Learning history from music

It’s not often you go to a school concert and learn Civil War history. But this evening, the high school Symphonic Band played “The Great Locomotive Chase” by Robert W. Smith, and the director introduced it by telling the history behind the piece.

In order to cut the supply lines that supported the Confederate Army, a group of men led by northern spy James Andrews set out to wreck the rail line connecting Atlanta and Chattanooga. To do this, they boarded a train (dressed as civilians, although most of them were Union soldiers). When the train stopped for the crew and passengers to eat breakfast, Andrews and his raiders unhitched the passenger cars, and stole the train!

The conductor of the train, William Fuller, amazed and angry, led the chase on foot. He and the men with him were able to get a “pole car” for part of the pursuit, then a locomotive. When they reached a point where Andrews’ group had torn up the track, they had to go on foot again until they were able to get another locomotive – although they had to drive it in reverse because there was no time or place to turn it around.

Andrews had hoped to burn some railway bridges, but it was raining that day and the wood was too wet. He did pull up some rails, and cut some telegraph lines so that word could not be sent ahead of what he was doing. With Fuller hot in pursuit, however, he couldn’t accomplish as much as he no doubt had hoped. He and his men were captured, and he and six of the men were tried and convicted of being spies, and executed by hanging. (Six men escaped from prison, and eight were released in a prisoner exchange.)

Perhaps if I had watched more of the Disney live-action movies I would have already known this history. Disney’s The Great Locomotive Chase, released in 1956, brings this bit of history to life (despite some anachronisms). I’ll have to check it out of the library sometime soon for the family to watch.

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