The Battle of Palmito Ranch occurred after the Battle of Columbus, but the engagement at Palmito Ranch occurred after Johnston's surrender to Sherman (April 26, 1865) and was west of the Mississippi River. In the Official Records of the Civil War, the Battle of Columbus is referred to as the "closing conflict of the war."
Events Leading to the Battle
After the Union victory in the Battle of Nashville (December 15–16, 1864), Union General George H. Thomas gave orders to General James H. Wilson to march into the heart of the Deep South to bring the Confederacy to its knees by destroying all of their supply centers such as Selma, Alabama and Columbus, Georgia.
Wilson left Gravelly Springs, Alabama on March 22, 1865 aiming for Selma, Alabama, a major manufacturing and supply center for the Confederacy. The Battle of Selma took place on April 2, 1865 against the highly skilled leadership of General Nathan Bedford Forrest. This engagement occurred the same day that the Confederate capital of Richmond fell into the hands of General Ulysses S. Grant. Despite inflicting significant casualties on Wilson's raiders, Selma fell to Wilson by 7:00PM on April 2.
On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, but Confederate General Johnston's army had not yet conceded defeat. Additionally, as a result of the disruption of the telegraph lines and all other modes of expeditious communication, General Wilson's raiders were not aware of the surrender of Lee. They continued their raid as if the Confederacy was still intact.
On April 12, 1865, Wilson's men marched into Montgomery, Alabama without major resistance from the Confederates.
Wilson's next principal target was the manufacturing city of Columbus, Georgia. Columbus stood as the largest surviving supply city in the South. It had been second only to Richmond, Virginia as providing the industrial support for the war effort, and Richmond was no longer a factor. Columbus was also situated on the Chattahoochee River where a major Naval Construction facility was located. The new ironclad CSS Muscogee was constructed in Columbus and it was docked there waiting to be launched into service.
Although it was unknown to Wilson and his men, the President of the United States was shot in Washington on Good Friday, April 14, and died the next morning.
Columbus Alerted to the Attack
Confederates in Columbus were preparing for the fact that Wilson's 13,000 men were heading their direction in the days leading up to the battle. Confederate Major General Howell Cobb was in charge of the forces located in Columbus, and he began to prepare to defend the city of Columbus "to the last ditch."
Cobb commanded a force of about 3,500 men, a few of whom were battle-worn, but most of whom were Georgia and Alabama Reserve units and civilians. On April 16, 1865 the local newspapers warned the citizens of Columbus that they should evacuate the town as an 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 siege Columbus with bombardment.
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.
Between 1:30 and 2:00 PM on Easter afternoon, 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 2:00 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. But recognizing the peril, the Confederates opted for their backup plan and ignited the lower bridge, rapidly burning it into oblivion in order to avoid the capture of the city. 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. He planned an assault on the bridge at 8:00PM, after nightfall, and to have General Winslow's brigade lead the attack. 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 inspiring him to develop the recipe for Coca-Cola.
Around 10:00PM the Confederate defenses in Girard had collapsed and frantically attempted a retreat back across the Chattahoochee River into Georgia. At the same time, Winslow's brigade were 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 firing the bridge, circumstances prevented it. The upper bridge was not burned.
At 11:00PM Wilson made his way across the bridge and 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. Lamar, one of the last of the international slave-traders, was ordered to surrender. Refusing to do so, Lamar was killed, though the exact circumstances of his death are debated. Lamar has been identified, probably recklessly, 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 extenuate 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. Additionally, 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.
On to Macon and Jefferson Davis
Immediately after the victory at Columbus, Wilson led his raiders east to Macon, Georgia. Ten days after the Battle of Columbus, the last great army of the Confederacy under General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered at Bennett Place. 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 would apprehend Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.
- The Last Battle of the Civil War
- Columbus, Georgia 1865: The Last True Battle of the Civil War
- Last Land Battle of the Civil War
- Official Records, I:49, Part One, p. 475.
- The Last Ditch: The Battle of Columbus, DVD
- Columbus Daily Sun, April 16, 1865
- Confederates Set Fire to the Lower Bridge,
- Pursuit of Oblivion, p. 152
- The Wanderer: The Last American Slave Ship, p. 245
- Civil War Times, April 2003
- Yankee Blitzkrieg, p. 143
- Columbus, Georgia 1865: The Last True Battle of the Civil War
- Yankee Blitzkrieg: Wilson's Raid Through Alabama and Georgia
- The Last Battle of the Civil War, by Charles Swift
- The Last Battle of the Civil War: The Battle of Columbus
- The Battle of Columbus (ExploreSouthernHistory.com)
- Battle of Columbus in Photos
- The Last True Battle of The Civil War--Presentation