The General is perhaps the most famous steam locomotive in U.S. history. It is the subject of books and movies, it was made into an Avon decanter in the 1970s, it was featured on a U.S. Postal Service steam locomotive stamp set in the 1990s, its sounds were recorded for a 7-inch record in 1962, it was made into O gauge and HO electric trains and a large plastic model, and it has its own museum, in Kennesaw, Ga., where a dramatic race began that firmly entrenched the General in the annals of Civil War history.
James J. Andrews and his raiders, from Ohio, were riding the train posing as men planning to enlist in the Confederate army and stole the train on April 12, 1862, during a breakfast stop at Big Shanty Station, now Kennesaw, on the Western & Atlantic Railroad line, in sight of Confederate Camp McDonald. Their mission was to race north to Chattanooga and cut communications, but they didn’t count on the tenacity of conductor William A. Fuller, who, with Jeff Cain and Anthony Murphy, chased the raiders on foot, on a handcar, on the locomotive William R. Smith, on foot again when they encountered a break in the tracks near Adairsville, and finally backward on the Texas. The close pursuit prevented the raiders from completing their mission and taking on wood and water, and they were caught when the General ran out of steam, just short of their goal. Because they were spies, those who were caught were shot.
The General was burned during the war and was later restored, and it spent many years in a Chattanooga roundhouse museum, until the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw won ownership in 1972 after a court battle. The record was made during the 100th anniversary of the raid in 1962, when the General visited Kennesaw, greeted by exuberant cheering and a brass band playing “Dixie.” Buster Keaton starred in a slapstick silent movie version of the chase, “The General,” and Fess Parker starred in the 1956 Disney production “The Great Locomotive Chase.” Several books have been written; I have “Andrews’ Raiders” and “Stealing the General.” The Union raiders were among the first recipients of the Medal of Honor, some, who were hanged as spies, receiving it posthumously.
I first visited Kennesaw in June 1972 and probably just missed the locomotive’s arrival at its new home. We went to Georgia that year for my cousin’s wedding, and my uncle and maternal grandfather, being Civil War buffs, included Kennesaw in a few history stops during our extended visit. I took slide pictures with my Kodak Instamatic of the historical displays outside the museum and of the exterior of the museum, which was closed that day. A year or two later I bought the book “Civil War Railroads” at Waldenbooks in Belden Village Mall, and that book included some comments on the chase. Over the years I enjoyed looking at my slides as I learned more about the chase, wishing I could return to Kennesaw to view again the site of the famous (or infamous, depending on your loyalties) theft. I held onto that wish for decades, and it was finally answered when we visited my uncle and aunt, still living at the same house, in 2000.
We went to Kennesaw to see the museum during our visit, but I had no hope of seeing the General, having read in “Civil War Railroads” that it was housed in a roundhouse museum in Chattanooga, Tenn. I was happy just to see again the site of the heroic (or criminal) theft. But that book was a few years old when I bought it, and I was surprised and excited when the curator told us the General was in the back section of the museum, and I took many photos of my favorite iron horse.
The museum’s website, www.southernmuseum.org, says that on Thursday, on the 150th anniversary of the theft, the Waggoner family of Perrysburg, Ohio, descendants of Sgt. John Scott, one of the raiders, will donate the man’s medal, awarded posthumously, and the museum will host a living history the following weekend to commemorate the Great Locomotive Chase.
I wish I could be there. It’s been another 12 years since I visited Kennesaw, Ga., and it’s again been too long, but I am glad to have returned in 2000. Imagine if I had known, at age 14, that it would be 28 years before I returned. That would seem an eternity to someone that age, but with age comes a bit of patience, and the history of the Civil War’s most famous locomotive has become closely entwined with my personal history and my memories of family vacations.
This post was a column in the Alliance Review on April 6 and was an expansion of a post on Jan. 11. See that post for photos.