Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Battle of Marianna took place 145 Years Ago Today


Now that the smoke of the reenactments has faded away, it is a good time to remember what really happened on the streets of Marianna 145 years ago today.

The real Battle of Marianna started at around 10 o'clock in the morning on September 27, 1864, when Union troops riding south from Campbellton reached Hopkins' Branch, a small swampy stream about three miles northwest of town. Heavy rains had fallen for the previous two weeks and the swamp was full of water as they approached, creating a natural barrier that Confederate forces hoped might help in holding back the oncoming Federals.

As the head of the Union column approached, three companies of Confederates led in person by Colonel Alexander Montgomery opened fire on them from the opposite side of the swamp. Following a brisk firefight, however, the Southern troops were forced back and started to withdraw to Marianna, fighting as they went.

The Union column followed and by 11:30 a.m. had reached a point just west of town about where the McDonald's on West Lafayette Street stands today. The area was then open fields and woods. It was here that Brigadier General Alexander Asboth, the commander of the Union force, was shown that a small logging road diverged from the main road and followed the route of today's Kelson Avenue around the northern edge of town. Sending part of his men down that road, he moved directly up the Campbellton Road (today's Lafayette Street) with the main body of his command.

Not knowing that the Federals would try to flank the town, the Confederates had prepared their defenses at Ely Corner, the intersection of today's Lafayette and Russ Streets. This was then the western edge of Marianna and Colonel Montgomery placed his four companies of mounted men in a line of battle across the intersection. Most of these men were home guards or militia ("citizen soldiers") and they did not wear Confederate uniforms but instead came to fight wearing their regular work clothes and carrying shotguns, old muskets or any other weapons they had to bring.

Up Lafayette Street behind them, the men of Captain Jesse Norwood's Marianna Home Guard, another "citizen soldier" unit made up of local men and boys, pushed wagons across the street to form a barricade of sorts at about the point where Pizza Hut is located today. Contrary to legend, they did not stand behind this wall, but instead placed it in the street simply to slow down a Union cavalry charge. Like most of the other Confederates who fought at Marianna, Norwood's men did not wear uniforms and carried pretty much any gun they could get their hands on. Some were school boys who had come to fight led by their teacher, Charles Tucker. Others were doctors, lawyers, ministers and even the sheriff and circuit judge. The took up positions hidden behind trees, fences, shrubs and in buildings along each side of Lafayette Street, planning to ambush the Union soldiers if they made it past the mounted men lined up at Ely Corner.

By most accounts it was high noon when the first Union soldiers rounded the bend at Ely Corner. Today's four-lane street was then a narrow dirt road that passed through a heavy grove of trees just before reaching the intersection. As they came around the curve, they were stunned by Montgomery and his mounted Confederates who fired on them from short range. The Union troops tried to charge, but faltered and retreated in confusion, much to the chagrin of General Asboth who shouted "For Shame! For Shame!" at them as they fell back.

Asboth then spurred his horse forward and ordered more of his men to charge, leading them himself. Charging around the curve, they hit the Confederate line before Montgomery and his men could reload their muzzle-loading weapons. Unable to fire back, the Southern horsemen began to withdraw up Lafayette Street toward the center of town with the Northern soldiers hot on their heels.

The Confederates knew about the barricade of wagons and made their way around it, but the Union soldiers were forced to halt in the street to find a way through or around the line of wagons. When they did, Captain Norwood and the men and the boys of the Marianna Home Guard opened fire from their hidden positions along both sides of the street. According to eyewitnesses, "every officer and man at the head of their column" was shot down. General Asboth was wounded in both the face and arm and toppled from his horse. Captain M.M. Young, one of his staff members, was killed on the spot. Majors Nathan Cutler and Eben Hutchinson were severely wounded, as were numerous others.

As deadly as the ambush was, however, it was not enough. Some of the Union troops continued to purse the retreating Southern cavalry while others turned on the local men and boys who had ambushed them. Colonel Montgomery and his horsemen reached Courthouse Square where they ran head on into Asboth's flanking party. Hand to hand fighting took place all around the square and the colonel was knocked from his horse and captured there. Most of his men, however, reached the bridge over the Chipola River (then located on Jackson Street as Lafayette Street had not been extended down the hill at that time), where they held back their attackers until they could cross over and tear up the wooden floor of the bridge.

Back along what is now West Lafayette Street, a fierce battle erupted between the other Union soldiers and the men and boys of the Marianna Home Guard. Those south of the street were driven down the hill to Stage Creek and either killed, wounded, captured or dispersed. Those north of the street fell back onto the grounds of St. Luke's Episcopal Church where a fierce fight was waged for about 30 minutes until the Confederates ran out of ammunition and were forced to surrender. Some were wounded after they had surrendered before Union officers could bring their men under control.

A few Confederates inside St. Luke's Church and two nearby homes refused to surrender and were either burned out or burned to death. In the end, 10 Confederates and 8 Federals were either killed or mortally wounded. Several dozen more were injured and scores were taken prisoner. Participants on both sides described the fight at Marianna as one of the most intense of the war for its size.

In less than one hour, more than 25% of the male population of Marianna had been killed, wounded or captured. On the Union side, the 2nd Maine Cavalry suffered its greatest losses of the war.

If you would like to learn more about the Battle of Marianna, please consider my book: The Battle of Marianna, Florida. It is available online at www.amazon.com or in Downtown Marianna at Chipola River Book and Tea. You can also read more at www.battleofmarianna.com.

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