Sunday, March 28, 2010

Misulia: "COLUMBUS, GEORGIA, 1865: The Last True Battle of the Civil War"

[Columbus, Georgia, 1865: The Last True Battle of the Civil War by Charles A. Misulia (University of Alabama Press, 2010). Hardcover, 11 maps, photos, notes, appendices, bibliographic essay, index. Pages main/total: 246/350. ISBN: 978-0-8173-1676-1 $35]

The combatants didn't realize it at the time, but, coming a week after Lee's surrender at Appomattox and only two days before the first Bennett Place agreement between Sherman and Johnston, the April 16, 1865 Battle of Columbus could have no effect upon the course of the war beyond prolonging the inevitable. However, as is often the case, the local impact was significant. The level of destruction visited upon the city's businesses, public buildings, and private homes by the Union victors would be felt for some time.

Occurring near the tail end of Union General James H. Wilson's March-April 1865 raid through Alabama and Georgia, the battle was fought between Emory Upton's veteran cavalry division and a loose collection of regulars, state militia units, and civilian battalions defending Confederate earthworks located just across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus in what was then Girard, Alabama. The numbers were roughly equal, but the result was a predictable rout. Charles A. Misulia's Columbus, Georgia, 1865 offers readers the first full-length treatment of this battle. It provides a meticulously crafted tactical rendering of the battle and associated skirmishes, as well as context and a lengthy description of the scope of its destructive aftermath. As the book's subtitle suggests, the author also considers the reasons why Columbus should be considered the Civil War's 'last battle'.

It is not easy to write a micro-tactical battle history that is also easy to follow for readers unfamiliar with the subject and the local topography, but Misulia, a Florida attorney and businessman, succeeds handsomely. New sources crop up all the time, but it is difficult to imagine anyone creating a more clear and complete blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Columbus. Additionally, substantial space is devoted to describing the battle's aftermath, to include a quite detailed accounting of the damage to public buildings and the looting of businesses and private dwellings during the Union army's brief occupation. The civilian experience (white and black, unionist and Confederate) is also discussed at some length.

None of the book's weaknesses are particularly troubling. A more in-depth examination of why the weakened Confederates chose to occupy an overextended line with a river at their backs would have been appreciated. Also, while present in acceptable numbers and useful overall, the cartography is fairly stark. Fortunately, the author ably translates his mastery of the ground to the text, partly making up for the deficiency. Finally, as interesting as it was to read the source essay and endnotes, I would have preferred the study to have a complete bibliography.

The case for each claimant to 'last battle' status is evaluated in an appendix. The differences between a skirmish and a battle remain sufficiently muddled as to invite a variety of interpretations, but Musulia offers sound reasons for us to consider Columbus to be at least more of a true battle than the later Palmetto Ranch. Other appendices provide order of battle material, casualty and Medal of Honor lists, and some brief touring information.

In the end, whether Columbus deserves the honor of being considered the last battle of the Civil War matters comparatively little. Charles Misulia's lasting contribution is that of a deeply researched and expertly written battle history that will likely stand the test of time. Columbus, Georgia 1865 is highly recommended reading for students of western theater battles and those with a special interest in the waning moments of the conflict.

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