The Great Locomotive Chase on the Western and Atlantic Railroad

On April 12, 1862, during the Civil War, Union Army members and sympathizers commandeered a locomotive named "The General" and moved northward along the Western and Atlantic Railroad, which connected Chattanooga with Atlanta, and was a vital link for the Confederacy. The General was no. 3 in the W&A roster, a 4-4-0 type locomotive, also known as an "American Standard".  The General was stopped at Big Shanty, Georgia (now Kennesaw) for breakfast for the crew and passengers when it was taken.

The Union members, led by a civilian scout named James J. Andrews, did as much damage as they possibly could to the line during the raid, but were soon being chased by Confederate soldiers in another locomotive, The Texas, over a distance of 87 miles.

Union troops had cut telegraph wires along the line, and thus the Confederacy could not warn the forces of the situation.

"The General" Steam Engine. Illustration from a book called Deeds of Honor.

The event was dubbed, "The Great Locomotive Chase", and was made into a movie.

Movie poster for The General, which released in 1926.

Some men were caught and executed by the Confederates over the next two weeks. Many of the members of the Union Army were awarded the Medal of Honor for their efforts in the raid. Andrews, being a civilian, was unfortunately ineligible for the award, but was nonetheless venerated for his efforts, and a historical marker of his execution stands in Atlanta today.

Andrews Historical Marker in downtown Atlanta, GA. "James J. Andrews, leader of the Andrews Raiders, was executed a few feet southeast on June 7, 1862. Andrews a native of Hancock County, now West Virginia, was a civilian spy for the Union Army who led 20 Union soldiers and another civilian to Big Shanty (Kennesaw), Georgia, stole the locomotive "General," April 12, 1862, and began the Great Locomotive Chase on the Western and Atlantic RR leading to Chattanooga. The Chase ended north of Ringgold with little damage to the railroad. Andrews and seven others were executed. First awards of the Congressional Medal of Honor were made to the survivors."

Since railways were instrumental in the war effort - and the North had an inherent advantage to that end, as the South had fewer miles of railroad, the idea was to cut off Chattanooga from Atlanta via rail, forcing troop and supply shipments to take place via road, suffocating the supplies of the Confederacy, tactics that separate the Civil War from earlier wars, and making the battle one of the first "modern" wars in history.. 

Kurtz & Joswick map and summary of the chase.

This type of infrastructure warfare was successfully used by Gen. William T. Sherman as well, as he would have men bend iron rails along railroads and twist them into a knot, which became known as Sherman's Neckties. This method of track destruction was extremely hard to repair, given the lack of iron foundry's in the south at the time.

For the Western and Atlantic Railroad, the line was repaired and eventually became part of the Nashville Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway, and was then passed onto CSX, where it remains in service to this day as the W&A Subdivision

Aside from a few minor track relocations, the line is very much the same as it was during the Civil War, with the only major change being when the standard gauge of 4'8 1/2" was applied to railroads in the South in 1886, changing the gauge from 5'. 

The General remains alive today as a static display at the Southern Museum of Civil War & Locomotive History. The Texas is also displayed at a museum, the Atlanta History Center.

Thanks as always for reading!



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