Fort No. 5: An Endangered Piece of History

Story By: Kevin Dougherty.
Photos By: Rhonda Dougherty.

At the time of the Civil War, Columbus, Georgia was one of the South’s few industrial centers, “furnish[ing] more manufactured articles of every kind to the Confederate Quartermaster department than any place in the Confederacy except Richmond.” The Columbus Iron Works had been established in 1853 to manufacture farm implements, but with the coming of the Civil War, it had become an important producer of cannon, weapons, munitions, and ship machinery.

1864 map of the Columbus defenses
Courtesy Library of Congress

The Navy Yard produced a torpedo boat and ironclad. Other factories in Columbus specialized in uniforms, tents, cloth, shoes, and flour. A major railroad and shipping network made possible by the Chattahoochee River transported Columbus’s production throughout the South.

Confederate authorities recognized early in the war that such a critical production and distribution center needed to be protected from enemy raids, and work on the city’s defenses began in 1862. Unfortunately for the Confederates, Columbus and Girard, a small suburb across the Chattahoochee River in Alabama, lay in a giant bowl which exposed them to the possibility of enemy artillery bombardment from the surrounding hills. The only alternative was to create a forward defense on the high ground that encircled the Chattahoochee valley. Thus work began on a series of forts as far out as two miles from Girard (which is now Phenix City) on high hills that offered observation and interlocking fields of fire. Such a defensive plan was excellent in design, but perhaps overly ambitious. Brigadier General Jeremy Gilmer, an engineer who oversaw part of the construction, worried, “The country around Columbus is of such character that it is difficult to locate a line of defensive works without giving a development too great for any garrison that we can hope to place there.”

Brigadier General James Wilson
Courtesy Library of Congress

Major General Howell Cobb
Courtesy Library of Congress

The Confederates originally assumed that any Federal attack on Columbus would come from the west, but when Major General William Sherman captured Atlanta, Columbus’s citizens shifted their attention to this new threat from the east. Instead, Sherman embarked on his “March to the Sea,” and it soon became apparent that the attack on Columbus would in fact come from the west, when, on March 22, 1865, Brigadier General James Wilson began a cavalry raid from the extreme northwest corner of Alabama aimed at the manufacturing center at Selma. Moving in three columns to disguise his destination, Wilson descended on Selma, capturing it on April 2. He remained there until April 9 when he marched to Montgomery which he captured on April 12. Wilson then set his sights on Columbus. He dispatched a brigade to West Point to capture the Chattahoochee River crossing there, and sent his main force of 11,000 men against Columbus. Opposing Wilson was Major General Howell Cobb, commander of the Department of Tennessee and Georgia. His troops defending Columbus consisted mainly of the Georgia Reserve Force, composed primarily of men too old or boys too young for the Confederate Army and designed to be called into the field only in the case of emergency.

When the Confederate authorities in Columbus realized Wilson’s intentions, they returned their attention to the western defenses. Although the outer ring of forts had been nearly completed, the positions lacked artillery and were therefore of little value. Given the shortages of time and resources, focus narrowed to the forts constructed on the northern edge of the original line and a new line of inner works. Colonel Leon Von Zinken had been placed in command of the “post at Columbus” in September 1864, and quickly agreed with Gilmer’s assessment that the original plan was too extensive for the limited troops he had available. He developed a new plan to form a tete-de-pont defense on the enemy side of the bridges leading into Columbus. The result was a semicircle of entrenchments in Girard that would enclose the Franklin Street Bridge and the Columbus and Western Railroad Bridge. Fort No. 1 stood atop Red Hill at the west end of the Franklin Street Bridge and anchored the southern end of Von Zinken’s defenses. Fort No. 2, guarding the Summerville Road approach, secured the northern end of the line from a steep slope on Ingersoll Hill. Between these two extremes, Von Zinken built Fort No. 3 on the western side of Summerville Road on a hill opposite Fort No. 2. Continuing southwest, Fort No. 4 lay midway between Summerville Road and the Columbus & Western Railroad (which paralleled Salem Road).

Von Zinken’s efforts notwithstanding, the poorly trained and outmanned Confederates were no match for Wilson’s cavalry which launched a rare night attack on April 16. By 1 a.m. on April 17, Columbus was in Federal hands. Each side suffered about a dozen casualties, and some 600 Confederates escaped to Macon where Cobb ultimately surrendered. By the time of this Battle of Columbus, General Robert E. Lee had already surrendered to Major Ulysses Grant at Appomattox, Virginia on April 9. Fighting has also ended in North Carolina where General Joseph Johnston asked Sherman for an armistice on April 14. For this reason, Columbus is generally considered to be the last battle of the Civil War.

