A tale of two trains: Civil War engines celebrated in 150th anniversary of Great Locomotive Chase

Peyton Brown, 8, sized up the massive, muscular 156-year-old Texas locomotive with fascination.

"I think it's very cool how they assembled it and put detail in it," she said, staring at the painted-steel war horse just inside the entrance to the Atlanta Cyclorama, where she and her parents had popped in after visiting Zoo Atlanta next door in Grant Park one recent afternoon.

It's easy to pardon the third-grader vacationing from Winter Garden, Fla., for thinking the 1856 engine, a hard-working machine before and after it played a starring role in one of the Civil War's most unusual chapters, was a replica. After all, who expects to find a War Between the States artifact this big anywhere?

Metro Atlanta, it turns out, boasts two of the 21 locomotives active during the war era that have somehow survived into the 21st century, the Texas and the General. The latter has attracted history lovers to Kennesaw since 1972 at what is now the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History.

Displayed at attractions 30 miles apart, both engines played major roles in the Great Locomotive Chase, whose 150th anniversary is being commemorated starting Thursday in towns along its 87-mile route through northwest Georgia.

The storybook chase that took place on April 12, 1862, didn't alter the course of Civil War history, and is barely mentioned in a number of new tomes published in conjunction with the conflict's 150th anniversary. Ironically, though, this unusual chapter continues to magnetically pull people into the war's broader narrative.

The heroic events were set in motion when Union spies led by civilian scout James J. Andrews infiltrated enemy lines in Big Shanty (present-day Kennesaw) to commandeer the General while its conductor and crew broke for breakfast. Andrews’ Raiders intended to cripple the Confederates by cutting off their strategic supply line between Atlanta and Chattanooga: tearing up track, destroying bridges and slicing telegraph wires.

But General conductor William Allen Fuller and other Confederates immediately gave chase, pursuing Andrews’ Raiders on foot, by push car and by a succession of three locomotives. They claimed the third one, the southward-heading Texas, near Adairsville and, in haste, rejoined the pursuit with the engine shooting up the track in reverse.

Finally the General ran out of fuel north of Ringgold, and the Union spies were captured and imprisoned.

The daring escapade -- which inspired the 1926 Buster Keaton silent comedy "The General" and the 1956 Disney dramatization "The Great Locomotive Chase" -- has captured the imagination of generations.

One kid who got fired up about the Civil War after watching rough-hewn Fess Parker portray Andrews was Gordon Jones, now 50 and the Atlanta History Center's senior military historian.

While Jones discounts the Great Locomotive Chase as "militarily and strategically insignificant," he stressed that its importance spans well beyond one dramatic day in 1862 all the way to today. In particular, he measures the symbolic value of the General, which crossed the country on a 1962 centennial tour viewed by millions, as "inestimable."

Though interest in the chase may not be at that same zenith 50 years later, Jones said the General and the Texas loom even larger as history tellers since there is not a historic battlefield open to the public inside the Atlanta city limits.

Courtney B. Wilson, executive director of the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, added, "The fact that both of them were involved together in the same incident, and the fact that both of them survived together [in the same metro area], I think is pretty remarkable."

Wilson, who is writing a book about remaining Civil War-era engines and passenger and freight cars, pointed out that the General and the Texas are also distinct in that they are true battle veterans while many of the other 19 surviving locomotives did not serve in the conflict. In fact, the General was one of the supply trains severely damaged by retreating Confederate forces as Atlanta fell in September 1864, a scene depicted in "Gone With the Wind."

Several extensive overhauls later, the General may be 95 percent or more a reconstruction of the wood-burning locomotive built in 1855 in New Jersey for $8,850, Jones estimated. But, the Atlanta History Center historian added, it's typical that the longer these workhorses remain in service, the more they become "collections of parts."

Built in a different Patterson, N.J., factory and placed in service the same year as the General, the Texas didn't undergo as many modifications as its better-known cousin before being retired in 1907. The Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway donated it to the city of Atlanta, which displayed it outdoors at Grant Park starting in 1911.

Though the Texas has existed in the shadow of the General since the Great Locomotive Chase (and to the 360-degree Civil War painting it has shared space with since 1927), rail aficionados consider it the more authentic engine.

But Southern Museum executive director Richard Banz calls the General his "star attraction" and considers it worthy of the spotlight.

The locomotive is dramatically presented in a two-story interpretive gallery that's the final stop on self-guided tours of the museum that attracts 35,000 annually.

While Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin boldly went public with his desire to obtain the Texas from Atlanta during early planning for his city's own Great Locomotive Chase sesquicentennial celebration, Banz soft-sells his Kennesaw institution's interest.

"To bring the two [locomotives] together would be ideal, because then the visitor could see the whole story," Banz said. "We're not in the business of taking other museums' artifacts. But if for any reason [the city of Atlanta] wanted to divest themselves of it ... ."

That comes up because Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed formed a task force last year to explore funding options for a long-overdue restoration of the historic Civil War painting and a possible move aimed at boosting the attraction's attendance of 70,000 per year.

But Monica Prothro, who runs the Cyclorama for Atlanta's Office of Cultural Affairs and is a member of the task force whose recommendations are due to the mayor next month, said a Texas sale or donation is not being considered.

"Our sentiment is that the Texas and Cyclorama [painting] go hand in hand as part of the overall experience when patrons come to visit the Atlanta Cyclorama," she said.

Whether the Great Locomotive Chase stars ever converge on the same track again is for history to decide.

Events

Great Locomotive Chase sesquicentennial

Kennesaw's Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History plans:

  • On Thursday, a 6 a.m. breakfast at the Trackside Grill in downtown Kennesaw ($20) will be followed by the 8:30 a.m. presentation of a 150th anniversary proclamation at the Kennesaw depot (free). The museum, 2829 Cherokee St., will offer free admission from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. A Trackside Grill gala dinner is sold out, but at 8 p.m., the museum will host a dessert gathering featuring Bobby Horton performing Civil War-era songs ($25).
  • At 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, “Camp McDonald: A Living History Weekend” will feature re-enactors interpreting life in the Confederate encampment that was across the tracks from the museum. $5, $2 ages 4-12 (includes museum admission). 770-427-2117, www.southernmuseum.org/sesquicentennial.

Details on Marietta events Thursday-Sunday: www.mariettacivilwar.com. For events in other communities along the chase route: www.gacivilwar.org/events/search.