Thursday, September 19, 2019

Red Jacket: A reconstructed cannon, colorful coat and a beer tell the story of the Columbus Guards, a Georgia militia unit

The Red Jacket (Courtesy of Columbus Georgia Convention & Trade Center)
You have to look closely to spy it near the corner, but there it is – a small brass cannon propped between a pair of iron wheels and a Char-Broil barbecue grill topped with a spatula, tongs and fork. Named for the bright red coat worn by members of a 19th century militia unit that used the artillery piece to fire salutes, “Red Jacket” rests in a brick room at the Historic Iron Works, also known as the Columbus Georgia Convention & Trade Center. The room showcases items important to the city’s history and growth.

Courtesy of the Columbus Museum
What the visitor can’t fully make out is the fractured condition of Red Jacket, which belonged to the Columbus Guards and was fired during celebrations. In its early days, Red Jacket fired a salute when Georgia seceded from the Union and was hauled to Montgomery, Ala., for the February 1861 inauguration of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy.

An historical marker not far from the Iron Works, which was a major manufacturing site for the South, summarizes the gun’s rather unique story:

“Red Jacket was purchased by Mrs. Laura Beecher Comer in 1861 and presented to the Columbus Guards. During the war period it was used to fire salutes to Confederate victories in the Army and Navy. When a Federal army approached Columbus in 1865, some members of the Columbus Guards, fearing the little gun would be captured, threw in into the Chattahoochee River near the city wharf. Four years later, it was accidentally drawn up on the fluke of an anchor. The finders sold it as junk and it was carried to New York City and bought by J. W. Godfrey, an armorer. A newspaper reporter saw Red Jacket and wrote a description of it in a New York paper. The clipping was sent to L.H. Chappell, then Captain of the Columbus Guards, in 1884. Correspondence ensued and Mr. Godfrey restored the gun to the Columbus Guards. In 1930 Red Jacket was stolen from its carriage on Upper Broad Street and conveyed to the river bank. When fired, it burst into many pieces. Alva C. Smith, secretary-treasurer of the Historical Society of Columbus, found all the pieces and had the gun mended and rebuilt.”


Today, the Red Jacket name lives in several places in this west Georgia river city that borders Phenix City, Ala. There are the Jordan Vocational High School Red Jackets, a replica cannon and Red Jacket beer at a brew pub not far from the Iron Works, and the sole surviving example of the Red Jacket coat itself, on rotating display at the Columbus Museum.

City provided much to Confederacy, fell at war's end

The Columbus Guards, local histories say, provided more men for Confederate service than any other local militia unit and its members took part in more than 30 battles with the Army of Northern Virginia.

One of the giant halls at the Iron Works in Columbus (Picket photo)
Apart from that, Columbus was an important manufacturing site for the Confederacy, second only to Richmond, Va.. Factories and shops produced cannon, engines, guns, swords, textiles and more. The Confederate navy had a shipyard just below the Iron Works. The ironclad CSS Jackson (Muscogee) was built and tested on the Chattahoochee River, only to be burned by Union forces after they took the city.

Columbus fell in April 1865 in what is believed to be the last battle in the Federal campaign through Alabama and Georgia.

Today, the rebuilt Iron Works, the Columbus Museum and the National Civil War Naval Museum on Victory Drive are the principal reminders of the Civil War.

Replica of the Red Jacket and beer bearing its name (Picket photo)
Cannon Brew Pub, one of many restaurant and retails establishments on Broadway in downtown Columbus, sports a replica of the Red Jacket cannon out front.

The restaurant (above), which opened in the mid-1990s, serves several brews, including Red Jacket Ale, which features “the rich taste of extra malt and hops.”

You can sample that along with the Red Jacket Monte Cristo sandwich. The cannon is fired for the start of road races and other special events, managers say. The business has numerous other artifacts and references to the Civil War.

