In 1862, J. J Andrews, a United States secret agent who habitually travelled into and out of the Confederate States on spying missions, conceived a daring plan to disrupt the Georgia State Railroad by the burning of bridges and creating general chaos behind the lines. To achieve this objective he brought together a special team of saboteurs, drawn principally from Ohio Volunteer Regiments of the Union Army. This early covert operation meant the troops had to travel in disguise—without uniforms—into the very heartland of the enemy. Initially all went well, Pittenger, a young team member describes the abduction of a locomotive in thrilling detail. The South was not about to allow such audacity to go unpunished however, and soon every resource it could bring to bear was dedicated to the capture of the saboteurs. Soon the entire countryside was in arms against them and they were taken prisoner. For some, prison was inevitable, but for others the future held only the gallows and the hangman's rope. The survivors soon realised they were embarked upon a race against time and their only hope for life meant a daring escape and bid for freedom.
The next day, which was Thursday, we came to Jasper, stopped in the town and around the groceries awhile, talking of the state of the country. We told them Kentucky was just ready to rise and shake off her chains, and they were just foolish enough to believe it!
Here we heard the first indistinct rumour of the battle of Shiloh—of course, a wonderful victory to the rebels, killing thousands of Yankees, and capturing innumerable cannon. It was the impression that our army was totally destroyed. One countryman gravely assured me that five hundred gunboats had been sunk. I told him I did not think the Yankees had so many as that, but was unable to shake his faith.
That night we stayed at Widow Hall’s, and there met Andrews and some of our other comrades. This was on the banks of the Tennessee river, and Andrews advised us to cross there, and to take passage on the cars at Shell Mound station, as there had been a stringent order issued to let no one cross above, who could not present perfectly satisfactory credentials. Andrews had these, but we had not; it was, therefore, advisable for us to be challenged as few times as possible. We passed a pleasant evening, during which the wit of my friend Shadrack kept us in a continual roar of laughter.
At last morning came, and we went down to the bank of the river to cross. The ferryman had just swung the boat into the stream, and we were getting into it, when a man arrived with positive orders from the military authorities to let no one across for three days.
Affairs now looked dark. We could not cross except at the upper ferries, and not there unless our credentials were good. However, we resolved to persevere, and thinking in this case, as in many others, the boldest plan would be the safest, we again struck over the wild spurs of the Cumberland, which here sweep directly down to the river, on in the direction of Chattanooga, with the intention of trying to cross there, at headquarters.
Our journey was far from a pleasant one, and several times we lost our road in the entanglements of the mountains; but at last we reached a valley that ran directly down to the river, opposite Chattanooga. Here the road was more frequented, and from the travellers we met we learned further particulars of the battle of Shiloh. Still the accounts were rose-tinted for the Confederates, though they now admitted a considerable loss.
One man gave me an interesting item of news from the East; it was, that the Merrimac had steamed out, and after engaging the Monitor for some time with no decisive results, had ran alongside, and throwing grappling-hooks on her, towed her ashore, where, of course, she fell an easy prey. He said that now they had the two best gunboats in the world, and they would be able to raise the blockade without difficulty, and even to burn the Northern cities. But I have not space to tell of all the wild chimeras and absurd stories that we heard on our entrance into a land where truth always has been contraband. From that time forward, we heard of continuous Confederate victories, and not one Union triumph, till in September, when they admitted that they were repulsed by Rosecrans at Corinth.
On reaching the river, we found a great number of persons on the bank waiting to go over. The ferryman was there with a horse-boat, but the wind was so high that he feared to attempt the crossing. We waited as patiently as we could, though the time for the cars to start on the other side had nearly arrived, and we could not well afford to miss them. At length, the ferryman agreed to attempt the passage. He found it very difficult. We were about an hour in crossing, though the river was only a few hundred yards in width. Several times we were beaten back to our own side, but at last perseverance conquered, and we landed at Chattanooga.
The passage was an anxious one, for we expected to find the guard waiting for us on the other side; and then, if we failed to satisfy them that we were loyal subjects of King Jefferson, we would at once land in a Southern prison. Judge, then, of our delight when we saw no guard there, and were permitted to pass unmolested and unquestioned on our route.
I do not yet know the reason of this sudden relaxation of vigilance. Perhaps it was because all their attention was directed to Huntsville, which was now occupied in force by General Mitchel. The panic produced by this occupation was immense, as the only communication it left them with Beauregard was by the circuitous route through Atlanta, and when, the next day, this too was endangered, their excitement knew no bounds.
Chattanooga is a small town—not much more than a village. It is pleasantly situated on the banks of the Tennessee, and is bowered in amidst lofty mountain peaks. One of these hangs right over the town, and is more than seven hundred feet in perpendicular height. From its summit parts of four States are visible—Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina. It is capable of being very strongly fortified; and though there were no works erected when I was there, many may have been built since. It is one of the most important strategic points in the whole South, and should have been in the possession of our forces long ago.