By Brad Dison
Dr. John Pemberton was a successful chemist in Columbus, Georgia. His business of selling tonics, homemade concoctions, and medicines prospered in the 1850s, but events in the Civil War threatened his business. Columbus had become the second largest Confederate supply center in the South, second only to Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. In 1863, 33-year-old Dr. Pemberton enlisted in the Georgia cavalry’s home guard “for local defense.” As part of the home guard, Dr. Pemberton’s unit was responsible for the protection of Columbus’s manufacturing facilities, homes, and businesses, which included Dr. Pemberton’s drug store. For Dr. Pemberton’s nearly two years in the home guard, Columbus had not been directly threatened by Union troops. However, Columbus would not survive the Civil War unscathed.
With the fall of Richmond on April 2, 1865, Columbus became the largest surviving manufacturing and military supply hub in the south. The city’s factories produced a vast array of war supplies. Located on the Chattahoochee River, Columbus also had a naval construction facility. The city’s location enabled the transportation of war supplies by river, rail, and land.
Following the Union victory in the Battle of Nashville on December 16, 1864, Union General George Thomas sent General James Wilson and his men to destroy major confederate supply centers at Selma, Alabama, and Columbus, Georgia. General Wilson marched his 13,000 men some 300 miles south to Selma, a trek which took just over three months. On March 22, 1865, General Wilson’s men clashed at Selma with the Confederate army led by General Nathan Bedford Forrest. General Forrest’s men inflicted heavy casualties, but General Wilson’s men captured and looted Selma, and destroyed the town’s manufacturing facilities. With little time for rest, General Wilson and his men began the 140-mile march east to Columbus, a town on the Alabama-Georgia border.
During General Wilson’s march, several key events took place which should have ended their trip to Columbus. On April 2, 1865, Confederate soldiers could no longer protect Richmond from Union troops, and the Army of Virginia and the Confederate government abandoned the capital of the Confederacy. On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses Grant, which officially ended the Civil War. Five days later, a despondent actor, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. General Wilson and his men were marching from Selma to Columbus, and had not received the news that the war had ended or that Lincoln had been assassinated. They stayed the course.
After three weeks of marching, General Wilson’s men neared Columbus and gathered on the Alabama side of the Chattahoochee River. Two timber bridges spanned the mighty river, the upper bridge and the lower bridge. Confederate General Howell Cobb only had about 3,500 men, most of which were home guard units and civilian volunteers, compared to General Wilson’s 13,000 trained soldiers. Rather than splitting up his men to defend both bridges, General Cobb set a trap. Civilian volunteers coated the bridges’ support beams with turpentine, a highly-flammable liquid, and placed cotton bails around the support posts. They removed some of the planks near the east side of the lower bridge to prevent union soldiers from completing the crossing.
General Wilson weighed his options. He learned that the upper bridge was more heavily guarded than the lower bridge, and ordered his men to cross the lower bridge. Once the bridge was full of union soldiers, a few civilian volunteers lit the cotton bails, which quickly engulfed the turpentine-covered lower bridge. General Wilson’s men had no choice but to retreat.
With the lower bridge out of commission, General Wilson’s only way across the Chattahoochee River was the heavily guarded upper bridge. At about 8 p.m., after the sun had set, General Wilson’s men attacked General Cobb’s men at the entrance of the upper bridge. After a volley of gunfire, the nighttime battle quickly turned into hand-to-hand combat. The soldiers punched, kicked, kneed, bit, and stabbed and sliced with their bayonets and sabers. During the fray, Dr. Pemberton received a severe saber wound to his chest. He fell from his horse and lay among the wounded and dead.
By 10 p.m., General Cobb’s men were no longer able to fend off the Union soldiers. A mixture of retreating Confederates and charging Union soldiers filled the bridge. Confederate soldiers stationed on the east side of the bridge were unable to differentiate between friendly and enemy soldiers in the darkness, and held their fire. Civilian volunteers stationed at the base of the bridge failed to ignite the upper bridge because they feared injuring confederate soldiers. General Wilson’s large army overran General Cobb’s small number of men. Union soldiers completely destroyed all military manufacturing facilities in the area, including the unfinished CSS Muscogee, an ironclad warship, which was docked at the naval construction facility at Columbus. Both sides suffered large numbers of casualties in a battle fought after the war had officially ended. Battlefield doctors treated the wounded by lamp light. They treated Dr. Pemberton’s chest wound and gave him morphine to ease the pain.
A few days after the Battle of Columbus, both sides learned that the war had ended. The survivors of the conflict tried to return to the lives they once lived. Dr. Pemberton’s wound was slow to heal and he continued his steady regimen of morphine. By the time his wound had healed, Dr. Pemberton was addicted to the pain killer. The drug was readily available to him because of his profession as a chemist. Dr. Pemberton tried different concoctions and pain killers which were morphine-free, but he was unable to wean himself off of the drug. When he failed to find a suitable replacement, he began experimenting to create his own.
In 1884, Dr. Pemberton ran an advertisement campaign for a drink he had created called Dr. Pemberton’s Lemon Juice Cordial. “This Cordial,” the advertisement explained, “is made from the pure juice of lemons, oranges, and limes, combined with pure rock candy syrup, and is the most delicious refreshing and cooling of all known beverages, far superior to lemonade, soda water, lager beer, etc.” Dr. Pemberton claimed that his cordial “purifies and cools the blood, prevents and cures biliousness, …has wonderful curative powers in all inflammatory diseases, rheumatism, gout, neuralgia, etc.” Dr. Pemberton advertised his new drink as a great-tasting cure-all, but it failed to cure his addiction to morphine. He continued to search for the right combination of chemicals.
In the following year, Dr. Pemberton invented another new drink which he claimed was a “great and sure remedy for all nervous disorders such as mental and physical depression, neuralgia, loss of memory, sleeplessness,” and a host of other ailments. Pemberton’s French Wine Coca was advertised as “the great restorer of health to body and mind. Millions of our people are in a condition requiring no other remedy.” Like his Lemon Juice Cordial, the French Wine Coca tasted good. The ad boasted that the drink was “a wonderful tonic and invigorant” which “is health and joy in every bottle.”
Dr. Pemberton’s French Wine Coca sold well. He experimented with different chemicals and eventually produced a nonalcoholic version of his tonic. It sold even better. Dr. Pemberton advertised it as a great-tasting patent medicine. Dr. Pemberton never overcame his addiction to morphine, but in searching for a cure, he created a product that is still sold all over the world. You know it as Coca-Cola.
1. Chicago Tribune, April 4, 1865, p.1.
2. Wyoming Democrat, April 12, 1865, p.3.
3. The Evening Star, April 15, 1865, p.1.
4. The Carroll Free Press, October 28, 1884, p.4.
5. The Atlanta Constitution, May 26, 1885, p.2.
6. The Atlanta Constitution, August 17, 1888, p.4.
7. Ancestry.com. “Georgia, Civil War Correspondence, 1861–1865.” Accessed August 31, 2020.