Sunday, May 4, 2014

#77 Armstrong Purdee's Ride (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

Purdee rode with a Union soldier
Photo courtesy of Ashley Pollette
Armstrong Purdee's Ride is one of the most fascinating episodes of the Battle of Marianna and is #77 on my list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida.


Armstrong Purdee was born into slavery on the plantation of John R. Waddell on March 16, 1856. He would rise from slavery to become Jackson County's first African American attorney, but first he lived one of the greatest adventures ever experienced by any child living in the county.

The first known written record of him is the slave schedule of the 1860 U.S. Census. He appears there as one of two unnamed 4 year old male children living among the 39 African American slaves on the Waddell Plantation, the name of which is preserved today by Waddell's Mill Pond and Waddell Mill Creek between Marianna and Campbellton.

Waddell's Mill Pond is all that remains of Waddell Plantation
On the morning of September 27, 1864, the day of the Battle of Marianna, Armstrong was an eight-year-old child living on the Waddell Plantation when news came that Union troops were advancing from Campbellton on the Old Campbellton Road (today's Union Road). Purdee later told the story himself, remembering that the Union column halted near the Waddell gate for 40-50 minutes while scouts were sent out:

During the time that they halted, a Yankee white soldier said to me, "Boy, does you want to go?" I said to him, "Yes, sir." He moved one of his feet out of the stirrup and said "Put your feet in there," which I did. At the same time he reached for my hand and pulled me up on the horse, and placed me behind him and placed my hands about him, and said "Hold on; do not fall off." (Armstrong Purdee, June 1, 1931)

Union Road at Webbville
The troops followed this road on their way to the Battle of Marianna.
When the Union column moved out, 8-year-old Armstrong Purdee went with it, riding away on the back of a Northern soldier's horse. The route charted by Union Brigadier General Alexander Asboth took the soldiers down today's Union Road from the Waddell Plantation past the farm of Joseph W. Russ and across Russ Mill Creek to Webbville. 

Once a prosperous town that had vied with Marianna in a bitter battle for the title of county seat, Webbville by 1864 had faded away. The name was preserved in Webbville Plantation, the farm of W.D. Barnes, which stood on the site of the former town. Barnes was the lieutenant colonel of the 1st Florida Reserves in 1864-1865, but was on duty in eastern Florida when the Marianna raid took place.

Gen. Asboth leads mounted troops
War-time sketch. His dog always accompanied him.
Purdee remembered passing Webbville, which stood just north of today's intersection of Union Road and State Highway 73, as the long Union column continued its ride to Marianna. From there the troops swung below today's Highway 73 along now abandoned sections of the Old Campbellton Road to strike the plantation of Marianna Mayor Thomas White at the Whitesville community.

Thus far the ride must have seemed like a picnic or holiday for Armstrong Purdee, but that changed when the head of the Union column reached Hopkins' Branch about three miles northwest of Marianna. There, in position behind the swampy stream, the Federals found Confederate Colonel Alexander Montgomery waiting for them with three companies of mounted Southern troops. 

Purdee later recalled hearing and seeing the first shots of the Battle of Marianna as fighting broke out at Hopkins' Branch:

Brig. Gen. Alexander Asboth
When reaching the Hopkins Branch about three miles from the city of Marianna, soldiers were again sent out on each side of the road. Firing of the little short guns were made at Hopkins Branch...The Yankee that I was riding behind left the road and said to me: "Hold fast; do not fall!" They did not go around anything; they jumped their horses over fallen trees or logs, or anything."

Purdee's description is a vivid memory of a cavalry charge. The "little short guns" he remembered seeing were the Burnside breech-loading carbines carried by the troopers of the 2nd Maine Cavalry. Modern weapons for the day, they allowed the Union soldiers to reload and fire at a much faster rate than the Confederate defenders.

As the Confederates fell back to Marianna, continuing to fight as they went, the Union troops followed. As they reached Ely Corner (today's intersection of Lafayette and Russ Streets), Purdee remembered that the Northern soldiers once again collided with the outnumbered Confederate cavalrymen.

