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Ask Rufus: How Grant saved Columbus


June 20, 1863 Harper's Weekly illustration of the

June 20, 1863 Harper's Weekly illustration of the "Destruction of Rebel property in Jackson, Mississippi, May 26." General Grant threatened attacks on Columbus to divert Confederate troops defending other places to the defense of Columbus. As a result of that ploy Columbus was never the scene of fighting or destruction, but places such as Jackson and Meridian were burned. Photo by: Courtesy photo


Rufus Ward



On Thursday, Mitchell Memorial Library at Mississippi State University celebrated the grand opening of the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library and Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana. Not only should the legacy of Grant be celebrated at Mississippi State and across the country, it should especially be celebrated in Columbus. It was probably because of Grant that Columbus, unlike so many other Southern cities, was not burned and destroyed during the Civil War. 


In an Oct. 8, 1863, letter, General U.S. Grant wrote; "Columbus, Miss. is a point of vast importance to the army." Also on Oct. 1, Union Major General S.A. Hurlbut reported that a Union "scout" who had made his way into Columbus observed: "Columbus has been fortified with 20-odd miles of earth-works and ... It would take about 50,000 men to occupy these fortifications -- a small number could not do any good. Engineer Low, who fortified the place, said 'It was thought it may be of use to General Bragg in the future.' The town is situated on the east side of Tombigbee River. The river is bridged with a very long bridge. Near the bridge is a small stockade, which can hardly keep 20 men in -- a dash of 100 cavalrymen, can take it. The river can be forded at Main Street, but this ford is fortified with ditches and earth-works. But there is a ford 3 miles below the town, which is not well fortified, and they could not stop the crossing of cavalry as well as in town. But the best place to cross the Tombigbee River is between Cotton Gin and Aberdeen, Miss."  


General Hurlbut's report on Columbus seemed to be the initial planning for a Union raid on Columbus. By the war's end, Columbus escaped any of the fighting and destruction associated with places of military importance but it was not for lack of importance that Columbus survived. In the spring of 1862, the large Confederate Briarsfield Arsenal was located in Columbus. It was said that over 1,000 people were employed in a range of work from repairing rifles to even making cannons. By June the arsenal was producing 20,000 cartridges and repairing 50 rifles a day. Adjoining the arsenal was Leech and Rigdon, a manufacturer of swords and pistols. The two facilities moved from Columbus in January 1863 because of the increasing threat of Union raids. The last of the ordinance from the arsenal was moved from Columbus to Selma, Alabama, by the Steamboat Alice Vivian around Jan. 20, 1863. 


The former armament production buildings turned to another and equally important use. That use was well stated by Hurlbut's scout in October 1863. "In Columbus can be found several millions of Government goods, as Maj. W. J. Anderson has (at the arsenal building) one of the largest army clothing factories in the Confederacy, and plenty of every other article usually found in the quartermasters department." Columbus had become, with its availability of steamboat, railroad and highway transportation, a major Confederate supply depot. 


In addition, Columbus had developed into one of the Confederate Army's largest hospital centers. Plans for a Columbus military hospital were made early in 1862. The Battle of Shiloh, however, expanded Columbus' role from just a hospital to a major hospital center. Rev. James Lyon witnessed the flood of wounded soldiers brought by rail to Columbus after Shiloh. He described the horrific scene at the Columbus railroad depot where he saw more than 3,000 sick or wounded soldiers "stacked like cord wood" around the depot.  


There were three large military hospitals located in Columbus. The unfinished Gilmer Hotel was converted into a 450-bed hospital that at times overflowed with more than 750 sick and wounded soldiers. The newly constructed college building of the Columbus Female Institute became the Newsom Hospital with 190 beds but at times was filled with almost 300 sick and wounded. (That building is now Callaway Hall at Mississippi University for Women, whose origins go back to the founding of the Columbus Female Institute in 1847.) There was also another large hospital constructed at the fairgrounds which were on the north side of town. In addition, there were five other buildings and several homes used as hospitals when Columbus was overwhelmed with thousands of sick and wounded soldiers in April 1862, after the Battle of Shiloh.  


General Hurlburt reported on the importance of Columbus and General Grant wrote: "Columbus, Miss. is a point of vast importance to the (Confederate) army". Why was Columbus never attacked when the war raged all around? That is thanks to General U.S. Grant who, by using Columbus as a diversion for other attacks and raids, in effect saved Columbus form potential destruction. On Oct. 8, 1863, Grant wrote Gen. Hurlburt a letter which may be found at the Library of Congress ( Grant told of the deployment of troops to Oxford, toward "Oakalona" and of plans to attack Canton and Jackson. He then wrote: "Columbus, Miss. is a point of vast importance to the army and if threatened would necessarily cause the enemy to detain a large force at that point. The Cavalry will try to create the impression that they are going thru." 


Grant saw threats to the massive Confederate manufacturing facilities and supply depot at Columbus as an effective means to tie up Confederate troops defending Columbus and thereby open up other important Confederate centers for attack. On several occasions Union troops threatened Columbus while larger forces attacked elsewhere. Victims of Gen. Grant's Columbus ploy included Jackson and Meridian, both of which were burned. Columbus can thank U.S. Grant for saving the town from destruction.


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]


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