Opinion Forum

The last battle?

April 16 marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Columbus in the Civil War, a good time to examine local myths. Myth-making about the Civil War began immediately. In 1866, Virginian Edward A. Pollard published The Lost Cause to defend secession's constitutionality. That title came to represent beliefs white Southerners held to vindicate crushing defeat and emphasize the war's significance. Lost Cause myths venerated Confederate heroes and painted a benevolent picture of slavery.

Local memory of the war supported notions of white privilege, justifying oppressive race relations into the 1970s. It also bolstered the local white psyche. In Columbus' historical memory, the city united behind secession in defense of the homeland. The myths claim Yankee invaders destroyed the city in "the last battle" of the war.

Historical evidence, however, debunks these local myths.

MYTH: Columbus was united in support of the Confederacy.

Actually, Columbus was deeply divided over the war. The Enquirer opposed secession. The two editors of the Daily Sun were divided, but the newspaper eventually supported the war. The Times supported the Confederacy.

Unionist sentiment remained strong among a minority in Columbus. The richest Unionist was John Winter. Early in the war Winter wrote a letter listing 57 Columbus men as staunch Unionists. Like Winter, they tended to be Northern-born. Many were small craftsmen who resented skilled slaves doing the same jobs as free men such as themselves.

Randolph Mott was another prominent Unionist. He claimed his house on the river never left the Union. During the war, he flew an American flag inside its cupola.

As wartime shortages increased, local perception of merchants growing rich through speculation fueled resentment. On April 11, 1863, 65 women stormed down Broad Street "to raid the stores of speculators." Armed with knives and guns, they "commenced to helping themselves to whatever they wanted." Police contained the riot, but seven months later a group of Columbus women, in a letter to Gov. Joseph Brown, warned if they got no relief they were again ready to organize a mob to seize food.

Columbus's elite generally prospered from wartime scarcities and rising prices. Planters refused to sell their cotton at the low prices offered by the Confederacy. They smuggled thousands of bales to the North or to England. As it became clear the Confederacy was doomed, industrialists converted their Confederate bonds into gold and cotton. At the end of the war, many elites, including George Parker Swift (Muscogee Manufacturing), William H. Young (the Eagle & Phenix), George Woodruff (Empire Mills), J.P. Illges (Goldens' Foundry, Muscogee Manufacturing, Swift Spinning), Randolph Mott (Palace Mills), John Fontaine (cotton commission merchant and warehousing), and the Straus family (Macy's in New York) used the profits from cotton or other assets they hid from the Confederacy as the basis for postwar fortunes.

General disaffection with the war spread by the third year. The Enquirer reported "A Strange Spectacle" on September 6, 1864. A young man was "marched through our streets in female apparel, accompanied by a guard." He had fled the city to avoid conscription and was arrested in Albany. Local young men joined the home guard to avoid the draft. In January 1864, four Columbus men just turned 18 formed a home-guard company of children, supposedly to guard the bridges. A Columbus man complained to Gov. Brown that they were just evading combat duty.

The flags flown along Broad Street from the war's beginning were removed in February 1864 because "the hoisting of flags has played out." By spring 1864, Columbus merchants refused to accept Confederate currency. Deserters and rowdy soldiers gathered almost daily on the Alabama end of the bridge across the Chattahoochee to "rob every melon or fruit cart that attempts to cross." Commissary officer Raphael Moses came home in May 1864 to gather food for soldiers. He was stunned when only 30 people attended his Temperance Hall meeting.

The Peace Society, an underground resistance group, was active in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley. It might have helped undermine the city's defenses. As federal forces prepared to attack the city on the afternoon of April 16, 1865, a "citizen" revealed the position of new defenses to the Federal commander. The informant drew a rough sketch of the Confederates' earthworks, valuable intelligence for the upcoming attack.

Those probably most strongly opposed to the Confederate effort were slaves. A disgusted white woman wrote in 1864 the negroes "generally think them selves free and are eating accordingly."

Masters clamped down, though not always achieving the desired effect. One angry slaveholder struck his slave with the butt of his shotgun. The blow discharged the gun, killing the master. Many slaves understood a change might be near. Mary Gladdy of Columbus later recalled "the whisperings of the slaves -- their talking about the possibility of freedom." She remembered, "Then the slaves would sing, pray, and relate experiences all night long. Their great soul-hungering desire was freedom." When Federal troops approached, slave W.B. Allen's master asked him to pray that God would hold them back. Allen refused, telling him "flat-footedly that . . . I not only wanted to be free, but that I wanted to see all the Negroes freed!" He declared that God was sending the Yankees as a scourge against the slaveholders.MYTH: Outnumbered by marauding Yankee invaders, Columbus suffered total destruction.

On April 16, 1865, Gen. James H. Wilson's cavalry force of about 4,000 bore down on Columbus. Because telegraph lines had been destroyed, no one knew Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox on April 9. The Federals launched a rare night attack on Confederate defenses on the Alabama side. After two hours of "confused firing in the dark," the Federals poured through the line. Rumors spread of their superior numbers and that they already held the upper bridge, the only avenue of escape. The Confederates broke and ran, mingling with the Federals, and they all entered a "melee at the bridge." The Federals quickly ended the fighting and took about 1,500 prisoners.

