga to Atlanta. Some historians believe the raid
|The General, one of America's most famous locomotive engines, is
housed at the Southern Museum of Kennsaw, Georhia. (Press photo)
could have shortened the war by two years.
Sgt. Elihu Mason, 31, of Pemberville, Cpl. Wilson Brown, 22, who lived in East Toledo after the war, and Privates Mark Wood, 21, and John (Alf) Wilson, 28, of rural Wood County were among the first in our nation to receive the Medal of Honor, awarded to soldiers who risk their lives above and beyond the call of duty . (To read their story, which I wrote last year, go to The Press website, click on Opinion, then click on my column).
At the time of the raid, the war was going badly for the North. Morale was low. James Andrews, a double-agent, hatched the daring plan. Chattanooga was a transportation hub for four rail lines, the Tennessee River and well–travelled roads. Destroy the Western & Atlantic line and The Union could cripple the South’s ability to move troops and supplies.
To give you an idea of the significance of the raid consider rail was the most efficient way to move supplies at the time. The Southern Museum, located in Kennesaw, Georgia, is the current home of The General and tells the tale from both the Union and Rebel perspective. One of the exhibits details the thoughts of General William T. Sherman. Sherman led 100,000 men and 35,000 animals in his march to the sea. His Army consumed 1,600 tons of provisions each day delivered by 16 trains of 10 cars each using a pool of 100 locomotives. He estimated the railroad did the work of 36,800 wagons and 220,800 mules.
Andrews believed he could inflict a devastating blow to the southern cause, although he knew, if caught, he and his men would be hanged as spies. When The General stopped for breakfast at the Lacy Hotel in Big Shanty, the audacious raiders stole the train within yards of thousands of Confederate soldiers encamped next to the hotel.
This should have been the hardest part of the mission. Andrews, however, could not have predicted the dogged determination and bravery of the man who chased him.
As the General sped North with its men cutting telegraph lines as they went, Fuller and two others chased the train on foot. Fuller later wrote, according to the book, Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor by Russell S. Bonds, “I ran two-and-half miles and when I say run, I don’t mean trot, gallop or pace. I mean run.”
Fuller was 25 and in excellent shape. The engine was his responsibility and one he didn’t take lightly. While others laughed at him as he chased the train on foot, he ran on, unarmed, until he found a pushcart. With the help of the others, they hoisted it on the track and continued the chase.
Fuller knew the raiders would be slowed by southbound trains, so if he could commandeer another train he could close the gap before the raiders could blow the bridges. He did just that, commandeering three trains during the 90-mile chase, which at times reached speeds up to 60 miles an hour.
He and his men kept the pressure on which didn't allow the raiders enough time to destroy track or blow bridges. The raiders slowed Fuller by dumping rail ties on the track, abandoning box cars, setting fire to one of them and tearing up one section of track in an attempt to derail the pursuing train. According to Bonds, this section of track was on the inside of a curve and by the time Fuller noticed it, his train was going too fast to stop. Fuller instructed the engineer to increase the speed around the curve. That threw most of the train’s weight on the outside rail and it “flew” over the missing rail.
Fuller’s dogged pursuit doomed the raiders. They ran out of fuel before they could accomplish their mission. After abandoning the train, all the raiders were captured. Eight were hanged as spies. Fuller was there. According to Bonds, Cpl. Daniel Allen Dorsey, one of the raiders, recalls Fuller’s visit to the condemned men. “The trouble with you gentlemen was that you had the wrong man follow you. I’m the man that followed you, and by God, I’m not done following you yet. I’ll follow you to the scaffold, God damn you. And see you at the end of a rope. Then, I’ll cease to follow you, and not till then.”
Fuller’s animosity waned as the years wore on and the raiders and those who pursued them reunited for reunions. As far as The General, the engine was destroyed by the Rebels to keep it out of Union hands when Atlanta was evacuated. In 1891, Dr. Warren Clark discovered it abandoned in Vinings, Georgia. He restored it in 1893. The General was on display at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago and the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. In 1963, the engine made a Centennial tour around the country. Today, this train that once captivated the imagination of a nation and was the subject of a Hollywood movie entitled The Great Locomotive Chase starring Fess Parker, is housed in the Southern Museum, which is affiliated with The Smithsonian.
Fuller was on the wrong side of the war to be recognized with the Medal of Honor for his bold action. After the war, Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown commissioned Fuller a captain in the Independent State Railroad Guards. He went on to serve as a passenger agent for the Macon & Western Railroad. He died in 1905 and is buried in Atlanta.
Five Wood County men were famous Andrews Raiders
(This article ran in The Press April 25, 2011)
Their escape from an Atlanta prison was bold like their mission to steal a Confederate train in the Deep South, take it north and burn the bridges on the way back.
Unlike the other Andrews Raiders who fled north, Pvt. Mark Wood, 21, and Pvt. John (Alf) Wilson, 28, headed south deeper into the Confederacy. The two Wood County men travelled only at night. They stole a rowboat on the Chattahootchee River, careful to avoid Rebels and gators as they rowed towards the Gulf of Mexico. Wilson later wrote in his memoir, A Thrilling Episode of the Dark Days of The Rebellion, that the gators were the largest things he had ever seen besides Maumee River carp. The plan was to flag down a Union blockade ship and make it back to their unit, The 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
The improbable escape was successful and both men were among the first soldiers to receive the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military decoration established in 1861.
