Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Attack on the Watson Farm (February 7, 1868)

William J. Purman
As Reconstruction era violence continued to escalate in Jackson County during the winter of 1868, the forces of Bureau Agent William J. Purman carried out a military-style raid on the farm of Lewis Watson.
Purman had now succeeded Charles Hamilton as agent for the Freedmens Bureau in Jackson County. He continued and expanded upon the extra legal tactics of his predecessor.

Members of the Watson family were rumored to have been involved in the deaths of two freedmen near Campbellton. Purman produced no evidence to prove any allegations against the men nor did he swear out a warrant for them with authorities in Jackson County. He did, however, order an armed party of freedmen to their farm.

The Watson farm was about three miles from Campbellton and the family members and some of their friends looked out on February 7, 1868, and saw organized bodies of freedmen approaching:

John Doyle Examined & Sworn Says that on last Thursday evening a band of armed Negroes approached Mr. Lewis Watson's house in Jackson County by two routes. One party coming from the road to the house, the other party through the field. That there were between 18 and 25 of the Negroes who came from the road and about six or more through the field. That he saw George Harris colored, James Davis, Frank Smith, Bill Smith & Macon McKinnie among the Negroes. That they called one of their party Captain and called other officers but don't recollect.

Freedmen photographed during Reconstruction
The above is from the case file on the attack that was recently discovered along with other records from the Reconstruction era in boxes in the old Jackson County Jail. The records were salvaged prior to the demolition of the old jail.

Doyle, a neighbor of the Watsons, tried to get across a fence when he saw the armed freedmen marching up to the farm:

...[W]hen they approached Mr. Watson's house they did so in a boisterous manner, with their guns presented and as he, Doyle, was getting over the fence, they, the Negroes, ordered him to "halt g-- damn you or I will blow your brains out." He halted and they then arrested [him], Duncan Miles, Marion Watson and John Miller.

The freedmen fired their guns repeatedly in Lewis Watson's yard and also shot at his dogs, which were barking furiously. Doyle asked by what authority he was being arrested:

...[O]ne of them punched the back of the neck with his gun and told him there was their authority and that if he said a sound they would blow his damn brains out.

The freedmen then marched their captives away from the farm. After they had gone about 3/4 of a mile they released Marion Watson and John Miller, but continued on with Duncan Miles and John Doyle:

...They then took a little path leading down into a Hammock near the Baker Field. They took him to a house occupied by Austin Smith, that while there he...asked them for a drink of water and that Macon McKinnie told him he would not need water long g-- damn you and would not give it to him. From Austin Smith's they took him... to Alex Godwin's house. When they got to Alex Godwin's they halted.
Farm Building like the one where Doyle and Miles were held

The armed men clearly were expecting some kind of written papers, probably from Purman, at Alex Godwin's house. Godwin was a freedmen who had once been a slave on the plantation of Alexander R. Godwin. Doyle heard them ask Godwin if a man named Spencer had come with papers. He said that no one had come. After some discussion, the armed force marched Doyle and Miles on to the plantation of F.P. Haywood where they held them in an old building overnight. The initial group of freedmen were joined that night by a second armed band led by Bill Young.

In his sworn deposition, Doyle detailed the discussion he overheard from the men standing guard over him:

...[T]here seemed to be a diversity of opinion in regards to what should be done with them (meaning Doyle and Miles), some were for shooting while others were for waiting for the papers. The next morning they started in the direction of Underwood's, a Justice of the Peace, to give him...a hearing. They were met by Alex Godwin who told them that if they went toward's Underwood's they would be met by a white crowd....
Jackson County as it appeared during Reconstruction

The white men of the Campbellton area had been alerted to the attack and kidnapping and were now armed and in force, looking for the freedmen and their captives. To avoid a confrontation with this group, the freedmen turned towards Marianna.

As they marched for the county seat, the freedmen continued to debate what they should do with their prisoners. Some continued to be for shooting the two men while others favored carrying them on to Marianna.

Doyle swore in his deposition that Mingo Long had arrived with Young's party. A well-known associate of Hamilton and Purman, Long was involved in a series of Reconstruction era crimes including the burning of a cotton gin. He told John Doyle that, if he had his way, the two prisoners would never see Marianna.

The name of another man who would figure prominently in Jackson County's Reconstruction War also appears in the documents of the case file. Calvin Rogers was reported to have been present in the party of freedmen who arrived under Bill Young. Although he did not yet hold the position, Rogers would soon become the constable of Jackson County.

Expected papers never came from Marianna and the freedmen halted their march for the city as they continued to debate what should be done with John Doyle and Duncan Miles. After terrorizing the men for over 24 hours by repeatedly aiming guns at them and threatening to fill their hearts with buckshot, the freedmen realized that they were facing impending violence from the outraged citizens now swarming all over the area. Doyle and Miles were released and the armed force scattered.

There had never been a warrant, criminal complaint or any other document sworn out against the men kidnapped from the Watson farm. Clearly the freedmen had attacked in military formation expecting that some type of papers would be sent out from Marianna. Whether Purman, with whom a number of the men in the armed force were associated, lost his nerve or there was some other complication is not clear.

The victims of the incident immediately swore out criminal complaints against as many of the freedmen involved in their kidnapping as could be identified. Freedmen from around the Campbellton area who were not aligned with Purman's forces testified on behalf of the victims and Judge George F. Baltzell ordered the arrests of Macon McKinnie, Frank Smith, James Davis, George Hawes, H. Smith, Mingo Long, Calvin Rogers, Henry Cotton and Oliver Long on February 12, 1868.

The men were all charged with Sedition and Insurrection, extremely serious crimes. The victims of the attack, however, would never see justice done to their attackers. The suspects had powerful friends and all attempts to try them were blocked.

The case contributed greatly to the growing sentiment in Jackson County that it was no longer possible to obtain justice in the courts. As the year 1868 went forward, the violence between Purman and his allies and the white and some black citizens of Jackson County would surge.

I will continue to post on the Reconstruction War in Jackson County in coming weeks, so be sure to check back regularly.

1 comment:

Judy Williams said...

Interesting father, Elton Register, used to own the land where Alexander Godwin (white) is buried. It now belongs to First Baptist Church, Cottondale. As a young girl, I used to ride my bike up to the cemetery to explore the many old tombstones. Thanks for the history lesson!