Archive | January, 2019

Memorializing The Mott House and the Battle of Columbus

29 Jan

A few years ago the city of Columbus, Georgia suffered the devastating loss of the last of its famed antebellum riverside mansions by a consuming fire. The Mott House, as it was known, sat on a bluff overlooking the cascading whitewater of the Chattahoochee River rapids as it cut through the heart of the city, virtually surrounded by vestiges of the once-robust industrial activity which fueled Columbus’ rise to become one of the Deep South’s most important manufacturing centers. The house had been somehow preserved for generations and plans were in place for a careful restoration at the time of its burning, an appropriate and worthy goal seeing how its history served as a veritable window into the town’s rich history.

The house was originally built about 1839 by local industrialist James Calhoun, later bought by businessman Daniel Griffin, then became the home of investor and mill owner Randolph L. Mott. On April 16, 1865 it stood near the very center of the fighting in the Battle of Columbus, the “last battle” in which a ragtag group of Confederates vainly attempted to resist the onslaught of some 13,000 veteran Union cavalrymen. In the aftermath, Columbus’s robust military-industrial complex—perhaps the second or third largest in the entire Confederacy—was burned to the ground. The Mott House survived the inferno in no small part because Union General James H. Wilson had chosen to make his headquarters there. Mott, according to local legend, remained steadfastly committed to the Union throughout the war and reputedly flew a flag from the top of the interior of the cupola from the time the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter until Wilson availed himself of its facilities. The story of “The House that Never Left the Union” thus entered into local lore and made its way into a variety of Civil War trivia books.


While the loss of the house was a tragedy for preservationists and locals interested in history in general, I am glad to note that something of enduring consequence did rise from the ashes of the venerable structure. Locals, led by Historic Columbus and corporate donors, turned the site of the home into an interpretive park wherein the story of the home, its owners, the rise of Columbus as an industrial center, and the story of the Battle of Columbus are told via a series of attractive monuments. (A series of traditional metallic historical markers interpret key aspects of the battle elsewhere around downtown and across the river in Phenix City, Alabama, where the majority of the fighting actually took place.) The façade of the structure, after some repair—stands at its center. The site is a beautiful and historic one, and an appropriate spot from which to ponder Columbus’ rich history and the fiery end to the first grand epoch in its history. Kudos to Columbus for making the most of a bad situation, and congratulations on finding a way to keep alive a compelling story in a creative way.


Review of American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution, by Walter R. Borneman

22 Jan

There is something about the first days of the American Revolution that particularly fascinate me. The audaciousness of those firebrands from Massachusetts which participated in the opening shots of the war at Lexington and Concord and then fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill is something that I think we sometimes miss in our understanding of the past. So often, even the most experienced of historians can tend to view historical developments as somehow inevitable, and underappreciate the power of collective will and individual determination in bringing about significant changes that at the time seemed anything but likely. So it is with the story of the “shot heard round the world” and a band of upstart rebels virtually picking a fight with the most powerful army in the world in 1775. It was not predictable, not likely to succeed, and no matter how many times the story is told remains endlessly enthralling. When I noticed that Walter Borneman, author of such acclaimed books at The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America and 1812: The War That Forged a Nation, had written about those opening days of the Revolutionary War, I knew I wanted to read it. I finally got a chance to check out American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution in audiobook form recently, and as expected found it to be an enjoyable and informative book.


Borneman begins his story by thoroughly explaining the unsettled situation in and around Boston in that pivotal spring of 1775, retracing familiar stories worth revisiting as the context of unrest is important in understanding why the war began where and when it did. To make a long story short, when British officials decided they had been pushed around enough and authorized decisive action against the American rabble-rousers, tensions boiled over and a war began. Borneman’s account of the events on the pivotal day of April 19, 1775 when shots were first fired in anger between the colonists and the redcoat troops, is incredibly detailed, providing a virtual blow by blow narrative tracking the advance and eventual retreat of the British column as it marched through the Massachusetts countryside. At times the exhaustive detail teeters on becoming literally exhausting, but Borneman manages to keep the text moving even if he delves into relatively long explanations of who might have fired the first shot on the green at Lexington, who exactly was involved in “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and plods through the details of the pitched fight at Bunker Hill.

One of the things that makes Borneman’s account stand out is his fleshing out of the major characters in his story—the folksy Samuel Adams, the affluent John Hancock, the free-spirited Benedict Arnold, the bold frontiersman Ethan Allen, and the observant Mercy Otis Warren, to name a few. Indeed, his ability to explain who the patriots were and what made them tick is a strength of the book and one of the things that makes it such a pleasurable read. Written for the masses by a scholar with a firm grasp of his subject, Borneman’s account is the type of history that should resonate with a wide audience. There are many excellent studies focusing on the beginnings of the American Revolution, but you will find few better than American Spring.


