The Bitter, Lingering Taste of “The Last Battle:” Columbus, Georgia, April 16th, 1865, and Its Unseen Aftermath

The 16th of April, 1865, is not a terribly singular date in the history of the American Civil War.  By then, the conflict had pretty much been decided.  Lee had surrendered, Johnston would shortly be on his way to doing so, and President Lincoln had been assassinated by a mad Marylander. Yet, given the failure of cell-phone communications in the Deep South, the war continued to rage there, with all its attendant consequences.  Yet a singular event that occurred on April 16th would consequently flavor the world as we now know it.

Following the disastrous Battle of Nashville in mid-December of 1864, scattered bands of Southern leftovers were determined to protect isolated fragments of a once-possible

James Wilson

James Wilson

Confederate military resistance.  Selma, Alabama and Columbus, Georgia, might yet prove troublesome in the hands of such elements; and were therefore targeted by Union forces.  Proceeding south from Middle Tennessee into northern Alabama in the spring of 1865, 13,000 Federal forces under the command of General James H. Wilson arrived in the former Confederate capitol of Montgomery on April 12th. These easily overwhelmed the no more than token resistance forces remaining before it.  Deep in war-torn Alabama, all were unaware that Richmond had fallen on the 3rd, or that Lee had surrendered on the 9th.  Each side, therefore, continued their planning.

It was thus at Columbus that a comparatively few Confederates, seemingly determined “to die in the last ditch,” fought loyally on, and in doing so, unconsciously participated in the creation of  something far more famed than the  “Last Battle of the War,” a distinction occasionally confused with a violent outburst of gunfire at Palmetto Ranch, Texas nearly a month later.

On May 5th, Jefferson Davis officially dissolved the remnants of the Confederacy during a hasty meeting in Washington, Georgia, prior to his capture and arrest at Irwinton, Georgia on May 10th.  By description, any fighting following this date is more accurately held as “post-war resistance” than battle.  The May 13 clash in Texas falls into that category.   With this established, let us return to Columbus.

Howell Cobb

Howell Cobb

As the Union forces of Major-General James H. Wilson’s Cavalry Corps approached, Confederate General Howell Cobb was already seeing to the defenses of Columbus.  At his command were roughly 3,500 remaining forces – mostly local militia and home guard troops from Georgia and Alabama, to occupy a series of breastworks, earthworks and forts.  Feeling the numerical imbalance, however, Cobb chose to withdraw most of these from the outer defenses, relying more on a concentrated, inner defense, and utilizing the Chattahoochee River itself.  Although the stream provided a measure of vulnerability to an invader when forced to attack bridges, it would not, however, prevent the bombardment of Columbus by Wilson’s men from adjacent high ground, mostly on the Alabama side of the line.  With rumors of approaching Federals, the April 16th morning edition of the Columbus Daily Sun had called for citizens to take prudent measures.

The public is hereby notified of the rapid approach of the enemy, but assured that the city of Columbus will be defended to the last.  Judging from experience it is believed that the city will be shelled. Notice is therefore given to all non-combatants to move away immediately.

Just opposite Columbus, along the western banks of the river, stood the town of Girard,

Emory Upton

Emory Upton

Alabama.   Around 2 p.m. on Easter Sunday, 1865, General Emory Upton’s Fourth Division of Wilson’s force appeared, and peremptorily launched its assault on the southwest side of town.  While not exactly unexpected, the afternoon timing of the attack was unanticipated. Though the towns of Girard and Columbus were bound by four pathways across the river, not all four routes would prove militarily useful, as the Confederates had taken steps to defend themselves.

On the lower, or “wagon” bridge, as it was known, Confederates had removed much of the floor planking of the bridge.  Additionally, turpentine-soaked cotton had been placed along the length of the bridge’s superstructure.  As six companies of the 1st Ohio Cavalry, in column of fours, approached the bridge, a sudden artillery fire emanated from the opposite end of the covered structure, followed shortly thereafter by roaring flames and smoke.  Captain Christopher C. McGehee of the local defense battalion had crawled out onto the still-shaking structure to set it alight.  When the Union cavalrymen saw the bridge burst into flames, they broke off their all-out charge.  The first assault upon Columbus had been repulsed.

