April 12, 1862 – The Great Locomotive Chase & Review of “Stealing the General” by Russell S. Bonds re Civil War Heist

In April of 1862, 22 volunteer Union soldiers in civilian attire under the command of a charismatic civilian quinine smuggler named James Andrews set forth from Union controlled territory to penetrate more than 100 miles into the heart of Dixie, steal a locomotive, and wreak havoc along the Atlanta & West Point Rail Road from Atlanta to Chattanooga. The strategic purpose of the audacious raid was to isolate the city of Chattanooga from re-supply by rail from the South. A relatively small Union force under Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel had already cut off Chattanooga from the west by taking Huntsville, Alabama.


Remarkably, all but two of the members of the incursion were able to rendezvous undetected in Marietta, Georgia on April 11. They all boarded a northbound train early the following morning. on April 12. While the southern crew and other passengers detrained for breakfast, the insurgents captured the train. In the presence of a slowly awakening division of C.S.A. soldiers, they decoupled the passenger cars and headed north, pulled by the soon to become famous engine, “The General.”

The Union men had not reckoned on William Fuller, the conductor of the train they had commandeered. He led a determined chase, in which he first ran on foot, and then appropriated another engine [the “Texas”] to catch the raiders. The chase lasted more than 5 hours and covered almost 100 miles, with speeds sometimes exceeding 60 miles per hour. (Locomotives of the time normally averaged 15 miles per hour, with short bursts of an average speed of 20 miles per hour.) Since the railroad was a single track, the trains occasionally had to switch to side tracks to allow southbound trains to pass.

James Andrews

James Andrews

The General was eventually trapped, and all the raiders were captured, some after several days in the wilderness. The Confederate army tried the entire raiding party as spies since they did not wear uniforms during the raid. Andrews, the civilian leader of the raid, and seven of the men were hanged after a court marshal. The Confederate legal system was not very efficient, and the others were never tried. They were, however, imprisoned in ghastly circumstances for more than a year. Eventually, ten escaped, and their stories are each thrillers in themselves. (Two of the raiders escaped by heading south down the Chattahoochee River, eventually making it to the Gulf of Mexico to be rescued by the Union navy!) The remaining five were exchanged for Union prisoners shortly before the end of the war.

The raid cannot be called successful in that little damage was done to Southern assets, and Chattanooga did not fall to the Union for another two years. Nevertheless, the surviving members of the raid were the first recipients of the Medal of Honor, in recognition of their courage and of what might have been. The General itself became something of a national icon, and was exhibited in many fairs and exhibitions for more than a century. It now rests, completely refurbished, in Atlanta, Georgia.


The story of the chase has been told in many books, several written by the surviving participants, and Walt Disney made an almost factual movie about the raid, “The Great Locomotive Chase” in 1956. Russell Bonds’ effort is a very well-written and well-organized addition to the literature of the chase. He manages to bring the story to life and stay unbiased throughout. He evaluates the truth of many conflicting allegations about the raid very convincingly.


Published by Westholme Publishing, 2006


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