Friday, August 1, 2014

Woman in combat at the Battle of Marianna, Florida

Women saw action at the Battle of Marianna
Union officers reported that when they attacked Marianna, Florida on September 27, 1864, they were opposed by "every man, woman and child of the place." This was not just a figure of speech.

The roles played by women on the battlefields of the War Between the States (or Civil War) were varied and of great importance. The women of Atlanta and Vicksburg had their homes blown to bits and their families slaughtered around them when those cities were bombarded by Union troops. The ladies of LaGrange, Georgia, found their city's defenses so depleted that they formed into a military company dubbed the "Nancy Harts" in order to protect themselves.

In other cases, women served as nurses and provided critical medical services - often under fire - as battles swept across the South and small areas of the North.  They served as spies and in some cases even put on uniforms and disguised themselves as men in order to fight.  The ladies of St. Augustine even sparked a major incident by chopping down the flagpole at the city's St. Francis Barracks to prevent the U.S. flag from ever being hoisted on it again.

And then there was the Battle of Marianna.

Battle of Marianna marker at St. Luke's Episcopal Church
When Union troops swept down on the Jackson County city on September 27, 1864, the Confederates did not have time to evacuate most of the city's civilians. Boys as young as 12 and men as old as 76 turned out to fight alongside Poe's Battalion of the 1st Florida Reserves (CS) and Chisolm's Woodville Scouts of the Alabama State Militia. The girls and women of the city lined the roadways as their sons, nephews, brothers, husbands, uncles, cousins and fathers marched to the west side of town to await the Union advance. They prepared bandages and other medical supplies to treat the wounded. And in some cases they loaded their weapons and prepared to fight.

The Battle of Marianna is unique among most of Florida's battles because it took place in the streets of the city and involved house to house fighting. With civilians trapped in their homes, there was no way for the women and younger children to escape to safety.
St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Marianna, Florida

After driving back the screen of Confederate cavalry at Ely Corner (today's intersection of Lafayette and Russ Streets), Union troops drove straight up Lafayette Street only to be ambushed by the men and boys of the Marianna Home Guard and the volunteers that had turned out to defend the town.  A Union flanking column swept around the north side of town and occupied Courthouse Square, where some Confederates broke through in severe fighting.

Courthouse Square, scene of heavy fighting.
The heaviest fighting took place around St. Luke's Episcopal Church.  Confederate defenders fought a desperate resistance in the cemetery, where monuments and headstones still bear the scars of bullets. As the flanking party closed in behind them, they were cut off from retreat but refused to surrender. The fighting intensified with Confederate soldiers, militia and volunteers firing from the tower and windows of the church and the windows of the home of Dr. R.A. Sanders to the east across Wynn Street.

With the outcome of the battle in doubt and Union officers desperate to bring the fighting to a close, soldiers from the 82nd and 86th U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) carried out a bayonet charge into the cemetery.  They came under fire not just from the Confederate soldiers and volunteers, but also from across Lafayette Street as rifles, shotguns and pistols blazed from the windows of Mrs. Caroline Hunter's Boarding House.

St. Luke's Churchyard
Union troops made a bayonet charge across this ground.
Briefly the home of famed 19th century novelist Caroline Lee Hentz when it was the residence of her son, Dr. Charles Hentz, the two story frame structure stood across Lafayette Street from St. Luke's near today's MacKinnon House (now home to the Law Firm of B. Shannon Saunders), a beautiful old home built years after the war.

At the time of the Battle of Marianna, a portion of the lot was occupied by Mrs. Hunter's place.No longer a single family residence, it has been converted for use as a boarding house for ladies. With so many of their fathers and husbands off fighting on the front lines, women often clustered together in private boarding homes.

Unable to evacuate ahead of the attack, the ladies there prepared to fight.  Taking aim at Union soldiers from the doors and windows of the house, they opened fire with with every weapon they could find. Reports of their decision to fight in the Battle of Marianna received widespread coverage in both military reports and newspaper accounts of both sides during the days and weeks after the engagement.

MacKinnon House in Marianna
Built during the Reconstruction era, this structure stands
near the site of Mrs. Hunter's Boarding House for Ladies.
Even after the Confederates in the cemetery surrendered, men, boys and ladies inside the church, Dr. Sanders' home and Mrs. Hunter's Boarding House continued to fight. Union Colonel Ladislas L. Zulavsky ordered his men to fire the structures and all three went up in flames.  Four men burned to death inside St. Luke's, which is remembered by some still today as "Florida's Alamo."

At Mrs. Hunter's Boarding House, the ladies fought even as flames licked up the sides of the structure. Forced to lay down their arms and come out, they emerged from the smoke into the street even as screams could be heard from the second floor.  The ladies pleaded with Union officers for help, telling them that a young woman had given birth the night before and was trapped on the second floor with her baby. Soldiers in blue, according to accounts by soldiers in butternut and gray, rushed into the burning house and rescued the young mother and her child.

Bullet hole in a grave monument at St. Luke's Churchyard
The women were moved to a point of safety in the hollow between St. Luke's and today's Wynn Street Park. Their fight was over but their courage remained a point of pride for for as long as participants of the Battle of Marianna lived. The story eventually faded with time.

Marianna will observe the 150th anniversary of the battle with a special commemoration on September 26-27, 2014.  The ladies of Mrs. Hunter's Boarding House will be represented in this year's reenactment of the battle by a small unit of women.

To learn more about the Battle of Marianna, please consider my book The Battle of Marianna, Florida. It is available in Marianna at the Vintage Depot (restored L&N Train Depot) on South Caledonia Street.or online in either book or Kindle format from Amazon.com:

(Book Edition) The Battle of Marianna, Florida: Expanded Edition

(Kindle Edition) The Battle of Marianna, Florida

You can also learn more about the battle at www.battleofmarianna.com.


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