William J. Knight: Train Engineer, Soldier, Storyteller

Rare Civil War Panorama on Display

William J. Knight served in the Civil War as a private in the 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Company E. Before the war he was an engineer for the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad. In April 1862 Knight was one of two dozen soldiers, almost all from Ohio, who volunteered for a secret mission now famously known as Andrews’ Raid or the Great Locomotive Chase.

Raiders Seized Confederate Locomotive The plan, devised and led by secret agent James J. Andrews, was for the raiders to cross Confederate lines and travel to Marietta, Ga. In Marietta, they boarded a northbound train. At a stop a few miles north of town they uncoupled the passenger cars and took control of the locomotive, called The General, and three freight cars. Knight was one of two soldiers who served as the engineer running the locomotive. They traveled more than 100 miles, cutting telegraph wires and destroying track as they went. Soon they were pursued by the Confederate Army. The raiders abandoned the train to give each soldier a chance to escape. However, all of the raiders were captured. Andrews and seven others were hung, while eight of the soldiers were exchanged with the Union Army for Confederate prisoners. Knight was among a group of eight soldiers who escaped Confederate prison and made the dangerous journey to Union lines.

Awarded Medal of Honor Knight and 17 others were awarded the Medal of Honor for their bravery. Their story captured the imaginations of people during and after the Civil War. Around 1878, Knight began giving public lectures describing his role in Andrews’ Raid and continued making presentations for 18 years. Accompanying Knight at his lectures was a panorama of 17 scenes painted on canvas or muslin panels that illustrated the raiders’ mission, capture and escape. The panels were stitched together and cranked past a square stage window while Knight spoke.

Panorama Tells Raiders’ Story, Offers Glimpse of 19th-Century Entertainment Panoramas were a common entertainment medium in the 19th century, however, few exist today. Knight’s Panorama, painted by Albert Kruger, tells a thrilling tale of the Civil War and also gives us a rare glimpse of 19th-century popular entertainment. Knight’s Panorama is currently on display at the Ohio Historical Center at I-71 and 17th Avenue in Columbus, where you can see one of Kruger’s large handpainted scenes plus photographs of 16 others in the continuous roll that Knight used to tell the story of the Great Locomotive Chase, along with the original stage window and rolling apparatus plus copies of advertising for Knight’s lectures.

Posted August 19, 2010
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