VERNON - Last week saw the passing of the 153rd anniversary of the Battle of Marianna - a small but significant Civil War engagement in which a mounted column of 700 Union troops under the commanded of Brig. Gen. Alexander Asboth set out from Fort Barrancas to mount raids upon Northwest Florida.
The heaviest fighting of the raid took place on September 27, 1864, in the streets of Marianna, but there was still one more encounter to come. It is usually called the Battle of Vernon, although it took place a few miles east of Vernon along Hard Labor Creek in Washington County.
The following account of the encounter is excerpted from "The Battle of Marianna, Florida: Expanded Edition":
Confederate troops were now swarming into Northwest Florida, but it was too late. The Federals were already well on their way to Washington County before Milton, Jeter and Chisolm crossed the bridge back into town on the morning of the 28th. Leaving Marianna, they followed the road southwest through present-day Kynesville to Oak and Hickory (Orange) Hills. The plantation of David Porter Everett at Hickory Hill was heavily damaged. The raiders may have been concerned about pursuit by Confederate cavalry, but not so much so that they stopped carrying out the goals of the raid as they advanced. Legend holds that they rested briefly on the grounds of the academy at Hickory Hill (at today’s Orange Hill Methodist Church) before continuing down the hill in the direction of Holmes Valley and Vernon.
A courier had gone out along this same route on the morning of the 27th to summon help from Captain W.B. Jones and his scouts at Vernon, then the county seat of Washington County. Jones assembled his company on the morning of the 28th and conscripted every available man and boy in the area, regardless of age.
Exactly how many men he managed to get into the field may never be known. The unit originally included around 30 men, but evidence from pension files indicates that it was expanded when Florida’s home guard was organized in August. A number of men from Walton County later claimed they had been taken to Vernon by Captain J.B. Hutto for service under Captain Jones. In addition, the men were joined on the morning of the 28th by several Confederate regulars home on leave and by a number of other men, many of them over 60 years old, who later indicated they were conscripted into the service that day due to the emergency.
The company probably numbered 50 by the time it was ready to leave Vernon, but the actual number could have been somewhat higher. By mid to late morning, they were heading east for Marianna on the same road by which the Union command was marching west. It was a recipe for disaster and that is exactly what happened:
…Hearing that the Federal soldiers were coming Captain William Jones went to meet them… we suddenly met the Northern soldiers and they demanded that we surrender, fighting opened and a large man by the name of Pierce was killed near me. I was wounded, and was taken home. Captain Jones was captured, and was taken away.
Coming down the hill to Hard Labor Creek just west of today’s Washington Cemetery, Jones and his men ran head on into the vanguard of Asboth’s column. The Federals were in no mood to be delayed and promptly ordered the home guard to surrender. Whether they declined or had time to do so in the confusion is not known. According to legend, one of Jones’ men verbally taunted the Union soldiers, profanely voicing his opinion of them. The Federals responded by opening fire on the outnumbered Confederates, capturing most of them and scattering the rest. Stephen Pierce, the man who is said to have taunted the Union soldiers, was supposedly dragged away behind a gallberry bush and executed.
The truth of the incident is difficult to determine. The encounter was officially mentioned only in the activity record of the 1st Florida (U.S.) Cavalry, but no details were provided in the reports of either side. Samuel Wood Doble of the 2nd Maine Cavalry did not participate in the fight, but gave a vague description of it. He said that the advance guard of the Federal column met and fought a small number of Confederates, taking several prisoners.
Doble remembered passing a Confederate soldier who was, in his words, “just dying.” The Federals made no effort to carry him along, but instead left him to his fate. This individual may have been Stephen Pierce, who is known to have been killed in the encounter near Vernon, or he may have been some other home guard member whose name has been lost to time.
Pierce’s body was carried to the top of the hill on the east side of the creek and buried at what is now Washington Cemetery. The 1860 Census records for Washington County show that at the time of the battle, he was a 46-year-old farmer who supported a wife, Jane, and at least six children. He owned no slaves and his total worth was only $100. Pierce had enlisted in the “Washington County Invincibles” on September 13, 1861. The unit became Company H of the 4th Florida Infantry. Pierce served with his company in the Army of Tennessee, fighting at Shiloh and Stones River. He received a medical discharge in 1863 and returned home to his farm. He enlisted under Captain Jones in August of 1864 when Governor Milton ordered the formation of the Florida home guard.
