Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Battle of Marianna, Florida (Phase Three)

St. Luke's Episcopal Church
With the Confederate cavalry scattered or pushed across the Chipola River, the Battle of Marianna moved into its most pivitol phase as the full strength of the Union force was turned on the home guards and volunteers along West Lafayette Street.

In close range and often hand to hand fighting, the Confederates positioned behind trees, shrubs, fences and buildings along the south side of the street were the first to give way. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Southern men and boys tried to withdraw down the slope to and beyond Stage Creek. Even though several experienced regular officers and soldiers were present, most of the Confederates were local citizens with little if any miltary training. Their line crumbled as the retreat began.

Littleton Myrick, killed in battle.
The Federals pursued them with considerable intensity. Captain H.O. Bassett, the former sheriff of Jackson County who was home on leave from Company E, 6th Florida Infantry, was cornered near the creek and fell from so many bayonet wounds that his body was later recognized only by his gray Confederate officer's pants. The fact that he suffered bayonet wounds indicates that he and the men around him were battling the Union soldiers from the U.S. Colored Troops detachment that was part of Asboth's force.

Seeing their comrades across the street give way, the men along the north side of Lafayette knew they were in serious trouble. Deciding to pull his men back deeper into town, Captain Jesse Norwood of the Marianna Home Guard ordered a withdrawal. The men fell back from their positions along the road into the fenced yard that surrounded St. Luke's Episcopal Church. Norwood evidently planned to pull his men on beyond that point into the buildings that surrounded the downtown area, but the main body of Asboth's flanking party had come in behind them now and they were trapped in and around the church.

St. Luke's Churchyard, scene of heavy action.
A militia unit like the Marianna Home Guard normally would have crumbled under such circumstances, but Norwood's men did not. Their ranks included numerous men and officers who had served in the regular Confederate army. Some were still on the rolls but home on leave or furlough, while others had been disabled earlier in the war due to battlefield wounds or illness. As a result, the company had a wide and solid backbone of seasoned soldiers.

Final Home Guard Position
Now trapped in the churchyard but determined to keep fighting, the Confederates took up position behind the stout board fence that surrounded the guard and kept up a constant fire with their attackers. General Asboth had been severely wounded in the ambush near the barricade, so Colonel Ladislas L. Zulavsky now had command of the fight. Seeing that his cavalrymen were unable to dislodge Norwood's men from their position behind the churchyard fence, he ordered the now dismounted men from the 82nd and 86th U.S. Colored Troops to form ranks in the street.
The order was given and the African American soldiers surged forward in a bayonet charge that went up and over the wooden fence. The home guards were driven back into the cemetery behind the church, but continued such a hot fire that the bayonet charge eventually stalled out. The Union troops now closed in on Norwood's men from three sides (the church forming the fourth). The fighting, however, continued. In fact, it continued so fiercely that some of the Union officers began to wonder if they would be able to dislodge the Confederates from their new position.

I'll post on the final phase of the battle in the next post. If you would like to read about the fight in more detail, please consider my book: The Battle of Marianna, Florida. It is also available as an instant download for both Amazon Kindle and iBooks.

You can also read more at www.battleofmarianna.com.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Battle of Marianna, Florida (Phase Two, Continued)

Major Nathan Cutler
By most accounts, the main Union column rounded the curve at Ely Corner at high noon on September 27, 1864. Major Nathan Cutler's battalion of the 2nd Maine Cavalry was in the lead.
The Federals, not expecting resistance from Confederate cavalry that they thought was in full retreat, came on in a column of fours... and ran head on into the Southern horsemen who were formed in line of battle across the road at Ely Corner. All debate now over, Colonel Montgomery ordered his men to fire and a volley erupted from the Confederate line.

Russ House at Ely Corner
The Union soldiers were stunned and, while Major Cutler ordered an immediate charge, it failed to materialize and the column fell back on itself and retreated around the curve. 8-year-old Armstrong Purdee, who witnessed the scene from the back of a Union soldier's horse, later recalled that two of Cutler's men were badly wounded. They were carried back to Russ Branch, a small stream that flowed behind today's Russ House (Chamber of Commerce), and water was poured on their wounds by the surgeons.

Outraged by the unexpected retreat of his men, General Asboth spurred his horse forward and cried, "For Shame! For Shame!" at them. He then ordered a second battalion from the 2nd Maine to charge and led them himself.

Montgomery's men, meanwhile, were still struggling to reload their musketoons when the second Federal charge surged around the curve. Unable to resist, Montgomery and his horsemen withdrew up Lafayette Street. Eyewitnesses later noted that the Federals were hot on their heels as they retreated.

Holden House, Barricade Vicinity
The Confederates reached the barricade and, knowing the ways to bypass it, went around and through it to continue their withdrawal up the street. It served its intedned purposes, however, by delaying the Federals who had to slow their charge in order to pass it. Once the head of their column was past the wagons and debris, however, the home guards and volunteers suddenly entered the fight.

Musket, shotgun and pistol fire erupted from both sides of the street, mowing down the head of Asboth's column. The Southern citizen-soldiers had been so well concealed behind trees, bushes, fences and buildings that the Federals never saw them until it was too late.

The first volley was stunningly effective. General Asboth went down with wounds to his jaw and arm. Some of the Confederates tried to capture him, but were held off by men from the 1st Florida Cavalry (U.S.) who fought with sabres to defend the general and get him to safety. In the 2nd Maine Cavalry, it was reported that every man and officer at the head of the column went down killed or wounded.

Lafayette Street in Downtown Marianna
Unfortunately for the Confederates, it was not enough. While the volley from ambush by the home guards and volunteers had stunned the Union charge, it did not stop it. The main body of the battalion continued up the street after the Southern cavalry, while the rest of the column pushed up to deal with the men and boys that had fired from ambush.

Pushed with his horsemen up the street by the Federals, Colonel Montgomery reached the center of town to find that his worst fears had been realized - the Union flanking party had come in behind him and was now in position around courthouse square. The Confederates charged into these men and hand to hand combat broke out all around the square. The colonel was thrown from his horse and captured near the southeast corner of the square. Lieutenant M.A. Butler of the Greenwood Club Cavalry was shot down and killed as he turned north on Jefferson in an effort to escape. Eyewitnesses saw him fire back at his pursuers but miss just before they blasted him from the saddle.

Downtown Marianna in the late 1800s
Most of the Confederates broke through the flanking party, while others were captured or scattered in all directions. A teenaged eyewitness described watching the cavalrymen fighting as they went down the red clay hill on Jackson Street (then the main road to the Chipola River bridge). As the fight neared the bridge, Captain Chisolm and his Woodville Scouts, a militia cavalry company from Alabama, turned back on the Federals and counter-attacked. This gave the rest of the mounted men time to get across the bridge. Chisolm and his men then slowly withdrew across to the east bank, taking up the already loosened flooring as they went.

The two forces spread out along the banks of the Chipola, continuing a sharp skirmish but not otherwise advancing.

Meanwhile, out along West Lafayette Street, the home guards and volunteers were engaged in a battle that several veteran officers and soldiers would remember as the fiercest of the war, for its size. I will write more on that in the next post.

Until then, you can learn more in my book, The Battle of Marianna, Florida, which is available by clicking the Books section at the upper right of this page. It is also available as an instant download for both Amazon Kindle and iBooks devices. You can also read more at www.battleofmarianna.com.