Anniversary of the Battle of Marianna, Florida

Battle of Marianna marker at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

The Battle of Marianna was fought in Northwest Florida on September 27, 1864. Today is the 153rd anniversary of the action.

To read about events leading up to the battle, please see the previous articles in this series: The Raid on MariannaSkirmish at EucheeannaDevastation in Walton & Holmes Counties and Fighting near Campbelton.

Col. Alexander B. Montgomery (CS) pulled back ahead of the oncoming Federal column as it began to move south on the old road from Campbellton to Marianna. He headed three companies of Confedearte reserves and militia on the morning of September 27, 1864, but was heavily outnumbered by the Union force of Brig. Gen. Alexander Asboth (US).

Col. A.B. Montgomery (at left) as he appeared many years after the war.

The Confederate colonel was initially unsure of the objective of the raid. Would the Federals turn east across Bellamy Bridge to attack the large plantations around Greenwood? Would they turn west back to the Holmes Creek crossing and eventually Pensacola? Or would they continue south to Marianna?

The answer came when when Asboth crossed the road linking Bellamy Bridge to the old ford on Holmes Creek and continued south. Marianna was the target.

Col. Montgomery sent riders to call out the militia or home guards in Marianna and Greenwood. Another horseman, Arthur Lewis (Jr.), went to alert Jeter’s and Milton’s companies of the 5th Florida Cavalry. Jeter was then camped at the Everett Plantation at Orange Hill in Washington County while Milton was down Econfina Creek closer to St. Andrew Bay.

The following short summaries will explain what happened over the next several hours. To read a full account, please see my book – The Battle of Marianna, Florida: Expanded Edition.

Armstrong Purdee

The Federal troops advanced on Marianna via today’s Union Road.

The old Campbellton Road is not entirely intact today but an important segment is preserved as what is now Union Road. The Federals reached this part of the road and soon came to the plantation home of John R. Waddell near the head of Waddell’s Mill Pond.

News of their approach spread like wildfire and the slaves flocked to the road to see what would happen and to find out if the “Day of Jubilee” had come. Among these was 8-year-old Armstrong Purdee who later wrote a vivid account of the day that he gained his freedom:

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.”(1)

Armstrong Purdee was 8-years-old when he witnessed the Battle of Marianna from the back of a Union soldier’s horse.

Purdee rode off with the unidentified Union soldier and witnessed the Battle of Marianna from the back of his horse. He later became Jackson County’s first African-American attorney.

Battle begins at Hopkins’ Branch

The Federal column continued south, stopping at the plantations of Joseph Russ, W.D. Barnes and Thomas M. White. Barnes was the lieutenant colonel of the 1st Florida Reserves but was not home at the time. White was the mayor of Marianna and lived in town, although his plantation was located at today’s Whitesville community. Livestock was confiscated or killed, barns were destroyed and other damage was done. Hundreds of enslaved African-Americans were set free and followed the column in growing numbers as it advanced.

Although minor skirmishing had taken place during the hours since the Union troops left Campbellton that morning, the first heavy fighting took place as they approached Hopkins’ Branch. This narrow swampy creek is about three miles northwest of Marianna.

The Confederates under Col. Montgomery hoped to make a stand in the thick tree cover that surrounded the branch. Heavy firing broke out as the Federals approached. Armstrong Purdee reported that “firing of the little short guns” (i.e. Burnside carbines) took place at Hopkins’ Branch. Pvt. Wade Richardson of the 1st Florida (U.S.) Cavalry described it as a “brisk fire with contesting rebels.”

The Union cavalry broke the short stalemate with a mounted charge into the swamp. Purdee described how they “did not go around anything: they jumped their horses over fallen trees and logs, or anything.”

The Confederate horsemen began falling back to Marianna with the Union vanguard hot on their heels. Fighting continued over the course of more than two miles.

Ely Corner as it appears today. The historic Russ House is visible at the left of the photograph.

The Fight at Ely Corner

The Confederates entered Marianna via a little-known northern bypass or logging road that followed the route of today’s Kelson Avenue to its intersection with Caledonia Street. They came up Caledonia and then turned west on Lafayette Street to the western edge of town at Ely Corner (today’s intersection of Lafayette and Russ Streets). The beautiful old Russ House that stands there today was not built for another three decades.

