The Western & Atlantic Railroad, a vital rail link for both sides during the war, provides the backdrop for three unique museums in northwest Georgia. The largest of the three, the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, is reviewed here.
The Western & Atlantic connected Tennessee and railroads throughout the Mississippi basin to Georgia and the Gulf Coast. It became William T. Sherman’s principal line of communication during his 1864 Atlanta campaign, and is also remembered as the setting for the 1862 “Great Locomotive Chase,” involving The General, a famous steam engine.
The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History is located in Kennesaw, 30 minutes northwest of Atlanta. For many years the Southern Museum housed The General and associated exhibits in a modest structure near the site where James J. Andrews and his Yankee raiders hijacked the locomotive on April 12, 1862. In 2003, however, a multifaceted exhibit hall opened that increased the museum’s size tenfold. Note that the “Southern” in the museum’s name relates to location rather than orientation; you’ll find exhibits and artifacts here representing the Union as well as the Confederacy.
The new lobby features railroad depot memorabilia as well as bronze statues of Generals John Bell Hood, Joseph E. Johnston, John B. Gordon and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Civil War exhibits are positioned just past the entrance—a series of large display cases as well as life-size dioramas. New acquisitions are continually being added to the permanent collection, including items of local origin.
As a bonus, the facility’s affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution also facilitates temporary exhibits, such as a frock coat worn by Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer during his February 1864 wedding. On display until September, for example, is “Liberty on the Border,” an exhibit from the Cincinnati Museum Center that explores Abraham Lincoln’s election, the home front and the legacy of black soldiers in the war.
Beyond the Civil War section in the main hall, displays focus on railroads in the economic rebuilding of Georgia and the South as a whole. There are also exhibits on the Glover Machine Works, a postwar locomotive manufacturer in Cobb County, Ga.
For many visitors, the highlight of their visit is a glimpse of The General itself, and the Southern Museum’s impressive display won’t disappoint them. Situated near by is a partial mock-up of the Lacy House, near where Yankee raiders stole the locomotive during a meal stop, as well as the Medal of Honor awarded to Federal raider Sergeant John M. Scott. You can even watch a film about the raid at the museum’s theater.
If there’s one minor criticism, it’s that The General exhibit is separated from the rest of the Civil War displays. But then again, the curators clearly decided to save the best for last.
You can learn more about the other railroad musems in Georgia by visiting their Web sites: Tunnel Hill Heritage Center (tunnelhillheritagecenter.com); Kennesaw House (mariettahistory.org).
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.