In a creative acknowledgement of reality, Brigadier-General Andrew J. Alexander, commander of the Second Brigade of Upton’s forces, reported,

Upon a careful reconnaissance of this position it was deemed impracticable to attack from my front. My command was therefore withdrawn, by direction of the brevet major-general commanding, and took no further part in the capture of Columbus.”

However, the Federals, maneuvering in this region did not proceed light-fistedly.  Additional Union cavalry, having gained a river crossing slightly further north at West Point, Georgia, were already approaching in support.  The focus of the fighting would renew from this new direction around 9:00 p.m. Brigadier-General Edward F. Winslow, commanding the 1st Brigade of the 4th Division, was directed to descend upon the town from the northwest.

Thus, Gen’l. Cobb’s decision to withdraw into such a close defensive ring around the city would come to haunt him.  Abandoned high positions to the east and north, in concert with the evening dark and the earlier loss of Forrest’s cavalry screen outside the area, gave the Union troops freedom to shift and maneuver.  The two spans that crossed the Chattahoochee on the town’s northern side, a railroad bridge and a smaller foot-bridge below it, would be stoutly defended, yet would be overwhelmed by this new determined Federal assault.

Map 2

The primary point of attack as combat resumed was the Brodnax –Franklin Street Bridge (now known more commonly as the 14th Street Bridge.)  A force of Union horsemen pushed forward, winding up momentarily in the rear of the Confederate defenses near the bridge. The Southerners returned this fire, slashing the night with musketry and determined shellfire.  Into the mix, Federals pushed forward, now generating a swirling blend of advancing attackers and desperate defenders.  Although the bridge-way was protected by two artillery pieces, the proximity of friend to foe as they surged backward across the span rendered the chance of a “clean kill” negligible, so the defenders declined to fire, abandoning their positions as the Unionists poured in.

As the fighting across the bridge turned close and intense, its result would have world-changing consequences, however.  In the face of the mounting disorganization, confusion and chaos, the majority of the mostly inexperienced defenders of Columbus hastily fell back into the teeth of the focused and victorious Federal troopers.  At such a critical moment, it was the job of the officers to rally their men to the defense of home and flag.  Fighting mounted in the thickness of this melee, Lt. – Col. John Sith Pemberton of Robinson’s Twelfth Cavalry, Georgia State Guards, found himself painfully wounded by a pistol shot, and the subsequent slash of a Union saber across his torso.  For Pemberton, the pain of these wounds would echo beyond the fall of Columbus, and into the distant future.

By 10:00 p.m., on the evening of April 16th, 1865, the Battle of Columbus was considered to be over.  Statistically, the casualties yielded up by the struggle at Columbus were fairly unimpressive.  General Wilson’s official report read “25 men killed and wounded,” although the differing numbers hint upwards to slightly more (33.)  Not surprisingly, battle accounts of this engagement disagree, with actual losses of both sides at a variance. Detailed losses, reflecting the killed, wounded, and captives, were notably higher, numbering somewhere around 1,200.  Lt. – Col. Pemberton was one of those.  Unlike the other suffering wounded, however, Pemberton’s pre-war education had prepared him, he believed, a way to change his destiny.

John S Pemberton

John S. Pemberton

John S. Pemberton was the nephew of Confederate Lieutenant-General John Clifford Pemberton, by now of Vicksburg infamy.  John C. Pemberton’s brother was James Clifford Pemberton, John’s father.  Born in 1831, in Knoxville, Georgia, (near Macon,) the young John S. had followed a medical career in his youth, and worked to establish a wholesale-retail pharmaceutical business in central-western Georgia.  Locating in Columbus, he spent some time organizing a home-defense unit upon the eruption of the conflict.  He entered the service in May of 1862, yet later tendered his resignation, effective November 8th, 1862.  Perhaps the production of medicines was then deemed a higher priority as a war industry.  Returning to irregular periods of local defense service, he too, now bore the scars of combat.

