This April 12 marks the 150th anniversary of one of the most famous events of the Civil War and in Chattanooga’s history – the hijacking of the General train locomotive by Andrews’ Raiders.
Several Union spies led by civilian James Andrews had taken over the Confederate train while it was stopped in what is now Kennesaw, Ga. They then began heading north, attempting to damage railroad tracks and telegraph lines.
Their efforts were designed to wreck havoc on the logistics and communication in the South during the early stages of the war.
After disembarking and running away after the train ran out of fuel north of Ringgold, Ga., with General conductor William Fuller courageously chasing them aboard the Texas, they were subsequently captured below Lookout Mountain. They were then placed in Swims Jail near the Unum offices in downtown Chattanooga. A few weeks later, after Mr. Andrews had escaped and was captured on Williams Island, several were put to death.
Their actions were considered to be like a terrorist act by the Confederates, but they were championed as heroes by the Union. Even President Abraham Lincoln was inspired by their actions, and several of them became the first recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest honor for battlefield bravery.
Although I must admit I sometimes have trouble completely understanding all the troop movement at the Battle of Chickamauga, especially when trying to picture the bloodshed amid the bucolic setting that exists today, the story of Andrews’ Raiders and the General has always been easy for me to comprehend.
I can easily figure out the train hijacking, since some tracks still run from Atlanta to Chattanooga, and I can easily visualize Swims Jail, since downtown Chattanooga has had several different jail buildings just a few feet away in recent decades.
And since I went to Baylor School and used to look out over Williams Island daily, I have no trouble picturing James Andrews running around out there while trying to survive the elements.
The fact that Mr. Andrews and several other raiders are buried at the National Cemetery also makes the event simple to comprehend. Their memorial monument is even child friendly, as it has a train on top.
The easy visualization and comprehension are probably why the General has been a popular movie topic over the years, including by Buster Keaton in the silent movie days and later by Walt Disney. The movies in turn have helped bring the event to life.
I first became aware of the General when I was very young in the 1960s, and I went with my mother to the Union Station/Union Depot across from the Read House to pick up a relative. I still remember seeing the train parked somewhere under the big shed while on display.
I am also old enough to remember the outrage by Chattanoogans in the late 1960s and early 1970s when they realized that L&N was giving the train to the state of Georgia.
Mayor Ralph Kelley even ordered the brief “capture” of the train while it passed through town on a flatbed rail car, resulting in an incident that became known as Kelley’s Raiders.
In 1987, after I had been a staff writer at the Chattanooga Free Press for about three years, one of the editors had passed along some information from a reader that the 125th anniversary of the Andrews’ Raiders incident was coming up, and he encouraged me to do a story.
I remember I even went down to Kennesaw, Ga., to look at the Big Shanty Museum and to see the General. I recall telling the worker at the museum that I was from Chattanooga.
She replied, slightly with a laugh, “Oh, you are one of them. They are always asking how their train is, and I tell them ‘our’ train is fine.”
While the ownership of the General and even the war are still debated, at least most people can claim that they identify easily with this story of daring and bravery – even 150 years after it occurred.