Above: The General is on display in Kennesaw at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History. Photo courtesy of the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History.

The Civil War spy story and military raid that came to be known as “The Great Locomotive Chase” lasted less than a day and covered only about 87 miles, but it inspired books and popular movies and led to hangings by one side and the award of some of the first Congressional Medals of Honor by the other. Now the two steam engines involved in the chase are on display at separate metro Atlanta museums.

In 1862, as Union forces prepared to move on Chattanooga, Tenn., a group of volunteers led by James J. Andrews took off on a daring mission behind enemy lines to try to separate Confederate forces in Tennessee from support from Atlanta.

On April 12, two dozen raiders stole a train pulled by the locomotive “The General” from a railway station in Big Shanty, a community now known as Kennesaw. They planned to damage or destroy telegraph wires and Western & Atlanta Railroad tracks connecting Atlanta and Chattanooga. They chose Big Shanty for the theft because the station had no telegraph office.

As Andrews and his men raced north, Confederate forces took off in hot pursuit. They gave chase by foot, by hand car and eventually using a steam engine called “The Texas.” Andrews’ Raiders finally abandoned “The General” about 18 miles south of Chattanooga.

Most of the two dozen Union soldiers and civilians involved in the raid and chase eventually were caught by the Confederates. Andrews, a civilian, and several others were hanged as spies. Other raiders escaped or were exchanged in prisoner swaps. Nineteen soldiers who took part in the raid were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor. Andrews and other civilians involved in the raid did not qualify for the award.

The story of the locomotive chase inspired two movies. The first, made in 1926, was a silent film comedy by Buster Keaton called “The General.” The second, a 1956 adventure film starring Fess Parker and called “The Great Locomotive Chase,” was made by Walt Disney Pictures.

The Texas Great Locomotive Chase
Atlanta History Center CEO Sheffield Hale and The Texas. Photo courtesy of Atlanta History Center.

Both engines now are on display in museums in metro Atlanta. “The General” is the centerpiece of the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in downtown Kennesaw. The museum also offers exhibits on railroads during the Civil War and on the Glover Machine Works, which built steam engines in Marietta.

“The Texas,” now fully restored, is on display at the Atlanta History Center, where it sits in a glass-walled walkway leading to a new exhibit that houses the Cyclorama, a 360-degree painting of the Civil War Battle of Atlanta. The painting now is being restored and is scheduled to open to the public in February. The center also features exhibits showcasing various parts of Atlanta’s history, from the Civil War to golfing legend Bobby Jones.

Dena Bush, director of operations at the Kennesaw museum, said about 40,000 people come to see “The General” each year. Most are Civil War or train buffs. Some remember the trains because of the movies. “It’s an interesting story from that time period that’s not that well known,” she said.

Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History

2829 Cherokee St., Kennesaw 30144

Hours: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Sundays

Tickets: $6.50 seniors (aged 60+); $7.50 adults; $5.50 children aged 4 to 12; free to children 3 and younger. $1 off for AAA members, active military service members and military veterans.

Info: 770-427-2117, southernmuseum.org

Atlanta History Center

130 West Paces Ferry Rd., Atlanta 30305

Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 12noon-5:30 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $18 seniors; $21.50 adults; $18 students aged 13 and up; $9 youth aged 4 to 12; free for children aged 3 and younger. The Texas may be viewed from the history center gift shop or through the windows on the new addition to the center. It is set to open to the public fully on Nov. 17. A special behind-the-scenes tour of the Cyclorama painting, now being restored in its new home, and The Texas is offered for $75.

Info: 404-814-4000, atlantahistorycenter.com

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.