Civil War – Last Battle Columbus, Ga – part 5

Last Battle

Last Battle Columbus part 5

By Ron Rollins Historic contributor Columbus Georgia Online

Last Stand

COLUMBUS, GA. — Wilson’s troops left Montgomery on their way toward Columbus Georgia. Still unsure of what resistance by the Confederates might be waiting ahead they quickly traveled on. Besides a heavy downpour of rain on April 14th and several skirmishes with small groups of Confederates along the way, the short journey was an easy one. The Last Battle of the Civil War was a short distance away now.

In order to get to Georgia, the Union Cavalry would first have to get across the Chattahoochee River, Wilson intended to do so at Girard because there the river had two bridges into Columbus. Also, Wilson had sent one brigade under Brigadier General LaGrange to West Point to secure the bridge there in case the Union was unsuccessful crossing the river at Columbus.

Columbus, importance to the South was two-fold: First, it was a major railroad and shipping center. Second, it was a major industrial center. It?s five large factories produced rifles, cannons, cotton and woolen clothes, shoes, and knapsacks. In addition, there were several small shops, an arsenal, storage depot, and a naval yard.

Unknown to most at that time; Columbus was one of the last industrial centers left in the industrial heartland of the South.

Union forces began to arrive near Girard (present-day Phenix City) on the afternoon of April 16th, 1865. Maj. General Emory Upton?s division was the lead element and would be the spearhead of the upcoming assault. Union Commanders quickly realized that the task at hand would be a large one. The bridges were strongly defended by fortifications and earthworks, and these were covered by cannon fire.

In charge of the Confederate last stand defenses were Major General Howell Cobb, Colonel Leon Toll Von Zinken, Post Commandant of Columbus who helped organize and lead the Confederate troops who fought in the battle, and General Abraham Buford, who commanded a small cavalry force which skirmished with the Union Troops as they approached Girard and then helped command some of the Alabama Reserve units during the last battle.

Major General Cobb was overall Commander of the Georgia State Troops and had worked tirelessly since assuming that position to shore up the defenses of Columbus. Cobb had convinced the city council to finance the strengthening of the fortifications in Girard that protected the city from invasion on its western route.

The rebels last stand fortification at Girard / Columbus were at least as strong, perhaps stronger than those found at Selma, Alabama.

In charge of the Union Troops : Major James H. Wilson in Command of Wilson?s Raiders, Major General Emory Upton in command of 4th Division of Wilson?s Cavalry to him fell the responsibility of capturing Columbus, Brigadier General Andrew J. Alexander, lead the charge on the lower “Dillingham St.” bridge on the river, Brigadier General Edward F. Winslow, fought valiantly in the darkness leading his troops.

Easter Sunday, April 16th, 1865 “The Last Battle of the Civil War Begins!” with good planning and effort giving way to blind luck and confusion on both sides.

Crawford Ala.: General Buford CSA and his small cavalry await General Upton, General Alexander, and General Winslow as they are making their way toward Columbus. He attacks as soon as he has them in range; then his men mount and ride away. He repeats these attacks and causes Upton and his union troops to follow Alexander?s cavalry as they skirmish. This leads the Union to move further south than Gen. Cobb CSA wanted as they went just south of the fort where Rebel cannons awaited them. Cobb being short in manpower, 2700 troops and 27 artillery pieces on hand, he had not manned the fort on Opelika? Girard Road. This factor and the unmanned Fort will come back and haunt Gen. Cobb again. Remember that Cobb had reinforced the Western fortifications of the city. Gen. Upton and his men at mid-afternoon are on a hill near the fort on Sandfort Road looking over the defenses of the south bridge into Columbus.

Gen. Upton decided to have Gen. Alexander?s cavalry line up in columns of four and attack the bridge. The attack began. Charging down the hill toward the dark covered bridge, things started not to look right as the Confederates stood their ground on the Georgia side not firing a shot. The battlefield was so quiet Gen. Upton began to speak saying “this is like Montgomery, Columbus will be ours without a shot being fired.” About this time the lead horseman yelled halt! The troops began to dismount and assemble on the street; far they had seen trough the tunnel of the covered bridge cannons aimed back at them and flooring missing on the bridge. It was indeed a setup! Cannon fire was then heard and artillery began to land around them just west of the bridge. Just as suddenly the hilltop in Girard where Winslow and Upton were viewing the bridge began to be hit by artillery killing a horse. The cannons on the bridge fired and the flash set the bridge on fire as it too was wet down with cotton soaked in turpentine. It all was a trap only the Union troops didn’t storm the bridge or they would have been burned to death or fell to their death on the rocks below. The cannon fire from the north came from a hill just up from the other bridge. This hill is now where the Russell County Courthouse sits today. A four-gun fort was there with breastworks for riflemen and mill creek, now Holland Creek, and its deep gorge made an attack from Girard impossible. Gen. Upton ordered Gen. Winslow to retreat behind the hills and move north to the Salem- Opelika Road (south railroad St.) and hide and wait for next orders. Winslow and his troops make the trip north, behind the hills, in the area of the unmanned fort; along what is now 280 bypass. He then goes east near the Hwy 80-east turnoff, crossing mill creek toward the river trough what is now called Old Pumpkin Bottom near 28th street and 16th Ave. near Summerville Rd.