Russ House at Ely Corner
Built decades after the battle, the home is Jackson County's Visitor Center.
As Major Nathan Cutler's battalion of the 2nd Maine Cavalry approached the intersection via today's West Lafayette Street, they rounded the curve where the historic Russ House stands today and charged headlong into a volley of fire from the Confederate horsemen. The charge was driven back and Purdee remembered seeing two wounded Union soldiers on the ground by the small stream that then trickled behind today's Russ House (which was not built until years after the battle). "One was shot in the right breast," he wrote, "my attention being attracted by his groans and calling for water."

St. Luke's Episcopal Church
Major Eben Hutler's battalion, also from the 2nd Maine, then charged and drove the Confederates up the street only to be ambushed in turn by the Marianna Home Guard and a number of volunteers that had taken up hidden positions behind the trees, shrubs and fences that lined the street. Heavy fighting exploded, with a portion of the men being pushed back into the cemetery at St. Luke's Episcopal Church.

Armstrong Purdee witnessed the brutal and frenzied fighting at St. Luke's from the back of the unnamed Union soldier's horse. His most vivid memory was of the burning of the church:

Another view of St. Luke's Episcopal Church
All of the soldiers were off their horses. Orders were given to fire the church. Three men, two with long poles, and one with what seemed to me to be a can, threw something up on the church and the other two having something on the end of their poles, seemed to rub it as high as the poles would reach, after which something like twisted paper was lighted and placed to whatever was put on the church and it blazed up. Men were shot down as they came out of the building.

Woodbury "Woody" Nickels
Shot and beaten to death at St. Luke's Episcopal Church
One of the men that Purdee saw "shot down" was 15-year-old Woody Nickels, who was shot through the leg as he tried to escape the burning church. Severely wounded, he crawled to the nearby monument of Major Jesse Robinson which can still be seen in front of the church today. There he wrapped his arms around the monument, so close to the intense fire that he was being cooked alive. A Union soldier rushed forward and killed him by crushing his skull with a musket butt.

Armstrong Purdee never forgot the scene at St. Luke's. Years later, as Jackson County's first African American attorney, he helped some of the local men who were there that day file for their state Confederate pensions.

Purdee rode away with the Union column the next day. He rode behind the soldier that had taken him along from the Waddell Plantation all the way to Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island and was among the more than 600 newly freed African Americans who arrived there hungry and cold. Sergeant A.J. Bedford of the 25th U.S. Colored Troops saw them arrive:

Fort Pickens near Pensacola, Florida
...As soon as they came to the Fort, we, the 25th boys, gave them our tents, and they put them up in our old camping place, and at night, all the companies, B, H, E, and C, made them three kettles of coffee apiece, twelve in all, by authority of our noble Major Risinger, of the Fort. (Sgt. A.J. Bedford, 25th U.S.C.T., November 7, 1864)

Armstrong remained at Pensacola until the war ended eight months later. His father then came to Pensacola from Jackson County to carry him back home. The two left Pensacola aboard ship and went to Apalachicola from where they made the long walk back to Jackson County.

Battle of Marianna Monument
Purdee later attracted the attention of former Confederate Major William Henry Milton, the son of Governor John Milton. A local attorney, he took the young freedman (as the former slaves were then called) under his wing and taught him the practice of law. Not long after the end of Reconstruction, Armstrong Purdee passed the bar exam and was admitted to the practice of law as the first African American ever to achieve such distinction in Jackson County.

His life stands as a remarkable story of accomplishment, but it is the tale of his long ride in 1864 that continues to fascinate all who read it.

In an interesting side note, Purdee's daughter Mrs. Sarah Spires recently marked her 100th birthday! Please click here to read coverage of the celebration from the Jackson County Times.

If you would like to learn more about the Battle of Marianna and Armstrong Purdee's ride, please consider my book, The Battle of Marianna, Florida. It is available at Chipola River Book & Tea in downtown Marianna or you can order through Amazon here:

Book:  The Battle of Marianna, Florida: Expanded Edition

Kindle:  The Battle of Marianna, Florida

A major event commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Marianna is scheduled for September 26-27, 2014. Read more about the battle at www.battleofmarianna.com and check the schedule of planned events at http://visitjacksoncountyfla.com/heritage/battle-of-marianna-150th-celebration/.



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Cox, thank you so much for these very interesting stories. I love my hometown (Marianna), and love it so much more, the more I read your stories and learn about our history. Thanks again.