Georgia cities remember madcap 'Great Locomotive Chase'

Cities in Georgia along the "The Great Locomotive Chase" route are commemorating the event's 150th anniversary.

Story highlights

  • 150 years ago Thursday, Union raiders stole a train in Georgia
  • They were chased by conductor, other crew members
  • The incident became known as "The Great Locomotive Chase"
  • Towns along the chase route are commemorating the event
It was the most famous high-speed chase of its day.
The pursuers didn't have flashing blue lights. They couldn't swing around and cut off the hijacked vehicle. But they didn't have to.
The locomotive General weighed more than 20 tons and was confined to a single iron track between Atlanta, Georgia, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Its top speed was about 70 miles per hour, it had no brakes, and it eventually ran out of fuel.
However, "The Great Locomotive Chase," which occurred 150 years ago Thursday, made heroes of Union soldiers and civilians -- who tried to put a critical railroad line out of commission during the Civil War -- and the Southern train crews and troops who pursued them.
Several members of the raiding party were the first to receive the new Medal of Honor.
The suburban Atlanta town where the chase began and other Georgia communities along the 80-mile route this week are commemorating the wild, failed escapade immortalized in two movies.
"It's the greatest war story ever told," said Jere Martin, 60, of Atlanta, as he prepared Thursday to enter Kennesaw's Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, which houses the General. "It's a classic tale of daring versus persistence."
Civilian leader James J. Andrews and his band of raiders boarded the General in nearby Marietta, bent on damaging the Western & Atlantic Railroad line as well as Confederate communications as they rushed northward to Chattanooga.
"The whole thing was snake-bit from the start," said Russell S. Bonds, author of the 2006 book "Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor."
"Two raiders overslept and missed the train, and there was bad (rail) traffic and weather," Bonds said.
On the morning of April 12, 1862, as the General made a breakfast stop in Big Shanty (present-day Kennesaw), Andrews' men unhooked passenger cars and sped away.
Stunned conductor William A. Fuller, thinking Confederate draftees at a camp in Big Shanty might have commandeered the General, literally ran after his train. He came across a handcar and cranked it until he found a train that could follow the General. Confederate horsemen eventually joined the madcap pursuit.
As Fuller kept the heat on and changed trains, Andrews' colleagues made two small breaks in the track and cut telegraph wires.
Andrews, who thought any pursuit had been stalled, was nearly caught in the town of Kingston, but continued on to a spot near Ringgold, where the General ran out of wood and water as the Texas closed in -- about seven hours after the caper began.
That is when he is reported to have said, "Every man for himself!"
The raiders jumped off, but were rounded up. The cost for taking part in the sabotage attempt was high. Andrews and seven other captured participants were subsequently hanged as spies. A dozen others escaped or were exchanged.
Besides the General, the dogged chase involved, in order, pursuing locomotives Yonah, William R. Smith and the Texas.
Remarkably, the Texas also survives. Its role often is overlooked. The locomotive, which operated in reverse during its portion of the chase, is housed at the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum.
"When the Texas got in the race, it was a duel between evenly matched locomotives," Bonds told CNN.
Some consider the hijacking of the General as the Doolittle Raid of its time: An attempt to boost morale and throw a little scare into the enemy.
"It's not a military battle," said Richard Banz, executive director of the Kennesaw museum. "This is an ingenious concept of 'let's go 200 miles behind enemy lines.' "
In the end, however, Andrews and his saboteurs did little damage and failed to burn a vital bridge.
Kennesaw, Marietta and other cities along the chase route, which now parallels Interstate 75 in northern Georgia, are sponsoring a range of events through the weekend, including tours, music, living histories and the screenings of two movies about the Andrews raid: Buster Keaton's silent comedy "The General" (1927) and Walt Disney's "The Great Locomotive Chase" (1956), starring Fess Parker.
On Thursday, the General was festooned with red, white and blue bunting as museum visitors took photos and learned more about regional railroad history. It saw service until the early 1960s. Most of its parts, including the smokestack, have been replaced or modified. The wheels and axle are believed to be original.
The episode proved the importance of railroads in the war and society, Bonds said. The line is still in operation today, serving as a busy CSX Transportation freight artery.
And the chase continues to capture the imagination.
"It is like the Dirty Dozen, the Great Train Robbery and the Great Escape all rolled into one," Bonds said.