This weekend the theme of the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation’s Decorative Arts and Antiques Forum was the Military Road from Nashville to New Orleans. Contrary to local legend, Andrew Jackson did not build the road as he marched his Tennessee volunteers south to meet the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. However it was because of the Battle of New Orleans that the road was built.
In October 1814 the War of 1812 was still literally blazing across America. In late August of 1814 the British had burned the Capitol at Washington and by the fall were poised to attack either Mobile or New Orleans. Andrew Jackson was in Mobile and in need of reinforcements. In early October, he ordered General John Coffee to come to his aid with 5,000 Tennessee troops. Coffee with about 3,000 men of the Second Division headed south through the Chickasaw Nation entering the Choctaw Nation at John Pitchlynn’s residence. From there, the St. Stephens Trace was taken to the Mobile area.
It was on that march that Coffee’s scouts, which included Davy Crockett, missed the rendezvous with the army and did not catch up with it until near Mobile. When it became clear that the British assault would be against New Orleans rather than Mobile, Jackson marched his force west to the Crescent City. Through all of this Jackson realized that there was no direct route from Tennessee to New Orleans.
After the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson lobbied the War Department and Congress for the construction of two roads he felt were necessary for the growth and protection of what was then the Southwestern United States. One road would be an east-west road running from Fort Hawkins in Georgia to Fort Stoddard on the Tombigbee/Mobile River not far north of Mobile. The other would be a direct route from Nashville to New Orleans.
On April 27, 1816, Congress approved the roads and authorized their construction and appropriated $10,000 for their construction. As commander of the Military Division of the South, Jackson was charged with directing construction and on July 30th he wrote that the survey line from Columbia, Tenn., to Madisonville, La., for the Nashville-to-New Orleans road was about to be run. By the spring of 1817 the survey was still not completed and Jackson decided not to wait any longer. He ordered a company of soldiers from Fort Hampton on the Elk River in present day north Alabama to commence construction on the north end of the route.
Captain Hugh Young completed the survey of the Military Road in June of 1817 and in September sent a report and map of the route to Jackson. He described to Jackson in a letter dated Sept.14, 1817, how he decided on the place of crossing the Tombigbee River; “From Noxubbee the road runs with St. Stephen’s trace to a point 7 miles from the Tombigby; being, for that distance, the best route in the direction of the places on the River, which I had chosen for a ferry. The crossing Place of Tombigby, I fixed on, after a thorough search from the mouth of Loklopolalo, as high as Pitchlynns (Plymouth Bluff); and fortunately, I found a point where high ground approached the river on both sides.”
Shortly afterward, in a Sept.30th letter, Young told Jackson that the place chosen for the Tombigby ferry had been found when he and John Pitchlynn had “meandered” the Tombigby in a canoe looking for the best crossing point. The place they decided on was recognized by Pitchlynn as “one used by the Indians for rafting, when the high water prevents fording at the usual places.” That Military Ferry site is now the location of the Tombigbee bridge in Columbus.
Construction of the Military Road was by troops from the 1st and 8th U.S. Army Regiments and by a detachment of the Corps of Artillery. In July 1819 Andrew Jackson directed that “a depot should be established on that river (Tombigbee) at the point where it will be intersected by the Military Road and from thence they (the construction crew that was working north up the route) may draw their supplies as soon as they are within striking distance.” In November 1819 a shipment of supplies was transported up the Tombigbee from Mobile to the supply depot. In addition to the supply depot/work camp at the present site of Columbus there was another work camp at Howard Creek about 10 miles north of the Tombigbee.
By the spring of 1820 the road was nearing completion. However there were some delays in construction toward its southern end. In response Jackson on March 20, 1820, ordered Col Zachary Taylor to take command of the troops at the southern end and complete the road. On May 17, 1820 Andrew Jackson wrote the Secretary of War that the road was open. The road became one of the most important roads of its day but its day was short-lived and by the mid 1830s the road was all but abandoned south of Columbus, though its use north of Columbus continued. Today it survives as Military Road in Columbus and Highway 12 north and on into northwest Alabama as sections of various highways.
It was not by chance that the first house in Columbus was built in the fall of 1817 shortly after the completion of the roads survey and that the town of Columbus grew up in the summer of 1819 when the site became a military depot for the roads construction. Finally, a post office was relocated from Pitchlynn’s at Plymouth Bluff to Columbus in 1820 after the roads completion. The story of Columbus’ beginnings is the story of the Military Road and is a story I began working on with Sam and Carolyn Kaye in the late 1980s for a history we wrote of the origins of Columbus.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]