Monday, September 19, 2011

Phenix City Battle was the Last Major Engagement of the Civil War

Marker on Summerville Road
One of the least known facts of the Civil War is that its last major battle was fought along the Chattahoochee River in Phenix City, Alabama, and the adjacent city of Columbus, Georgia.

The Battle of Columbus (also called the Battle of Girard) took place on April 16, 1865, an Easter Sunday. General Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomatox Court House one week earlier and General Joseph E. Johnston would meet with General William Tecumseh Sherman in North Carolina the next day to discuss the surrender of Confederate forces in the Deep South.

It was in the last days of the war that Union Major General James H. Wilson pushed east from Montgomery, battling Confederate forces as he approached Auburn. By the mid-point of the month he was driving east from Auburn, moving fast with thousands of troops to seize the vital bridges over the Chattahoochee and destroy the vast wartime industrial complex in Columbus.

Site of 14th Street Bridge
These bridges linked Columbus with the smaller town of Girard (now Phenix City) on the Alabama side. To protect both the bridges and the major military manufacturing complex of Columbus, the Confederates had ringed Girard with a series of forts, batteries, breastworks and other defenses. These were placed atop encircling ridges and hilltops as the area immediately adjacent to the bridges was overlooked by these hills.  Additional defenses were built on the Columbus side of the river and cannon were positioned so as to command the bridges.

The initial attack developed on the afternoon of April 16, 1865, when part of Wilson's command made a dash for the "lower" or Dillingham Street bridge. This force, carried out by part of Upton's Division, was repulsed.

Surviving Earthworks in Phenix City
The effort to quickly seize a crossing point and outflank the Confederates having failed, Wilson resolved on a night attack down Summerville road directly into the throat of the main Southern defenses and batteries. Recognizing that this was likely to be the point of greatest danger, Confederate General Howell Cobb moved the majority of his force into the trenches there and positioned guns to sweep the road from all directions.

Battery Site at Russell County Courthouse
The attack came at 9 p.m.  Pushing directly down the Summerville Road, Wilson's forces overran an advanced line of Confederate works. Thinking they had captured the main Southern line, they pushed immediately for the "upper" or 14th Street bridge. As they approached the main line, however, the Confederates opened on them from front, left and right. Recognizing their precarious situation, the Federals drove straight forward and slashed through the Confederate main line.

The battle now collapsed into a confusing night fight, but by 10 p.m. the upper bridge had been taken and Columbus had fallen. The impact on the Southern war effort was devastating. Not only were the factories destroyed, but the nearly complete ironclade C.S.S. Jackson was captured and the warship C.S.S. Chattahoochee was burned by its own crew to prevent its capture. No other battle between Union and Confederate forces would be fought on the scale of the action at Phenix City and Columbus.

To learn more about the Battle of Columbus (Girard), please visit

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

September 1864 - Undercover Yankees in South Alabama

Lt. Col. Andrew Spurling, U.S.A.
One of the most bizarre episodes of the Civil War in Alabama took place in September of 1864 when a party of men wearing Confederate uniforms rode into the South Alabama town of Geneva. Led by a man who identified himself as Lieutenant Clark, they said they were members of the 15th Confederate Cavalry.

The people of Geneva had heard that a major Union raid was underway just across the state line in Walton County, Florida, so they were thrilled to see these men and welcomed them with open arms. Things, however, were not what they seemed.

On September 23rd a force of 700 mounted Federals led by Brigadier General Alexander Asboth had stormed into the Florida village of Eucheeanna (near present-day DeFuniak Springs). The attack came during the early phases of Asboth's 1864 West Florida Raid and the small Confederate force camped at Eucheeanna was quickly overrun. Nine of the Southern soldiers were captured, but the others managed to escape, fleeing on horseback up the road that led north to Geneva, Alabama (about 35 miles away).

Brig. Gen. Asboth in the field (with his dog)
The escape of the Confederate cavalrymen concerned Asboth, who feared they might spread the alarm across the eastern Panhandle and alert the military post at Marianna, Florida, that he was coming. He decided on a novel plan to try to round them up:

...It being feared that they would arouse the country and trouble our progress, Lieut.-Col. Spurling, accompanied by Lieutenant Jones of Company D, Sergt. Butler, Company B, Second Maine Cavalry, and ten men, all disguised in rebel uniforms, left the main body, for the purpose of securing them. - Letter dated Barrancas, Florida, October 8, 1864.

Moving behind enemy lines in the uniform of your enemy is a dangerous proposition and the men of Spurling's detachment knew that if captured they would be treated as spies and executed. According to one participant: "Each man was equipped with two Remington six-shooters and a Spencer repeating carbine carrying eight cartridges, seven in the magazine and one in the chamber, and it was distinctly understod that in case of discovery there was to be no surrender."

The detachment headed north up the Geneva road, following the prints left by the Confederate horses. They crossed the state line and reached Geneva on September 24th:

...The citizens of Geneva welcomed the colonel with open arms and furnished him and his men with everything needful to their comfort, including arms and ammunition. He announced himself as Lieut. Clark, Fifteenth Confederate Cavalry regiment, and stated that he had been stationed at Milton, Fla., but was ordered to scout from that point by the way of Euchesana (sic.) to Geneva, to ascertain the movements and intentions of the Yankees. - Letter dated Barrancas, Florida, October 8, 1864.

Choctawhatchee River near Geneva
While it might seem surprising that a group of men from Maine could show up in South Alabama and convince the locals that they were Confederate soldiers, the ruse worked. Spurling made "friends" in the town and even agreed to return and do some hunting when he finished witht his "more congenial pleasure of hunting the Yankees." He was also a hit with the women of Geneva:

...The ladies of Geneva were much pleased with Lieut. Clark (i.e. Spurling); his welfare and success were prime objects of solicitude with them, the evidently took kindly to him, and he was solicited by one of these fair beings to bring her some trophy off a dead Yank, which he promised to do on his return. - Letter dated Barrancas, Florida, October 8, 1864.

The men of the detachment took up positions in the town, waiting for either the missing Confederates or the main body of Asboth's column to come up. They seem not to have known that the general planned to cross the Choctawhatchee River in Holmes County, Florida, to begin his final advance on Marianna.

When neither arrived, they left Geneva - still in disguise - on September 25th and headed back south into Florida. For the next several days they trailed behind the main Union column, unable to catch up, and did not rejoin Asboth until after the Battle of Marianna. So far as is known, no one in Geneva ever figured out the identity of their visiting "undercover Yankees."

To learn more about the events of Asboth's raid, including what one of Spurling's men described as his "jaunt through rebeldom," please consider my book: The Battle of Marianna, Florida. It can be ordered by following the ad at left and is also available as an instant download for your Amazon Kindle reading device or Amazon's free Kindle software for your computer or smartphone by clicking here: The Battle of Marianna, Florida. The book is also available at iBooks.

You can also read more about the raid at