Friday, March 9, 2012

The First Signs of Violence in the Jackson County Reconstruction War

Marianna before 1900
There had been occasional incidents of violence in Jackson County following the 1865 end of the War Between the States, but none really rose to the level of "outbreak." In early 1866, however, things began to change.

The spark, as was noted in my last post, was the arrival of Charles M. Hamilton in the county (see His name that sat on him was Death...). A Union military officer, Hamilton was sent to Marianna as the agent of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, or as it was commonly called, "The Bureau."

Charles M. Hamilton
Library of Congress
Hamilton's decision to vacate all of the labor contracts reached between local farmers and the former slaves or Freedmen living in the county and the mandate that all such agreements be approved by him was in violation of Florida law and created tension in Jackson County. That tension soon led to problems.

On February 22, 1866, for example, James and Eldridge Bates (father and son) became involved in a confrontation with a freed woman named Elizabeth Dozier. The said that she had used abusive language to James Bates' wife and when they told her to leave their property, she refused. This led to a violent confrontation and both men were charged with Assault and Battery.

Jackson County had no courthouse at the time. The most recent one had burned in January of 1865 when fire swept through downtown Marianna, so local stores doubled as offices and courtrooms. In one of these, separate trials were held for the two Bates men.

One of the juries, uniquely, included Samuel Fleishman, a local merchant and Unionist who had left Jackson County during the recent war. He had returned after the conflict ended and resumed his place in the local business community. He later would lose his life in the Jackson County Reconstruction War, but in early 1866 was accepted as just another member of the community and there is no indication of trouble of any kind between him and his neighbors.

After deliberating, the juries in both cases found the men not guilty.

During the confrontation at the Bates farm, a freedman named John Dozier had gone to the assistance of Elizabeth Dozier. Eldridge Bates faced an additional charge of Assault and Battery for attacking him. Based on the testimony of a witness named Bob Blackshear, also a freedman, Eldridge was found guilty and was fined $75, a fairly standard fine in assault and battery cases of the time.

The trial proved several points that have been questioned by some writers. First, it showed that in 1866, when the judicial system was still in the hands of local residents, the freed people of Jackson County could get justice in the courts. The newly discovered records of the Eldridge Bates trial also show that former slaves were accepted as witnesses in court and that their words were given due consideration by local juries.

In the case involving Elizabeth Dozier, a not guilty verdict was returned, but in the case involving John Dozier, the testimony provided by Blackshear was considered conclusive and Eldridge Bates was found guilty.

While the Bates case was making its way through the local courts, a more direct attack on the occupation authorities themselves took place. Jack Myrick and James Finlayson became involved in a physical altercation with a soldier from the 7th U.S. Infantry.

The regiment then maintained a small garrison in Marianna to enforce the edicts of Bureau agent Charles Hamilton and the sight of blue-coated soldiers walking the streets was a difficult one for some of the former Confederates, particularly those who had suffered greatly during the war.

St. Luke's Episcopal Church
This structure replaced the one burned during the Battle of Marianna but
was of similar design and construction.
Jack Myrick (John T. Myrick, Jr.) was one of those who had suffered enormously at the hands of Union soldiers during the war. On September 27, 1864, he had turned out with the local home guard to fight in the Battle of Marianna. Jack, his brother Littleton and their friend Woody Nickels all had taken up stations in St. Luke's Episcopal Church during the battle. When Federal troops set fire to the structure to dislodge the Confederates inside, they tried to come out and surrender.

Of the three, only Jack survived. Littleton Myrick was shot down in the church door and allowed to fall back into the flames and burned to death. Woody made it out, but was shot by a Union soldier. As he tried to crawl away from the intense heat of the burning church, he was killed when a Union soldier bashed in his head with a musket butt. Jack nearly suffered the same fate, but was taken prisoner instead.

Even though he was only 15 years old, he was sent north to spend a brutal winter in the icy hell of the Elmira Prison Camp in Elmira, New York. Elmira was a deadly place and more than half of the Marianna prisoners sent there never came back. Those who did survive had suffered from a winter of disease, cold, malnutrition and abuse.

Jack Myrick came home a year older and a lifetime more embittered. With no prospects for any kind of future, he began to associate with a group of friends, most of whom were of the same age: Billy Coker, Pete Alderman, James Finlayson and others.

Capt. Richard Comba
7th U.S. Infantry
Captain Richard Comba, the officer in charge of the detachment of soldiers at Marianna, took Jack and James into custody following their alleged attack on the soldier from his unit. He wanted both tried before a military tribunal, but higher ranking officers decided instead to let the local courts deal with the two. They remained in the system for some time, but ultimately never were brought to trial.

Other incidents took place as well. The number of assault and battery cases in the county started to grow, a local school teacher was threatened, but the real violence was yet to come.

I will continue to post on Jackson County's Reconstruction War over coming weeks, so be sure to check back often.

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