The American Civil War has captivated historians, writers, filmmakers and buffs with its epic battles and moving personal stories. Some of the most captivating and memorable events of the war had little impact on the overall outcome, but are intriguing sagas on their own. One such case is the capturing of a steam locomotive named General.
The railroad had already proven its worth as a tool of war by 1862. In April of that year, Union soldiers engaged in a covert operation to disable rail lines leading to Chattanooga prior to a Union assault on the city. Such actions were critical in preventing the movement of reinforcements of troops, ammunition and supplies as well as communications via the rails and adjoining telegraph lines. The raid was led by James Andrews, a civilian.
Although the complete details of the raid would fill a good book, and many have been written, a brief recount is in order. On the morning of April 12, 1862 – one year to the day after the firing on Fort Sumter – a group of 20 men boarded a northbound Western and Atlantic train at Marietta, Georgia. The men bought tickets in small groups and boarded quietly. Most were Union soldiers, but were not in uniform. The train’s next stop was the small town of Big Shanty (present day Kennesaw.) While the train stopped to allow passengers and crew a 20 minute break for lunch, the band of raiders secured the train and sped off north.
Despite the proximity of Confederate troops, the lack of a telegraph at the station here would allow the party to gain a solid head start. Cutting the telegraph lines to the north and maintaining a low profile would allow the General and its captors to move relatively unnoticed for a great distance. As the train rolled north, occasional stops were made to remove rail and obstruct pursuit.
The chase began almost immediately, and by whatever means available. From foot to horseback, pump cars and eventually other locomotives and trains, the original crew did everything they could to retake their engine. By the time the General reached Kingston, a major junction, suspicion had started to rise and the raid took on a more urgent pace of escape. At Adairsville, the train met a southbound freight led by the Texas. After a tense exchange, the trains parted ways. A few miles south, Texas found William Fuller, the General’s original engineer chasing on foot. Quickly they were running in reverse to catch the General. With the train set off upon return to Adairsville, the Texas continued the chase running tender-first.
Near Calhoun, they met another southbound led by the Catoosa. Another tense exchange followed as the General had now abandoned any effort to disguise their actions. When Texas showed up shortly thereafter, the Catoosa too uncoupled from her train and chased the General while running in reverse. Attempts to stop the pursuit by burning a covered bridge failed, and stops for wood and water further slowed the escape. Finally, an overheated and broken bearing forced the 22 men to abandon their prize and run for cover.
Escape proved futile, and just 20 days later, the 20 men were on board the W&A once again – this time as prisoners heading south. In fitting irony, the locomotive assigned to pull that train was none other than the General.
Soldier or Spy?
For the 24 men involved in the raid (only 20 made it to the train, but four others who fell away from the party before hand were also captured and included) their legacy is one of both hero and villain. It is here that this small incident of little consequence in the war itself becomes more than just a great plot for an action movie as it becomes a microcosm for the state of division that existed between North and South at this time. In many ways, the debate over matters like this continues today in our war against terrorism.
Because the men were all dressed as civilians and not as Union soldiers, they were treated as spies in the South. Indeed two men, William Campbell and Andrews himself, were private citizens. As spies, the raiders would face the highest punishment for their crime once captured.
Andrews would be the first to be hanged, in Atlanta on June 7. The execution was to have taken place in Chattanooga, but a Union attack on the city forced a change of plans and relocation of Andrews and eight co-conspirators. Even among the Southern press, Andrews himself was treated not so harshly as a war criminal but as a misbegotten soul. Born in Virginia and raised in Kentucky, there was some sympathy to his plight, but not for his ultimate role. “…he was not a man of much ability – had but little cultivation, and was victimized by shrewder men than himself.” – Southern Confederacy, June 8, 1862
On June 18th seven more of the prisoners were hung, including William Campbell and six Union volunteers from Ohio. They’re obituary in the paper was much less noteworthy. “Yesterday afternoon seven more of the engine thieves were hung near this city. They were a portion of the twenty-four that arrived here in strings a few days ago. They are all Ohioans. We have not learned their names.” – Southern Confederacy, June 19, 1862
The fate of the 14 who remained in captivity ended very differently. Eight managed to escape from prison on the night of October 16 and the remaining six were later traded in a prisoner swap with the North. Once back north, the raiders received an entirely different reception, beginning with the first awarding of the newly created Medal of Honor. Later the band met with President Lincoln himself. Medal of Honor awards would be given to all but three of the military participants (not to the two civilians) if not during their lifetime, posthumously to their families. Several would go on to write and publish books of their accounts which became recorded as part of the official history of the war and secured their place in history – but as what still depends greatly on who is reading the tale.
The Impact of the Great Locomotive Chase
The immediate impact of the raid was minor. The railroad suffered little damage, General was quickly repaired and back in service before the men were even captured. Arguably, it wasn’t even the most important engagement of the war for the General. The locomotive nearly came under fire at the battle of Kennesaw Mountain and would later be extensively damaged as the railroad destroyed its assets in advance of the taking of Atlanta two years later.
But the chase has earned a permanent spot in our understanding and celebration of the war. The awards and early publications of the raiders themselves were the first to gain national attention. The story is one that has held up well even in the age of the motion picture. The first movie based upon the event was The General staring Buster Keaton in 1911. Although only loosely based on the actual details of the raid, the movie does capture the image of the period very well. Although not a box-office success when released, it has come to be regarded as one of the pivotal works in American cinema.
Walt Disney was next to tell the story in 1956, with The Great Locomotive Chase. This picture was based closely on the original event, as told through one of the raiders, William Pittenger. Disney’s interpretation did not attempt to breathe more into the story than was there, or alter the history in any great way. It is one of the few movies about the civil war to stay away from such actions. The equipment used in this movie came from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum and the Virginia and Truckee.
In addition to the famous movies, more than 7 books have been written about the chase. The most recent was published only five years ago in 2007. The locomotives have been reproduced countless times in artwork and models, including by Lionel. The original locomotive ran was last restored to operation for the centennial of the event in 1962 and now resides in the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Georgia – just yards from where its rise to fame all began 150 years ago today. The Texas is also preserved and is on public display at the Atlanta Cyclorama building in Grant Park.
It is truly amazing that after a century and a half, so much of this story remains. That alone is a testament to its fascination. The saga of the General remains important in our history, not because it changed history, but because it made it and tells it so well. Perhaps it is because no matter how you interpret it, this story has a hero. Perhaps it is simply one of those amazing tales of fact being more exciting than fiction. Whether you’re a teacher working on a lesson or just a fan looking for a great story, if all of this has you thirsty for more here are a few sites and books you’ll want to check out:
- The Great Locomotive Chase: One of the most complete online accounts available, including great histories on the locomotives themselves for those interested in the technology and historic preservation side of the story.
- The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History: Home of the General among many other great things.
- The Story of Andrews’ Raiders: A great short summary of the chase itself.
- Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor by Russell S Bonds. The most recent and very thorough account of the raid, published in 2007.
- The General and the Texas by James Bogle and Stan Cohen, published in 2000.
- Capturing a Locomotive by William Pettinger. Published in 1863 by J.W. Daughaday. This first hand account was the basis for the 1956 Disney movie.