Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Jim Ward's Raiders and the Battle of Fairview

Courthouse Square in Elba, Alabama
Ward's Raiders burned the courthouse in 1864.
On September 2, 1864, at party of outlaw guerrilla raiders from Florida got more than it bargained for when its members tried to torch a South Alabama town.

Jim Ward was the head of an outlaw "raider gang" that hid out on Boynton Island in the Choctawhatchee River swamps of Washington County, Florida. Ward and most of his men had deserted from the Confederate army and more than a few had even crossed the lines, joined the Union army and then deserted that army too as soon as they received their enlistment bonuses.

They can only be described as outlaws and were men who lived by raiding farms, homes and even towns. They robbed, looted and even murdered the people living in Northwest Florida and South Alabama, without regard to their sentiments or defenseless condition. Repeated efforts to root out Ward's gang by Confederate troops had failed and by the fall of 1864 he and his men were the scourge of a large part of the "Wiregrass area."

Today's Pea River Bridge at Elba, Alabama
The 1864 bridge was fired by Ward's Raiders and one was
hanged near this spot after the Battle of Fairview.
In April 1864 Jim Ward and his men slipped across the state line into Alabama and sneaked into the Coffee County town of Elba in the middle of the night. Their plan was to destroy the conscription or draft records at the Coffee County Courthouse by setting the building on fire during the night and burning it to the ground. The succeeded in destroying the building, but to their chagrin soon learned that local citizens had spotted the fire and been able to save the courthouse records before they were lost in the blaze.

Watching and waiting for an opportunity to try again, Ward spent the summer of 1864 hiding out on Boynton Island near present-day Ebro, Florida. On the last day of August, he and his men emerged from hiding and once again headed for Elba.

Courthouse Marker in Elba
This time, Ward and his men set fire to the town in multiple places. Every building thought to be used as a temporary government office was torched and the raiders then fired the Pea River bridge behind them as they retreated from the town.

...We learn that on Thursday night last some deserters from the lower part of Coffee county fired the bridge across Pea river at Elba, and set fire to the town of Elba in several places. Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, September 10, 1864.

UDC Members dedicate Battle of Fairview marker in 2010.
The success of the raiders in burning the records was no better this time than it had been in April. Once again, the fires were spotted and citizens turned out to extinguish the blazes before the entire town could be consumed. They also managed to save the bridge before it collapsed into the Pea River.

The citizens of Elba were irate. They had appealed over and over to Alabama's governor and to the Confederate military for protection and yet Jim Ward had once again crossed the line from Florida, this time coming very close to destroying their entire town.

Battle Branch, where the Battle of Fairview took place.
There were no troops in town at the time of the raid, so they rounded up every weapon they could find, mounted their horses and set out after the raiders. The ranks of their body of irregular volunteers included the tax collector, tax assessor, sheriff, a deputy sheriff, merchants, lawyers, doctors and others. Captain John C. Brown was in town at the time and took the lead.

All night long the citizens pursued Jim Ward and his outlaws. They had the advantage in that their horses were fresh, while Ward and his men had been on the backs of their mounts for two days. After a fourteen mile raid, the citizens caught up with the guerrillas at a place now called Fairview in southern Coffee County.

By the time the smoke cleared, men from both sides lay dead and wounded and talk of hangings was in the air. To learn more about what happened at the Battle of Fairview, please visit my new page on the battle at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/fairview.


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