Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Last Major Battle of the Civil War - Columbus, Georgia

What can rightfully be called the last major battle of the Civil War took place on April 16, 1865, an Easter Sunday, for control of the industrial city of Columbus, Georgia.

Robert E. Lee had already surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia and Columbus was one of the last remaining centers for the production of military supplies in the Confederacy. Factories in the city produced weapons, swords, uniforms and other supplies and one of the largest ironclad warships undertaken by the Confederate Navy was floating in the Chattahoochee River and nearing completion. Time, however, was running out.

The Union army of General James Wilson was storming across Alabama aiming to take both Columbus and Macon. The massive Union raid had already disrupted and destroyed much of the iron industry in Alabama, demolished the Confederate facilities at Selma and captured the state and former Confederate capital of Montgomery. Wilson was now closing in on the line of the Chattahoochee.

One wing of his army, led by Colonel O.H. LaGrange, stormed Fort Tyler at West Point on the afternoon of the 16th, even as Wilson with the main body closed in on the Columbus bridges.

The primary fortifications of Columbus were located on the ridges surrounding Girard (today's Phenix City), a small community on the Alabama side of the river. The Confederates under Major General Howell Cobb did not have enough men to man the entire line, so Cobb concentrated on the forts, batteries and breastworks along the most likely avenues of attack.

Wilson tried to bypass this force by sending a column of cavalry dashing forward at around 2 p.m. in a desperate effort to seize one of the bridges. The attack failed and he was forced to bring up his full command for an assault on the Confederate defenses along the Summerville Road.

It was dark before Wilson's main attack began. At around 9 p.m., the 3rd Iowa and 10th Missouri Cavalry regiments stormed an advanced Confederate line, but came under a heavy fire from artillery and small arms in the main Southern defenses. A second charge up the Summerville Road, however, sliced through Cobb's main line and rolled over the hill and down to the Chattahoochee. Union troops became so mixed in with retreating Confederates that Southern artillerymen on the Georgia side of the river could not fire without hitting their own men.

The Federals stormed across the bridge and into Columbus. His lines in shambles, Cobb withdrew. The last major battle of the Civil War was over, but continues to be studied today because it is a classic example of confused night fighting. More fighting would still take place in Georgia, Texas, Alabama and elsewhere, but the Battle of Columbus was the last major battle of a major campaign.

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