Story of the “General”
In December 1855, the Paterson, New Jersey firm of Rogers, Ketchum & Grosvenor - at the time one of the top two locomotive producers in the nation - completed construction of the General. The locomotive was designed by Thomas Rogers, with William Hudson the shop superintendent. The engine was sold for $8,850 to Georgia’s Western & Atlantic Railroad - a state-owned enterprise created by the Georgia General Assembly in 1836 to connect a site in what was then DeKalb County with Chattanooga, Tenn. The southern terminus of the new railroad was marked by a stake (see Zero Mile Post marker image), thus leading to the name Terminus (which in 1845 was changed to Marthasville and again in 1849 to Atlanta). Chattanooga, the W&A’s northern terminus, was selected because of its location on the Tennessee River. Rail access to this important river (which flowed into the Ohio and ultimately Mississippi rivers) would give Georgia farmers and manufacturers access to much of America’s interior.
The General was a wood-burning locomotive, with a 4-4-0 wheel alignment and gauge of five feet. The newly completed engine journeyed from Paterson, N.J. to Philadelphia under its own power. From there, it was shipped by boat to Savannah, Ga. From Savannah, the General traveled by rail to Macon, and then on to Atlanta, where it was placed into service in January 1856.
For the next six years, the General was a hard-working but low-profile locomotive, carrying both goods and passengers between Atlanta and Chattanooga. Not much is known of what specific role it played in the first year of the Civil War, but with 1,400 miles of rail and the best system in the Deep South, all of Georgia’s railroads were vital to the Confederacy. In the early years of the war, Georgia was largely protected from military hostilities, leaving it free to ship arms and munitions, food, and supplies to Confederate troops on the battlefields to the northeast.
It was the importance of the extensive rail system to the Confederates that prompted James Andrews, a Union spy from Kentucky, to attempt a daring effort to disrupt the 138-mile rail line connecting Atlanta and Chattanooga. Along with 19 Union soldiers dressed as civilians, Andrews arrived at Marietta on April 12, 1862. Here, they boarded a northbound train pulled by the General. At Big Shanty, the train stopped so the passengers and crew could eat breakfast. Andrews used the break to uncouple the engine, wood tender, and three box cars from the passenger cars. They then sped off with the goal of damaging as many W&A tracks and rail bridges as possible. Hearing the General steam out, conductor William Fuller and two W&A employees ran out of the hotel dining room and pursued the stolen train by foot for several miles. Ultimately, Fuller would commandeer the locomotive Texas and, joined by Confederate soldiers, finally catch Andrews’ Raiders - a race Joel Chandler Harris later characterized as “the boldest adventure of the war.” [See the page of attached links for more detailed accounts of the adventure]
Andrews’ raid ended in failure. The damaged track was easily repaired, rain kept them from burning any bridges, and the General and stolen cars were recovered. Moreover, all the raiders were captured, and seven - including Andrews - were hanged as spies.
What happened to the General after the chase? It continued to serve the Confederate cause, speeding food, supplies, and reinforcements to northwest Georgia to counter Sherman’s invasion of Georgia. At the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, it was used to carry wounded soldiers back to Atlanta. Sherman’s forces kept coming, however, and when it became clear that Atlanta was lost, Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood ordered the burning of five locomotives (including the General), 81 rail cars of ammunition, and other war supplies to keep them out of the Union hands. On the evening of Sept. 1, 1864, Confederate forces dejectedly retreated, with the glow of Atlanta burning to their backs. Atlanta would burn against as Sherman’s forces left for their March to the Sea.
Amazingly, though badly damaged, the General had a second life. It was given back to the Western & Atlantic Railroad, which restored the engine to working order and placed it back in service. In 1870, the General was rebuilt with a new boiler and was converted from burning wood to coal. In 1886, its five-foot gauge was changed to 4’ 8.5” (that used to today).
The General became a favorite feature at some of the annual encampments of survivors of Andrews’ Raiders and the Union Army. Around 1889, the General and Texas were both pulled out service and condemned. However, three years later, after an enterprising reporter found the rusting engines and publicized their plight, they were both restored. The General subsequently became a featured locomotive at the World Columbian Exposition of 1893, making the trip from Georgia to Chicago under its own power.
Union Station in Chattanooga became the General’s permanent home in 1911, although the locomotive was still transported to numerous expositions. In 1933, the General was exhibited at the Century of Progress Exposition; in 1939, it was requested for the New York World’s Fair. Its reputation had not dimmed.
The movie industry also kept the General’s story alive. The first movie about Andrews’ Raid was made as early as 1911, although the General didn’t appear in it. In 1926, Buster Keaton requested use of the locomotive for his movie, “The General,” but was turned down when officials realized that the movie was a comedy. Although the General’s saga was well known in Georgia (particularly due to Joel Chandler Harris’s account of the raid in his 1896 volume, Stories of Georgia), it was Walt Disney’s 1956 movie, “The Great Locomotive Chase,” that helped make it one of the most famous locomotives in American history.
On April 12, 1962, a souvenir cover was released to mark the centennial of the Great Locomotive Chase. Also to mark the event, the engine had been readied for a restaging of the famous locomotive chase. Polished, newly painted, and fully restored, the General played “itself” in the April 14, 1962 reenactment. Several tours to midwestern and southern states subsequently followed, including a trip to New York in 1964 to be on display at the World’s Fair.
Although the ownership of the General changed a number of times over its existence, as railroad company leases expired or their ownership changed hands, the locomotive continued to be housed in Chattanooga. Naturally, many Georgians wanted the General to have a permanent home in their state. As a concession for a new lease for use of the W&A rail line, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad agreed to return the General to Georgia, but the city of Chattanooga filed suit against its loss. The matter went to the Sixth Federal District Court of Appeals, which ruled that the L&N could do whatever it wished. Chattanooga’s attempt to have that decision reversed failed when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal.
With the road clear, work began on the General’s final home. The museum in Kennesaw was completed in early February 1972. Under the cloak of much secrecy, the engine was taken to a rail line near the Georgia state capitol, where Gov. Jimmy Carter formally took possession of it on behalf of Georgia. The General was then transported to the new Big Shanty Museum in Kennesaw where, on February 19, it was proudly displayed at the museum’s official opening. What was later renamed the Kennesaw Civil War Museum - then again renamed the Southern Museum - became the permanent home of the General.
On July 28, 1994, the U.S. Postal Service released a new American Steam Locomotives booklet of 29-cent stamps that featured five different locomotives - one of which was the General. On the next day, special second-day-of-issue ceremonies for the new General stamp were staged at the Kennesaw Civil War Museum. To mark the event, the U.S. Postal Service prepared a special pictorial cancel, which the museum used to create a souvenir cover to mark the event. Among those on hand for the celebration was then-museum director Cathy Fletcher, the driving force behind the Postal Service’s decision to honor the General with a stamp.
Interestingly, the 1994 U.S. commemorative issue was not the first to show the General on a stamp. Three countries - Niger, Surinam, and Tuvalu - issued stamps featuring the General between 1975 and 1986. As with the U.S., each General stamp was part of a series of stamps showing famous locomotives.