Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Calhoun County War of 1860 - Part One

One of the most fascinating episodes in Jackson County history took place during the fall of 1860 when the county became entangled in an outbreak of fighting in neighboring Calhoun County. The situation became so severe that Circuit Judge J.J. Finley of Marianna (seen here) declared a "state of insurrection" and ordered out the First Brigade of the Florida Militia.

Over the next few days I will be posting a series of excerpts from my book - The History of Jackson County, Florida: The Year Years - that tell the story of the "Calhoun County War." The book is available at Chipola River Book and Tea in Downtown Marianna or from


(Excerpt from Chapter Twenty-Four: The Calhoun County War)

In the fall of 1860, eleven months after John Brown’s ill-fated raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, a party of “regulators” launched a wave of violence in Northwest Florida that ended only with the intervention of the state militia. Virtually forgotten today, the Calhoun County “Insurrection” of 1860 lasted only three weeks and was quickly overshadowed by the outbreak of the Civil War. Not even a historical marker stands to call to mind the outbreak and there are no memorials to the dead.

Calhoun County, which then included the territory of today’s Gulf County, was a sparsely populated area in 1860. Founded in 1838 when it was widely believed that the coastal city of St. Joseph would emerge as one of Florida’s primary ports and commercial centers, the county never realized its economic potential. Yellow fever and a devastating hurricane spelled an end to the St. Joseph dream and by 1860 the county seat had moved inland to Abe Springs. Although there were a few large plantations near the county seat and along the Apalachicola River, most of the county’s 1,446 residents lived on small farms carved from the wilderness. Among these pre-Civil War inhabitants were the Durdens and the Musgroves.
According to the 1860 census, Jesse Durden was a 31-year-old farmer who headed a household consisting of his wife, Mary, and six children. His farm was near Abe Springs, but his extended family spread across the line into neighboring Jackson County. The same was true of his neighbors, Willis and Larkin Musgrove. Willis was a 36-year-old farmer who ran small farms in both Calhoun and Jackson Counties and was married with three children. His brother, Larkin, also had land on both sides of the county line and was the head of a household that included his wife and five children. Based on their census and tax records, the Durdens and Musgroves were typical of hundreds of other farm families in Northwest Florida. They did not own slaves and lived by the labor of their own hands.
They were set apart from their neighbors in 1860, however, when they became the targets of a large and well-armed band of vigilantes. These men, who dubbed themselves “regulators,” circulated a petition at a fish fry in Calhoun County calling for the removal or extermination of the Durdens. Then, on September 24th, they struck the family with brutal force:

Yesterday a party in Calhoun, styling themselves `Regulators,’ went to the house of one Jesse Durden, and we learn shot him, giving him a mortal wound. They then met and shot Willis Musgrove from his horse, who died instantly, also wounding Larkin C. Musgrove. These are the facts as we have been able to gather them, but it is believed that last night another battle was fought between the Regulators and the Durdens. All this happened near Abe’s Spring Bluff, in Calhoun Co.

The report of the death of Willis Musgrove appears to have been premature, as a man of that name was still alive ten years later in Jackson County. Jesse Durden and Larkin Musgrove, however, were gunned down by the vigilantes and their outraged and frightened families fought back with a vengeance. Neighbors joined them and open warfare spread through the piney woods of Calhoun and southern Jackson Counties.
What led to the attack is not clear. A contemporary Florida newspaper claimed that the Durdens had feuded with another local family several years earlier and that the calls for their extermination resulted from lingering hard feelings from that earlier confrontation. Another report, published in the Augusta, Georgia, Chronicle and Sentinel on October 17, 1860, and apparently written from the point of view of the “regulators,” described the Durdens as “notorious for immorality and crime.”
The “immorality” that so outraged the regulators was never explained, but local legend holds that the two families favored the abolition of slavery. At least one modern historian has asserted that abolition meetings were held at the Durden home, but his cited sources do not verify the claim.
It is clear, however, that many Southerners opposed slavery and there is abundant evidence that individuals with pro-Union or abolitionist views were targeted by regulator gangs in Florida and elsewhere during the months leading up to the General Election of 1860. These bands of outlaws used intimidation to silence opposition as the Southern states hurtled towards secession and civil war.
It is interesting to note that although they farmed more than 400 acres, neither the Durdens nor the Musgroves owned slaves. This was a significant acreage for the time and their operation was among the largest in Northwest Florida that did not make use of slave laborers. It is also interesting to note that there was an escalation of slave disappearances from the plantations of the region throughout the year 1860 and fingers were steadily pointed at Calhoun County.
One of the more widely publicized incidents took place only two weeks before the attack on the Durdens and Musgroves:

We are in the receipt of a letter from Dr. David L. White, of Gadsden County, informing us of an attempt to decoy off two of his negro boys. They were young, and decoyed off about the first of this month. Elias H. Kemp, Esq., of our county, captured one of the boys, and the other returned home. The boys say a white man in West Florida persuaded them off, mounted upon pony horses, and told them as soon as they crossed the Chattahoochee river to leave the telegraph road, which they did. Evidently the man or men who decoyed off these boys resides in West Florida. Let our citizens give an eye to this matter, and soon the thieves will be brought to justice. – There is yet another negro with the thief at the time Dr. White’s negro left, who has not been captured. – The public had better be on the look out.

The report provides pretty solid evidence that someone living west of the Apalachicola River was involved in an aggressive effort to lead slaves away from the plantations of the region.
(End of Excerpt)

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