1865 saw the Union launch a series of offensives meant to destroy the Confederacy’s last field armies and destroy its remaining industrial infrastructure. Among the offensives was James H. Wilson’s cavalry raid. It was the grandest of the Civil War. Wilson led 13,500 horsemen through Alabama and into Georgia and Florida. His goal was to capture industrial cities and town and defeat Nathan Bedford Forrest. William Tecumseh Sherman told George Thomas, Wilson’s immediate superior, he wanted “Forrest hunted down and killed.” Forrest commanded the largest Confederate cavalry force, some 8,000 men. Forrest’s command though was scattered, and he failed to concentrate his forces.
Forrest fought Wilson as hard as he fought anyone in his long career. When desertion spiked, Forrest had two Kentucky cavalrymen executed and their bodies displayed on the road. He battled Wilson at Ebenezer Church and Selma despite being out-numbered. In both battles he personally killed Union troopers. Richard Taylor, Forrest’s immediate superior, wrote “Forrest fought as if the world depended on his arm.”
Forrest was Wilson’s most famous opponent but not his only adversary. After taking Montgomery, Wilson turned to Georgia. He attacked in two columns, headed for West Point and Columbus.
West Point was defended by a small garrison commanded by Robert C. Tyler. He was a hardcore secessionist and Southern nationalist. At Shiloh he reformed the 15th Tennessee by brandishing a pistol and threatening to shoot anyone who ran away. He lost three horses at Shiloh and was wounded. He then lost a leg at Missionary Ridge. Tyler had three cannon and 265 men at Fort Tyler. The fort had to be stormed, and both Tyler and his second in command, Celestino Gonzales, were killed. Tyler was the last general to die in the Civil War. Although hardly a grand battle, it was a fierce enough fight, and at one point the Confederates even threw rocks.
An even bigger battle occurred at Columbus, where Georgia state troops and militia were posted. In a swirling fight, the town was seized. As the fighting came to a close, Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar died leading a last ditch charge. Lamar was the last Confederate officer to die in battle. Like Tyler, he too was a hardcore secessionist. He openly advocated opening the slave trade.
After the Union victory at Columbus, Macon fell without a fight and Jefferson Davis was captured by elements of 1st Wisconsin and 4th Michigan Cavalry. Forrest meanwhile reformed his command. On April 25, he told his men to stand firm. Thomas meanwhile made it clear that Forrest would be branded an outlaw. He also threatened to ruin Mississippi and Alabama so “that they will not recover in fifty years” if Forrest did not give up. The day before Davis was caught, Taylor surrendered. Forrest was at Gainesville with his command and informed them that the war was over.
The final act of Wilson’s raid came in Florida. John Milton, Florida’s hard-core secessionist governor, declared to the Florida legislature that the North had developed “a character so odious that death would be preferable to reunion with them.” Milton was seemingly as good as his word, and on April 1 he shot himself. George Washington Scott surrendered all troops in Florida on May 13 and on May 20 Tallahassee was occupied.
The raid was a stunning success. Wilson’s men captured Davis and five fortified cities. They took 288 cannon and 6,820 prisoners. In all, Wilson lost at most 800 men.
In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant was unkind to Wilson’s raid, bemoaning that it was “without any good result. Indeed much valuable property was destroyed and many lives lost at a time when we would have liked to spare them. The war was practically over before their victories were gained.” Yet, no one could know exactly when the war would end and Grant was the one who ordered the raid. More importantly, Wilson’s raid showed that however out-matched, there was a cadre of hard-core Confederates willing to fight to the bitter end.
On the raid Wilson met stubborn resistance. Forrest fought Wilson in two battles and executed deserters. Both Tyler and Lamar died fighting in hopeless battles. Milton chose suicide over submission. Some of Forrest’s men wanted to keep fighting and asked him to go west but he refused, even as they wept, yelled, and destroyed their flags. Forrest told his men: “Civil war, such as you have just passed through, naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred and revenge. It is our duty to divest ourselves of all such feelings…You have been good soldiers; you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the government to which you have surrendered can afford to be and will be magnanimous.” It was a tall order, considering that the North’s victory assured the end of slavery and the end of the South’s political prominence. The economic devastation wrought by men such as Wilson added another layer to the bitterness. Given the realities of Gilded Age corruption and political partisanship, the South could expect little in the way of economic relief in the coming years. The uneven experiment in racial equality led to a deadly political contest that would end up defining Southern politics even after the last Confederate veteran died.
Forrest did not take his own advice. He joined the Ku Klux Klan and for a time fought a guerrilla war against the government. Davis was never tried and never renounced his actions. Other lesser Rebels fought on. Six Confederate diehards lived in caves near Mobile and did not surrender until 1866. Most former Confederates did choose peace and reconciliation, but not enough to avoid a perilous and violent Reconstruction.