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

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