The Battle of Newton was one of the final actions of the Civil War in the Wiregrass region of Southeast Alabama. It took place in the town square and main street of Newton on March 14, 1865.
A monument in downtown memorializes the encounter and an annual Battle of Newton reenactment and living history event takes place each October. This year’s event is Saturday and Sunday, October 6-7, at Hutto Park in Newton. Activities begin at 9 a.m. each day.
Newton in 1865 was the county seat of Dale County, Alabama. The courthouse stood on the town square and housed tax, conscription and other records that listed the names of men who had served the Confederacy during the war. This made it a target for Lt. Joseph G. Sanders, an officer in the 1st Florida Cavalry (U.S.).
Like many other men in his regiment, Sanders had deserted from the Confederate army before joining the Union service. The end of the war was in sight and he worried now that records of his Confederate service might come back to haunt him. He made up his mind to destroy the records in Newton and got his opporunity when Brig. Gen. Alexander Asboth ordered him to lead a small raid into Washington County, Florida.
The purpose of the raid was to confiscate or steal horses and return to camp at Fort Barrancas near Pensacola as soon as possible. Sanders, however, ignored the intent of his assignment and instead took his detachment to a hiding place in the Forks of the Creek swamp between Campbellton and Malone in Jackson County, Florida. The secluded wilderness offered him security from detection and a base from which he could strike Newton.
The Forks of the Creek area was a hideout for soldiers who had deserted from one side or other during the long war. Also there were men who can only be described as outlaws. They used the war as a chance to profit by raiding communities and homes throughout the region.
Local citizens in Dale County didn’t really distinguish between those, like Sanders, who had crossed the lines and joined the Union army and the others, like John Ward and the apparently unrelated Jim Ward who headed “raider gangs” of outlaws. Lt. Sanders, in fact, had headed such a gang himself before finally crossing the lines and joining the Union army. The group he led against Newton in March 1865 is often often called the “Sanders Gang” although its core was made up of soldiers from the 1st Florida Cavalry (U.S.).
After waiting some days for an opportunity to strike, Sanders led his men out of the swamp and across the border into Alabama on March 14, 1865. He planned to take Newton by surprise that night but news of the movement raced forward with more speed than the raiders themselves. The alarm was sounded and calls went out for reinforcements. Only a handful of men and boys were in Newton, but they took up arms and prepared to defend their town.
The muster place for many local militia companies was their county courthouse and the men of Newton gathered on the square to decide what to do. Among them was Jesse M. Carmichael, a wounded veteran who had served in Company E, 15th Alabama Infantry. He and another volunteer named John McEnture rode out for about four miles on the Florida road to look for signs of the enemy. They quickly returned after hearing the hoof beats of Sanders and his men.
The 30 or so volunteers assembled on the square, meanwhile, were joined by Capt. Joseph Breare and his company of Confederate Conscription troops. Often incorrectly described as “home guards,” these men were enlisted soldiers who scoured the swamps and woods to bring deserters and “lay outs” into military service. Many of them were wounded veterans with considerable combat experience and Breare himself had been a lieutenant in the 15th Alabama Infantry serving in action at Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and other
Carmichael said many years later that he advised Breare to form an ambush on the edge of town. The captain declined, however, and formed his men on the west side of the square. Either with or without his approval, Carmichael then took three men and went up the street to take up hidden positions by a hotel east of the square. Six other defenders formed in a side street between Carmichael’s position and the square, while Breare and the main force remained where they had formed.
It did not take long for Lt. Sanders and his horsemen to arrive. Not expecting trouble, they did not bother to send ahead scouts before riding into town. Carmichael and the three men with him waited to fire until the raiders passed them and were moving west up the street for the courthouse:
…When I thought that the opportunity had come, all four of us – some with double-barrel shotguns, and others with muskets charged with buck and ball , turned loose upon them as unexpectedly as if the last trumpet had sounded. [Account of Jesse M. Carmichael]
Sanders and his men were stunned when the volley was unleashed from behind them. Things got worse when the six men between Carmichael’s position and the square also opened fire:
…Rev. Callaway and his five men, who were secreted between some stores, fired into the head of the column. A more complete surprise was never perpetrated, and in a moment all was confusion, and the bush-whackers stampeded. [Account of Jesse M. Carmichael]
Other Confederates joined the action and Sanders and his men scattered in all directions. Three of the raiders were killed and five wounded. The Confederates suffered no losses.
Newton was saved but, as a militia officer reported, the raiders stole “much property in the country before they reached here.” The men of Breare’s company, he claimed, never had “a chance to fire a gun.” This was not entirely true as George Echols, one of the men engaged in the ambush, was a member of Breare’s Conscription unit. Others may have been as well.
The Battle of Newton was a small but complete victory for the defenders. The old courthouse no longer stands but the town square is still there and can be seen on King Street (AL 134) in downtown Newton. A historical marker gives details about the history of the town, including the skirmish. Directly across King Street is a stone monument that honors the men and boys who defended the town during the encounter.
Newton is off U.S. Highway 231 between Dothan and Ozark in Southeast Alabama. Please see the map at the bottom of this page for directions.
Also of interest nearby is the site of Sketoe’s Hole. This unusual landmark was created during the Civil War when Breare and his men hanged William Sketoe after a trial in Newton found him guilty of supplying the enemy. Legend holds that his ghost returns each night to sweep the hole clean. It was featured in Kathryn Tucker Windham’s book 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey as “the hole that will not stay filled.” It is in the park area directly across the Choctawhatchee River bridge from Newton. Please click here to read our story on the ghost of Bill Sketoe.
See the story of Sketoe’s Hole brought to life in this free video from our sister channel Two Egg TV: