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Battle of Marianna Legend is Plagued
by Inaccuracies
by Dale Cox
Copyright 2010 by Dale Cox
All Rights Reserved
St. Luke's Episcopal Church was a center
of fighting during the Battle of Marianna.
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On September 27, 1864, Union troops
attacked the Jackson County city of Marianna.
Almost since that day, it seems, confusion
has reigned over what really happened in the
engagement that could well be called
"Florida's Forgotten Battle."

The traditional story of the bloodshed that
afternoon is told by a marker on the grounds
of St. Luke's Episcopal Church:
Here at High Noon on September 27, 1864, a Federal raiding force of 900 men under Brigadier-General
Alexander Asboth fought a Confederate home guard of 95 men under Captain Jesse J. Norwood. Entering
Marianna from the West, the main body of Federals encountered unexpected resistance at Ely's Corner, fell
back, rallied, and charged, driving the home guard back to this churchyard, flanked by other Federals
moving in form north of the church. The defenders engaged the invaders in fierce combat. By Federal order,
St. Luke's Episcopal Church was destroyed by fire, and the bodies of five Confederates were burned almost
beyond recognition. The West Florida News reported total Confederate losses of 9 killed, 16 wounded, 54
captured, and estimated Federal losses of 15 killed, 40 wounded.

Some other traditions that have grown up around the battle include the legend that the fierce
resistance of the Marianna Home Guard prevented the Union troops from carrying out a plan
to capture Tallahassee; that men and boys were intentionally massacred in St. Luke's
churchyard after they surrendered; that the battle began with the home guards positioned
behind a barricade of wagons and other items at Ely Corner, that Colonel A.B. Montgomery,
the Confederate commander in Marianna, abandoned the city without a fight; and that only
militia or "home guard" troops fought in the battle.

Unfortunately much of the legend of the Battle of Marianna was based on accounts of
participants often recorded second or third hand and provided many years after the event
when the fog of time had clouded their memories. Surgeon Henry Robinson, for example,
provided several accounts of the battle over the years. Each of his accounts, however,
changed some as the years passed. This was not the result of any intent on the part of Dr.
Robinson to mislead, but rather reflected how the passage of time affected his memory of the
battle.

As is the case with any event attracting public interest, those interested in the battle gravitated
to the more graphic or sensational elements of some of the accounts, ignoring more
accurate details provided by writers closer to the time of the event. Northern accounts of the
engagement were ignored and the focus of the legend became the role of the Marianna
Home Guard in the battle to the exclusion of other troops and volunteers who fought.

In recent years, however, research has uncovered a large amount of new information about
the battle, including dozens of eyewitness accounts written literally within days of the battle.
Among these are stories provided by both Confederate and Federal participants, the long
missing Confederate report of the battle, muster rolls with firm data on casualties, and the
names of hundreds of participants.

The availability of this wealth of documentary material in some ways alters and in other ways
reinforces many of the traditions that have grown up around the Battle of Marianna. Here are
some examples:

  • Muster rolls on file in the National Archives reveal that the Federal force involved in the
    attack on Marianna numbered just under 700 men, not the 900 or more as told by the
    legend. Of this number, around 500 were actually engaged in the fighting.
  • The number of Confederates involved in the fighting was much higher than has
    traditionally been thought. A total of 288 Confederate soldiers or volunteers who fought
    at the Battle of Marianna can be identified by name, and there were undoubtedly
    others.
  • The Home Guard was not the only Confederate unit that fought in the battle. Research
    indicates that the total Confederate force included not only the Marianna Home Guard,
    but also the Greenwood Club Cavalry (militia), the Campbellton Cavalry (militia),
    Chisolm's Cavalry Company (Alabama State Militia) and Poe's Battalion, First Florida
    Reserves (State troops), as well as staff members, wounded soldiers home on leave
    and other men who volunteered and took up arms in defense of the city.
  • Colonel Montgomery did not abandon the town without a fight. Montgomery and his
    mounted men fought the approaching Federals three miles northwest of Marianna at
    Hopkins' Branch, again at Ely Corner and in hand to hand combat around Courthouse
    Square and along Jackson Street. Chisolm's cavalrymen from Alabama were praised
    by Confederate authorities for their stand at the Chipola River bridge. Montgomery
    himself was captured in action at the southeast corner of Courthouse Square.
  • The battle did not begin with the home guards manning a barricade at Ely Corner.
    There was a barricade, but it was up the street about halfway between the corner
    (today's intersection of Lafayette and Russ Streets) and St. Luke's Episcopal Church.
    There were no Confederates behind the barricade. Instead, both Northern and
    Southern accounts confirm, it was placed to slow a Union cavalry charge up Lafayette
    Street.
  • The first shots of the Battle of Marianna were not fired by the Marianna Home Guard,
    but rather by Chisolm's cavalry, the Greenwood Club Cavalry, the Campbellton Cavalry
    and Poe's Battalion from the First Florida Reserves. These units battled Asboth's
    approaching force northwest of town and then drove back the first attack at Ely Corner
    before themselves being driven back into town where they took part in all but forgotten
    fighting around Courthouse Square, on Jackson Street and at the Chipola River bridge.
  • The Battle of Marianna did not save Tallahassee from capture. Reports placed on file
    before his troops left Pensacola reveal that Marianna was General Alexander Asboth's
    primary target. He never intended to advance beyond the city, but instead planned to
    turn back to the coast after snapping up the isolated Confederate mounted infantry
    and cavalry units in the vicinity.
  • The Marianna Home Guard, with men from Greenwood, Campbellton and elsewhere,
    did indeed fight a desperate last stand in the St. Luke's churchyard. The church was
    burned and several bodies were found inside. Although Asboth is traditionally blamed
    for the burning of the church, he actually had been severely wounded by this point of
    the battle. His second-in-command, Colonel Ladislas L. Zulavsky, was in command
    of the Federal troops fighting around the church and confirmed in a subsequent
    interview that he had given the orders to burn not only St. Luke's, but two nearby
    homes.
  • The Confederates fighting in the churchyard were not overwhelmed, but actually held
    their own against the larger Union force. Their surrender was finally forced not by
    overpowering numbers, but by a shortage of ammunition. Unable to continue the fight,
    the Confederates laid down their arms.
  • There was not a massacre in the St. Luke's churchyard. Federal troops did fire a volley
    into the Confederates as they were surrendering and several men were wounded, but
    a Union officer stopped the battle from degenerating into a massacre by pointing his
    pistol at the head of one of his own men and threatening to "blow the brains" from the
    next man who dared harm a prisoner. Captain George A. Maynard later received the
    Congressional Medal of Honor in part for his role in protecting prisoners at the Battle
    of Marianna.
  • The Union force was not as badly bloodied at Marianna as tradition holds. Total
    Federal casualties in the battle were 8 killed or mortally wounded, 19 wounded and 8
    captured. Confederate losses were 10 killed or mortally wounded, 16 wounded and
    44 captured.

The Battle of Marianna was indeed a fierce affair that should be remembered by modern
generations and the true story is, in fact, more fascinating than the legend. To learn more,  
please consider my book,
The Battle of Marianna, Florida or visit www.battleofmarianna.com