Wood rejoined his regiment, was wounded twice and eventually returned to Tontogony. He died in Toledo and is buried in Forest Cemetery. Wilson was imprisoned in Washington D.C. after his escape because he could not produce identification. While there, he wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln explaining his role with Andrews Raiders. The letter was effective, Wilson was released and met with the President. He is buried in Union Cemetery, near Bowling Green.
Local historian Fred Folger will retell this story of Andrews Raiders Saturday, May 1 at 2:00 p.m. at the Grand Rapids Town Hall.
Folger says Northwest Ohioans played a big role in the famous raid which took place in April of 1862, and which became the subject of a 1956 movie entitled The Great Locomotive Chase starring Fess Parker.
Five Wood County men were among the more than 20 volunteers from three Ohio regiments who conspired to steal a train in southern Georgia and take it north to Chattanooga, burning bridges and tearing up track to cut a supply line.
The raid failed miserably, Folger says. The Rebel conductor chased the train, first by foot, then by handcar and finally by taking command of another train. The dogged pursuit didn’t give the raiders enough time to destroy any track nor any bridge. The train ran out of fuel a few miles south of Chattanooga. All 22 men were captured. Eight, including the lone civilian and architect of the raid, James Andrews, were hanged as spies. While the mission failed, it occurred at a time the Union war effort was going badly and it raised morale in The North after newspapers published the story.
There was another benefit, Folger says. “There were all kinds of daring things going on by these men during the war. The raid made the south ever more alert to guard their railroads more carefully. They (the raiders) didn’t accomplish what they hoped to, but it showed the southerners they could be infiltrated.”
Two other local men, Sgt. Elihu Mason, 31, of Pemberville, and Cpl. Wilson Brown, 22, who lived in East Toledo after the war, also participated. They too escaped the Atlanta jail along with a third man, William Knight, and headed north. Mason was weak with a stomach problem, probably dysentery, and the other two half-carried him for miles. They left him at a farmhouse in Northern Georgia, according to a report written by Brown in 1896 for the Pemberville Leader. As they were leaving, they were braced by two Rebel soldiers who asked them, “Are you some of them engine thieves?”
Facing the armed Rebels who said they were taking them back to Atlanta, Brown desperately sought a ruse to avoid the hangman’s noose. He wrote, “`All right,’” said I, `But, what are you going to do with that company of Yanks coming there.’ And, I pointed to the rear of them.”
The Rebels were thrown off guard. Brown wrote he and Knight “sprang upon them like tigers and disarmed them and held them at bay. We could have killed them but it was not our policy to do so.”
Brown made the two promise not to hurt Mason and they left. The Rebels took Mason into custody. He was eventually released in a prisoner exchange and escorted to Washington D.C. where he was awarded the Medal of Honor, a Lieutenant’s commission and $100, according to Robert Kipp, Mason’s great-grandson, who provided a biography of Mason to the Pemberville Freedom Area Historical Society.
Captured for a third time
According to Kipp, Mason fought in another famous Civil War Battle at Chickamauga in September of 1863. There, a Union Army, under the direction of Major General George Thomas, precariously held the high ground at Horseshoe Ridge besieged by greater numbers. Thomas held off charge after charge and the press dubbed him “The Rock of Chickamauga” for his stalwart defense. Lt. Mason was back with his Ohio regiment and attached to a division under the command of Major General James Negley, who brought a new weapon to Thomas’ aid—the Colt revolving rifle.
The standard rifle at the time could fire only one shot before reloading; the Colt could fire five. Mason’s regiment fired 43,000 rounds, creating the impression the Yanks had more men then they did. The new weapon provided enough cover for the Union Army to retreat, however, Mason’s regiment was surrounded and he was taken prisoner for a third time.
Nearly 35,000 men died in what was, at the time, the bloodiest two days of the war.
Fifteen months later, Mason was released. Kipp writes a Union doctor reported his great-grandfather had bronchitis, typhoid fever, scurvy, a gunshot wound to the left hip and a bruised left side probably due to a shell explosion.
When the war ended, Capt. Mason and his family lived in a number of cities before moving back in 1880 to Pemberville, his wife’s hometown. He raised cattle, worked as a lumberman and was on village council.
Elihu Mason died in 1896 and is buried at Pemberville Cemetery. He is not forgotten. The Pemberville Freedom Area Historical Society is requesting donations to erect a bronze marker from the Ohio Historical Society to commemorate his actions as a recipient of the Medal of Honor. The marker is to be located at the American Legion site, near the Veterans’ Memorial, according to Laurie Householder, spokesperson for the historical society. A similar marker commemorating Wilson Brown is located near his grave at New Bellville Cemetery in Dowling, adjacent to Tanglewood Golf Course.
Donations can be send to Pemberville Freedom Historical Society, P.O. Box 802, Pemberville, OH 43450 or by calling Householder at 419-686-8125.