The Great Locomotive Chase Sesquicentennial Celebration
It might be argued that the Great Locomotive Chase” of April 12, 1862 was the first intrusion of the American Civil War onto Georgia soil, the first certainly into Bartow County. It was the earliest event of a prolonged struggle between the north and south that introduced an impressive roster of Georgia heroes on both sides of this tragic conflict. Many individuals played colorful, important and even heroic roles in Georgia Civil War history. On this 150 year anniversary we recognize a local personality, Uriah Stephens, and the role he played in the Great Chase.
The Great Locomotive Chase is considered to be perhaps the most exciting railroad adventure in American history. The event unfolded on the W&A Railroad in northwest Georgia between Atlanta and Chattanooga, beginning in Big Shanty and concluding a few miles south of the Tennessee line near the small town of Graysville in Catoosa County. The event featured engine number 39, (later renumbered 3) a state owned Dixie Flyer, named “The General” and involved several other “southern engines” before the chase ended in favor of the Confederacy.
The event became a platform that introduced the American public to approximately two-dozen ordinary souls (north and south) destined to become heroes as defined by government and literary branding. These common folk became unsuspecting heroes either by national recognition of receiving the first Congressional Medals of Honor or by eventual celebrity status having been showcased in a number of books, movies, and articles that followed the Great Chase.
The Great Locomotive Chase was a bold Yankee spy raid to infiltrate Rebel lines deep into north Georgia. Some 20 men led by James Andrews armed with a scheme to hijack a train at Big Shanty and race north with the objective to burn bridges, cut telegraph wires and tear up track along the lifeline of the Confederacy. This deed was in hopes of disrupting communications and transportation, thereby disabling the ability of Rebel reinforcements reaching Chattanooga and giving Union General Ormsby Mitchel and his forces time to take Chattanooga. This coordinated event, if successful, would likely have shortened the war considerably in favor of the Union.
If one reads the thrilling story, it becomes clear that the most colorful events actually took place in Bartow County thus making it the “Heart of the Chase”. While the General was stolen in Big Shanty (Kennesaw, Cobb County, Georgia) by Union spies and run north some 87 miles covering 5 counties it must be acknowledged that the greatest number of events unfolded in Bartow County, formerly Cass County. The records show a number of facts exclusively belonging to Bartow County including, the greatest track distance covered 40% (35 miles), the Powder Train cover story was told twice in Bartow (Rodgers Station and Kingston), all three chase engines (Yonah at Etowah & Cooper, William R. Smith at Kingston and Texas near Adairsville) were acquired in Bartow, an hour delay in Kingston and finally, the “old Station Agent”, Uriah Stephens’ perceptive resistance which was the only documented confrontation that Andrews faced. (Not to be confused with the Uriah Stephens who was founder of the Knights of Labor in Philadelphia in 1869.)
The hijacked General arrived in Kingston only to find the station congested with freight cars side tracked while waiting for southbound traffic from Chattanooga on the main track. A Union attack on the city of Chattanooga forced rail traffic to move out and overload points south. The General had to take to a siding for more than an hour before Andrews boldly took the switch keys from the depot agent’s office wall and returned the engine to the main line.
In any number of books written about the Great Chase all reference, to some degree, Uriah Stephens and his role at the Kingston station. Although brief, his mention is meaningful as it describes a suspicious Station Agent who was skeptical from the get-go about the irregular circumstances in which the locomotive, General, arrived pulling a non-standard set of rail cars. Others were more easily duped as to the fabricated vale of southern patriotism surrounding the story about getting urgently needed gun powder cargo to General Beauregard in Chattanooga. Andrews was a skilled and cool double agent. He performed well under pressure keeping his composure and easily turning a phrase in his favor on more than one exchange.
However, the old station agent was a seasoned W&A Railroad hand employee who well understood the rail schedule, operations and authorized personnel on the Georgia State railroad. He was quickly alerted when the General did not include any crewmember he recognized. Additionally, he was most concerned that no advance notice had preceded a special train running on the track. This alone gave him great pause and reason to verbally protest any commands being barked by the stylish Andrews who sported a top hat and dressed in such an official capacity. As Andrews saw the resistance emerge it was once again necessary for him to use the powder train relief story to reach General Beauregard with munitions.
