It was April Fool’s Day in 1862 when a small band of Union soldiers and two civilian spies crept deep into the Confederacy during the American Civil War to kidnap The General.
Attempting to smuggle The General through the Georgia countryside and back behind Union Army lines lead to one of the most exciting railroad chases in history.
You see, The General was the name given a new steam locomotive that was a vital engine in the Confederates’ Western and Atlantic Railroad. It was tasked with hauling troops, ammunition and supplies from Atlanta north to Chattanooga to help the Rebels defend against Major General Mitchel’s Union troops preparing to conduct a siege of Chattanooga.
Trains had no dining cars in 1862, so they often stopped to let passengers eat and look after other human needs at small railway hotels. The General pulled up in front of the Lacy Hotel in Kennesaw, Georgia and its crew, Confederate troops and other passengers on board went inside for breakfast.
That gave Union scout James Andrews, a civilian, and his handful of Union volunteers to come out of hiding in the nearby bushes unhook most of the troop train and start the General heading north.
Conductor William Allen Fuller and two soldiers took off after the engine on foot and chased it for several miles.
Now 153 years later The General is back in Kennesaw and is the star attraction at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History.
It’s a long and convoluted road that brought The General home – for example, Jimmy Carter, then governor of Georgia, was the honoured recipient.
The foot chase along the tracks picked up speed when conductor Fuller commandeered a handcar. A few miles later he came across another locomotive taking on water. He took the controls to continue the chase.
The General was new and fast and Fuller`s old engine couldn`t keep pace. However he encountered the south-bound Texan (locomotives were given names instead of numbers in those days). He switched over to the faster Texan, threw it into reverse and chased backwards after The General.
If you`re my age you may have watched all this on TV. It wasn`t a live broadcast of course, but Disney used the real General to make a movie in 1956 about the famous railroad chase. Disney hired 6`6“ University of Texas athlete Fess Parker to play James Andrews. They liked Parker`s performance in the movie, so they signed him up to play Davy Crockett too.
Fuller was played by actor Jeffrey Hunter, who in 1966 turned down an offer to play the lead role in a new TV series – Star Trek. He died of a stroke three years later at age 42.
OK, back to the chase.
The all-day chase was filled with dirty tricks and luck – some good, some bad – for both teams.
Andrews’ Union hijackers pried up rails, set a box car on fire in a tunnel, forced rail yard workers at gunpoint to switch tracks for them, dodged on-coming trains, cut telegraph wires and threw wooden ties off the back of their fugitive train to try and slow their pursuers.
Despite the efforts of the fleeing Blue Jackets, the pursuing Texas was narrowing the gap. Eventually, The General ran out of dry wood to fuel its boiler and water to make steam. The wood it had on board was too wet to burn.
It coasted to a stop short of Chattanooga and the Union guys ran for their lives.
But, all were caught. Andrews and six others were hung as spies, six escaped from southern prisons and made it back to Union lines and eight were exchanged for Confederate prisoners.
All but one of the northern spies became the first recipients of a new military medal – the Congressional Medal of Honor – America’s highest award. Andrews didn’t qualify because he was a civilian.
You can reach out and touch The General back in Kennesaw’s Southern Museum; plus you can watch Disney’s movie about the Great Locomotive Chase and learn much of the story of the Civil War.
Some of the war’s heaviest fighting took place in the Atlanta suburbs as General Tecumseh Sherman closed in on that city. Just down the street from the museum is Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park where thousands of soldiers wearing blue and grey died.
The 2,300-acre park is one of the few Civil War battlefields in the Atlanta area that has not been swallowed up by urban sprawl. The park is mostly a 1,000-foot-high mountain offering some of the best hiking and bird watching in the Atlanta area. Twenty minutes outside of Atlanta you can hike amidst the tall, green, 145-year-old witnesses to some of America’s most historic moments.