General Upton and General Alexander had begun to go north to meet General Winslow after they felt he had made the trip successfully. As they reached the area they were to meet him; Winslow and his men were nowhere to be found. It seems Winslow and his men while looking at the map mistook Summerville Road as the Opelika Road and went to the East. As scouts looked for them Winslow’s men were resting in the woods and waiting for word from Upton. To make matters worse General Wilson had broken away from General LaGrange near Opelika and headed South to Columbus; as he got near ran up on General Winslow and his men so now scouts from all the Union Divisions are looking for each other. They do get together again and Winslow and Upton begin to argue about who was wrong and the lost time because it is now dark. No Moon at All!

While all this was going on, General Wilson had sent out his Scouts to find the enemy positions between them and the last wagon bridge to Columbus. Upton appealed to Wilson, after giving him his report on earlier activity, to do a night attack on the bridge. After hearing his scouts report, Wilson agreed. The last battle was back on!

8:00pm General Upton had his troops in place to begin their attack on the fortification covering the remaining bridge. His troops were ready and a short distance from the enemy. The Rebels opened heavy fire with musketry and the four-gun battery began throwing canister and grapes. With Generals Upton and Winslow in person directing the movement; the troops dashed forward opened a withering fire from their Spencers, pushed through a slashing abatis, pressed the Rebel line back to their out-works. Upton sent two companies to follow up the success of the dismounted men and get possession of the bridge. They passed through the inner line of the works, and under the cover of darkness, before the Rebels knew it, had reached the bridge into Columbus. In Wilson’s words. “as soon as everything could be got up to the position occupied by the dismounted men, General Uptown pressed forward again, swept away all opposition, took possession of the foot and railroad bridges, and stationed guards throughout the city. 1200 prisoners, 52 field guns, a lot of arms and stores fell into our hands. Our loss was only 24 killed and wounded.

The fighting on the Alabama side of the bridge became so intense that the Northern and Southern soldiers were intermixed in hand-to-hand fighting. When the Rebels began falling back across the bridge the Yankees crossed with them. This prevented the Rebels on the Columbus side from being able to set fire to the bridge. In the darkness of that Easter night, the cannons on the Georgia side of the bridge could not fire as they could not tell friend from foe! At one point in Girard, the Northern cavalry was allowed through the lines by the South as they were thought to be Southern Troops due in as requested to increase manpower. It shocked the Northern Cavalry so much when they discovered they were behind the lines they made their retreat back unknowingly to the confused Southerners.

Around 600 Rebels managed to escape, including General Cobb, and headed to Macon. Panic, chaos, and fear took over the citizens and soldiers of Columbus that were left behind. Upon entering Columbus, Wilson gave General Winslow command of the city and ordered all stores, railroad transportation, gunboats, factories, armories, arsenals, and workshops to be destroyed. On April 17th, 1865, Wilson continued the march eastward toward Macon. Once there General Cobb CSA advised General Wilson that the war was indeed over.

This made Columbus the Last Battle of the Civil War.


*Addendum provided by Wikipedia

When the outbreak of war came in 1861, the industries of Columbus expanded their production and Columbus became one of the most important centers of industry in the Confederacy. During the war, Columbus ranked second to Richmond in the manufacture of supplies for the Confederate army.[6] In addition to textiles, the city had an ironworks and a sword factory as well as a shipyard for the Confederate Navy. Unaware of Lee’s surrender to Grant and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Union and Confederates clashed in the Battle of Columbus, Georgia on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1865, when a Union detachment under General James H. Wilson attacked the city and burned many of the industrial buildings. The inventor of Coca-Cola, Dr. John Stith Pemberton, was wounded in this battle. The owner of America’s last slave ship, Col. Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar, was also killed here. A historic marker has been erected in Columbus marking the battle by Wilson’s troops as the “Last Land Battle in the War Between the States.”

Reconstruction began almost immediately and prosperity followed. Factories such as the Eagle and Phenix Mills were revived and the industrialization of the town led to rapid growth; the city outgrew its original plan.


By Ron Rollins Historic contributor Columbus Georgia Online

About Ron Rollins 22 Articles
Ron Rollins is the retired Fire Chief of the Whitesville, Ga Volunteer Fire Dept. Ron loves a good story and he can remember them too. The history of Harris County and surrounding areas is tucked away in the memories of our fathers and mothers and their fathers and mothers. You can find our history in old newspaper articles and some in books. Ron thinks we need to keep passing these stories down so he's doing his part. But for Ron and people like him our root folk history would be lost.

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