Thursday, August 4, 2011

"Stealing The General" by Russell S. Bonds

This is the story which everyone has heard of. It was even made into the famous silent comedy by Buster Keaton, "The General." In reality, of course, it was no comedy, but rather a very tense and daring mission, behind Rebel lines. Had it been successful it would have shortened the war by about a year, or more, and saved tens of thousands of lives. That it failed is in no measure attributable to any deficiencies on the part of the men. Were mistakes made? Yes. Were there things which could have altered the outcome of the raid? Of course, there always are. But that's Monday morning quarterback stuff; Should've, could've, would've.

April 12th, 1862, barely one year into the Civil War, James Andrews, a smuggler, and a band of 19 Union soldiers, all volunteers, set off to steal a Confederate railroad engine. Its name was The General. It was a twin to the locomotive Texas, which would chase it down over a distance of 48 miles, while running backwards, at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. The chase was short, but filled with every imaginable thrill one would expect from an epic Hollywood movie. Tracks were torn up, and telegraph lines cut as The General ran northwards from Georgia to East Tennessee, hoping to cut the Confederate supply lines and shorten the war.

But they hadn't counted on a spunky little conductor, one William Fuller, who was simply incensed that "someone has stolen my train!" He chased the train at first by foot, and then with a railroad handcar, before boarding The Texas for the final leg of the chase, which came to an end only after The General had run out of fuel and water. With both trains equally matched; they each had been built by competing firms but were identical in all aspects, including their 5 foot driving wheels and a 22 inch strokes; the race is a dead heat until the very last moment, when the crew of The General hops from the train, taking to the woods for even further adventure as they try to avoid capture as spies.

The author, Russell Bonds, has carefully reconstructed each moment of what became known as "The Great Locomotive Chase." Using letters, government documents, telegraph transcripts and personal journals, he is able to take the reader on a roller coaster of a journey, first by rail, and then on foot and canoe, through the woods of Tennessee as the raiders attempt to escape their fates, and the eventual capture, trial and execution of several of the prisoners.

Two of the men had to be hung twice, as their ropes broke on the first try. One man hung too low to the ground and so Confederate soldiers dug out the earth beneath his feet while he slowly strangled to death. Only eight of the 19 men would make it home, where they were honored by President Lincoln with the Nation's first Medals of Honor, which are often referred to mistakenly as "Congressional" Medals of Honor.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book involves the escape through the backwoods country of Tennessee, which was about as divided over the war as Virginia had been. At one point there was even talk of Eastern Tennessee breaking away from the Western half of the state in order to remain in the Union, much in the same manner as West Virginia had done. Had that happened, there would have been no need for James Andrews and his volunteers to undertake the mission in the first place.

History is often a series of accidental happenings and circumstance. At times it is colored with people who rise above the obstacles which confront them as they attempt to change the course of events. The Great Locomotive Chase was one of these times. The story of the General, with, or without, all of its inaccuracies, will live on forever. It is a story of courage, and dishonor, on both sides. As usual, there were heroes, and villians, on both ends. A riveting book.

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