Thursday, April 12, 2012

It was 150 years ago today...

That Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.

No, wait a minute...wrong lead-in. It was on this date in 1862 that a small band of Union soldiers who'd snuck into Georgia set out to undertake a daring mission, one that if successful, might have changed the course of the War of Northern Aggression Civil War.

Led by civilian spy John Andrews, eighteen soldiers from the Ohio infantry, all wearing civilian clothes, boarded a northbound train after infiltrating the Confederacy and making their way down to Marietta. This train, named The General (train engines had names back then), was scheduled to run up to Chattanooga. However when it stopped in Big Shanty (Now Kennesaw) for a meal break, these soldiers and Andrews took possession of the train and began running it north, the goal being to destroy the only rail line to Chattanooga and cut that city off from reinforcement to enable General Ormsby Mitchell to take it. The raiders, after stealing the train, were supposed to cut telegraph wires, pull up rails, burn a bridge or two, and otherwise make the rail line unusable for the Confederate army.

Well things didn't go quite as planned. Due to heavy rains, they got to Marietta a day late. (All of them were traveling on foot in small groups.) Twenty three men started out but two of the men never got there at all, being caught while enroute by Confederate troops and impressed into the Confederate army. Two others overslept and missed the train. The others managed to take the train but did a rather shoddy job of track sabotage on the way north, allowing the train's conductor to successfully pursue them, first on foot, then on a handcar, and then on another locomotive called The Texas, which had to run in reverse after the fleeing General as it had been southbound when stopped and there had been no way to turn it around. This chase, which came to be known as The Great Locomotive Chase, made for a great story in itself even though the mission itself failed. The raiders all abandoned the train and fled but were caught and tossed in prison. Seven, including Andrews, were executed, and most of the rest managed to escape prison and made their way back to Union lines. The remaining raiders were exchanged back a year later. 19 of these men were later awarded some of the very first Medals of Honor (Known today as the Congressional Medal of Honor), including one of the men who overslept and one of the ones who wound up enlisted in the Confederate army.

It all makes for a great tale, and coincidentally, I'm just finishing a book on this very event, a book known as Stealing the General by Russell S. Bonds. Bonds does a fantastic job re-telling this tale based on old articles and records of interviews with participants which managed to survive the years. His book runs to 464 pages, but it reads so well that it's hard to put it down. If you're interested in the Civil war, railroading, or just swashbuckling tales of daring-do, this book should probably be on your reading list.

If you don't want to buy this book, you can learn more about the raid here and here. But I recommend the book all the same, if only because it's truly a well-written, easy-reading book about a once-famous event which is now all but lost to history.


  1. I use to live in Kennesaw and Marietta, and have heard this story many times. You are right, great tale. It still amuses me that a meal break was taken in Kennesaw as it is not that far from Marietta.

    More impressive is the battle at Kennesaw Mountain, which is really just a hill but a rather steep one. Union troops were delayed for some time trying to dislodge the Confederates from atop that hill.

  2. Last I heard it was just the Medal of Honor, and adding Congressional was wrong.
    When did they change the designation?
    sign me,