So far as is known, Pierce was the only man killed in the Battle of Vernon. Another man, John J. Wright, was wounded. In an account written many years later for a pension application, he reported receiving two wounds, “I have lost the use of my right arm, never could use it as good after I was shot in the shoulder. I was also hit in the left leg that soon got well and has not bothered me but little.”
Outnumbered and completely overwhelmed by the sudden burst of gunfire, the men of Jones’ company broke and ran. The surviving accounts indicate that the Federals were hot on their heels:
…On our way to Marianna we met a company of Federals, near Hard Labor Creek, and Jones company was captured and taken to Ship Island Prison. I made my escape on horseback and outran them. I was pursued all the way back to Vernon and shot at many times but escaped without injury.
In either the initial melee or the running fight back to Vernon, Captain Jones and ten of his men were captured. Among these were four Confederate regulars on leave from their regiments: Andrew and James Gable of the 6th Florida Infantry and H.R. and B.A. Walker of the 1st Florida Infantry. Also captured were Enoch Johns, Shadrick Johns, John Nelson, Cary Taylor, Freeman Irwin and Nathaniel Miller. Irwin had represented Washington County at Florida’s secession convention in 1861 and Taylor was a former Washington County sheriff.
The story of these prisoners is particularly tragic. Taken away by the raiders, they wound up in the disease-ridden prison camp at Elmira, New York. Cary Taylor and Enoch Johns died there of small pox less than two months later on December 27, 1864. Shadrick Johns and John Nelson tried to secure their freedom by offering to swear an oath of allegiance to the U.S. Government, stating that they had been, “conscripted, ordered out by the Governor to resist a raiding party, and had been captured the same day.” Although the men were seriously ill and over 50 years old, their request was denied and they remained at Elmira until the end of the war. Andrew Gable, one of the regulars captured in Washington County, lost his life to pneumonia on January 1, 1865, Freeman Irwin died from sickness on February 7th and Nathaniel Miller followed on March 13th.
The families of the Washington County captives were left to fend for themselves. Sixty-three year old Enoch Johns, for example, left behind a wife and four children. The youngest of these, also named Enoch, was only four when he watched his father mount a horse and ride away. He never saw or heard from him again. By the end of the war, Mrs. Johns was desperate and could see no other course than to take her children and flee to her family in Alabama. She hired a wagon to transport their goods and set out. The wagon and its driver disappeared on the way with all of the family’s possessions. Completely destitute, Mrs. Johns reached the home of her relatives only to find them on the verge of starvation.
Turned away, she made her way back to Washington County, where the family lived in a hut made of tree branches. The people around them were also suffering, but took pity on the little family and offered Mrs. Johns employment in a gristmill. Since money was scared, they paid her in corn meal instead of cash. Enoch later remembered how, as she came home from work one evening with her wages of cornmeal secured in her apron, one of the children dashed out to greet her. In the resulting collision, the precious meal was spilled into the sand and lost.
Pushing into Vernon, the Federals bivouacked for a few hours. While here they released five of their Marianna prisoners, likely because they were mere boys. Charles Nickels, Frank Baltzell, Robert Armistead, Richard Baltzell and Henry Stephens (Stevens) were set free to make their way back to Marianna on foot. None was older than fifteen. Frank Baltzell later told family members that he went to sleep under a courthouse bench and when he awoke the Federals were gone.
The soldiers were moving again before dawn on the 29th, turning south via today’s New Hope and Ebro before crossing into the northwest corner of modern Bay County. From there they turned west to Point Washington on Choctawhatchee Bay. In their wake they left a few parties of men from the 1st Florida (U.S.) Cavalry to observe the Confederates. One of these, Private Andrew C. Levins from Company D, deserted near Vernon on September 30th. A native of Jackson County, he had perhaps seen enough of what would come to be known as “total war.”
Asboth’s raid was a clear indication of what was to come and typified the strategy soon used by General William Tecumseh Sherman in his fiery “March to the Sea.”
To read the full chapter on the Battle of Vernon, references included, please see The Battle of Marianna, Florida: Expanded Edition . To learn more about the Battle of Marianna, please www.battleofmarianna.us.
Dale Cox is a local historian and author of "The Battle of Marianna, Florida: Expanded Edition ." For more from Cox, visit www.twoegg.tv