Visitors to The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Georgia, will find a fascinating history of the role railroads played in the conflict, but for classic movie fans the museum has a special appeal. Its star attraction, the restored Civil War locomotive named The General, inspired not one but two classic movies. The dramatic true story of the engine was adapted by Buster Keaton for the 1926 silent movie, “The General,” and by Walt Disney for the 1956 live action adventure, “The Great Locomotive Chase.” The museum pays tribute to the locomotive’s cinematic importance in its displays, but the real history of the engine is just as thrilling as either of the films it inspired.
In April of 1862, a locomotive named The General was stolen by Union spies in the town of Big Shanty, Georgia. Their leader, James J. Andrews, took the train north, sabotaging the rail lines and telegraph wires along the way to thwart Confederate pursuers and damage Southern military operations. The train’s engineer, William A. Fuller, gave chase, determined to reclaim his train in spite of all obstacles. He and his supporters ran, took a pushcart, and ultimately drove another engine backwards until they caught up with the Northern spies. The stolen train ended up back in Fuller’s possession, while Andrews and his men were captured by Confederate soldiers. Andrews was later hanged by the South for his actions, although he was lauded as a hero by the Union, and several of his followers were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Recovered and restored years later, The General toured the country during Civil War anniversaries until it found a permanent home in Kennesaw, not far from Atlanta. Civil war history buffs and classic film fans can now visit the famous train at The Southern Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate located near the site where the train was stolen by Andrews. Among the many exhibits at the museum are cases detailing the train’s impact on Hollywood. Fess Parker and Jeffrey Hunter, who played Andrews and Fuller in “The Great Locomotive Chase,” are featured in displays, which also include the coat worn by Parker in the film. In the gift shop, DVD copies of both classic movies are for sale, but visitors can see segments of “The Great Locomotive Chase” in the film shown in the museum’s theater.
Visit the official website for The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History to learn more about the train and its history. The museum is located at 2829 Cherokee St. in Kennesaw, just a few minutes off I-75 north of Atlanta. You can watch a trailer for Buster Keaton’s iconic version of the story by clicking the video at the top of this article.