By 1st Lt. William Carraway
Media Relations Officer, Public Affairs Office
May 14, 2012
Captain Ben Penton squinted against the sunlight as it reflected off the rippled surface of the Chattahoochee River some 30 miles south of Columbus, Ga. The air was perfumed with diesel exhaust, and the rumbling groans of hydraulics betrayed the source of the Captain’s interest. Along the river bank, bulldozers of the 560th Engineer Battalion worked to clear mud from a massive wooden form. Penton inspected the object thoughtfully. It was a vessel, wooden framed, and massive. Half of its 220-by-60-foot frame had been excavated from the river mud, and Penton could clearly see that many of the vessel’s pine timbers were badly charred. Observing the work of the Guard engineers and civilian excavators, it is doubtful Penton knew that nearly a century earlier Guard and civilian volunteers had been engaged in a far more desperate struggle over control of these very timbers.
Ninety-seven years before Penton’s team broke ground, a pharmacist-turned -Confederate Cavalry officer surveyed two bridges through field glasses. These bridges spanned the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Ga., to Girard (later Phoenix City), Ala. Lieutenant Col. John Pemberton and the few remaining defenders of Columbus, Ga., had been ordered by Maj. Gen. Howell Cobb to hold the bridges and prevent the crossing of Union forces under Maj. Gen. James Wilson.
Already, Pemberton could see the rising dust of the Union cavalry as they bore down from the Alabama side of the river for the bridges and the manufacturing city of Columbus. As his glasses swept the opposite bank, Pemberton spotted the Confederate Ironclad Muscogee. The 220-foot-long ironclad was anchored near the naval construction works. The ship wallowed in the water, its heavy iron planking lowering two-thirds of the beam nearly to the water line. The portion of the deck Pemberton could see resembled a planked tent floating on the river’s surface.
Although originally launched in December 1864, four months later, the Muscogee was still not complete. Not only must the town be prevented from falling into enemy hands, Pemberton thought, but the Muscogee and her sister ship the Chattahoochee had to be protected as well.
The sharp rattle of carbines from the downstream bridge heralded the beginning of the last major battle of the war. Pemberton observed as the Confederates retreated across the bridge and, realizing that they intended to burn the bridge, the Union forces retreated safely to the opposite bank and massed for assault on the upper bridge. Pemberton ordered his cavalry forward. Old men and young boys unsheathed sabres and revolvers as they crossed the river. Pemberton commanded what amounted to a home Guard of Soldiers who had been exempted from military service due to age or infirmity but who, under the desperate press of war, had taken up arms. Pemberton himself had served out his initial obligation, however, Columbus was his home. His pharmacy and family were in the city and thoughts of family and home spurred his men who crossed the bridge against hopeless odds.
The result could not have been seriously in question for any of the participants. A mere 3,000 Confederate defense force stood against 13,000 battle-hardened Union cavalry. The defenders had no serious hope of victory. Four days earlier, Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered the remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House, Va. Although it is unlikely that any of the participants were aware, President Lincoln had succumbed to an assassin’s bullet the previous day. Regardless, like a gross parody of a Tennyson poem, Pemberton’s men crashed into Wilson’s Cavalrymen. A sulfurous cloud of gun smoke enveloped the scene obscuring the vision. Slashing sabres glinted in the smoke while revolver and shotgun blasts churned the air.
Although records of the battle are sketchy, events were recalled by witnesses in various remembrances. According to one report, during the confused melee, Pemberton had raised his sabre when he was struck by a bullet. The impact rocked him back in the saddle. Seconds later, he was slashed across the chest and abdomen by a sabre. Gravely wounded, Pemberton was saved by his friend John Carter who, taking his horse’s reins in hand, escorted Pemberton from the fray. Reeling from agony and blood loss, Pemberton sunk low in the saddle. As his eyes focused, he was dimly aware of a great fire from the bank of the Chattahoochee. Dense black creosote-perfumed smoke enveloped him as Carter led him across the bridge. The smoke and flames were billowing from the Muscogee, its decks having been set ablaze to prevent capture by the Union troops. As Pemberton sunk into unconsciousness the Muscogee began to drift, slowly settling beneath the Chattahoochee’s waves.
|Excavation of the CSS Muscogee, March, 1962. The 560th Engineer Battalion contributed equipment and expertise to the project. Photo courtesy of The National Civil War Naval Museum, Columbus Ga.|
Pemberton survived his horrible wound, but like many Veterans of his time, he later became addicted to pain killers. Resuming his antebellum chemistry studies, Pemberton applied himself to crafting a pain reliever to ease his morphine addiction. After experimentation with kola nuts and coca leaves, Pemberton developed French Wine Coca. In 1886 he would alter the formula and rename his beverage Coca Cola. He died two years later, mere weeks after the establishment of the Coca Cola Corporation. Pemberton’s legacy can be experienced in full at the World of Coca Cola exhibit in Atlanta. Admission is free to military ID holders.
As for Captain Penton, while his whereabouts could not be determined by press time, his unit, the Headquarters and Service Company of the 560th Engineer Battalion, became part of the 110th Combat Service Support Battalion in 1966. Elements of today’s 110th CSSB have deployed multiple times in support of overseas contingency operations.
Analysis of history can bring unexpected connections to light. The Georgia National Guard has an unbroken connection with the history of the Nation’s defense. Throughout history, the Georgia Guard’s commitment to community has surfaced in surprising ways. Quiet, everyday actions – like those of Cpt. Penton’s engineers, a mentor team in Afghanistan, or yesterday’s elementary school career day – connect and reconnect the National Guard with its history.