Civil War Saw Train Chase Worthy of a Hollywood Movie

A half sheet movie poster for Buster Keaton’s 1927 film The General sold for $16,730 at a March 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On April 12, 1862, “The General,” a small locomotive on the Western & Atlantic Railroad, pulled into Big Shanty, Ga., 25 miles north of Atlanta. The crew and passengers went to have breakfast, but James J. Andrews hung back. He and 22 other Union volunteers had orders to steal a train and burn bridges while General Ormsby Mitchel attacked Huntsville, Ala.

While a dazed sentry looked on, they uncoupled the General and three boxcars and sped north, while the conductor and two others gave chase on foot. Then they borrowed a handcar until it was derailed by a break Andrews men had made in the track. After righting the car, the railroad men then discovered another engine (the Yonah) on a siding and resumed their chase.

Andrews had stopped the General several times to cut telegraph wires and in his haste had failed to disable the Yonah. To try and stay in sync with the railroads regular timetable, he sidetracked the General and let several other trains pass by. He waited a precious 65 minutes before getting the General back in flight, which allowed the railroad men time to close the gap.

Meanwhile, the pursuing Yonah encountered three southbound trains parked on a main line, abandoned their little engine, sprinted to another junction and commandeered the larger William L. Smith engine. However, another broken rail sidelined the Smith, so the men (on foot again) flagged down the Texas. Engineer Peter Bracken quickly backed his cars into the station and resumed the chase, although still in reverse!

Andrews and his speeding raiders cut loose two boxcars and dropped cross ties across the tracks, desperately trying to gain enough time to burn rain-soaked bridges. The Texas simply pushed both boxcars on to a nearby siding and resumed pursuit of the General… at speeds of 65 mph. Up ahead, the little General, unable to stop for wood or water, ran out of steam and came to a complete stop.

The relentless Confederate pursuit, bad weather and just plain bad luck prevented the raiders from doing any lasting damage. James Andrews and seven of his men were captured, tried and hanged. Eight others later escaped from an Atlanta jail. The remaining six raiders were exchanged for prisoners of war and became the first recipients of the U.S. Medal of Honor.

This event was made into a silent movie in 1927 – The General – starring Buster Keaton in “his favorite role.” Initially a box-office failure, film critic Roger Ebert put it in his personal top 10 films of all time and it is routinely listed among the top 100 movies by the AFI and many others.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Published by

Hector Cantu

Hector Cantu is editor of The Intelligent Collector magazine.

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