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West Virginia History Series: James J. Andrews, Union Spy

By Rebecca Hinkle
On March 29, 2018

Andrews led a daring train raid that excited the Union, but it cost him his life.
Photo Courtesy of Fine Art America 


When the Civil War began, the nation was split in half and men signed up to fight for their beliefs. While signing up as a soldier was common, not every man involved in the war was a soldier. Some served as civilian spies for Union and Confederate armies. James J. Andrews was a spy for the Union army and was in charge of a daring train raid until his capture and death in 1862.
Andrews was born in Holiday’s Cove, Virginia in 1829 which is now Weirton, West Virginia. Not much is known about his childhood, but he lived in Flemingsburg, Kentucky in 1859 and worked as a house painter. While he was there, he lived in the Flemings Hotel. Andrews supported the Union army and enlisted in the Kentucky State Guard, working as a spy for the Union army. According to an article published in Kentucky Monthly by Ron Soodalter, Andrews was not officially in the army, but he was loyal to the Union. He worked on smuggling contraband items across enemy lines and collecting information for Union generals.
During his time as a spy, Andrews met and became engaged to a young woman named Elizabeth Layton. While he worked as a scout, he came up with a plan to steal a train from the Confederate army. This was his first plan as he plotted to steal a train in Atlanta, Georgia with the help of eight men. However, Andrew’s first plan failed when the engineer failed to show up at the location they had arranged. In April of 1862, he proposed another plan to Union General Ormsby M. Mitchel to steal a train in northern Georgia and drive it to Chattanooga, Tennessee.
After Andrews had stolen the train he planned to meet General Mitchel’s troops in Chattanooga. The plan was approved, and Andrews carried out his raid with the help of one other civilian named William Campbell, and 24 volunteers from the Ohio infantry.
On April 12th, 1862 the conspirators and Andrew, dressed in civilian clothes, stole the train called “The General”. According to Kentucky History, once the raiders had the train they destroyed track and telegraph lines as they were being chased by the Confederate army to discourage pursuers. The Confederate army chased them for 87 miles when the train lost power in Ringgold, Georgia. Andrews and his men ran, but they were eventually captured and jailed.
Andrews was court-martialed in Chattanooga and he, along with other eight men in his group, was sentenced to death. He was held in Swims Jail when he was able to escape briefly. He was not free for very long when he was captured again and hung for his crimes on June 7th, 1862. Andrew’s fiancé never recovered from his death and died two years later. Other raiders were presented the Medal of Honor for their actions that greatly excited the Union, but Andrews was not given one as he was a civilian.
Andrews raid was made into a film by Walt Disney in 1956 called “The Great Locomotive Chase” starring Fess Parker, known for Disney’s Davy Crockett. “The General” is located for viewing at the Southern Museum of Civil War. Andrews is buried in the Chattanooga National Cemetery, and he is remembered for his daring actions of his legendary locomotive chase.


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