The next day, Wilson ordered destruction of all property "that could be made useful for further continuance of the Rebellion." His men burned the river bridges, most industries, and the cotton warehouses. Wilson claimed he "was anxious that the burning warehouses should not set fire to private property and saw that every precaution was taken to keep the fire under control." Wilson spared two grist mills to feed locals.

Over the years, the destruction by Union forces has been exaggerated. A United Daughters of the Confederacy publication in 1898 declared that the city was "sacked and burned." A 1928 local history, filled with faithful darkies and evil Yankees, asserted, "The Yankees took the town and destroyed everything they could find . . . ." Even today, this myth of total destruction and degradation lives on.

The historical reality was quite different. Throughout the campaign, Wilson had issued strict orders, read daily to his men, that forbade destroying private property. Some looting occurred, but had there been wholesale burning, Columbus would not have its wealth of antebellum houses today. A Confederate nurse and a convalescing soldier in Columbus at the time of the battle observed that the Yankees did little damage to nonmilitary private property. Several shanties near the Dillingham Street bridge burned, but they could have caught fire along with the Iron Works. Two private dwellings that burned belonged to men included on Winter's list of Unionists. It seems unlikely the Federals would have picked Union sympathizers' homes to burn. Perhaps the local mob got carried away after the battle and took revenge on those considered traitors to the cause.

MYTH: The Battle of Columbus was "the last battle" of the war.

The first full issue of the Enquirer published after the battle stated it was "the last battle of the war, on this side of the Mississippi River. . . ." Securing that claim became a major focus of the Columbus Historical Society. Its secretary pleaded with the Army War College, the War Department, the Department of the Interior, and Georgia's senators and representatives to fund a monument marking Columbus as the last battle.

In 1934, the Department of the Interior sent a 45-page rebuttal to the Historical Society. Using the criteria applied to all conflicts in the war, it said what happened at Columbus was not even a "battle." It categorized the event at Columbus as an "action." As significant as the battle seemed to locals, the document asserted, it was a "pinprick" compared to "the titanic strokes of Grant and Sherman" in the final weeks of the war. In addition, the report listed 31 later military encounters. The Department of the Interior concluded that to agree "the battle of Columbus was the last one of the Civil War, would not only be taking a position inviting much controversy, but one very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain by actual evidence."

In 1938 the two sides reached a compromise, placing a granite marker at the foot of the 14th Street bridge memorializing the fighting men on both sides, but not calling Columbus the last battle. Undeterred, the Historical Society in 1953 paid for a marker from the Georgia Historical Society to be placed on what is now Veterans Parkway. It read: "THE LAST IMPORTANT LAND BATTLE OF THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES WAS FOUGHT HERE ON APRIL 16, 1865 "

This battle over the "Last Battle" goes on. A 2003 article in Civil War Times was titled "The Last Battle. Really. Period." Charles Misulia's 2010 exhaustive history also characterized Columbus as the last battle. However, other claims abound for the site of the last battle of the Civil War. The Battle of Fort Blakeley (Ala.) on April 9, 1865, involved 20,000 soldiers. Harper's Weekly reported on May 17, 1865, "Probably the last charge of this war, it was as gallant as any on record." Another claim is for the Battle of Palmito Ranch in Texas on May 12-13, 1865. The National Park Service calls it "the last battle in the Civil War." Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy, wrote in "The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government" that "This was, I believe, the last armed conflict of the war "

Why do we still care?

The local focus on a glorious "Lost Cause" derived in part from a deep sense of inferiority and insecurity. In the 1850s, Columbus was a prosperous industrial center. The war destroyed its economy and way of life. Southerners were a defeated people who suffered through an almost unrelieved depression for 70 years after the war. In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt referred to the South as "the nation's number one economic problem." Southerners two decades later were again scorned for preserving an indefensible racial caste system. The South still is the region with the deepest poverty, the worst schools, the highest infant mortality rate. Maybe looking back to a splendid romanticized past and claiming the distinction of "the last battle of the Civil War" provides a psychological boost.

Securing one's place in the past is another reason for reconstructing memories of the war. Many African Americans and whites interpret their places in this past differently. It was no coincidence that the Veterans Parkway historical marker for the "Last Important Land Battle" was erected in 1953 or that the Confederate flag was added to Georgia's state flag in 1956 in the midst of the civil rights movement. Glorification of the war perhaps alleviates white guilt for the horrors of the Jim Crow system that persisted in Columbus into the 1970s.

As William Faulkner said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Columbus citizens may not acknowledge the facts about the Battle of Columbus, but the mythology keeps this seminal historical event alive and perhaps makes them feel better about themselves. However, we do not need to make up myths about Columbus's history. We have plenty of real accomplishments of which we should be proud.

Virginia Causey, a retired professor of history at Columbus State University, is now a member of CSU's part-time faculty, teaching online survey courses in U.S. history; causey_virginia@columbusstate.edu.