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Colonel Leon Von Zinken

Commandant of the Post at Columbus, Georgia

 

Leon Von Zinken (1827-1871)

Leon Von Zinken was born in 1827. He claimed that as the eldest son of a distinguished Prussian nobleman and general, he received a comprehensive military education and joined the Prussian Army at the tender age of 16. He eventually resigned his commission and traveled for a time before finally settling in New Orleans in 1857.

The redheaded Prussian acted as drill master of several companies at the beginning of the war. He was mustered into Company A (the Steuben Guards) of the 20th Louisiana as Orderly Sergent in February 1861. His commander was the former Prussian Consul to New Orleans, Colonel August Reichard. Von Zinken was appointed Sergent Major and elected Lieutenant then Major of the 20th Louisiana on November 30, 1861. He led the 20th Louisiana at Shiloh on April 6, 1862. Colonel Reichard commended him after he was wounded at Shiloh on April 7, 1862. Three horses were killed under Von Zinken and he was injured when the last one fell on top of him. He was promoted to Lt. Colonel in June of 1862. The 20th and 13th Louisiana regiments were consolidated by April of 1863 and Von Zinken was promoted to full Colonel in July of 1863.

Von Zinken led the 20th and 13th Louisiana Infantry at Chickamauga as part of John C. Breckenridge's Division. He also served on Breckenridge's staff during this campaign. He was known as a strict disciplinarian and efficient officer and was acknowledged by General Hardee as the one of the best informed and educated officers in the service. Union Lt. Col. Frank Edelmeyer reported that Von Zinken had been killed during one engagement at Chicamauga but Von Zinken was only wounded.

The Prussian recovered and participated in the Chattanooga Campaign in the autumn of 1863 and became the commandant of the post at Marietta Georgia between late 1863 and early 1864. He also participated in the Atlanta Campaign and was wounded again on July 28, 1864. Von Zinken left active duty after his hand and forearm were shattered by a shell fragment.

After Sherman moved through Atlanta, Von Zinken was reassigned to Commandant of the post at Columbus, Georgia. His orders were dated September 4, 1864 and he arrived a few days later to replace Major George O. Dawson.

Von Zinken was welcomed warmly to Columbus but the relationship between the citizens and the commandant was strained at times. The most significant problem arose about five months after his arrival. John Lindsey, a well-liked local boy, was killed on February 18 by one of Von Zinken's men. Private Lindsey of the 17th Georgia created a disturbance of some kind and raised the ire of Provost Guard Private Bob Bennett. Bennett was with the 1st Arkansas but was given light duty with the Provost Guard on account of severe wounds received in battle. After friends convinced Lindsey to leave the scene and ride home, Bennett caught up with him. He ordered Lindsey to halt and shot him through the head when the order went unheeded. An angry mob descended on Von Zinken's office demanding justice. Von Zinken attempted to appease the mob but only caused the crowd to turn its anger on him, insisting the Von Zinken be lynched.

The Commandant was arrested and put under heavy bail. His preliminary trial started on February 28 in the Inferior Court in Columbus with a four-judge panel. His commander, Major General Howell Cobb, defended Von Zinken. Cobb was the former Secretary of the U.S. Treasury and candidate for Confederate President. After four days, Von Zinken's case was dismissed. During the proceedings, Von Zinken remained at his post.

The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion show that on April 3, 1865, Von Zinken sent the following message to his former commanding officer and current Confederate States Secretary of War John C. Breckenridge:

 Many negroes offered to volunteer. Could raise a brigade in a short time. Have telegraphed twice on subject. Please answer.

The records also show the following endorsement on April 8, 1865:

Please answer and confer authority as decided on at Richmond to raise companies. Officers to be appointed hereafter. - J[efferson] D[avis].

Von Zinken probably never received his answer. It was not the first time he had tried a creative solution to his manpower problems. In October of 1864, Von Zinken wrote directly to General Bragg asking: "Could I get authority to recruit immigrant foreigners from Federal prisoners often in our hands whose term of service had expired, to fill ranks of my Regiment? Please send proper order if possible." He was likewise denied that request.

As Major General James Harrison Wilson's raid closed in on Columbus in April of 1865, Von Zinken made an urgent plea for help from the local citizens. He famous proclamation reads as follows:

Notice to the Citizens of Columbus

April 15, 1865

 The public is hereby notified of the rapid approach of the enemy but assured that the City of Columbus will be defended to the last. Judging from experience it is believed that the city will be shelled, notice is therefore given to all noncombatants to move away immediately. All who wish to remain are called to make preparations for their safety. It is again urged upon all able-bodied men of this city to report to headquarters with whatever arms they have to assist the commanding officer in making a resolute defense of their homes.

One bridge leading to Columbus was attacked from the Alabama side of the river on the afternoon of April 16, 1865. The bridge was set afire and the attack was halted. This was followed later by a larger, nighttime assault on another bridge. This time, the city fell within two hours despite the best efforts of the Commandant and Major General Howell Cobb who had come to Columbus to lend whatever assistance he could. Von Zinken evaded capture and escaped to Macon to meet up with an equally lucky Howell Cobb. General Lee had surrendered a week before Columbus was attacked and Generals Johnston and Sherman were under a truce but neither the Union nor Confederate forces in Columbus were aware of those developments.

After the war, Von Zinken returned to New Orleans. He went into the cotton business and married Elizabeth Miller (or Muller) in New Orleans on Dec. 6, 1865. He lived with the Miller family while working as an inspector of weights and measures in 1870. He had two daughters, Mary (b. 1866) and Margaret (b 1868) but never lived to see his children mature. He died in New Orleans on August 26, 1871 at the age of 44. 

By Daniel A. Bellware, copyrightÓ (2006)

Sources:

Photo courtesy of Tim Engelhart

Ancestry.com

Arthur Bergeron, PhD Confederate Calendar Works, 1993

The Confederate Veteran

Compiled Service Records, Leon Von Zinken

Daily Columbus Enquirer,

Daily Columbus Sun

History of Columbus Georgia

Official Records of the War of the Rebellion

U.S. Federal Census, 1870

Special thanks to Charles Misulia