Civil War Talk Radio: August 29, 2008

Air Date: 082908
Subject: The Great Locomotive Chase
Book: Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor
Guest: Russell S. Bonds

Summary: Russell S. Bonds goes into detail about the Great Locomotive Chase, an event where Union raiders stole the General, a Confederate locomotive, and attempted to ride it back to Union lines.

Brett’s Summary:The fifth season of Civil War Talk Radio started off with a bang.  Gerry discusses The Great Locomotive Chase with Stealing the General author Russell Bonds.  Gerry hopes to get an auxiliary web site up and running this season which will give information about upcoming shows, display older shows in a more user friendly format, and which will also allow for a donations button.  When not writing books, Bonds works in the legal department at Coca Cola.

Gerry mentions THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE, a Disney movie on the raid, and Russell also discusses Buster Keaton’s slient film THE GENERAL.  He goes on to mention the intriguing aspects of the raid to both Civil War and railroad buffs.  Gerry calls this “the intersection of geekiness” between the two groups.

The Western & Atlantic Railroad had a strategic importance to the northwestern Georgia and southeastern Tennessee area.  The Andrews raid wanted to cut the railroad to cut off Chattanooga from Atlanta in order to isolate the former city and make it vulnerable to Union capture.

Ormsby Mitchell was the Third Division commander in the Army of the Ohio, and he was the commanding general in central Tennessee.  Mitchell, a former railroad man, was the driving force behind the raid.  James Andrews volunteered to move deep into Confederate territory, steal a train, and break the Western & Atlantic somewhere between Atlanta and Chattanooga.

Andrews pulled his raiding force from three Ohio regiments, the 2nd, 21st, and 33rd.  These men were volunteered by their colonels.  Many of these soldiers were some of the lesser men in their units.  Bonds likens it to the movie THE DIRTY DOZEN.

The raiders came under some suspicion in a few cases, but made it to Marietta, Georgia undetected.  They boarded a train there and took the locomotive during the scheduled breakfast stop in Big Shanty, Georgia.  The raiders climbed onto the train and took off without a shot being fired.  Andrews did have some railroad engineers, firemen, and machinists in his group.

Andrews and his men initially tried to act like they were a regular train, which meant they were traveling at the typical 16 miles per hour.  They were going to wait until they had crossed the Etowah and Oostenaula rivers prior to undertaking any large scale track destruction.  However, the conductor of the stolen train, William Allen Fuller, started after his train by walking.  Fuller eventually manged to get a switch engine himself, and the chase was on.

Andrews and his men had commandeered the General, a 4-4-0 locomotive.  Fuller followed in the formerly southbound Texas, now moving in reverse!  Bonds discounts some of the myths which have arisen in the years since the chase, partly as a result of making movies more interesting.

In the end, the General ran out of fuel.  Andrews had not had time to refill his tender during the pursuit.  Many of the names in the Great Locomotive chase are familiar names to students of the Atlanta Campaign, including Dalton and Resaca.  When the General stops, the raiders ran for the woods.  All of them were captured within ten days, and they were jailed in Chattanooga.  The jailer in Chattanooga treated these men very poorly.

Andrews was the first person put on trial.  He was quickly found guilty in court martial proceedings, and seven more men were found guilty as well.  Interestingly, these men were not found guilty of stealing the train.  The reason was due to the Confederates fearing this charge would give these mens’ actions military legitimacy.  Instead, the men were found guilty for skulking around Confederate camps, quite incorrectly as Bonds points out.  Listen to the program to find out Bonds’ opinion as to the legitimacy of the operation.

Andrews and seven others were found guilty.  This meant death sentences for all eight men.  Andrews and these men were brought to Atlanta to hang.  Andrews was hanged first in June 1862.  Andrews was a tall man, so his feet were able to reach the ground.  The Confederates had to literally dig some ground from under his feet to finish the job.  The other seven were hanged ten days later, and two of the heaviest men had their hangings go poorly as Andrews’ own hanging did.

The remaining raiders were more than likely worried about their own fates.  They ended up writing a note to President Jefferson Davis begging for clemency and mercy.  Davis responded in his usual cold fashion to this appeal.  The remaining fourteen men then decided to try to escape from a jail in Atlanta.  At meal time, they overpowered a jailer who attempted to feed them and then tried to make it over the wall.  Eight men made it not only over the wall but also all the way back to Union lines, “several hundred miles away” according to Bonds.  Two of the men actually went SOUTH instead, eventually getting picked up by the United States Navy in the Gulf of Mexico.  The other six men who failed to escape were exchanged in the end in the spring of 1863.

They went to Washington, D.C. to speak with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.  Colonel E.D. Townsend by this time had come up with the idea for the Medal of Honor.  Winfield Scott did not like the idea initially, thinking it had too much European flair.  Once Scott retired, the way was open for the idea to go forward.  Stanton decided to award these men the Medal of Honor.

Bonds indicated that he is working on a book about the Battle of Atlanta and the subsequent burning of the city.

Civil War Talk Radio airs most Fridays at 12 PM Pacific on World Talk Radio Studio A. Host Gerry Prokopowicz, the History Chair at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, interviews a guest each week and discusses their interest in the Civil War. Most interviews center around a book or books if the guest is an author. Other guests over the years have included public historians such as park rangers and museum curators, wargamers, bloggers, and even a member of an American Civil War Round Table located in London, England.

In this series of blog entries, I will be posting air dates, subjects, and guests, and if I have time, I’ll provide a brief summary of the program. You can find all of the past episodes I’ve entered into the blog by clicking on the Civil War Talk Radio category. Each program should appear either on or near the date it was first broadcast.

Check out more summaries of Civil War Talk Radio at TOCWOC.

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