The Battle of Columbus, Georgia (April 16, 1865), also known as the Battle of Girard, Alabama (now Phenix City, Alabama) was the last conflict in the campaign through Alabama and Georgia known as Wilson’s Raid. Several sources have held that this was the last battle of the war. The Georgia state government officially declared this battle the
“last battle of the war between the states.”
Events leading to the battle
After the Union victory in the Battle of Nashville (December 15–16, 1864), Union General George H. Thomas ordered General James H. Wilson to march into the heart of the Deep South and bring the Confederacy to its knees by destroying their supply centers at Selma, Alabama, and Columbus, Georgia.
Wilson left Gravelly Springs, Alabama, on March 22, 1865, heading for Selma, a major Confederate manufacturing and supply center. The Battle of Selma was fought on April 2, 1865, against the highly skilled leadership of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose men by now were hopelessly outnumbered by the invaders. The battle took place on the same day the Confederate capital of Richmond fell to the army of General Ulysses S. Grant. Forrest managed to inflict heavy casualties on the attackers, but Wilson’s raiders finally managed to break through the defenses and captured Selma by 7 p.m. that evening. Wilson’s men then destroyed all the military supplies and looted the city before moving on.
On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, but Confederate General Johnston’s army was still intact, as were the armies in the Trans-Mississippi theater. Also, because of the lack of communications, General Wilson was not aware of Lee’s surrender. They continued their raid of destruction.
On April 12, 1865, Wilson’s men marched into the former Confederate capital of Montgomery, Alabama, without more than token resistance from the Confederates.
Wilson’s next target was the manufacturing city of Columbus, Georgia, the largest-surviving supply city in the South. Columbus was second only to Richmond, Virginia in providing the industrial support for the war, and Richmond had now been taken. Columbus also was on the Chattahoochee River, where there was a major naval construction facility. A new ironclad, the CSS Muscogee, had been completed, and was docked at Columbus waiting to be launched.
The President of the United States was shot in Washington on Good Friday, April 14, but this was also unknown to Wilson and his raiders.
Columbus alerted to the attack
The Confederates in Columbus were well aware that Wilson’s 13,000 men were on the way. Confederate Major General Howell Cobb had been placed in charge of whatever forces he could gather, and he did his best to prepare to defend Columbus.
At Cobb’s disposal were only about 3,500 men, most of them Georgia and Alabama home guard units and civilian volunteers. On April 16, 1865, Columbus newspapers warned citizens to leave the town, since a Union attack was imminent.
The public is hereby notified of the rapid approach of the enemy, but assured that the city of Columbus will be defended to the last. Judging from experience it is believed that the city will be shelled. Notice is, therefore, given to all non-combatants to move away immediately.
General Howell Cobb’s defense strategy
Cobb decided to defend the city on the Alabama side of the Chattahoochee, in the town of Girard, Alabama. There the Confederates utilized trenches, breastworks and earthen forts that had partially existed since earlier in the war; now their completion became imperative.
The main objective was to defend the two covered bridges that connected Girard to Columbus. Cobb had the advantage of knowing that Wilson would have to concentrate on these two narrow locations in order to capture Columbus. Cobb also wanted to keep the high ground in Girard out of Wilson’s clutch, lest he have a convenient perch to bombard Columbus.
In addition to preparing strong fortified positions on the high ground in Girard on the west side of the Chattahoochee River, Cobb ordered the base of the bridges to be wrapped in cotton and doused with turpentine in the event that the Confederates were unable to fend off Wilson’s raiders from the bridges. This would allow the Confederates, as a last resort, to burn the bridges to prevent Wilson’s troops from easy access to Columbus.
The bridges that were the focus of Cobb’s defense were designed by Horace King, a former slave from South Carolina. King was considered the most respected bridge builder in the region.
Between 1:30 and 2 p.m. on Easter, April 16, 1865, Wilson’s raiders arrived at Girard, Alabama, and the fighting began. Wilson also sent a detachment north of Columbus to West Point, Georgia, to cross the Chattahoochee River there. West Point was defended by the garrison at Fort Tyler. The Battle of West Point and the Battle of Columbus took place on the same day.
At about 2 p.m., Union General Emory Upton’s division launched an attack on the lower (southern) bridge. Meeting very little resistance, it appeared as if Alexander’s brigade would cross the bridge and take Columbus almost as easily as they took Montgomery, Alabama. Upton remarked,
“Columbus is ours without a shot being fired.”
But this was a trap. Confederates removed the planks on the east side of the bridge that would halt the Federals and allow the Confederates to burn the bridge filled with soldiers. Recognizing the peril, Upton was forced to retreat, and for a short time it appeared as if the Confederates might enjoy some degree of success in defending Columbus.
Wilson was compelled to turn his attention to the upper bridge.