Touring Alabama’s Battle of Ebenezer Church

15 Jan

On a beautiful early fall afternoon last year, I found myself driving through central Alabama during a long commute back home from a speaking engagement in Birmingham. With a little time on my hands and an hour or so of sunlight left in the day, I pulled off of I-65 in Clanton to take a short drive south, down Hwy. 22 towards Selma, to visit one of the state’s few Civil War sites of significance which I had somehow managed to never see. Just as the rolling hills of the northern section of the state were transitioning into the fields and farmlands of Alabama’s famed Black Belt, I came upon the crossroads community of Stanton and a lone, weather-worn, historic marker standing in front of a rural house of worship known as Ebenezer Baptist Church.

ebenezer church

Ebenezer Church

Dramatic events occurred in its vicinity back in 1865, though it is hard to appreciate the sleepy intersection of State Highway 22 and County Road 45 as a battlefield of any note today. The Battle of Ebenezer Church, fought here on April 1, 1865, is one of those smaller, forgotten engagements of the war overlooked to the point of barely being remembered even among those with an interest in war in the Heart of Dixie. It did not feature extraordinarily large armies, nor did it last all that long or produce stunning casualty figures. The battle was in truth a prelude to the larger fighting at the river city to the south the next day, and when it is discussed in historical literature at all it is usually referenced matter-of-factly as the failed first attempt of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest to slow down the cavalry column of Gen. James H. Wilson—the largest assembled during the Civil War—in its inexorable advance on that industrial center. Yet what occurred at this quiet, out-of-the-way spot, like every Civil War battle worthy of the title, has a fascinating story waiting to be discovered by those who have an appreciation of the past.

In the days before the fighting at Ebenezer Church, Forrest, the legendary “Wizard of the Saddle” and arguably one of the Confederacy’s most brilliant military minds, for once was at a loss as to exactly how to deal with an invading Union force. Though Wilson had been tearing through Alabama for several weeks prior to the encounter at Ebenezer, laying waste to vital iron production centers and even sending a detachment to destroy the military training school that was the University of Alabama, the first reasonable chance for slowing the bluecoats presented itself a mere twenty miles from their primary objective of Selma. By many measures the Confederacy’s second-largest industrial center and by the spring of 1865 one of the only ones of any size still in operation, the facilities at Selma were vital to whatever continued resistance the Confederacy hoped to offer. So it was that Forrest, finally able to cobble together enough men to hope to oppose Wilson, deployed his force of approximately 2,000 men along the crest of a ridge overlooking the little church near the railroad leading to Selma. It was his hope that from behind hastily-assembled breastworks of rail fencing, his men, with the support of a few pieces of strategically-placed artillery, could funnel the Union cavalry into a devastating ambush that would at least stall their progress. As the afternoon of Saturday, April 1, wore on, the Southerners watched and waited for their guests’ arrival.


At about 4:00 PM they appeared, but in superior numbers to the defenders and better armed and equipped. They immediately pressed forward, and a pitched battle opened. The Confederates poured deadly fire into the attacking column, but on they came. When Yankee reinforcements arrived and the vigor of the attack redoubled, the thin Southern line finally broke. It had taken about an hour, but Wilson’s men held the field, along with three cannons and some 300 rebel prisoners. The Southerners had been, in the words of one exultant Union attacker, driven “helter skelter five miles past Maplesville Station.” The soldier noted that the road was littered with all manner of equipment, from guns and cartridge boxes to coats and hats, boasting they were “too fast for their goods!” The Federals lost a dozen men killed and about three times that wounded.

In the chaos of the last moments of the fight, Forrest temporarily found himself hemmed in by Yankees and Capt. James D. Taylor of the 17th Indiana approached him with intent to kill this most legendary of rebels in the west. He engaged Forrest in a running fight of about 200 yards, furiously slashing at him with his saber and severely wounding the general before the Confederate cavalry commander finally managed to pull out his revolver and fell his young assailant. It would be the last of 33 men he killed in personal combat in the war. It was also perhaps the closest of Forrest’s many close calls. “If that boy had known enough to give me the point of his saber instead of its edge,” Forrest remembered upon meeting Wilson after the fall of Selma, “I should not have been here to tell you about it.”

union graves

Memorial to Union soldiers killed in the battle

The next day, the Union troops would capture Selma after brief but pitched fight, and spend the next week methodically destroying the city’s arsenal, naval yard, and assorted other industries in a frenzy of dismantling and arson matched in intensity if not scale only in places like Atlanta, Richmond, and Columbia. The Battle of Ebenezer Church does not readily come to mind for most when recounting Alabama’s Civil War experience. It was, however, by the standards of a state which saw numerous small but vicious fights, a relatively large engagement in which thousands of men fought and dozens died. It may never merit books or documentaries, but a visit to the site where it all happened is certainly worth ten minutes of your time if you find yourself on the backroads of central Alabama between Birmingham and Selma.

Many thanks to my friend and gifted writer John Sledge for bringing its story and location to my attention. For a riveting account of the battle and the campaign for Selma, consult his book on Alabama during the war, These Rugged Days.