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.

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6 Responses to William J. Knight: Train Engineer, Soldier, Storyteller

  1. Laughingrat says:

    And will you be showing clips of Buster Keaton’s “The General,” which immortalized the Great Locomotive Chase? :)

  2. fred d hollenbeck says:

    Pvt. Knight is my great grandfather. My mother is Margaret Louise Knight, born 1/9/1911. My grandfather is William Henry Harrison Knight, born July 26 (I think), 1875. I wouldn’t be here, in this form anyway, if Pvt. Knight hadn’t escaped. Family lore has it that President Lincoln actually handed the Medal of Honor to him. I have the Medal in my safety deposit box in the Bank of Mauston

    • Richard L. Bible says:

      My wife is also a relative of William J. Knight. We attended the dedication of his grave marker in Stryker, Ohio, by the National Medal of Honor Society. I have a whole album of history on William.

    • Don Allison says:

      Mr. Hollenbeck,

      I am a board member of the Stryker Area Heritage Council. I grew up just west of William J, Knight’s Stryker home (on Allison Street, a street named for my family) and we are planning to commemorate Mr. Knight’s involement in Andrews raid on Saturday, April 14, 2012, the Saturday closest to the 150th anniversary of the event. We would live to have you and other family members participate.

  3. David W. Stipe says:

    Mr. Allison,
    I, too, am the great grandson of William J. Knight.. My mother was Helen Frances Knight, and my grandfather was Jesse James Knight. I attended the dedication of the Bryan Armory (Army Reserve Training Center) on May 15, 1959. I even wrote a long article for the Bryan Times newspaper depicting the entire story of the Great Locomotive Chase. I have the framed Headquarters Legion of Honor certificate issued in 1891, when Knight was presented with the 2nd Medal of Honor. The original medals were made from gold, and under President Hayes’ administration, congress declared the medal would be struck from gunmetal of the battles in which the medals were earned. Knight was invited to return the original that had been pinned on him by Secretary of War Stanton, and he would be issued the new version. Knight “politely” told the President to “go to hell.” He had no intention of ever returning the original medal, but would gladly accept the new one. He did, in fact, receive the new one.

    Please share your plans for the commemoration in Stryker next April. I was raised (till age 6) in a very large brick home on the street across from the railroad depot in Stryker, and my great aunt Maggie (Mrs. John Leavy) lived next door. She was Knight’s sister.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    David W. Stipe
    P.O. Box 3625
    Topsail Beach, NC 28445
    910-328-1150
    dstipe1150@charter.net

  4. Gene Meier says:

    I am writing the first book from the American point of view concerning 19th century rotunda panoramas. These were the biggest paintings in the world, 50 x 400=20,000 square feet, housed in their own rotundas which were 16-sided polygons. Chicago in 1893 had 6 panorama companies and 6 panorama rotundas.Lena May McCauley (1858-1940) wrote in the CHICAGO EVENING POST March 12,1929 that Henry Knight engaged artist Joseph Pierre Birren (1864-1933) to assist in painting the cyclorama of the BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG in 1885. Birren would work for the Reed & Gross panorama company in Englewood, which in the 1880s was a suburb of Chicago and in the 1890s a neighborhood of Chicago. From September 1885 through Septembr1888 Reed & Gross produced units of the BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG and JERUSALEM ON THE DAY OF THE CRUCIFIXION every 90 days for cities from coast to coast and beyond. By 1893 Reed & Gross had offices in Melbourne, Chicago and London.

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