Battle of Columbus, Part 1: Preliminaries
Columbus had long been an important Georgia city. In 1861 it was a port at the head of navigation of the long Chattahoochee/Apalachicola River system, and a railroad reached north to connect with the Montgomery & West Point and another extended to Macon, where connections could be made for Atlanta and Savannah.
During the war factories and five large textile mills produced cannon, rifles, revolvers, ammunition, bayonets, cotton and woolen cloth, uniforms, knapsacks, tents, yarn and thread, saddles, shoes, knapsacks, harnesses, belts, buckles, cartridge boxes, and flour.
Eagle Mills produced 2,000 yards of gray tweed and 1,500 yards of cotton duck daily. At Columbus Factory 300,000 yards of cotton cloth, 75,000 yards of woolens, and 40,000 pounds of yarn and thread were produced annually, and a tannery there worked by 60 slaves produced 12,000 pairs of shoes each year. Columbus manufactured 300,000 pairs of shoes for the Confederacy. Flour mills produced 250 barrels a day for Southern forces in Virginia. L. Haiman and Brother and Columbus Arsenal and Armory made considerable war materials, while Confederate Naval Iron Works produced 86 brass cannon and most of the boilers for steamships, including ironclads, built by the Confederacy. Only Richmond out-produced Columbus during the war.
The population of Columbus in 1865 was 12,000, swollen by workers attracted by wartime industry and refugees from the previous year’s Atlanta Campaign and new arrivals, including Alabama’s governor, Thomas Watts fleeing Union general James H. Wilson’s raid sweeping out of Tennessee.
Little alarm was raised in Columbus until the fall of Selma, and even than reaction was muted until word arrived of Montgomery’s capture. By then it was obvious that Columbus was the next target. Non-combatants were encouraged to leave the city while able bodied men were urged to rally with their personal weapons. Newspapers claimed that “a resolute defense would be made,” and “Columbus will be defended until the last,” and announced that men should “delay no longer” to “organize and protect your homes…never let it be said Columbus fell without a struggle.”
Governor Joseph E. Brown called out the state militia, but that came too late to be effective. Assembled at Columbus were 2,000-3,000 men, few of them trained and battle tested. There were two regiments of the Georgia State Line, but they had no experience. Present also were county reserves factory workers, those too old or young for regular service, and disabled veterans.
Columbus’s first defenses were raised in 1862, primarily across the Chattahoochee in Girard, Alabama, and along the river south of the city. In 1864 danger from a Union raid and the threat of action by William Sherman from Atlanta produced fortifications to the east.
The terrain surrounding Columbus made it difficult to protect with the number of troops available. The primary Confederate defense was centered on Girard, protecting the Fourteenth Street footbridge and railroad bridge. That line started on the left, or south, where Hubbard Creek joined the Chattahoochee, ran west through Girard, then north across Summerville Road and turned northeast to a hill above the Chattahoochee. Further west was a light line of rifle pits fronted by abatis.
Two forts with 12 cannon defended the Fourteenth Street Bridge, with five pieces aimed at approaching roads. Those works were fronted by ditches six feet deep and eight feet wide. Work on the fortifications continued feverishly until Wilson’s advance arrived at two p.m. on April 16, 1865.
Two other bridges could not be defended; to the north a span near Columbus Factory was rendered useless, and to the south planks were removed from the Dillingham Street Bridge.
By 1865 General Howell Cobb commanded Georgia troops throughout the state; he was present for Wilson’s attack but the defense was conducted by Colonel Leon von Zinker.
Eminent combat would be signaled by the firing of six cannon at headquarters on Broad Street, where men were to rally with a day’s ration. Wilson initially hoped to cross the Chattahoochee with little resistance. The First Ohio brushed aside pickets and reached the partially destroyed Dillingham Street Bridge. Observing from a hill to the south, Federal general Emory Upton declared, “Columbus is ours without firing a shot!” As the troopers discussed repairing the span, Confederates in Columbus fired the span while others opened fire, forcing the Union troops to withdraw. Two hundred Federals who ride north to the Columbus Factory bridge found it unusable.
Meanwhile, Upton and Wilson personally scouted the largely concealed Confederate fortifications. They decided to send the three regiments of Upton’s First Brigade quickly down the Summerville Road to Girard. Confusion delayed the planned action until dusk, which induced Wilson to make a rare night assault. That tactic certainly would be a surprise to the inexperienced defenders. The attack was scheduled for eight p.m. and during the lull a local resident arrived and made a detailed sketch of the Confederate defenses. Federals took advantage of the lull to sleep, brew coffee, and cook supper.
For further information about the battle of Columbus read Yankee Blitzkrieg, Wilson’s Raid through Alabama and Georgia by James P. Jones and Columbus, Georgia, 1865: The Last True Battle of the Civil War by Charles A. Misulia.
Jim Miles is the author of nine books about the Civil War and two Weird Georgia books. See Jim’s books