Col. Montgomery had remained west of town to scout the Union approach so subordinate officers spread the Confederate cavalry into a line of battle at Ely Corner. The three companies – Capt. Alexander Godwin’s Campbellton Cavalry, Capt. Robert Chisolm’s Woodville Scouts and Capt. W.W. Poe’s Co. C, 1st Florida Reserves (Mounted) – were now joined by Capt. Henry Robinson’s Greenwood Club Cavalry. These boys were cadets from the academy at Greenwood and Robinson was also their teacher. They had formed a company to protect the community and drilled on a regular basis as part of their studies.

Brig. Gen. Alexander Asboth (US) and one of his dogs.

The rest of the men and boys in Marianna marched out Lafayette Street to a point just past St. Luke’s Epsicopal Church where they formed behind trees, bushes and fences on each side of the road. This force consisted of Capt. Jesse Norwood’s Marianna Home Guard and number of men and boys who happened to be in town that day and volunteered to join the fight. Among these were the boys from the Marianna Academy who went into the battle as a group under the guidance of their teacher, Charles Tucker.

This was the situation at 11 a.m. when Col. Montgomery rode up to Ely Corner from the west and ordered his men to retreat. He had seen the Federals dividing into two columns outside of town and knew that a part of Asboth’s force was following the northern bypass and would come into town behind his men. His men “demurred” according to one eyewitness and before the colonel could explain his orders, the blue-uniformed soldiers of Maj. Nathan Cutler’s battalion from the 2nd Maine Cavalry rounded the curve where the Russ House stands today and rode into view.

Montgomery and his men opened fire, driving Cutler back and killing or wounding several of the Federals. Gen. Asboth was outraged by the sight of his men retreating and rode among them shouting “For shame! For shame!”

Maj. Nathan Cutler, 2nd Maine Cavalry, was 20-years-old when he helped lead the Union charge at Marianna.

He then rode to the front of Maj. Eben Hutchinson’s battalion, 2nd Maine Cavalry, and ordered them to charge. The general led the charge in person and smashed the head of Hutchinson’s force into Montgomery’s line before the Confederates could reload their muzzle-loading weapons. Hand to hand combat took place at Ely Corner and Asboth received a minor saber cut to his scalp that left blood running down his face. Bullets showered the front of the nearby Ely-Crigler House, pockmarking the bricks from the ground to the rafters. The house is believed to be Florida’s most battle-scarred private residence.

Driven back by weight of numbers, Montgomery and his mounted men began to retreat up Lafayette Street into town, fighting as they went.

The men and boys under Capt. Norwood, meanwhile, had rolled a barricade of wagons into the street near the Holden House. As soon as the Confederate cavalry passed through a gap left for that purpose, they closed up the wall with a wagon and waited to join the fight.

Ambush on West Lafayette Street

The Holden House in Marianna stood at the time of the battle and still bears scars from the fight.

Brig. Gen. Asboth and the Union cavalry were charging at full speed when they approached the barricade. Despite legend to the contrary, none of the Confederates actually fought from behind this wall of wagons. The whole purpose of the barricade was to slow a Federal charge while the home guards and volunteers waited in ambush along each side of the street. The wagons performed their job perfectly.

Asboth was described by high-ranking Union officers including Gen. Phil Sheridan as the “best horseman” they ever knew. He leaped his stallion into the air as he approached the barricade and vaulted over the top of the wall of wagons. Majors Cutler and Hutchinson did the same but most of the Federal cavalry was not so bold. The column stalled as soldiers tried to move the wagons out of the way.

Maj. Eben Hutchinson, 2nd Maine Cavalry, was wounded in the street near the Holden House.

It was at this moment that Norwood’s Marianna Home Guard on the north side of the street and a force of volunteers on the south side opened fire. Asboth went down with shotgun wounds to his arm and cheek. Hutchinson was wounded. Other officers and men were killed. In fact, nearly 30 officers and men from the 2nd Maine Cavalry were shot down by the untrained militiamen in an attack that proved to be the bloodiest moment of the war for the seasoned soldiers of the 2nd Maine.

It was not enough. The head of the Union column continued to pursue Montgomery and his mounted men. Cavalry fighting spread through the downtown area with soldiers battling each other along both Lafayette and Market Streets. Lt. M.A. Butler of the Greenwood Club Cavalry was killed near the intersection of Market and Jefferson Streets.

The Federal column that Montgomery had seen moving around the northern bypass had by now entered town and taken up a position at Courthouse Square. With a large force of Union horsemen attacking him from behind and the flanking party ahead, the Confederate colonel charged his men into the mounted blue line at the square. Surgeon Henry Robinson of Montgomery’s staff (not to be confused with Capt. Henry Robinson of the Greenwood unit) wrote that men fought “hand to hand” at Courthouse Square and were in “closest possible contact.” A tree on Madison Street bore saber scars for many years after the battle.

