Sunday, November 8, 2009
WILLIAM PITTENGER, HERO AND AUTHOR
Bold, loyal, dutiful, intrepid and faithful--all are words that appropriately describe the attitude of the 22 Union soldiers who had participated in the Great Andrews Train Robbery during the Civil War, but none describe it better than Daring and Suffering, the title of a book written by Knoxville native William Pittenger.
A son and eldest sibling of seven to Thomas Pittenger and his wife Mary Mills, William was born January 31, 1840 on the south skirt of Knoxville on a small farm his father rented from in-laws. Young William attended one-room schools in the Knoxville area and developed into a voracious reader, becoming especially interested in history, astronomy and law. By the age of 16, despite the handicap of being shortsighted, Pittenger obtained teaching certification from the Jefferson County School Board.
His teaching duties took him to Ravenna,Ohio and Cleveland where he became an editor and publisher for School Day Visitor. By 1860 he was intensely studying law under the direction of Miller and Sherrard of Steubenville when the Civil War erupted.
The twenty-year-old Pittenger enlisted with the 2nd Ohio Regiment from Steubenville and soon found himself fighting beside friends and relatives in the first battle of Bull Run. Afterward, the regiment served in Kentucky and Tennessee campaigns, but it was the latter in which he and 20 other volunteers became famous under the leadership of civilian James J. Andrews, of Holliday's Cove, West Virginia, present day downtown Weirton. The band pirated a Confederate locomotive, the General, with orders to burn bridges, derail track and cut telegraph lines between Marietta, Georgia and Chattanooga.
The mission was delayed a day, forcing the Union operatives to perform their mission during a day of heavy Southern rain. On April 12, 1862, they stole the General without incident near Big Shanty, Georgia.
Andrews and the soldiers did manage to cut telegraph lines and dislodge some track, but the heavy rain made bridge burning nearly impossible. The deposed engineer, William Fuller, pursued the hijackers on foot and handcar several miles and eventually commandeered a faster, more powerful locomotive, the Texas, and caught up with the Union operatives when they ran out of fuel 76 miles from Big Shanty.
The hijackers all fled through the surrounding countryside and were captured within several days and then imprisoned at Chattanooga, Knoxville and Atlanta. It was the Georgia capital where Andrews and seven other members of the raid were executed as spies. The rope by which the hangman had noosed Andrews was too long so that prison guards had to shovel beneath Andrews's feet, inflicting upon the mission leader a tortuous death.
The Union's blockade of all major Southern ports created a deficit in food and other goods within confederate lines and severely affected supply to Southern military prisons such as the notorious Andersonville and those holding Pittenger and the participants of the Andrews Raid. For the majority of their confinement, they struggled in squalid, crowded, dank cells and suffered malnutrition and disease.
The survivors learned they, too, would hang for spying and began preparing for the afterlife. "It is an interesting fact," Pittenger wrote in Daring and Suffering, "which the rationalist may explain as the will, that from the times of that long prison prayer meeting--from early afternoon to midnight--the fortunes of our party began to improve. There were fearful trials still before us, not much inferior to any we had passed; we held our lives by the frailest thread; yet till the close of war, though many perished around us, death did not claim another victim from our midsts."
Soon afterward, penetration of the Union Army probably saved the party's life, the Confederates sending them to different prisons, one being Knoxville, Tennessee. Ironically, General John Hunt Morgan was stationed there at the time. In a year, the Confederates would lead a raid passing near Pittenger's hometown, Knoxville, Ohio. The Rebels later returned the Union raiders to Atlanta.
At the Georgia prison, a Methodist minister befriended Pittenger, lending him books to read, furthering his religious transformation. "I did not care, as in Knoxville, for law books, but the fact that many, though not all, of the minister's books were of the theological and religious cast only made them more welcome. This Atlanta jail was my seminary."
The Rebels eventually shipped all surviving members of the locomotive raid to Castle Thunder in Richmond, Virginia where they were exchanged for Confederate prisoners in March, 1863.
At Washington D.C., Pittenger and his comrades received Congressional Medals of Honor from Secretary of War and Steubenville native Edwin Stanton and President Abraham Lincoln, making them the first soldiers on record to receive the nation's greatest distinction.
And then Pittenger took a friendly railroad ride home, his family picking him up at Sloane's Station.
"The journey over the old familiar hills about which I had dreamed in Southern dungeons," he wrote, "the tearful welcome of father and mother, the surprise and joy of the little brother and sisters. For the first time in history a public supper was given in honor of an individual in the little village of Knoxville. The next Sunday I attended the Methodist church in New Somerset and had my name enrolled as a probationer. The vow I had made to God in hour of trouble was not forgotten."
Honorably discharged for disability August 14, 1863, Sergeant Pittenger soon studied for the ministry and became ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church. While his ministerial duties took him to numerous locations across the country, he published his account of the Great Locomotive Chase in a series of stories to the then Steubenville Herald, in 1887 republishing them in book form. He authored several other books, including Toasts and Forms of Public Address and Extempore Speech. All Pittenger books remain in print and can be borrowed through public library services or purchased via Internet catalogs.
Daring and Suffering generated two movies, The General, starring Buster Keaton in a silent comedy, and a 1956 Disney made-for-television film, The Great Locomotive Chase, the latter erroneously portraying Pittenger as becoming the first-ever person awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Pittenger died in Fallbrook, San Diego County, California and is buried there. A U.S. Army base, Sergeant William Pittenger Camp, is nearby.
Pictures above: Portrait of hero and Knox Township native son sergeant William Pittenger, and his birth site, on Ohio Route 213, just south of the old Knoxville School.