150 Years Ago Today...April 16, 1865...Battle of Columbus, Georgia
On April 16, 1865 the Union cavalry forces commanded by Gen. James H. Wilson attack the western earthwork defenses that guard the Confederate industrial center of Columbus, Georgia. While the war effectively ends with Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865, Wilson is attacking a region with severed lines of communications and he is uncertain of this rumored circumstance until days after the battle.
Sweeping southward from Tennessee in the spring of 1865, Wilson’s massive raid first cracks the Confederate forces in Alabama with an attack on the cavalry forces of Gen. Nathan B. Forrest at the Battle of Ebenezer Church on April 1, 1865. Sweeping eastward Wilson’s Union cavalry then shatter resistance in Selma, Alabama on April 2nd, and intimidate the old Confederate capital of Montgomery into surrendering without a fight on April 12th. As the demoralized Confederates flee into Georgia, hasty defenses are organized along the strategic bridges of the Chattahoochee River at Columbus, Georgia. The Confederate trenches that defend the key bridges along the Chattahoochee River are the final barrier the last bastion standing in the Confederacy.
As survivors and refugees from Selma and Montgomery, Alabama flee eastward, they carry word of the impending arrival of Union forces. Confederate cavalrymen of Gen. Abraham Buford’s command clash with Wilson’s corps repeatedly in attempts to delay the massive thrust of the Union forces. These brief delays are little more than a nuisance for Wilson’s cavalry, but nonetheless, time is critical for the defenders of Columbus. While two wagon bridges and one Railroad Bridge could support adequate conveyance of large forces, the upper (14th Street Bridge) connecting Girard (now Phoenix City) Alabama with Columbus, Georgia will be the focus of the Confederate defense. For twenty miles above and below Columbus, the bridges at Columbus would have to be crossed or Wilson would be forced to build a pontoon bridge under fire of Confederate defenders. This forces Wilson to turn his attention to the heavily defended 14th street bridge farther up the river.
The attack begins at about 9 p.m. On the initial charge Gen. Edward F. Winslow and his men overwhelm the forward line of Confederate Gen. Howell Cobb's troops and, thinking they have captured the main Confederate position, two companies were dispatched to take the 14th street bridge. These companies rushed to the bridge as the main Confederate positions open fire on Winslow and his men. At this point there is fierce fighting near the entrance to the bridge.
The Union troops then charge for a second time and the unseasoned defenders break before them. As the Confederates retreat for the bridge they find themselves among the Union troops also trying to cross the bridge. As a result, men who are manning artillery batteries that have been positioned to sweep the length of the bridge are forced to hold their fire rather than shoot into their own men. Cobb had planned to torch the 14th street bridge, in the event of a retreat, as well, but in the confusion it does not happen.
By 11 p.m. "all firing had ceased" and Gen. Wilson crosses the 14th street bridge and makes his headquarters in the Mott House which is directly beside the East entrance of the bridge. The Battle of Columbus was over. Up to 1,500 Confederates are captured. Gen. Cobb and some of his men escape to Macon, Georgia. The number of casualties suffered is not certain, but it is believed that there are a minimum of 145 killed and wounded on both sides.
[Text referenced from The Battle of Columbus: Confederate Apocalypse (April 16-17, 1865), by J. David Dameron)