As the sun began to set, General Robert Toombs (CSA) telegraphed Governor Joseph E. Brown of Georgia telling him that a skirmish had occurred, but as the skies were darkening, he believed there would be a “decided fight” the following day. To Toombs’ surprise, General Wilson launched an assault on the upper bridge at 8 p.m., after nightfall, and ordered General Winslow’s brigade of the 3rd and 4th Iowa Cavalry Regiments to lead the attack. Colonel Frederick Benteen, who later served under Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn, was ordered to lead the charge on the bridge.
A tremendous clash occurred near the entrance of the upper bridge. It was here that Confederate John Pemberton was slashed by a sabre which would lead him, after the war, to become preoccupied with formulas for pain killers and remedies, ultimately leading him to develop the recipe for Coca-Cola.
The Mott House in Columbus was the location of General James H. Wilson’s headquarters.
Around 10 p.m., the Confederate defenses in Girard had collapsed, and they frantically attempted a retreat back across the Chattahoochee River into Georgia. At the same time, Winslow’s brigade was also eager to get across the upper bridge before it too might be set afire by the Confederates. Side by side, both Union and Confederate soldiers raced across the bridge to Columbus. It was too dark, however, for either to see who was who. Though attempts were made at burning the bridge, circumstances prevented it. The upper bridge was not burned.
General Robert Toombs, the successful defender of Burnside’s Bridge at the Battle of Antietam, commanded two cannon on the Georgia side of the upper bridge. These cannon were loaded with canister and prepared to slaughter anyone who tried to make their way through the covered bridge. Knowing that the soldiers running across the bridge were a mix of Union and Confederates, Toombs did not fire the cannon.
At 11 p.m., Wilson made his way across the bridge. As he crossed, his horse was shot and later died. On the Columbus side of the bridge, Wilson took up headquarters in the house nearest to the bridge: the Mott House. There on “Mott’s Green” Colonel C.A.L. Lamar, one of the last of the international slave traders, led a cavalry charge. Lamar was killed after refusing to surrender to a dismounted Union cavalryman. Lamar was identified by General William Tecumseh Sherman, probably in error, as the last Confederate to die in the Civil War.
The day after
On the morning of April 17, 1865, General Wilson ordered the destruction of all resources in Columbus that could aid the Confederate war effort. Most significantly, the ironclad CSS Muscogee (also known as the CSS Jackson) was burned and sunk. A large number of Confederate prisoners were captured. The CSS Chattahoochee was scuttled to prevent it from falling into Union hands.
The number of casualties in the battle is unknown, but there were a minimum of 145. The local Linwood cemetery has a significant section dedicated to the graves of Confederate soldiers. By the end of the day on April 17, 1865, much of the city of Columbus had been reduced to ashes.
Immediately after the victory at Columbus, Wilson led his raiders east to Macon, Georgia and occupied that city without resistance. Ten days after the Battle of Columbus, the last great army of the Confederacy under General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered at Bennett Place, North Carolina. The American Civil War had come to an end, and the last major engagement had occurred on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in Columbus. In early May, in central Georgia, Wilson’s men apprehended the two most wanted men in America: Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy; and Captain Henry Wirz, commandant of the Confederate prison at Andersonville.
Argument that Columbus was the last battle of the Civil War
Insofar as the surrender of the bulk of Confederates on April 26, 1865, at Bennett Place, North Carolina, marked the effective end of the war (as many state governments maintained), the Battle at Columbus was the last battle of the Civil War. President Johnson declared the war over on May 10, 1865, and that the remaining resisters were no longer combatants, but “fugitives.” The Battle of Palmito Ranch took place on May 13 and supporters of the argument that that was the last battle of the war reject President Johnson’s characterization of the resisters as “fugitives” and prefer to call them “organized forces” of the Confederacy.
The officers who led Union forces in the battle insisted that Columbus was the last battle of the war. On May 30, 1865 Brevet Major General Emory Upton reported for his division in the Wilson Raid, in the Official Records, that the Battle of Columbus was the “closing conflict of the war.” In 1868, General Wilson gave a speech to a soldier’s reunion, wherein he detailed the Battle of Columbus and concluded “the last battle had been fought.” In 1913 General Wilson wrote that there were
“no grounds left for doubting that ‘Columbus was the last battle of the war.'”
General Edward F. Winslow wrote,
“I have always considered that engagement, by the number present and the results achieved, to be the final battle of the war.”
Colonel Theodore Allen wrote,
“It is true that there was some desultory fighting and scrapping after the battle at Columbus, Georgia, but nothing of sufficient size to entitle it to the name of a battle.”
A movement to preserve the battlefield as a national park ensued from the 1890s through the 1930s. The director of the National Park Service, Arno B. Cammerer, rejected the proposal in 1934. In response, in 1935 the Georgia state legislature passed a resolution identifying the battle as the last one of the Civil War and calling once again for the establishment of a national park there. A renewed effort to commemorate the battlefield as a park has been revived. Representatives of Auburn University have recently posted an appeal to help preserve Ft. Gilmer, one of the earthenwork redoubts on the Alabama side of the Chattahoochee River.