This is quite a long article, so I will post it in multiple parts.
My Kennesaw roots go back to the building of the Western & Atlantic Railroad. This is the story of my Great Grandfather, James A. Skelton. A story of a boy born in the depths of poverty, at the time our nation was facing its biggest crisis, The American Civil War.
"Grandpa Jim," as my mother calls him, was born March 19, 1848 in a dirt floored "shanty shack" beside the tracks of the W&A Railroad in Big Shanty, GA, now called Kennesaw. His Grandfather Guess, a railroad laborer, built the structure while the railroad bed was being graded from Terminus, now Atlanta, to Ross's Landing, now Chattanooga. Jim's father was a railroad laborer also, but died at an early age, leaving a widow and four small children. Being the oldest, Jim had to grow up fast, and this was not an easy task in the dirt poor section of Georgia around Big Shanty. Very little opportunity existed. In fact, he and his family were very little more than "white slaves," depending on the railroad to make their way in life. They were free to leave the railroad camps, but where else could they have gone to make a living?
Jim turned 14 in 1862, the second year of the Civil War. The war complicated his life even more, States' Rights meant little to his kind, and quite frankly, many slaves lived a better life than he and his kin. What it all boiled down to was this—Jim had no "dog in this fight," but it was surely going to involve him sooner or later.
He needed to earn some money to help his mother, so he decided to go to Cartersville in search of work. Train crews on the W&A had told him there might be an opportunity there as a water boy or a locomotive fireman. So on the morning of April 12, 1862, he purchased a round trip ticket to Cartersville and boarded a train in Big Shanty while it was stopped for breakfast at the Lacy Hotel. He had no idea that he was about to witness one of the most daring operations of the Civil War.
It was a mixed train pulled by the locomotive "General" made up of three freight cars next to the engine, a combination passenger car, and two regular coaches. As he walked from the depot, he noticed a group of strangers standing around. He went into the combination car and took a seat. In a few minutes he saw a "passel" of men walk by heading toward the engine. He then heard someone uncouple the boxcar in front of him. He thought nothing of this because it was normal for the fireman and brakeman to switch cars while the rest of the crew was eating breakfast. He raised the window to watch, and saw the locomotive and cars speeding up the track. Someone yelled, "They've stolen the train," and Fuller, Cain, and Murphy rushed out of the hotel and up the tracks in pursuit of the engine and cars that had then disappeared and was probably nearing Moon Station.
I have often wished that my Great Grandfather had ran north with the pursuers. When he died on October 8, 1941, he was the last survivor of the stealing of the General. It would have been nice if he had been the last survivor of The Great Locomotive Chase, but being a boy of 14, I guess he thought his mother would be worried. Besides, at the time most people believed the train had been hijacked by Confederate deserters from Camp McDonald.
I will continue this story in another post soon.