The hijacked locomotive that drove into history

The story of the General, a locomotive that was stolen on two occasions - almost 100 years apart - is a tale of war, spies, a long-distance chase, the first Congressional Medals of Honor, and an ownership battle that ended up in the lap of the US Supreme Court.

It may sound as though some screenwriter dreamed up this scenario - and indeed, versions of the General's story have been told in full-length movies starring Buster Keaton and Fess Parker (known to a generation as Davy Crockett), and in a recently discovered short film made in 1913.

Still, as improbable as it may seem, the General's story is true.

The adventure began on an April morning 142 years ago when Union spies set out to disrupt Confederate supply lines in north Georgia. For some weeks James Andrews, a spy from Kentucky, had been smuggling quinine to Southern troops to gain their confidence. At the same time, he was assembling a group of men - later known as Andrew's Raiders - who knew how to handle locomotives. The plan was to steal the train and head for Huntsville, Ala., and Gen. Ormsby Mitchel. The Raiders would destroy bridges, tunnels, and tracks, thus isolating Chattanooga, Tenn., which General Mitchel would then be able to capture.

When the train stopped in what's now Kennesaw, Ga., north of Atlanta, so passengers and crew could get breakfast, the Raiders hijacked the train. But the crew took off after them - at first on foot, then by handcar. Finally, the engineer and another man commandeered a second locomotive, the Texas, and set out in hot pursuit. The hijackers dropped crossties behind them, disrupted the track, and cut telegraph wires as they went. But the pursuers weren't daunted.

The General was finally stopped, and the hijackers escaped. For two weeks they tried to hide in enemy territory but were eventually captured.

The first Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to six of the Raiders - but not to Andrews, who wasn't a member of the Union Army.

The story didn't end there, though. The General's ensuing "career" was almost as interesting as its war exploits.

After being restored in the 1890s, the little locomotive was displayed at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 and at gatherings of Union veterans.

Ownership changed from time to time, but from 1911 until the 1960s, the General's home was in Chattanooga. Perhaps 50 years of possession made the city feel that the General belonged to it. But the state of Georgia disagreed.

Soon, the locomotive was embroiled in a custody suit. Matters came to a head in September 1967, when the General was en route from Louisville, Ky., where it had been refurbished, to Kennesaw for a fund-raising fair.

In the middle of the night on Sept. 12, as the General passed through Chattanooga, the city's mayor seized it. A legal battle ensued, and, three years later, the train was returned to Kennesaw - where the "great locomotive chase" began.

It's now the centerpiece of the Southern Museum of Civil War & Locomotive History. If this were a family movie, the final shot would no doubt be of the shiny engine with a hint of a smile on its red cowcatcher.

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