Uriah Stephens continued his vigil and line of questioning. The stakes were escalated when Andrews insisted that the rail switch needed to be thrown to allow the General back onto the main line. Stephens vowed that he would not take the switch keys down until Andrews provided satisfactory proof explaining by what authority he was ordering everyone around as if he owned the whole road. Accounts report that Stephens attempted to stir bystanders to help him prevent Andrews from taking the keys. Andrews pretended to be amused by this action and personally removed the keys from the station and unlocked the switch himself.
Stephens is described similarly in most works related to the Great Chase as an older or “aged” man who grumbled and ranted about the situation. He is portrayed as one who was perhaps disagreeable, grumpy and a difficult older individual at the ripe age of 45. Authors have continued to portray him as a crusty personality with varying titles depending on how he is referenced. His titles range from Yardman and Switch tender to Station agent or Stationmaster, but overall he has been left with a more demeaning “geezer” image cast by the recollections, interviews, notes and second hand accounts from those younger participants in the actual event. Subsequent authors are confined to the few remarks that are on file from previous texts, but primarily initiated by the first publications written by raider, William Pittenger. (The Daring and Suffering and later republished as, The Great Locomotive Chase)
As a legacy from the raider’s perspectives, Uriah’s presence was cast as a meddling sort. Little more is offered to the reader about Stephens other than one who earned a place in the story, but played an annoying role for the raiders. The reader may be left with the opinion that Stephens was a common laborer with little resource, older than most and lacked influence. Stephens’ role has been cited in numerous articles and books many of which can be referenced in the bibliography of this work.
In contrast a very different image of Stephens emerges when one researches his lifelong career and personal life as can be found in a number of creditable documents.
Our first record of Stephens can be found in the 1850 South Carolina U.S. Census. In 1860 he is found living in Canton, Georgia, (Cherokee County) at age 43 and his occupation is listed as “Mechanic.” It is recorded that he was born in 1818 in Pickens (Old Pendleton District), South Carolina and came to Georgia prior to the Civil War. He married Hannah A. McConnell in Floyd County and they had several children (Sarah, Mary, Joseph, Nannie, Colie and Laura). During the event of the Great Chase, Uriah and family are living in Kingston in the F.R. Goulding house south of town next to the railroad tracks.
Following the Great Chase, Uriah and his family are listed in the 1870 and 1880 US Census living in Cartersville. His occupation is listed as Dry Goods Merchant and Boarding House Keeper. He and his brother Silas were partners in the Dry Goods business. Property records find the family living for a time on the southeast corner of Bartow and Leake Streets and later on the northeast corner of Main and Stonewall Streets in Cartersville.
According to his obituary and a genealogical document prepared by his great, great granddaughter (Betty Johnson of Sarasota, Florida) he also bought and sold property in Cartersville. A review of property and deed records in the Bartow County Court House reveals that Stephens’ family was very active in land transactions. His brother, Silas seems to be the primary dealer, but Uriah bought and sold considerable land. Dozens of land sales appeared among all the Stephens siblings.
One notable entry indicates that on March 4, 1890 his wife Hannah sold 35 acres to former Governor Joseph E. Brown for $3000.00. (Deed Record Book BB page 469). This deal was for 35 acres (lot 314, district 5) which is in the southeast corner of White, Georgia in Bartow County. The property records point to many large and small transactions including sales to individuals, merchants, Georgia Iron and Coal Company, Cherokee Iron Works and others. Records indicate a close relationship he held with Governor Brown who eventually appointed Stephens as Purchasing Agent for the W&A RR.
Genealogical records held by Great, Great, Granddaughter, Betty Johnson include considerable mention of a claim following the war for loss of goods filed by Uriah against Federal troops. The claim was filed on February 15, 1872 in Fulton County in the amount of $788.75. The claim consists of 40 pages of testimony describing the event of how his goods were stolen by Union soldiers. According to the claim Uriah is listed as living in Covington, Georgia. His testimony alleges that in July 1865, a troop train in route to Augusta stopped briefly in Covington where he operated a small dry goods store some 100 feet from the tracks. The soldiers, under Colonel Eggleston’s command, entered his store, pillaged, destroyed and took what they wanted. He confronted them and they instructed him to “obey up”. His claim listed a range of goods were taken without payment to include 275 pounds of chewing tobacco, 90 pounds of smoking tobacco, 40 dozen eggs, 125 ginger cakes, 10 pairs of socks, 225 yards of shirt material, 30 gallons of beer and a variety of family medicines.