Signs on U.S. Highway 280 alert motorists of a historical marker ahead, but the actual marker is fairly inconspicuous.

Among the forts abandoned by the Confederate concentration prior to the battle was Fort No. 5. While urban sprawl has largely consumed the old battlefield, the stalwart history buff can still find the remnants of this fort on the hill behind the K-mart shopping center on Highway 280 in Phenix City. Just off the highway, hidden between a stand of trees and the Just for Kids Learning Center, a historical marker proclaims “On the hill to the northwest is an earthen fortification built in 1863 as part of the defenses on the Confederate navy yard, iron works and other war-related industries in nearby Columbus, Georgia. Designated Fort #5 on the plan done by the CSA engineers, the well-preserved fort has three cannon emplacements. It is pentagonal, of 90 foot side. Escarpments are 30 feet. Trenches flank the central unit. During the attack by Federal troops under Major General James H. Wilson on April 16, 1865, the fort and other outer defenses were not manned due to lack of Confederate manpower.”

The trail up to the fort begins inauspiciously at the dumpsters behind the west end of the shopping center. The trail narrows and steepens as it goes.

In spite of the historical marker’s claim, describing what remains of the fort today as “well-preserved” is an exercise in poetic license, and there is little dignity or awe associated with a visit to the site. In the latter half of the twentieth century, E. D. Murphy, a mortgage banker and avid local historian, tried unsuccessfully to interest Alabama and Phenix City officials in preserving Fort No. 5 (which he called Fort Gilmer) by making it part of a complex which would have included an Alabama welcome center and interpretive components. Instead, the site has fallen into disrepair and has largely been ignored except for four-wheelers and, from the looks of the litter, surreptitious beer drinkers.

The view of the fort from the area behind the Just for Kids Learning Center shows the damage to that side of the hill. The trail to the fort is to the left of this area, out of view.

The ascent up the hill is not for the faint of heart and follows a nondescript trail that begins at the dumpsters behind the stores and works its way up the slope. Much of the rest of the Highway 280 side of the hill has been severely dug into and is much eroded. At the top, the remnants of the fort are partially circled by a broken-down chain link fence, but there is nothing else to mark or protect the site. One section of the fort’s integrity has been broken by a road cut into its backside. Much of the breastworks and trenches remain clearly visible, and it is easy to appreciate the observation and fields of fire commanded from such a position. However, picturing the fort and the surrounding area as it was in 1865 certainly requires some imagination.

Once inside the chain link fence, the entrenchments are visible.

Trees obstruct the view from the fort itself, but this panorama from the ascent shows the Columbus skyline and gives an idea of the fort’s commanding position.

Growth and development, especially along a major artery such as Highway 280 is inevitable, and Fort No. 5 is an unfortunate victim of this expansion. Clearly the preservation vision of Mr. Murphy is no longer an option, but it does seem a shame that Fort No. 5 has declined to the state it has. A few additional signs, a well-marked and safe access trail, some site clean-up, and maybe some selective pruning would go a long way to rescuing this piece of history from oblivion. For an aspiring Eagle Scout looking for a project or an enterprising club or class at nearby Central High School interested in service learning, Fort No. 5 appears tailor-made.

Central High School is clearly visible from the backside of the fort.

For additional information about the Battle of Columbus and Fort No. 5, please see Charles Misulia, Columbus, Georgia 1865: The Last True Battle of the Civil War, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010). Also of interest is Daniel Bellware, “The Last Battle. Period. Really,” Civil War Times Vol. 42 Issue 1, (April 2003). Additional materials, including Murphy’s proposal to make the site a welcome and interpretive center are in the Murphy Collection of the Columbus State University Archives. A video narrated by Vanessa Lewis found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xkzl3tPL09w is also of interest, although it focuses more on Columbus sites associated with the battle. All these sources were consulted and incorporated in the preparation of this article. The author found reference to, but could not locate, “Review of Fort Gilmer: A Historical Perspective” and “Overview of Fort Gilmer Site.” Both are by Lawrence Jones and would no doubt be of interest to future researchers.