In 1828 the state legislature, realizing
The town retained
The river's commercial advantage diminished in the 1850s with the arrival of railroads (via branch lines from Fort Valley and from Opelika, Alabama). Steamboats still plied the Chattahoochee, but rails began connecting Columbus with larger markets. The emerging rail center of Atlanta eclipsed Columbus as the western metropolis of Georgia.
In 1860, 3,547 slaves and 141 free blacks lived throughout the city. Another 557 whites and 912 slaves lived in Wynnton, the suburb nestled atop the hills east of the city. Wealthy families built Greek revival and Italianate estates in this elevated area, which residents considered healthier than the riverfront. The census ranked Wynnton as the sixteenth largest town in Georgia in 1860.
Civil War and Reconstruction
The city divided over the issue of secession in 1860-61, but eventually the voters supported it. By 1862 the city had sent eighteen companies (1,200 men) to the Confederate army. The city's most famous soldier was General Henry L. Benning.
Columbus immediately expanded its industrial output and soon ranked among the top five Confederate producers. Factories tripled their output
Columbus escaped some of the war's impact. Since Union general William T. Sherman's army never reached the city, casualties from the fighting around Atlanta, during the Atlanta campaign, were evacuated to hospitals in Columbus. Eventually seven buildings—stores, saloons, churches, and the courthouse—served as hospitals.
The city's industries attracted General James H. Wilson's Union raiders (13,500 cavalrymen armed with repeating rifles) on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1865—one week after Confederate general Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Virginia. Unaware of that event, Confederate home-guard units attempted to stop the raiders in the hills east of Columbus. Wilson surprised the defenders by attacking at night. Amid the ensuing chaos, the untrained Southerners fled, to be joined by the Union soldiers in a mad dash for the bridge to Columbus. Wilson lost 25 men, while his troops captured about 1,500 Confederates and killed 9. Later, Columbus boosters proclaimed this as the war's last battle. Over time they continued qualifying its title until this skirmish became "The Last Land Battle of the War Between the States East of the Mississippi."
The day after the battle, Wilson's troops torched the city's industries. The remains of the hull of the ironclad Muscogee now form the centerpiece of the Port Columbus Civil War Naval Center. As the fires raged and Wilson's troops headed toward Macon, a mob composed of whites, former slaves, and some Union soldiers looted the stores on Broad Street.
At war's end U.S. president Andrew Johnson named his friend and fellow Unionist James Johnson, a Columbusite, as provisional governor of Georgia. Local Reconstruction was marked by a violent confrontation with black Union troops in February 1866 and the Ku Klux Klan–style murder of George Ashburn, an outspoken Scalawag (local Republican) in 1868. Reconstruction brought free schools to the city. Since the Freedmen's Bureau created black schools, white leaders finally moved to establish public schools in 1867. Freedmen from rural areas built shanties on the East Commons. Despite harassment from locals and white federal troops, these blacks persevered and created a vibrant neighborhood in the southeast corner of the city known as "Sixth and Eighth" (Avenue and Street respectively). The city's most important black churches are still in this area. Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, a Columbus native recognized as the mother of blues, purchased a home in this area and retired here in the mid-1930s.
Both small and large entrepreneurs immediately rebuilt their enterprises. Foundries started producing by June, and textile mills were in back in operation by December 1865. By 1870 more than 100 manufacturers operated within the city, but the small nontextile companies languished in that decade. One-fifth of them failed, buffeted by the crash of 1873 and unable to compete in the new railroad-linked national market.
Textiles, on the other hand, flourished; their production expanded by 339 percent in the 1870s. William H. Young's Eagle and Phenix Company launched mills in 1866, 1869, 1872, and 1876, quadrupling its output in ten years. By 1880 only two counties in the South produced more textiles than Young's mills in Muscogee County. Locally they manufactured 80 percent of the textiles, employed 65 percent of the total labor force, and used 95 percent of the waterpower.
George Parker Swift's Muscogee Mills
As the city's economy expanded, industries moved into the remaining land on the East Commons, and middle-class suburbs grew in Wynnton, which was first served by streetcars and then by automobiles. At the same time, other Columbusites fought for reform. Helen Augusta Howard, who inherited her family's home, chafed because she paid taxes without representation. Howard became a suffrage activist and established the Georgia Woman Suffrage Association in 1891. Prince W. Greene, a local weaver, served as president of the National Union of Textile Workers (1898-1900) and moved its national headquarters to Columbus.
Other leaders created educational and cultural institutions. Private endeavors established free kindergartens for mill children (1895) and for African Americans (1903), as well as a school for the "dinner-toters" who delivered lunches to the mills (1901)—all of which the public schools absorbed before creating a secondary industrial school (1906). The city also gained a Carnegie public library (1907).
