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A Turner Bugler, 2004

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Running an Engine in Rebel Service.


October 1862

From The Missouri Democrat, Sunday, October 5, 1862.

Running an Engine in Rebel Service.

[From “Thirteen Months in the Rebel Army.”]

The engineer, Charles Little, refused to run the train on during the night, as he was not well acquainted with the roads and thought it dangerous.  In addition, the head-light of the locomotive being out of order and the oil frozen, he could not make it burn, and he could not possibly run without it.  Colonel Williams grew angry, probably suspecting him of Union sentiments, and of wishing to delay the train, cursed him rather roundly, and at length told him he should run it under a guard; adding to the guard already on the engine, “if any accident occurs shoot the cursed Yankee.”  Little was a Northern man.  Upon the threat thus enforced, the engineer seemed to yield, and prepared to start the train.

As if having forgotten an important matter, he said, hastily, “Oh, I must have some oil,” and stepping down off the locomotive, walked toward the engine-house.  When he was about twenty yards from the cars, the guard thought of their duty, and one of them followed Little and called upon him to halt; but in a moment he was behind the machine-shop, and off in the dense woods, in the deep darkness.  The commotion soon brought the colonel and a crowd, and while they were cursing each other all around, the firemen and most of the brakemen slipped off, and here we were with no means of getting ahead.  All this time I had stood on the engine, rather enjoying the melee, but taking no part in it, when Colonel Williams, turning to me, sai

“Cannot you run the engine?”

I replied, “No, sir.”

“You have been on it as we came down.”

“Yes, sir, as a matter of curiosity.”

“Don’t you know how to start and stop her?”

“Yes, that is easy enough; but if anything should go wrong I could not adjust it.”

“No difference, no difference, sir; I must be at Bowling Green to-morrow, and you must put us through.”

I looked him in the eye, and said calmly, “Col. Williams, I cannot voluntarily take the responsibility of managing a train with a thousand men aboard, nor will I be forced to do it under a guard who know nothing about an engine, and who would be as likely to shoot me for doing my duty as failing to do it; but if you will find among the men a firemen, send away this guard, and come yourself on the locomotive, I will do the best I can.”

And now commenced my apprenticeship to running a secession railroad train, with a rebel regiment on board.  The engine behaved admirably, and I began to feel quite safe, for she obeyed every command I gave her, as if she acknowledged me her rightful lord.

I could not but be startled at the position in which I was placed, holding in my hand the lives of more than a thousand men, running a train of twenty-five cars over a road I had never seen, running without a head-light, and the road so dark that I could only see a rod or two ahead, and to crown all, knowing almost nothing of the business.  Of course I ran slowly, about ten miles an hour, and never took my hand off the throttle or my eye from the road.  The Colonel at length grew confident, and almost confidential, and did most of the talking, as I had no time for conversation.  When we had run about thirty miles, and every thing was going well, Colonel Williams concluded to walk back on the top of the box-cars, to a passenger car which was attached to the rear of the train and occupied by the officers.

This somewhat hazardous move he commenced just as we struck a stretch of trestlework which carried the road over a gorge some fifty feet deep.  As the locomotive reached the end of the trestlework the grade rose a little, and I could see through, or, in a deep cut which the road ran into, an obstruction.  What it was, or how far ahead, I had almost no conception; but as quick as thought—and thought is quick as lightning in such circumstances—I whistled for the brakes, shut off the steam, and waited the collision.  I would have reversed the engine, but a fear that a reversal of its action would crowd up the cars on the trestlework, and throw them down into the gorge below, forbade; nor was there wisdom in jumping off, as the steep embankments on either side would prevent escape from the wreck of the cars when the collision came.  All this was decided in an instant of time, and I calmly awaited the shock which I saw was unavoidable.  Though the speed, which was very moderate before, was considerably diminished in the fifty yards between the obstacle and the head of the train, I saw that we would certainly run into the rear of another train, which was the obstruction I had seen.

The first car struck was loaded with hay and grain.  My engine literally split in two, throwing the hay right and left, and scattering the grain like chaff.  The next car loaded with horses, was in like manner torn to pieces, and the horses piled upon the sides of the road.  The third car, loaded with tents and camp equipage, seemed to present greater resistance, as the locomotive only reached it, and came to a standstill.

My emotions during these moments were most peculiar.  I watched the remorseless pressure of the engine with almost admiration.  It appeared to be deliberate and resolute, and insatiable.  The shock was not great, the advance seemed very slow; but it plowed on through car after car, with a steady and determined course, which suggested at that critical moment a vast and resistless living agent.  When motion ceased, I knew my hour of trial was near; for if Colonel Williams had not been thrown from the top of the cars into the gorge below, he would soon be forward to execute his threat—to shoot me if any accident occurred.  I stepped out of the cab on the railing running along to the smoke-stack, so as to be out of view to one coming forward toward the engine, and yet to have him in the full light of the lantern which hung in the cab.

Exactly as I had surmised, for I had seen a specimen of his fierce temper and recklessness, he came stamping and cursing; and jumping from the car on to the tender, he drew a pistol, and cried out, “Where is that cursed engineer that did this pretty job?  I’ll shoot him the minute I lay eyes on him.”

I threw up my six-shooter so that the light of the lantern shone upon it, while he could see but indistinctly, if at all, and said with deliberation, “Col. Williams, if you raise your pistol you are a dead man; don’t stir, but listen to me.  I have done just what any man must have done in the circumstances.  I stopped the train as soon as possible, and I’ll convince you of it if you are a reasonable man; but not another word of shooting or you go down.”

“Don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” he cried.

“Put up you pistol and so will I,” I replied.

He did so, and came forward, and I explained the impossibility of seeing the train sooner, as I had no head-light; and they had carelessly neglected to leave a light on the rear of the other train.  I advised the choleric Colonel to go forward and expend his wrath and curses on the conductor of the forward train, that had stopped in such a place, and sent out no signal-man in the rear, nor even left a red light.  He acknowledged I was right.  I then informed him that I was an officer in the ordnance department, and was in charge of a shipment of ammunition for Bowling Green, and would have him court-martialed when we reached there, unless he apologized for the threats he had made.  This information had a calming effect on the Colonel, who at heart was really a clever fellow.