Col. Montgomery was thrown from his horse and captured near the southeast corner of the square.

Lafayette Street was not extended down the hill to the Chipola River until the 20th century. Travelers then had to round the square and take Jackson Street to the wooden bridge over the river. The fighting followed this route. Mrs. Daniel Love MacKinnon remembered how as a young girl she had witnessed the soldiers fighting and going down the red clay hill to the Chipola.

Fight at the Chipola River Bridge

As disorganized Confederate horsemen rushed for the bridge, Capt. Robert Chisolm turned his better organized and more experienced company back to face the oncoming Union cavalry.

A recently placed marker at the City of Marianna’s Chipola River Overlook tells the story of the Fight at the Chipola River Bridge.

The Woodville Scouts were technically a company of Alabama state troops but had been assigned to the post at Marianna to guard against raids that might threaten South Alabama. They would later become Company I, 5th Florida Cavalry.

Chisolm held off the the Union attack long enough for other men to pry loose the boards from the bridge. He then a slow retreat back across the structure, removing the flooring as he went. It is unknown whether he and his men fought mounted or if they had dismounted upon reaching the bridge.

Once across, the captain spread his men out along the east bank of the river and continued to fire across the Chipola to protect the framework of the bridge. Other men joined them and a sharp skirmish continued for the rest of the afternoon with men firing on each other from opposite sides of the river.

Florida’s Alamo

A 19th century artist’s impression of the Battle of Marianna and the fight at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

The rest of the Union force closed in on Capt. Norwood’s Marianna Home Guard and the other volunteers fighting along West Lafayette Street. The men and boys on the south side of the street were driven down the hill past the Holden and other houses to Stage Creek. Several were killed and wounded. Others were captured.

The battle then focused on Norwood and his men. Driven back from his first position along the north side of the street, the captain reformed his men on the grounds of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. The church was then surrounded by a strong board fence which Norwood’s home guards used as a makeshift fortification. Firing from behind the fence, they were able to temporarily halt the Union advance.

It did not take long for the Federals to completely surround the churchyard. The home guards continued to fight, some of them even firing from behind the tombstones of loved ones.

Col. L.L. Zulavsky, 82nd USCT, gave the order to burn St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

Col. L.L. Zulavsky, who had taken command of the Union force following the wounding of Gen. Asboth, now ordered up his two companies from the 82nd and 86th USCT (U.S. Colored Troops). Told to fix bayonets, the African-American soldiers surged forward in a charge that took them up and over the board fence that surrounded the church. One eyewitness wrote that they yelled “Remember Fort Pillow!” as they charged, a reference to the Tennessee fort taken by Confederate troops under Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. Officials in Washington, D.C., alleged that black Union soldiers were murdered there after surrendering. Forrest disputed the claim.

The bayonet charge by the men of the USCT drove Norwood’s men into a smaller area behind the church. The fighting continued there at close range for some time.

Some of the Confederates also fired from the windows and tower of the church and a group of women joined the battle by shooting at Union soldiers from the windows of Mrs. Caroline Hunter’s Boarding House for Ladies which stood across Lafayette Street.

The battle was finally brought to an end when the bulk of Norwood’s company surrendered in the cemetery as ammunition began to run short. The church was burned as were Mrs. Hunter’s Boarding House and the home of Dr. R.A. Sanders which stood across Wynn Street from the church. At least four men died in the burning church, choosing to fight to the death rather than surrender. Their desperate stand led to the site being called Florida’s Alamo for many years.


St. Luke’s Episcopal Church as seen from the air. Heavy fighting took place in and around the church during the Battle of Marianna.

The bodies of the dead and wounded littered Marianna from Ely Corner to the Chipola River. Union losses were 8 dead or mortally wounded, 19 wounded and 10 captured. Confederate losses were 10 killed, 16 wounded and 41 captured.

Asboth estimated that his raid freed 600 slaves, the vast majority of them in Marianna and Jackson County. It was the largest military emancipation in Florida history.

He also reported the capture of 200 horses and mules, 400 head of cattle, many guns and 16 wagons.

There was much more to the Battle of Marianna and you can read the full story in my book – The Battle of Marianna, Florida: Expanded Edition. Also please enjoy the mini-documentary below from Two Egg TV.

More fighting would take place on the next day as the Union raid passed through Washington County. I will post about that tomorrow.

This year’s reenactment of the Battle of Marianna will take place at Florida Caverns State Park on Saturday, October 7th, at 10 a.m. It is part of the annual Caverns Cultural Celebration.

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