World War I (1917-18) brought social upheaval and long-term changes. Encouraged by the National War Labor Board, Columbus textile workers in 1918 organized and successfully struck to force the rehiring of union members. In February 1919, 7,000 Columbus operatives walked out as part of a national strike, demanding an eight-hour day. In May 1919 anti-unionists fired on a union rally, killing one, wounding seven, and breaking the most serious attempt to organize local workers.
In 1922 Columbus became the first major southern city to adopt the commission–city manager form of government in large measure because the newly enfranchised women supported this reform and served on the first commission. In 1926 the editor of the Colum bus Enquirer-Sun, Julian Harris, son of Joel Chandler Harris, won a Pulitzer Prize for his fight against the revived Ku Klux Klan at both the state and local level.
By 1927 the city had entered the Great Depression as the demand for cotton textiles plummeted. In the 1930s several Columbus mills borrowed money from New York banks to continue running. Construction at Fort Benning also provided much-needed jobs. By 1940 Fort Benning was brimming with activity. In neighboring Phenix City, Alabama, bar girls, brothels, and gaming tables fleeced soldiers and earned it the title of "Sin City, USA." These rackets continued until the 1954 assassination of the Alabama attorney general–elect, Albert Patterson, finally produced a concerted cleanup.
Meanwhile, a Greater Columbus Committee outlined new goals. These resulted in consolidating the county and city schools in 1949 and establishing Columbus College (later Columbus State University) in a closed mill in 1958. Until that time Columbus was the largest southern city without a college. In 1961 the Columbus Area Vocational-Technical School (later Columbus Technical College) was founded.
During the 1940s,
J. R. Allen, a young businessman, organized a biracial Republican Party and became mayor in 1968. He led the consolidation of the city and county governments—the first such action in Georgia. The city doubled its size in 1970 and absorbed the remaining county areas the next year because Allen convinced the legislature to hold referendums that favored the city. The new government began in 1971 with Allen as mayor and A. J. McClung, an African American, as mayor pro tempore.
By the 1970s the
A continuity of historic space has been preserved in the South Commons (1828), the site of such public recreation as early horse and automobile racing. It now includes Golden Park (a minor league baseball park), the A. J. McClung Memorial Stadium (the venue for the Auburn University-University of Georgia football game from 1916 to 1958 and for both the Tuskegee University-Morehouse College and Fort Valley State University–Albany State University games today), the 1996 Olympic softball fields, and the Civic Center (1996), which stages professional hockey, basketball, and arena football. The historical importance of Fort Benning to Columbus was highlighted in 2009 with the opening of the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center, which is located on city property just outside the post's gates.
Visitors looking for native culinary treats enjoy fried catfish, scrambled dogs (a chopped-up hot dog and bun on oyster crackers completely smothered with chili), smoked pork barbecue with mustard-based sauce, and "country captain" (fried chicken cooked in a tomato sauce with almonds and currants).
According to the 2010 U.S. census, the population of Columbus is 189,885, the third-largest city in the state.
By 2003 Columbus had renewed its appreciation for the Chattahoochee River. Under federal court order to build a combined sewer-overflow system, the Columbus Water Works began developing Riverwalk, which is to extend for twenty miles, from Fort Benning, south of town, to Lake Oliver to the north. Once the reason for the city's establishment, the Chattahoochee River will once again become the most distinctive feature of this city.
Judith Grant, Columbus, Georgia (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2000).
F. Clason Kyle, Images: A Pictorial History of Columbus, Georgia (Norfolk, Va.: Donning, 1986).
Joseph B. Mahan, Columbus: Georgia's Fall Line "Trading Town" (Northridge, Calif.: Windsor, 1986).
John H. Martin, Columbus, Geo., from Its Selection as a "Trading Town" in 1827, to Its Partial Destruction by Wilson's Raid, in 1865 (Columbus, Ga.: T. Gilbert, 1874-75).
Diffee William Standard, Columbus, Georgia, in the Confederacy: The Social and Industrial Life of the Chattahoochee River Port (New York: William-Frederick Press, 1954).
Nancy Telfair [Louise Jones DuBose], A History of Columbus, Georgia, 1828-1928 (Columbus, Ga.: Historical Publication Co., 1929).
Kenneth H. Thomas Jr., Columbus, Georgia, in Vintage Postcards (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2001).
Margaret Laney Whitehead and Barbara Bogart, City of Progress: A History of Columbus, Georgia (Columbus, Ga.: Cosco Press, 1978).
Etta Blanchard Worsley, Columbus on the Chattahoochee (Columbus , Ga.: Columbus Office Supply, 1951).
John S. Lupold, Columbus
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.