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Book Review - Stealing the General

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  • James W. Durney
    Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor by Russell S. Bonds Product Details • Hardcover: 444 pages • Publisher:
    Message 1 of 13 , Nov 17, 2006
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      Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal
      of Honor by Russell S. Bonds

      Product Details
      • Hardcover: 444 pages
      • Publisher: Westholme Publishing (October 15, 2006)
      • Language: English
      • ISBN: 1594160333
      A small failed raid in 1862 produced a long and complex history.
      Along the way, this raid serves as the inspiration for two moves and
      a number of books. "Stealing the General" is the latest addition to
      that stack of books. Not having read the others, I cannot state
      that it is the best but it has to be very close. Russell S. Bonds
      tells a story that most of think we know. Along the way, he
      corrects are misimpressions, fills in the blanks while adding story
      lines we had no idea existed. All of this happens in the nicest,
      most entertaining manner possible without once making us feel that
      we do not know what is going on.

      The book divides into four parts, The Plan, The Chase, Consequences
      and Valor.

      The Plan sets the stage detailing the reasons for the raid,
      introducing the raiders and the hoped for results. Solid writing,
      with attention to detail produces very real characters that the
      reader can identify with and take a keen interest in. Brigadier
      General Ormsby "Old Stars" Mitchell, one of the people that we know
      nothing about, authorizes the raid. James Andrews, sometime spy,
      sometime smuggler and possible Confederate agent is the author of
      the plan and leader of the raid. The men volunteer from three Ohio
      regiments, agreeing to slip behind enemy lines, destroy the railroad
      cutting Chattanooga off from the Confederacy. That done, General
      Mitchell's division will seize the city and the CSA's main East/West
      railroad line. A strong point of this part is the author's
      intelligent instruction on the contemporary mechanics of travel by
      and view of railroads. Atlanta to Chattanooga is just under twelve
      hours by train.

      The Chase is what we have seen in the movies. It is the story of
      taking of the train, the pursuit and capture of the raiders. The
      book shows us the limitations of a 90-minute film and how little
      history it contains. The Plan provided a good account of train
      travel, allowing us to understand the chances both sides take and
      the problems they encounter. This is a well-written history and
      this is the most exciting part of the tale. The author takes the
      time to correct misconceptions and lay the foundation for the legend
      that follows. These side trips do not slow the on-rushing trains
      but increase our understanding of the story to come.

      The movies emphasize The Chase with a quick nod to Valor.
      Consequences detail the imprisonment and military justice that the
      raiders faced after capture. The conditions the raiders faced in
      prison, the quality of their trails and the feelings of the people
      are the backbone of this part of the book. The division between the
      residents is graphically brought to light, as pro-Union and pro-
      Confederate locals, vie to hang or help the raiders. A number of
      the raiders are tried, commended and executed by hanging. Three of
      the hangings are badly done, James Andrews' strangles while being
      held off the ground. Twice a rope breaks and the men are hung a
      second time. With the exception of Andrews, living or dieing seems
      to be a matter of luck. Some raiders are tried, while others are
      simply imprisoned. No logic seems to have been used to separate the
      two groups. This part of the book is one of brutality and escapes
      that compete with The Chase in daring. The escape and trek to
      freedom of one group could be a stand-alone story. Those who did
      not escape are exchanged after almost a year of captivity.

      Valor begins with a short history of the Medal of Honor; these men
      are the first to receive the medal. We follow the men on both sides
      through the balance of their lives. We have hints along the way but
      this part makes each player all the more real and human. Included
      in this part is the birth of the legend and the in fighting between
      the participants for the glory.

      This is a well-balanced book, not about Union soldiers or
      Confederates civilians but about "ordinary men, far from home,
      called to do extraordinary things". This is the attraction of this
      event and the reason we return to it so often. "Stealing the
      General" is the story of these "ordinary men" and
      that "extraordinary" event, well told, instructive and enjoyable.

      This review is posted on Amazon.com. If you liked it, please take
      the time to rate my review there. Thanks.

      James
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