As a veteran in the post-war era,  suffering the painful effects of his wounds, Pemberton became determined to utilize his working knowledge of pharmaceuticals in order to benefit himself, and the many like him, now forced to fight yet another, more private, war – the war between pain and drug addiction.  All-too closely now, pharmacist Pemberton had experienced the pernicious potentials of addictive pain-killing medicines, especially the morphine and opium-based sorts with which he had been initially treated. Upon returning to his practice in the months following the war, he began to tinker with the possibilities of a variety of opiate-free mixtures.

This took some time, and concoctions such as the “Globe Flower Cough Syrup” and “French Wine Coca,” first sputtered forth from the spouts of Pemberton’s lab.  However, Pemberton zealously attended to the improvement of his products, following the lead of others in his field, specifically one W.H. Bentley, whose use of coca showed great promise.   When a local prohibitionist law took effect in 1886, the wine was removed, leaving the undiluted strength of the other main element to shine through – the stimulant extracted from fresh, healthy coca leaves.  The powers of cocaine were less well-understood in the latter-1800’s, and Pemberton viewed it, perhaps through the lens of some personal denial, as a safe alternative to the well-documented evils of opiates. In a series of business interviews with the Atlanta Journal in March, 1885, Pemberton commented,

I am convinced from actual experiments that coca is the very best substitute for opium…It supplies the place of that drug, and the patient who will use it as a means of a cure, may deliver himself from that pernicious  habit.

At another occasion, Pemberton stated,

I wish it were in my power to substitute the Coca and compel all who are addicted to the use of opium, morphine, alcohol, tobacco,  or other narcotic stimulants to live on the coca plant…It is perfectly wonderful what coca does.


In all fairness, one must pause here to recall that in expressing these sentiments, Pemberton is more than a businessman hawking a product.  He was, at his deepest level, an intelligent man turned addict by circumstance, like thousands of other wounded Civil War veterans.  Given his background and training, however, he thought he had an answer to a serious problem.    But his search failed him, and he remained an addict. Opium continued to be easily available to Pemberton, and there is some indication that he used it, in part to combat the pain of stomach cancer, as well as the old war wounds.  His drug habits continually impaired his judgement.

Although he wished to transfer at least a portion of his “Coca- Kola” (so named at the time for the kola nut) creation to his son Charley, he had also introduced his son to morphine/opium addiction. Now needing to finance his ever-growing habit, Charley instead convinced his father to sell off the vast majority of his holdings, save some dubious naming rights, for a mere $550 (approximately $14,000 in 2016 dollars) shortly before his death in 1888.  The ill-tempered Charley, a suffering addict himself and second-generation rich man, followed his father into the grave a mere six years thereafter in 1894, at the age of forty, reputedly comforted at the moment of his death only by a stick of opium at his side.   The inventor’s widow, now childless, bereft of husband and income, would later die in South Carolina as a pauper, in 1909.

It took a modicum of advertising, but the company’s new owner, Asa G. Candler, and the Woodruff  family that followed him, thoroughly transformed  Pemberton’s  product into the renowned “Coca-Cola” Company” so instantly recognizable throughout the world today, (albeit now bereft both of both wine and cocaine since 1905.)


Since then, it has created its own legacy and legend, both of which it guards very carefully.  Proud to recount the tale of its’ creation by a Georgia pharmacist, it thence trails off into the dust, without accurately recounting the vain hopes of its creator to relieve him from the cruelties of  his combat-inflicted drug addictions that ultimately claimed not only him, but eventually destroyed his family.  In their own way, therefore, those prolific red vending machines are perhaps the most ubiquitous of all Confederate monuments.

Bert Barnett
Gettysburg National Military Park


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3 Responses to The Bitter, Lingering Taste of “The Last Battle:” Columbus, Georgia, April 16th, 1865, and Its Unseen Aftermath

  1. Diane Wilen says:

    Excellent post! Thank you!

  2. Mark Ewing says:

    Great story….a side of which I hadn’t completely heard before.

  3. wildninja says:

    This is unrelated to this story but I know you have a Park Ranger who is talented in breaking codes and wanted to send this their way,

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