Stealing the General

It began and ended on April 12th, 153 years ago. A civilian man from the North called James Andrews took a band of soldiers deep into the heart of the South, in Georgia, during the Civil War, risking life and limb to take a locomotive. They captured her on the 12th and hijacked her, heading North while cutting telegraph wires and sabotaging Confederate railways as they went. And they couldn’t slow down, because one William Fuller was hot on their trail. First on foot, then by handcar, and finally in a locomotive of his own, Fuller gave chase until the raiders ran out of fuel and were forced to abandon their stolen locomotive.

The locomotive was called General, and William Fuller was her conductor. Some of the raiders were caught and executed, and some were caught but escaped. Some lived to receive the Medal of Honor. William Pittenger was one such raider, and he authored a book, The Great Locomotive Chase. This book provided the inspiration for Buster Keaton’s loose reenactment of the Great Chase in his classic 1926 film, The General.

If you watch this film (and you should—it’s on the AFI’s top 100 list), and do some fact-checking, you’ll be surprised how accurately this movie represents the events of April 12th, 1862.

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