A couple of days later Wilson rode to Cahaba under a flag of truce to discuss the exchange of prisoners with Forrest, who sported a dirty bandage on his arm where the late Colonel Taylor had sliced him with his sword. “If that young man had known enough to give me the point of his saber, instead of the edge, I wouldn’t be here today,” Forrest told Wilson phlegmatically. The other cavalryman commiserated. More to the point, Forrest conceded to Wilson, “Well, General, you have beaten me badly, and for the first time I am compelled to make such an acknowledgment.” Wilson allowed that Forrest had put up a stout fight, but the fearsome Confederate was not mollified. He could have captured Wilson’s force twice over, said Forrest, and that would still not have compensated for the loss of Selma. They left it at that. When Governors Charles Clark of Mississippi and Isham Harris of Tennessee pressed Forrest to lead his remnant forces to Texas to continue the fight, Forrest growled, “Men, you may do as you damn please, but I’m a-going home. To make men fight under such circumstances would be nothing but murder. Any man who is in favor of a further prosecution of this war is a fit subject for a lunatic asylum.”
The Battles of Columbus and Fort Tyler
After eliminating Selma as center of Confederate manufacturing and supply, and determining that no enemy forces were east of the Cahaba River, Wilson took his corps out of the city on April 8 and headed for Montgomery, the first capital of the Confederacy, reaching the city on the 12th. The destruction of its war-making capacity, including the Alabama Arms Manufacturing Company and the Leonard and Riddle saltpeter plant, was quickly accomplished. Before retreating to Columbus, Georgia, the erstwhile defenders burned the city’s cotton resources—some 85,000 bales valued at an estimated $40 million.
Unaware of Lee’s surrender in Virginia three days before, Wilson was determined, in his words, “to continue breaking things along the main line of Confederate communication.” His next target was Columbus, gateway to the Peach State, 80 miles west of Montgomery. It was the last major manufacturing center and storehouse untouched by Union raiders. Although there was little Confederate strength to seriously contest the Yankee advance to Columbus, on the way skirmishes were many and often brisk. Like Selma, Columbus, situated on the east side of the Chattahoochee River, was well fortified. It was protected from attack from the west by steep hills ranging in height from 100 to 500 feet. Traffic across the river was carried by two foot/wagon bridges as well as a railroad trestle at the southern end of the city about 500 yards from the lower bridge.
In charge of the defenders was the former secretary of the treasury under President James Buchanan, the first president of the Confederate Congress, Maj. Gen. Howell Cobb. The northern approach to the city was covered by a line of rifle pits, and two forts. The main defensive position, at the bridgehead, was a fishhook-shaped line of rifle pits supported by 11 artillery pieces extending midway between the two wagon bridges north for a mile before hooking to the east. There were four guns at the lower bridge, two at the east end of the upper bridge, and four at the east end of the railway trestle. The Confederate defenders numbered 3,000 men and 27 guns.
Upton’s division reached Columbus on April 16. His plan of attack called for a force of dismounted troopers to hit the upper bridge hard enough to break the enemy defenses there. After that was done, a mounted contingent would secure the bridge and enter the town. Wilson soon arrived and approved Upton’s plan, ordering it to be carried out as a night attack. At 9 pm, Winslow’s 3rd and 4th Iowa and the 10 Missouri Cavalry Regiments moved out. The latter unit passed through the Confederate first line and gained the bridge, but without adequate support withdrew to the Federal starting line.
In a second attempt to break the enemy’s position, the 3rd and part of the 4th Iowa, both dismounted, again attacked the Confederate line, this time routing the enemy. The Federals then went for the bridge. The 4th Iowa captured a Confederate battery at the west end of the structure, then struggled across the span, capturing another gun position at its east end. As the last defenders were driven off from the bridge area, a mounted battalion of the 4th Iowa clambered across the river and into Columbus. While Upton took Columbus, LaGrange’s brigade, after a sharp fight on the 16th, took Fort Tyler, thus securing West Point. The victory netted LaGrange 19 train engines and 340 railway cars.
“Our Task Was Done and Done Well”
Columbus and Fort Tyler proved to be the final major battles of Wilson’s campaign, but his march did not end at those locations. Macon, Georgia, was his next objective. Long’s division, now under the command of Colonel Robert H.G. Minty, led the way while Long was still recovering from his Selma wound. Skirmishing with small parties of Confederates and destroying anything of military value he could find, Minty was 13 miles outside of Macon when he got word from the garrison of a truce signed by Sherman and Confederate commander Joseph E. Johnston. Not certain of the authenticity of the report, Wilson pushed on to Macon, occupying the town on April 20 and accepting the surrender of its 3,800-man garrison and 60 pieces of artillery.
By the 21st, having heard conclusively from Sherman that a truce had been arranged, Wilson stopped his eastward advance. The last major military operation of the Civil War ended. Wilson’s superb campaign left a legacy demonstrating that a force able to make rapid movements and lay down high volumes of firepower could conduct independent operations with great prospects for success. In less than two months of campaigning, he and his veteran troopers had destroyed seven irons works, seven foundries and machine shops, 13 factories, three arsenals, a naval yard, five steamboats, 35 locomotives, nearly 600 railroad cars, and countless miles of railroad tracks. “Our task was done and done well,” Wilson reported. He was not exaggerating.
This article by Arnold Blumberg first appeared at the Warfare History Network in December 2018.
Image: Major General James H. Wilson and Staff of Nine. Captain Louis Seibert, Captain Perkins, Captain Sayles, Major C.E. Hackley, Lieutenant Hull, Lieutenant J.W. Andrews, Lieutenant Yard, Captain Edward H. Noyes, Captain Russell. ca. 1860 - 1865. Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, (Record Group 111) U.S. National Archives.