Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal
of Honor by Russell S. Bonds
Hardcover: 444 pages
Publisher: Westholme Publishing (October 15, 2006)
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
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.
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