written by Joe Bozeman, FIFTH GENERATION KENNESAW
My roots in Kennesaw, GA 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 on March 19, 1848 in a dirt floored shanty shack beside the tracks of the Western & Atlantic 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, TN. 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 around Big Shanty. Very little opportunity existed. In fact, he and his family were little more than “white slaves”, depending on the railroad to make their way in life. They were free to leave railroad camps, but where else could they have gone to make a living?
Jim was 14 in 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 boiled down to was this, Jim had no “dog in this fight”, but it would surely involve him sooner or later.
He needed to earn some money to help his mother, so he decided to go to Cartersville, GA 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 boxcars 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 the brakeman to switch cars while the rest of the crew was eating breakfast. He raised the window to watch, and saw the locomotive and boxcars speeding up the tracks. 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 that had then disappeared and was probably nearing Moon Station.
I have always wished my Great Grandfather had run north with the pursuers. When he died on October 8, 1941, he was the last living witness 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 have been worried about him. Besides, at the time most people believed the train had been hijacked by Confederate deserters from Camp McDonald.
Jim did not get a job with the W&A, and so at the age of 14, he joined the Georgia State Guards. It wasn’t what he wanted, but it would provide some money for his mother and the other children. His first assignment was guarding bridges along the W&A Railroad. This worked out well because he was close to home and could see his family often. But, in 1864 he was assigned duty that haunted him the rest of his life.
One morning in February 1864, he was sent to Augusta, GA where he boarded a train loaded with Union prisoners in route to the infamous Confederate prison at Andersonville called Fort Sumter, and was assigned guard duty at the stockade. It might have been better than combat, but it was terrible duty. The death rate from disease was almost as high for the Confederate guards as it was for the prisoners. Jim stayed there until the prisoners were moved to other locations and then was assigned to a Confederate unit that was rounding up deserters in the North Georgia Mountains. When the war ended, his unit surrendered to Union General Judea at Kingston, GA and he walked south on the tracks of the W&A to his home in Big Shanty.
It was a terrible sight. The rail line was almost a complete wreck. What track that wasn’t torn up, rails heated and twisted around trees, had been lifted up and turned over like a section of fence.
While the destruction of the railroad was horrible, arriving home was worse. Both armies had passed through Big Shanty and nothing was left of his hometown.
There wasn’t a thing to eat. It was just blank. The face of the earth had been swept clean, not an animal existed. The Lacy Hotel, the shanty shacks, the depot, and homes were burned to the ground. His mother and the children were living in a wrecked rail car with several other families. They had survived on the little given to them by Confederate and Union troops and what they could find in the woods.
Edit Note: Thanks Joe for sharing your knowledge of the history surrounding Kennesaw, looking forward to more bird’s eye view of Kennesaw’s history. This is first of many to come.