Between March 22 and April 20, 1865, Brevet Major General James H. Wilson led roughly 13,000 Union cavalrymen on a destructive raid through Alabama and Georgia that culminated with the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
On March 12, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to have the various Union armies in the field to act in concert and strike the Confederacy from several directions: Grant would travel with Major General George Meade’s Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the Richmond, Virginia area; Major General William T. Sherman would march three federal armies south from Chattanooga, Tennessee to capture Atlanta, Georgia; and Major General Franz Sigel would invade western Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to cut off supplies to Lee’s army and to prevent any Confederate attempts to attack Meade’s flank.
The Union Army of the Potomac relentlessly engaged the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia throughout the spring of 1864. By June, Grant forced Lee to retreat to the Richmond-Petersburg area. Thereafter, both armies entrenched, and a stalemate ensued for the next ten months.
Meanwhile, in the West, Sherman captured Atlanta in early September 1864. Before embarking on his March to the Sea, Sherman sent Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland, in pursuit of Lieutenant General John Bell Hood, whose Army of Tennessee threatened to occupy Tennessee after evacuating Atlanta. Thomas subdued Hood’s army at the Battle of Nashville (December 15-16, 1864), and thereafter faced little organized resistance in the West. Upon Thomas’ recommendation, Grant then approved the formation of a new cavalry force to invade the Deep South.
New Union Cavalry Force
In the spring of 1865, Brevet Major General James H. Wilson assembled over 13,000 Federal cavalrymen at Gravelly Springs, Alabama, on the Tennessee River, and began training. The Federal force comprised three divisions commanded by Brigadier General Edward M. McCook, Brigadier General Eli Long, and Major General Emory Upton. Well-armed with Spencer repeating carbines, Wilson’s cavalry crossed the Tennessee River on March 22, 1865, targeting coal mines, ironworks, mills, munitions manufacturers, and anything else that could aid the Confederate cause.
Confederate Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who commanded roughly 2,500 regulars from the Cavalry Corps of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana opposed Wilson as he raided the South. Reinforced by poorly trained and ill-equipped state militia, which included old men and boys spread across the region, Forrest commanded roughly 5,000 soldiers at the height of the operation. Outnumbered and outgunned, Forrest’s troops offered little resistance to Wilson’s cavalry as it moved in blitzkrieg fashion into Alabama.
Battle of Ebenezer Church
Wilson easily rolled through northern and central Alabama, destroying ironworks at Elyton, Brierfield, Tannehill, and Montevallo. His progress was nearly uncontested until Forrest mounted a spirited but futile stand at Ebenezer Church, roughly twenty miles from Selma on April 1, 1865. Following a decisive Union victory, Wilson forced Forrest to fall back to the earthworks and defenses that ringed Selma.
Battle of Selma
The next day, Wilson’s cavalry launched an assault against the Confederates defending Selma. By 7 p.m., Forrest began withdrawing his command from the city. Coincidentally, roughly 700 miles to the northeast, Robert E. Lee began evacuating Richmond and Petersburg that same night. Wilson’s troops captured over 2,500 Confederate prisoners during the Battle of Selma. After the battle, the Federals spent several days destroying the city’s arsenal, foundries, and ironworks, depriving the South of one of its major manufacturing centers. While occupying Selma, Wilson ordered a detachment to Tuscaloosa to burn most of the University of Alabama on April 4.
Destruction in Montgomery, Alabama
On April 10, Wilson left Selma and turned east toward the Alabama state capital at Montgomery. Two days later, his soldiers occupied Montgomery unopposed after the few Confederate defenders there moved to Columbus, Georgia, to protect the naval stores and munitions in that city. Wilson’s men spent the next two days in Montgomery destroying the city’s arsenal, train depot, foundries, mills, munitions works, and railroad property, but they largely spared civilian property.
Battles of Columbus and West Point
Upon leaving Montgomery, Wilson headed east into Georgia. In that state, he split his force into two columns. One column pursued the Montgomery troops who had moved to Columbus. On Easter Sunday, April 16, the Federals easily routed the Rebel defenders at the Battle of Columbus, taking roughly 1,500 prisoners in what historians generally consider as the last major battle of the Civil War. On the same day, Wilson’s other column captured an under-manned Fort Tyler at the Battle of West Point, making that outpost the last Confederate fort captured by the Union during the Civil War. During that battle, a federal sharpshooter mortally wounded Confederate Brigadier General Robert C. Tyler, making him the last general officer to die in the Civil War.
Confederate Surrender at Macon, Georgia
Following the Easter Sunday battles, Wilson’s two columns converged upon Macon, Georgia. As Wilson approached that city he learned from General Howell Cobb, commanding the Rebel forces at Macon, that General Joseph Johnston had surrendered the last remaining Confederate army in the field to Major General William T. Sherman at Bennett Place, near Durham, North Carolina, on April 19. Being part of Johnston’s command, Howell thereupon surrendered Macon to Wilson. With the fighting in the East virtually over, Wilson ended his operation.
The Capture of Jefferson Davis
For the next few weeks, Wilson dispatched cavalry patrols to hunt down fleeing Confederate leaders. On May 10, 1865, at Irwinville, Georgia, a group of his men apprehended the former president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.
Historians debate the importance and even the necessity of Wilson’s Raid. Wilson’s men inflicted considerable damage to the infrastructure of the Deep South and they significantly reduced the dwindling Confederate fighting force by taking over 6,000 prisoners and killing or wounding over 1,000 soldiers. In hindsight though, Lee and Johnston’s surrenders were inevitable. It is questionable whether Wilson’s Raid, successful as it was, did much to change the outcome of the war.