Jacket makes a statement: 'It's quite striking'

Photos Courtesy of the Columbus Museum
A few miles inland along Wynnton Road, at the Columbus Museum, is the only known surviving jacket from the militia unit. Made from wool and featuring a cotton lining, the garment was worn by Watkins Banks, one of seven local brothers who fought for the Confederacy and one of three to die.

The Columbus Guards formed in 1835 and served in several conflicts, most notably the Civil War. It was considered among the best-drilled militia units in the South and was an integral part of upper-class society.

The museum’s website says this: “Banks wore this jacket at Davis’ inauguration in Montgomery, Alabama, and also during the Guards’ departure from Columbus to join the Confederate army.

Banks identified his jacket by writing ‘Wat. Banks’ and ‘1861’ on the coat’s interior lining, notations which are still clearly visible.

Six original buttons remain, the rest were likely cut as mementos for the family after he was killed near Atlanta in 1864. New buttons were cast. The buttons bear the initials “CG” and an eagle.

Button from Watkins Banks' jacket
The garment is featured in an exhibit about this Chattahoochee Valley city’s history.

“It’s quite striking in the gallery, where it rotates with Confederate Col. Peyton Colquitt’s gray coat,” said Rebecca Bush, curator of history and exhibitions manager at the museum.

Inevitably, some people are happy to see whichever jacket is currently on view, while others are disappointed that the other jacket is resting to give it a break from potential light damage,” she said. “In a way, it’s a nice problem for the museum to have.”

According to one history, Banks and about 135 others joined Company G of the 2nd Georgia Volunteer Infantry when the war broke out. The unit wore the jacket for a few months before receiving their new issue of gray. The regiment, which served in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, had its most famous moment at Antietam, where it held the heights above Burnside’s Bridge with the 20th Georgia.

Banks’ great-great-great nephew, John Sheftall, who lives in the old family home in Columbus, says Banks fought in Virginia, returned home and at some point joined Nelson’s Rangers with a brother. He was the son of John and Sarah Banks, who lived with their large family in a home called The Cedars in the Wynnton area.

Watkins Banks (left) and cousin Willis Butt (Courtesy of Columbus Museum/John M. Sheftall)
In 1863, Watkins Banks paid for a substitute, lived in Columbus and then returned to service during the Atlanta Campaign. The private was killed in August 1864 outside Atlanta. The bachelor’s obituary states the 31-year-old was then serving with Georgia State Troops, Sheftall told the Picket.

These Red Jackets try to sting sports foes

The town’s Civil War history also is represented at another site a few miles from downtown.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Jordan Vocational High School, a fixture in a middle-class Columbus neighborhood, displayed two cannon that came from the CSS Jackson.

They were moved to the old Confederate Naval Museum in the 1960s, said Jeffrey Seymour, director of history and collections at the National Civil War Naval Museum on Victory Drive.

Courtesy of the National Civil War Naval Museum
These are the two VII in. Brooke Rifles that we have,” he said. “One of these is the one that we fire (above). The other is sitting out in front of the building. Both were recovered from the river.”

“There is a belief held by many Jordan people that the Red Jacket was named for the iron guns overheating. Not sure where that story came from,” said Seymour, adding that the small gun was associated with the Columbus Guards, not the Confederate navy.

Jordan HS has used the Red Jackets name and logo for years (Picket photos)

A page on the school’s website says Red Jacket was placed outside of the old city library and the Muscogee County Courthouse, where it remained many years before the 1930 caper. Another Civil War weapon, a brass cannon made in Columbus and dubbed the Ladies Defender, also was placed at the courthouse after the war. Today, the Ladies Defender is in the same room as the Iron Works as Red Jacket.

Jordan’s sports teams, along with the marching band, still feature the Red Jackets name and wear maroon and white uniforms. The school’s alma mater appears to capture the spirit of the little cannon and the Columbus Guards.

With the Carmine and
the Grey afloating,
On high JVHS.
Your name and fame we’re shouting
As we cheer you to success.
As you march unfaltering forward,,
your future great we hail.
May your glory never lessen
And your courage never fail.

Courtesy of Columbus Georgia Convention & Trade Center)

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