The written claim listed four witnesses including the name of former Governor Joseph E. Brown. An inspection of the statements finds other interesting information about Stephens. It appears the claim and statements were conducted much as a deposition would be today. His career history was fully documented regarding oaths, allegiances, hear say evidence regarding loyalty and his own statements that he tried to maintain war neutrality. The witnesses and Uriah’s own personal statement reveal he was also a former Post Master in Canton, Georgia prior to the war and also a Post Master during the war while in Kingston. His witnesses perhaps hurt him as much as helped him in testimony as some described Uriah sympathetic to both sides of the war. One witness even characterized his shop in Covington as “sort of a confederate store and lacked any products from the north”.
Eventually, his claim was disavowed as Uriah had taken an oath to the Confederacy as documented when he accepted the position of Post Master in Kingston.
According to an article printed in The News and Courant on April 3, 1902, Stephens died on March 30, 1902. His grave marker matches this information. He lived his final six years with his son, J. M. Stephens in Atlanta who was the Superintendent of the Western Union Telegraph Company. According to the obituary, he was 86 years old at death. A close friend and former General in the Civil War, Clement A. Evans conducted the funeral services. The article indicates he was a Mason, member of the Methodist church and was the “depot agent” in Kingston at the time the famous General went through.
Following his death his body was returned to Cartersville where he was buried in the old Ebenezer Church section (Sam Jones) of Oak Hill Cemetery.
His grave along with wife Hannah, brother Silas (who never married) and other family members can be found together. The marker has an inscription honoring Uriah on one side and another inscription honoring Hannah.
Uriah Stephens had a diverse career, lived in interesting times and associated with influential people. Among his occupations he was noted as a mechanic, depot agent, post master, dry goods merchant, boarding house keeper, land dealer and W&A RR purchasing agent. Additionally, he was known to be a close friend with Governor Brown. By all measures he can be considered a successful businessman and entrepreneur.
All of the foregoing indicates that Uriah was much more than the cryptic descriptions leave with us. However, he will forever be known as the crusty old man who resisted Andrews in the one-hour delay in Kingston, Georgia.
As a result of his relentless doubting of James Andrews and reluctance to give up the switch keys, we might also give him the symbolic title of, “Gatekeeper” and one who contributed to Bartow County becoming the Heart of the Chase.
Noted by Wilbur Kurtz in his letter to Lucy Cunyus on August 1932, pages 2 and 3:
“The distance covered by the raiders and pursuers in this affair, was eighty-seven miles; thirty-five of them falling within the domain of Bartow, and for colorful and narrow margins of hazard, perhaps exceeds any other portion of the thrilling episode.” (A later measure by the CSX RR indicates the mileage is closer to 43.5 from the Cobb County line to the Gordon County line.)
It would appear that Uriah Stephens is at least a local historic treasure, but his value may have been overlooked until now. However, the reality is that Kingston and Bartow County actually had a very productive citizen in Stephens and we should be proud to call him a “favorite son.”
Thanks to Uriah Stephens, Kingston can boast that it had the only “voice of resistance” during the Great Locomotive Chase and it played a vital part in making Bartow, The Heart of the Chase!
Daring and Suffering, pp 120/121, Pittenger, William (1st Edition in 1863)
History of Bartow County, pp 218, Cunyus, Lucy, 1933
The General, The Great Locomotive Dispute, pp 55/56, Head, Joe, second edition 1997
The Great Locomotive Chase, pp 170, Angle, Craig, 1992
Stealing the General, pp 146/147, Bonds, Russell, 2007
Wild Train, (pp 152/153) O’Neill, Charles, 1956
The News and Courant, Obituary, April 3, 1902, Cartersville, Georgia
Atlanta Constitution, Obituary, March 31, 1902
Deed Record Book, BB, page 469, March 4 1890, Bartow County, Georgia
National Archives, Footnote Folder 3, Publication Number: M1407, Publication Title:
Southern Claims Commission, Claim Number: 7808 Claim Date:1871-09-27, Courtesy of Betty Johnson
US Census, 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1880
Hand notes, Krutz, Wilbur, various interviews, Box 34, Folder 3, Atlanta History Center
Ancestry.com, Uriah Stephens
Mrs. Betty (Alma) Johnson, Great, Great, Granddaughter of Uriah Stephens
Dr. David Parker, History Professor, Kennesaw State University
Ms. Jena Johnson, Great, Great, Great Granddaughter of Uriah Stephens