What’s significant about the Battle of Columbus? For one, it was the last battle of the Civil War, and for another, it led to the invention of Coca-Cola.
In early 1865, Union general James H. Wilson was ordered to march through the South, destroying major supply centers. On April 2, Wilson took Selma, Alabama, but unbeknownst to Wilson, his troops, or the Confederates he was fighting, Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, effectively ending the war. So in ignorance, Wilson continued his march, taking Montgomery, Alabama, on the 12th and then heading on to Columbus, Georgia, where he engaged in battle on the 16th, Easter Sunday.
Columbus was defended by a rag-tag group composed of a few experienced men but mostly inexperienced citizens, wounded veterans, and Alabama and Georgia reserves. Confederate general Howell Cobb decided that they would defend Columbus across the Chattahoochee River in Girard (now Phenix City), Alabama, where there were preexisting fortifications.
Around 2 p.m., one Union division tried to take the lower of two covered bridges leading to Columbus. At first it looked like they would succeed, but the Confederates burned the bridge and the Union soldiers were forced back. Due to some confusion, the fight for the upper bridge didn’t begin until after 8 p.m. After battling for about two hours, the Confederate defense crumbled, and they retreated back over the bridge into Columbus. At the same time, the eager Union troops decided to push forward across the bridge, resulting in both sides being on the bridge simultaneously, but it was so dark that neither side could tell enemy from friend.
The following day, the Federals destroyed the city’s infrastructure, bales of cotton, and the ironclad CSS Jackson (also called the CSS Muscogee). Ten days later, the war officially ended with General Joseph E. Johnston’s surrender, making the fight at Columbus the last battle of the war.
Interestingly, during the battle, while the Confederates were trying to keep the Federals from taking the upper bridge, Southern chemist and druggist John Pemberton was wounded. After the battle, he became addicted to the morphine he took for pain, so he began experimenting with other alternatives. This led to his creation of Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, which—after some temperance laws came into effect—later morphed into the carbonated beverage Coca-Cola.