The Great Locomotive Chase 144th Anniversary

Essay by Calvin E. Johnson, Jr.

This year, 2006, is the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney Picture’s classic "The Great Locomotive Chase" starring Fess Parker and Jeffrey Hunter. This wonderful movie was made during the golden age of Hollywood, when family films were still made. When it comes to the old locomotives many of us are children at heart. Do you love good stories about the bygone era of passenger trains that once were the fastest way to travel?


America’s most famous locomotive "The General" is now home at the Kennesaw, Georgia Civil War Museum. Kennesaw, Georgia is just 45 miles north from Atlanta. Located across the railroad tracks from the business district of Kennesaw, that is Old Highway 41, is the museum. There is a train story here if you have the time to listen.

Please share this story with family and friends.

April 12, is the 144th anniversary of the Great Locomotive Chase that made the General famous.

Jefferson Cain, an employee of the Western and Atlantic Railroad, was Engineer of the General. At 4:15AM on April 12, 1862, Cain pushed the General’s throttle and drove the train out of Atlanta for Chattanooga as a cool spring rain fell on the city.

In the spring of 1862, the peaceful town of Big Shanty (now Kennesaw) Georgia was paid a not-so-peaceful visit by Union spies that were led by James Andrews, who brought with him plans to disrupt Confederate supply lines. Andrews and his men boarded the train at Marietta, Georgia. They had spent the night before at the Fletcher House (now Kennesaw House.) Twenty boarded the train and two were left behind.

The next stop was the Lacy Hotel in Big Shanty "Kennesaw" for a twenty minute breakfast break where the General was stolen in full view of "Camp McDonald" that was a drill camp and home to many Confederate officers and enlisted men. There was no telegraph there which was one reason Andrews chose this site.

James Andrews, A Kentuckian, had made a name for himself by smuggling the much needed quinine through Union lines for the benefit of Confederate soldiers and civilians. There were with him three experienced engineer’s, William Knight, Wilson Brown and John Wilson. When asked where they were from they replied by saying, "I am from Fleming County, Kentucky." They also said they were on their way to join the Confederate army.

The official plan to steal the General was approved by Union General Ormsby Michael. The plan was to take the locomotive north on the Western and Atlantic Railroad and destroy tracks, bridges and tunnels along the way. General Michael agreed that he would take Huntsville on April 11, 1862, and then would wait for Andrews before moving into Chattanooga, Tennessee.

"Someone….has stolen my train," William Fuller, Conductor of the General said in amazement as the train was stolen and pulling away from the Big Shanty train depot. Men of the Western and Atlantic Railroad almost immediately began the chase with Engineer Jefferson Cain, William Fuller and machine foreman Anthony Murphy close behind.

With no telegraph at Big Shanty, the men ran north along the railroad tracks to Moon Station and procured a platform handcar, then went on until they found the locomotive "The Yonah." The second train used was the "William R. Smith."

The last locomotive used in the chase by Fuller was the famous "Texas" that was heading south. The Texas is now housed in Atlanta, Georgia at the Cyclorama at Grant Park. With no time to spare, the Texas was run in reverse through the entire chase.

James Andrews and his Raiders were slowed down by South Bound trains that had to pass before they could continue. With the telegraph out of service, Fuller was fortunate to catch telegraph operator Edward Henderson. Fuller gave the young Henderson a hand up on the train, as it still was in motion, and take a message that he would send to General Ledbetter from Dalton.

Andrews and his men failed to destroy the bridges over Georgia’s Chickamauga Creek, Etowah River and Tunnell Hill. They also failed to slow down their pursuers by setting the cars of the General on fire and sending them back down the railroad tracks. The end came when they ran out of wood and lost power about 18 miles south of Chattanooga.

It took about two weeks for the Confederates to capture the Union spies. Some of them made is as far as Bridgeport, Alabama. All 20 of Andrews Raiders were captured. James Andrews and 6 of his men were hung in Atlanta, eight escaped and others were paroled.

The United States Congress created the Medal of Honor in 1862 and it was awarded to some of the raiders. James Andrews was not eligible because he was part a part of the military service.

The South’s son William Fuller, who is buried at Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, was recognized by the Confederate government, Georgia’s Governor Joseph Brown and the Georgia State Legislature for his act of heroism.

Lest We Forget Our Heritage!