Local History Column: Chattanooga and the 'General'

Local History Column: Chattanooga and the 'General'

December 11th, 2016 by Sam D. Elliott in Opinion Columns

The General on display at Union Station in Chattanooga in 1907.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Read more Chattanooga History Columns

One of the most famous incidents of the Civil War in our area was the Great Locomotive Chase — an episode in April 1862 in which Union raiders hijacked a train pulled by a steam locomotive, the "General," with the intention of destroying bridges, track and telegraph wire between Chattanooga and Marietta, Ga.

A determined pursuit by Confederates frustrated the plan, and the General was abandoned by its captors just north of Ringgold.

Eight of the raiders were executed by Confederate authorities and the first Medals of Honor were awarded as a result of the raid. Years later, another battle was fought over the General, by men no less determined. The weapons were writs, motions and briefs and men styled as "raiders" were once more defeated.

The General survived the Civil War and eventually was returned to the Western and Atlantic Railroad, itself a property of the State of Georgia. The railroad and its rolling stock was leased, eventually to the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway. An employee of that company found the engine, which was "condemned, value $1,500" on a siding in Vinings, Ga. It was rehabilitated for display and first appeared at a veterans reunion in Chattanooga in 1892.

The General remained on display in the old Union Station until 1961 except for brief intervals. A plaque at the station recounted the story of the engine. Several pamphlets and advertisements noted that Chattanooga was the permanent home of the General. For example, the General was temporarily taken to Chicago by the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway, where it was put on display at the Chicago World's Fair of 1933.

It was stated "the permanent resting place of this famed relic of the Civil War is in the Union Station at Chattanooga, where it stands as a memorial to American valor and has been seen by travelers passing through Chattanooga over the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway." For its part, the city of Chattanooga placed an image of the engine on its city seal and promoted it as a tourist attraction.

As noted by the late U.S. District Judge Frank Wilson, "upon two previous occasions, once in 1939 and again in 1959, efforts were made by the State of Georgia to recover the General, the attempts were met by spirited opposition on the part of the City of Chattanooga and its citizens. Upon each of these occasions many statements were made by public and private individuals in opposition to the move."

In 1961, however, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (the successor to the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis) removed the engine from Chattanooga. The story was that the engine was to be rehabilitated and displayed across the country for the Civil War Centennial. But in 1967, the railroad announced that the General "would be delivered to the State of Georgia for permanent placement and display at Kennesaw, Ga., the place of its capture by Andrews' Raiders in 1862. Delivery of the engine to Kennesaw was to be made before Sept. 14, 1967, for ceremonies scheduled on that date."

To get to Kennesaw, the engine had to go through Chattanooga. The city filed a lawsuit and served an attachment on the railroad at 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 12, 1967. Mayor Ralph Kelley, Police Commissioner "Bookie" Turner, Chancery Court Officer Joe Hogue and others met the train and stopped it by parking a police car across the tracks, thereby becoming known as "Kelley's Raiders."

The ultimate legal issue was whether the railroad's years of publicizing Chattanooga as the General's permanent home created a charitable trust in favor of the city and its citizens, requiring the railroad to keep the famed engine in town.

The case ended up in federal court, and in a ruling issued in 1969, Judge Wilson determined that the engine was the property of the State of Georgia, which could do what it wanted with the General. Futile efforts were made to reverse the judge's ruling, which failed in the United States Court of Appeals, with a further appeal being denied by the United States Supreme Court. Eventually, it was moved to Kennesaw, where it remains today.

Sam D. Elliott is a local attorney with Gearhiser, Peters, Elliott and Cannon, a member and past chairman of the Tennessee Historical Commission and author or editor of several books and essays on the Civil War, including a forthcoming biography of Gen. John C. Brown. Visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org for more information.

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315
Email: webeditor@timesfreepress.com