Monday, August 27, 2007

CWL --- Stealing the General: Not Your Disney's Train Raid

Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor, Russell S. Bonds, Westholme Press, 444 pages, maps, b/w photographs, notes, index, bibliography, $29.95, 2007.

Buster Keaton and Fess Parker. If you are over fifty, then you probably know who they are. Silent film comedian and Davy Crockett/Daniel Boone. The story of Union soldiers traveling south surreptitiously to high jack a locomotive and retreat north, all the while disabling rails and bridges was the stuff of legend before Hollywood was born. Buster Keaton's film, The General is a hallmark of silent film comedy; Fess Parker's film, The Great Locomotive Chase is the hallmark of the Cold War Disney entertainment machine.

Russell Bond's Stealing the General gives the reader the whole story: the idea, its implementation, its execution, and its failure. In April 1862, twenty Union soldiers crossed Confederate lines to steal a locomotive in an endeavor to aid in the capture of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Thinking that Steven Spielberg will have Liam Neeson portray Lincoln in the film version of Team of Rivals and that Harrison Ford possibly will star in Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, then Bond's work may generate a third Civil War locomotive chase film.

Lawyer and historian, Russell Bonds offers a wonderfully gripping narrative account of the first Union invasion of Alabama, the theft and the chase, the capture of raiders, their executions and their escapes. By the end of the book, when the reader is thoroughly satisfied, the Medal of Honor is introduced and the story has a second ending, just like the movies. The author has a superlative writing style, and an authoritative control of the vast primary source material available from the participants.

Bonds also tells the stories of Confederate railroading, boom town Atlanta, and locomotive construction. In addition, not only do the personalities of the Union soldiers come to the fore but the personalities of those chasing them. To the satisfaction of this reader, Bonds provides a succinct review of the literature of the chase, both by the participants and by later writers.

Fortunately, members of the Book of the Month Club, the History Book Club, the Military Book Club and shoppers at Borders Books and Music and shoppers will have the opportunity to see the splendid cover art.

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