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Road Trip: The Southern Museum of Locomotive and Civil War History

In affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution, the Southern Museum of Civil War  and Locomotive History, according to the organization’s website, is “home to the General locomotive, stolen during the Civil War’s Great Locomotive Chase; a reproduction of the locomotive assembly line from the Glover Machine Works; weapons, uniforms and every day items of Civil War soldiers; and the Jolley Education Center that features train history, hands-on activities for children and Georgia’s French Gratitude Train.”

On a recent two-day weekend visit to Atlanta, I briefly stopped at this museum in Kennesaw, Georgia (the war-time Big Shanty; near Marietta). As a kid growing up on Ohio, I was always fascinated by the story of Andrews’ Raiders and the Great Locomotive Chase. The Fess Parker Disney movie only fueled my strong interest in this tale of adventure and intrigue.

A group of daring Buckeye soldiers in civilian attire and their Kentuckian leader, James J. Andrews, conspired with Brig. Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchell to steal a Western & Atlantic Railroad train at Big Shanty and drive it north to Union-held Chattanooga. Along the way, they planned to destroy track and telegraph lines, burn bridges, and wreck as much of the W&ARR’s infrastructure north of Atlanta as possible. This was to coincide with a Union push southward from Chattanooga.

The raiders made their way to Atlanta and took hotel rooms. A couple men overslept and missed the raid; the rest boarded a train powered by the General and headed north. At Big Shanty, during a breakfast break, they stole the train and steamed toward Tennessee. However, determined pursuit by the train’s conductor William B. Fuller and others, including running the Texas in reverse to chase down the General, made it possible to capture most of the raiders after the General ran out of fuel and steam pressure short of Tennessee.

General2That’s me with my mom and sister standing on the platform on the yellow railcar during the General’s appearance near Columbus, Ohio, back on May 2, 1962. This was part of the 100th anniversary tour of the General and was a thrill that still resonates with me to this day.

General May 2 1962 ColumbusHere’s the General as photographed by my Dad on that wonderful, long-ago spring afternoon.

This historical marker outside of the Southern Museum briefly describes the raid, which resulted in the awarding of the first Medal of Honor to a teenaged raider, Jacob Parrott, and some of his colleagues during a visit to the White House. Eventually most of the raiders would also receive the medal. Unfortunately, for various reasons, a handful of the team have never received it.

The lobby of the museum features statues of several Confederate personalities associated with Georgia’s Civil War history, including this guy, a name familiar to Cannonball readers from York and Wrightsville, Pa.  Yes, this is Brig. Gen. John Brown Gordon, whose brigade of Georgia infantry played a key role in the Rebel attempt to seize the Columbia Bridge and push into Lancaster County, a plan thwarted during the June 28, 1863, skirmish of Wrightsville when state emergency militia and a hand-selected team of Columbia citizens burned the bridge.

This model shows the Glover Machine Works near Marietta, which was a major manufacturing concern in the 19th and 20th centuries. Much of its equipment is now on display in the Southern Museum (which brought the Smithsonian affiliation).

Another diorama depicts the General and its train of cars stopped at Big Shanty on April 12, 1862, so Conductor Fuller, the crew, and passengers could enjoy their breakfast at the Lacy Hotek.

After separating the passenger cars from the locomotive, tender, and some box cars, the Buckeye soldiers scrambled into the box cars while the stolen train slowly steamed northward out of Big Shanty. Stunned W&ARR crewmen rushed outside to watch the General steam away out of sight. What made the raid even more daring was the presence across the tracks from the Lacy House of a Confederate encampment, Camp McDonald.

The restored General now sits inside the Southern Museum. This was my first view of the famed locomotive since that May 1962 visit near Columbus, Ohio. What a thrill to see it again! It brought back so many pleasant memories of my childhood. I had a rubber Auburn toy steam locomotive and tender which became the General in my play time adventures, and a hard plastic engine became the Texas. I used my 54mm cowboys to depict the civilian-garbed Ohio train thieves and some Marx 54mm Confederate soldiers to represent the pursuers. So many memories!

View from the balcony overlooking the General and its restored tender

With fuel supplies dwindling, the General slowed and finally stopped about two miles north of Ringgold, Georgia, not far from the Tennessee border.

General Mitchel RaidAn artist’s depiction of the General and the tender as the Buckeyes try to catch a covered bridge on fire to halt the Texas‘s pursuit. They set fire to the last of the box cars and uncoupled it in the bridge. However, the Texas was too close and simply pushed the car out before the bridge collapsed. Andrews and all of his men were captured; he and seven raiders were later tried, convicted as spies and thieves, and later hung in Atlanta. They are now buried in Chattanooga’s National Cemetery.  Several others later successfully escaped and returned to Union lines. (Illustration from Deeds of Valor).

The Southern Museum has on display one of the original Medals of Honor awarded to the raiders.

The museum’s collection includes the coat which actor Fess Parker wore during the filming of The Great Locomotive Chase in the late 1950s, as well as an original copy of the script.

The Texas has been on public display at the Atlanta Cyclorama building at Grant Park in Atlanta, but that building is now closed while the cyclorama is restored and moved to a new home in the Atlanta History Center.

For more information, directions, and admission pricing, visit the museum’s website.