By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Bronson Pinchot
Stealing the General is an interesting but not thrilling piece of history in the hands of Russell Bonds. The fundamental story is a harrowing adventure but the writer only reports the facts. Bronson Pinchot, the teller of the tale, sounds like Jack Webb saying “Just the Facts ma’am”.
Feeding and provisioning an army are critical to military success. Georgia and Tennessee were connected by a rail system that linked Confederate forces between Chattanooga and Atlanta. Destroying the railroad and telegraph link between Georgia and Tennessee would be a major blow to the Confederacy; particularly at a time when the Union was reeling from Confederate’ army successes.Twenty four men volunteer to steal a locomotive. The plan is to ravage railroad tracks, cut telegraph lines, and burn bridges between Georgia and Tennessee by using a stolen train for transportation. The goal would be to prepare the way for Union capture of Chattanooga.
The General is the name of the steam locomotive that the volunteers are planning to steal.
The idea of stealing the General is hatched by a civilian scout and part-time spy, James Andrews. The Federal Union’s Major General, Ormsby Mitchel, likes Andrews’ idea. Andrews’ plan would isolate Chattanooga’s Confederate forces and make Mitchel’s objective of capturing Chattanooga reasonably possible. Rather than September of 1863, Chattanooga might be captured in the spring of 1862
This is the second year of the American’ Civil War when Union generals McClellan and then Pope were floundering in the hills and valleys of Georgia and Tennessee. Stealing the General, if successful, would split the Confederacy and diminish its strength as a monolithic rebellion. As Bonds acknowledges, it would depend on a Union Major General’s ability to capture Chattanooga after the twenty-four-man raid.
Major General Mitchel authorizes Andrews to seek volunteers. Andrews shrewdly chooses enlisted men that know their way around steam engines, or have other qualifications that fit the task. In the end, fourteen Privates, five Corporals, two Sergeants, one Sergeant Major, and one added civilian, volunteer.
They successfully steal the train but fail to complete their mission. Russell Bonds notes the main reason for failure is–they do not have the right tools to destroy tracks after passing a section of rail. Bonds infers Andrews is a shrewd double-agent in choosing and motivating followers but a poor planner and leader. Confederate soldiers and sympathizers catch up with the locomotive when it runs out of fuel.
All but two that missed the train when it is to be hijacked are jailed. Eight, including Andrews, are executed. Six escape. Six are exchanged for Confederate prisoners. Two enlist in Confederate units to avoid capture. All but five of the military volunteers become recipients of the first American Medal of Honor. Two were not given the award because they were civilians and three because the award was not given to convicted and hanged spies.
(Bonds offers a brief review of the history of the American Medal of Honor. He reports facts about its diminishing honorary value and increasing politicization. Bonds suggests Theodore Roosevelt reverses that politicization by establishing apolitical criteria for awarding the Medal. The Medal of Honor has re-gained its prestigious reputation but the criterion for award continues to evolve. The last modification was in 1963.)
Stealing the General becomes a movie. It certainly has the makings of a great drama but Bonds only reports the facts. He misses emotive drama.