Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Tale of Two Powder Magazines

Old Powder Magazine in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
The Magazine in Chattahoochee was Almost Identical.
During the antebellum era, two almost identical structures were built by the U.S. Army, one in Chattahoochee, Florida, and the other in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Both were part of important U.S. Arsenal complexes and both served as powder magazines for the storage of large amounts of gunpowder. The one at Chattahoochee was part of the Apalachicola Arsenal (named for the river and not the city) and the one in Louisiana was part of the Baton Rouge Arsenal & Ordnance Depot.

Old Powder Magazine
Chattahoochee, Florida
Both structures still stand today, although the one in Florida has been altered somewhat from its original form. The one in Baton Rouge, however, has been beautifully restored and provides visitors with a unique opportunity to see the original appearance of both of the old magazines.

The gunpowder magazines are often incorrectly viewed as being the "old arsenal" in both locations, but in reality there were only small parts of much larger military complexes. The Apalachicola Arsenal at Chattahoochee, for example, included an array of buildings grouped around a 4-acre parade ground, all connected and surrounded by a brick wall that measured 30 inches thick and 9 feet high. It was an important supply depot during the Second Seminole War of 1835-1842.

Restored Powder Magazine in Baton Rouge
In Baton Rouge, the Arsenal & Ordnance Depot was the largest facility of its type in the Old Southwest and also featured an array of other buildings including barracks, officers' quarters, an armory, workshops, storage facilities, etc. It was the primary source of supplies and munitions for the U.S. Armies of Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott during the Mexican War of 1846-1848.

The magazines at both arsenals were actually outbuildings from the main complexes of the posts. This was for the obvious reason that large quantities of gunpowder can be extremely dangerous. At arsenal facilities, it was common for the magazines to be located far enough away from the main buildings so that damage would be minimized in the event of an accidental explosion.

Arsenal Officer's Quarters in Chattahoochee
Both arsenals played important rolls in the beginning days of the War Between the States. The Apalachicola Arsenal at Chattahoochee was the first U.S. military installation in Florida to be seized by state troops in 1861. The Quincy Young Guards led by Captain William Gunn seized the arsenal from its small group of U.S. Army caretakers on the morning of January 6, 1861, four days before Florida seceded from the Union.

There was a brief standoff between Captain Gunn and Ordnance Sergeant Edwin Powell over possession of the keys to the magazine. It was only when Gunn threatened to use violence that Powell and his small garrison of three men surrendered and delivered up the keys.

State troops in Louisiana, meanwhile, seized the arsenal in Baton Rouge on January 10, 1861, the same day that Florida left the Union and well before the secession of the Pelican State.

Arsenal Barracks in Baton Rouge
It is remarkable today that both magazines still stand, even though most of the other arsenal buildings in both Chattahoochee and Baton Rouge have long since disappeared. In Baton Rouge, only the magazine and barracks survive, while in Chattahoochee only the magazine, officer's quarters and guard house still stand.

Both complexes did play important roles in civilian society after the war. The arsenal at Chattahoochee was turned over to the State of Florida and served first as a prison and then as a state mental hospital, a role it continues to serve today as the Florida State Hospital. The arsenal in Baton Rouge served for many years as the campus of Louisiana State University.

Both of the old magazines can still be seen today. The one in Florida is on the campus of Florida State Hospital and can be viewed from the outside but is not open to the public. Some stabilization work has been done and future restoration plans have been discussed. The roof now extends all the way out to the perimeter wall, but at the time it was in use by the military it looked like the facility in Baton Rouge.

The magazine in Baton Rouge has been restored and now houses the Old Arsenal Museum. The beautiful facility interprets the history of the Baton Rouge Arsenal and the 1862 Battle of Baton Rouge. It is located directly across the street from the State Capitol.

To learn more about both arsenals, please follow these links:

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.