Hi Southbound readers,
Thank you for the helpful feedback about the audio version of January’s article. Many of you enjoyed it. I decided to give it another “go” this month, but this time as a soft launch of a podcast where I’ll read the article each month. Doing it as a podcast instead of an article voiceover provides more flexibility and usage metrics, but you’ll still receive it in your inbox just the same.
This month my friend, Josh King, helped with audio production to bring the story further to life. Click on the link above to listen to this month’s article. For now, the episode is only published here on Substack, but I may broaden it to Apple podcasts and other feeds based upon what I learn this month. As always, thank you for reading (and listening)!
Last month I shared the story of my November visit to Appomattox Court House, Virginia, the site of General Robert E. Lee’s April 9th, 1865 surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant. We explored the nearby one-bedroom home of John Robinson, a formerly enslaved shoemaker who purchased the home not long after the war. His home became a source of generational wealth and stability for his family, previously not possible before the Civil War. While Appomattox symbolizes the end of America’s darkest chapter, Robinson’s house symbolizes the beginning of its next.
With that context in mind, this month we’ll fast forward only one week after Lee’s surrender. And, we’ll leave central Virginia and head to Columbus, Georgia, a mid-sized, industrial city on the banks of the Chattahoochee River.
On spring break two years ago, my family set out for a camping trip in Southwest Georgia near Providence Canyon. On the way, we stopped in Columbus for lunch and a brief history detour. Prior to the trip, I had only been to Columbus to play in a handful of golf tournaments in high school and college—needless to say, learning about its history had not been on the agenda. And, until a Google search before the trip, I didn’t know (or had forgotten) that the last major military engagement of the Civil War occurred in Columbus.1
I’d also never heard of Horace King, the 19th-century engineer who designed and built the bridge at the center of the battle. That was about to change. In fact, we all should know his story.
On Easter Sunday, April 16, 1865, Union Major General James Wilson’s troops approached Columbus, capping off a burning sweep across Alabama, much like General William T. Sherman’s more well-known, fiery march through Georgia months earlier. Confederate Major General Howell Cobb prepared to defend the city, pulling together a ragtag group of soldiers, civilians, and home guard volunteers. Neither side knew that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered seven days earlier—news hadn’t reached Columbus yet.
Howell Cobb’s background is worth a detour. Born in 1815 in Jefferson County, Cobb graduated from the University of Georgia and began practicing law in the 1830s. In 1842, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, ascending to be Speaker of the House in 1849 at the age of 34—third in line for the presidency but too young to qualify for the job if needed. Two years later, he returned home to serve as Georgia’s governor from 1851-1853. He owned a plantation just northwest of Milledgeville, Georgia’s capital. You may be wondering, like I did, if Cobb County is named after him—it’s not. That’s reserved for his cousin, Thomas Willis Cobb, a former U.S. House member and Senator who died when Howell was a teenager.
As debates over slavery dominated American politics in the 1850s, Cobb published a 176-page book in U.S. Congressional record entitled, A Scriptural Examination of the Institution of Slavery in the United States with its Objects and Purposes, where he argued that “the system of slavery in the United States, in every feature and in every particular of every feature, is essentially the same as the system authorized by the Bible.” Slavery, he claimed, was “a punishment inflicted upon the enslaved for their wickedness,” and that it was a “providentially-arranged means whereby Africa is to be lifted from her deep degradation, to a state of civil and religious liberty.”
As Southern states seceded from the Union several years later, Cobb presided over the Confederacy’s constitutional convention before resigning to take a commission as colonel of the 16th Georgia Infantry in the Confederate Army. His men saw action from Georgia to Maryland. In 1863, he earned the rank of major general and took command of Georgia and Florida on the home front. Just four months before the Battle of Columbus, Cobb wrote a letter opposing General Robert E. Lee’s proposal to enlist Black soldiers to fill troop shortages, writing that “if slaves will make good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”
All that is to say that Cobb was more than just a military leader—he was a founder of the Confederacy and a vocal defender of slavery and the inferiority of Black Americans.
Returning to Columbus, the city served as a major industrial center for the war effort, and its location on banks of the Chattahoochee River also made it critical for the Confederacy’s survival. Only a few bridges spanned the river, making them essential for Union access to the city from the west. General Cobb’s men, outnumbered four to one, set up defenses just across the river into Alabama. In case of retreat across the river, they wrapped the bridges in cotton and doused them in turpentine for easy burning.
Fighting broke out on the afternoon of Easter Sunday. As night fell, the Confederates expected a break in fighting, but Union Major General Wilson ordered his men to attack at the 14th Street Bridge, catching Major General Cobb’s men off guard. After brief but heavy fighting in the darkness, Union troops gained access to the bridge before Confederates could flee across it. Confederate Brigadier General Robert Toombs, who was under Cobb’s command—himself a former U.S. Senator and the first Confederate Secretary of State—readied cannons to fire on the bridge and set it ablaze. But, since his own men were still fighting on the bridge, he held his fire.
Before midnight, the Confederates surrendered. Cobb and Toombs narrowly escaped capture. The following day, Union troops burned most of Columbus, including the bridges, and rounded up more than 1,600 Confederate prisoners before continuing their sweep across Georgia to Macon without further resistance. Three weeks later, Wilson’s men captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis 100 miles south of Macon near Irwinville, Georgia. There was no doubt now that the war was over.
As I read about the battle, I stumbled upon an interesting detail—the 14th Street Bridge’s designer and builder, Horace King. It turns out that King was the most preeminent Southern bridge builder before and after the Civil War—he was also a free Black man in the Deep South.
Born in 1807, King learned architecture from his master, John Godwin, who trained him while he was in his teens. King quickly outpaced his master’s talent and reputation. He saved enough money to purchase his freedom in 1846. At that time, though, Alabama state law required freed slaves to leave the state within a year of gaining freedom or be re-enslaved. However, due to his reputation and workmanship, the Alabama legislature passed a special law allowing him to remain in Alabama after freedom.
Over the course of his career, King built dozens of bridges across the South, including spans across most major rivers in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. In 1849, he designed and built a unique, “floating” spiral staircase that is the hallmark of the Alabama State Capitol. In fact, it’s the same staircase upon which he would later walk as one of the first Black elected state representatives after the war. He also played a key role in rebuilding bridges—including the Columbus bridges burned in the battle—as well as warehouses, textile mills, and other buildings until his death in 1885. Today, only one of King’s covered bridges remains—the Red Oak Covered Bridge in Meriwether County, Georgia.
As we look back at the Battle of Columbus, it’s a stunning irony that a bridge designed and built by a formerly enslaved man enabled Union troops to slam the door on a war fought to enslave men like him.
Not only did the ingenuity of King’s 14th Street Bridge prove Cobb’s “whole theory of slavery wrong,” but on that Easter Sunday 158 years ago, its existence ensured that only Jesus—and not the South—would rise again that day.
Thank you for reading Southbound. I’d love to hear from you. Please post your reflections below or send me a message. If you think others would benefit from reading this article, please forward or share it on social media. Personal recommendations are the most common way others learn about Southbound.
*A version of this post originally appeared on my Medium page in April 2021.