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The Great Locomotive Chase

KENNESAW, Ga. – April 12, 1862. It was the one-year anniversary of the start of the Civil War, and the morning passenger train – pulled by the locomotive General – arrived in town.

Deep in the heart of the Confederacy, Union spies under the command of James Andrews rode into town on the morning passenger train. Their motive was the destruction of the Western and Atlantic Railroad.

“Big Shanty, 20 minutes for breakfast,” conductor William A. Fuller told the train’s passengers. Rolling to a stop, most people disembarked from the train’s coaches and headed for the Lacy Hotel, a railroad stop where a 25-cent breakfast was waiting for them. Among those disembarking from the train was Fuller, engineer Jeff Cain and Anthony Murphy, who headed the railroad shop.

Andrews, and his 19 raiders, slowly made their way towards the General, uncoupling the engine, along with three boxcars, from the rest of the train. With a pull of the throttle, the General was off and the Great Locomotive Chase was under way.

“While at breakfast I heard the engine ‘exhaust’ very rapidly and suddenly,” Fuller recounted in a statement published in the April 23, 1862, edition of the Southern Banner of Athens, Ga., which was publishing a report from the Atlanta Intelligencer of April 15, 1862.

“I immediately rose up and stated to Mr. A. Murphy, who is Boss of the State Road Shop, but who happened to be a passenger that morning, and Mr. Jeff Cain, my engineer, that something was wrong with the engine,” Fuller Added. “We three then hastened out; and, much to our surprise, discovered that the engine with three cars was out of sight. I, at once, suggested to Messrs. Murphy and Cain, the propriety of following the engine to Chattanooga, if in no other way on foot, and pursue till we overtook and captured the unknown thieves.”

The three chased the raiders on foot, by handcar and by commandeering three different locomotives, finally catching them about two miles north of Ringgold, Ga. If successful, the raid would have left the Western and Atlantic Railroad in ruins. Instead, the raid became a race for life.

About two miles north of Kennesaw, the General stopped at Moon’s Station to pick some tools from a track crew. A second historical marker marks Moon’s Station.

The General then continued north, passing over the Etowah River. Although the railroad no longer uses the same bridge, stone supports are still standing. Andrews did not destroy the bridge, which was one of the raid’s targets. Instead, he left the bridge intact, allowing the General’s train crew to continue their pursuit.

The next major stop on the raid was in Kingston, Ga. Although the town is no longer a thriving railroad community, during the Civil War Kingston was a major crossroads of the Western and Atlantic and the Rome railroads. It was here the raiders were delayed for about an hour and five minutes, a key turning point in the raid.

Kingston’s depot no longer stands, but the remains of its foundations are still visible. Likewise, the remains of the rail yard’s right of way can still be seen. A historical marker marks the raiders time in Kingston.

“When we arrived at Kingston, we found that the thieves had passed some twenty-five minutes ahead of us,” Fuller said in his statement. “We were there told that they stated that they had been pressed by the Government to carry powder and ammunition to (Gen. P.G.T.) Beauregard—that Fuller, and the regular mail train was behind, and would be on directly. This, they did, to get the switch keys; and so plausible were their statements, that they completely deceived the agent at Kingston.”

The pursuers left Kingston on the William R. Smith, a locomotive from the Rome Railroad, heading toward Adairsville, Ga. Just south of town, the raiders stopped to tear up the track, prohibiting their pursuers from continuing the chase in a locomotive. At this point, the pursuers abandoned their second locomotive – the William R. Smith – and continued on foot. Minutes later, they commandeered their third engine – the Texas, which ran in reverse for the remainder of the chase. Adairsville’s depot, built in the 1850s, has been converted into a museum dedicated to the Great Locomotive Chase.

After Adairsville is the most impressive site on the route of the raid – the former railroad tunnel through the Chetoogeta Mountain. The 1,447-foot long tunnel was completed in 1850, allowing the Western and Atlantic Railroad to connect Atlanta and Chattanooga. The tunnel was used until 1928, when a larger passageway was built through the mountain, allowing bigger trains to use the route.

The tunnel was one of several points of possible sabotage by the raiders, but because of the close pursuit, their plan failed.

Running out of steam, the raiders passed through the north Georgia town of Ringgold, which in the mid-19th century was a bigger community than Chattanooga. The General passed by the town’s station, opened on May 9, 1850.

About two miles north of town, the General was out of steam. The raiders, no longer able to outrun their pursuers, abandoned the engine and their hopes of destroying one of the Confederacy’s lifelines – the Western and Atlantic Railroad.

A historical marker denotes the spot – which must look eerily similar today as it did 142 years ago – where the General came to a stop for the last time on the Great Locomotive Chase. The 20 raiders scattered off into the woods, only to be caught in a matter of days.

Today, the raid is a mere bookmark in the history of the Civil War and the General sits idle – an exhibit in the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History – yards away from where she was stolen 14 decades ago. The museum, a Smithsonian Institution Affiliate, chronicles the chase through film, reproductions and exhibits, including the famous locomotive.

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