Locomotives feature in many of Faulkner’s works, including The Sound and Fury, As I Lay Dying, and The Unvanquished. This may be a result of the prominent role that the industry played in Faulkner’s own life and family history. “During the Reconstruction era, Faulkner's larger-than-life great grandfather, Colonel William C. Falkner, was an active participant in the rebuilding of northern Mississippi, eventually founding the Ship Island, Ripley, and Kentucky Railroad Company […] A writer of novels and poems himself, Colonel Falkner's most famous book, The White Rose of Memphis, features a thrilling train chase from Grenada, Mississippi to the title city. It is often said that William aspired to be a writer like his great grandfather and within his novels there exist several characters based on him” (Trains and Railroads).

Faulkner’s use of a train chase in The Unvanquished may be further evidence of the inspiration that he took from his great-grandfather. In “Raid,” Bayard and Ringo arrive at Hawkhurst to find the nearby railroad tracks destroyed. The details of the chase are never made explicit, but the title of the chapter is a clue that Faulkner’s is incorporating a real-life event into his fiction.

Andrews’ Raid or The Great Locomotive Chase is a thrilling moment in Civil War history. Born in Kentucky, James Andrews was a northern spy who led a team of twenty-two men on a mission to hijack a train in Georgia and destroy the railroad their way north. The Union army timed this raid with an attack on Chattanooga. TN. If all went according to plan, General Ormsby Mitchel and his men would threaten Chattanooga while Andrews and his men raced up from Atlanta, tearing up the tracks behind them. The damage to the Western and Atlantic line would impede the ability of the Confederacy to send reinforcements.

In April of 1862, Andrews’ Raiders took control of the General at Big Shanty station, where it had stopped to allow passengers to have a meal and rest. Because there was no telegraph office in Big Shanty, the stranded passengers, including Confederate soldiers, were unable to communicate a warning. However, the train’s conductor, William Fuller, pursued the train on foot and then by handcar. Fuller and his men later commandeered a locomotive and chased the Raiders. The Confederates eventually caught up and captured Fuller and his men, but not before they had ruined sections of the tracks.

Cousins Drusilla bore witness to the locomotive chase, but Faulkner chooses to depict it through her storytelling, rather than showing the scene in action. Bayard focuses mostly on the dramatic images that stand out most to a child, “…the flaring and streaming smoke stack, the tossing bell, the starred Saint Andrew’s cross nailed to the cab roof, the wheels and the flashing driving rods on which the brass fittings glinted like the golden spurs themselves” (Faulkner 98). He does not pick up on the motivations and larger outcomes of the raid. “‘The other one, the Yankee one, was right behind it,’ Drusilla said. ‘But they never caught it. Then the next day they came and tore the track up. They tore the track up so we couldn’t do it again; they could tear the track up but they couldn’t take back the fact that we had done it. They couldn’t take that from us’” (Faulkner 98-99).

The version of events that Faulkner presents in The Unvanquished is factually inaccurate. “According to his account, the race began at the roundhouse in Atlanta, and the pursuer was a Federal train. […] Moreover, he has moved the race to Alabama, which the Western and Atlantic, a Georgia line, did not touch. A wagon trip from Mississippi to Georgia in the midst of the war would have been more than improbable. And in his version the event takes place presumably after the fall of Atlanta, when Georgia, like north Mississippi after Shiloh, was overrun and demoralized by invading troops” (Howell 189). Perhaps the most meaningful alteration is the swapping of roles in the chase. Faulkner makes the lead train a Confederate train and makes the Union army the pursuant. Why?

In the real Great Locomotive Chase, the North attacks the South with cunning and force. In Faulkner’s raid, the South steals a train to take back what belonged to them. By changing the narrative, Faulkner tells a story of resistance, rather than falling. “It was a gallant feat by a handful of Southerners, made more appealing to later generations in the South by the outcome of the war. To Faulkner, it is an example of defeated valor, a quality in Southern history which has always appealed to his imagination” (Howell 189-190).

Recognizing these modifications might make a reader question all historical elements of Faulkner’s writing. Which parts are real and which are imagined? Elmo Howell puts it best in his observation that, “Faulkner's approach to history is entirely subjective. The writer's duty, he says, is to say something about the human heart in conflict with itself; and when he turns to the past of the South, he arranges events to serve this larger purpose” (187). Faulkner’s own practice may be mirrored in Bayard. His narration is retrospective, telling particular stories and acknowledging that some details may be untrue or clouded by childhood innocence.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William, and Edward Shenton. The Unvanquished: the Corrected Text. New York, Vintage International, 1991.

Howell, Elmo. “William Faulkner and the Andrews Raid in Georgia.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 2, June 1965, pp. 187–192.

Additional Resources

Keefe, Kevin P. “Searching for the Andrews Raiders: One Hundred Fifty Years Later, the Great Locomotive Chase Still Echoes along CSX Tracks in North Georgia.(MYTHS AND LEGENDS).” Trains Magazine, vol. 72, no. 4, 2012, p. 24.