Saturday, September 6, 2014

Last Fight on the Choctawhatchee (March 23, 1865)

Choctawhatchee River at Douglas' Ferry
Washington County, Florida
The spring of 1865 was a dark and turbulent time in the Florida Panhandle.

Asboth's Raid on Marianna the previous September had devastated the farms of Jackson, Washington, Holmes and Walton Counties. As hungry women and children emerged from the cold, lean winter, heavy rains saturated the ground and halted almost all planting and ground preparation in the region.

Making matters worse was the terror inflicted on civilians in the region by merciless deserter gangs. From secret hideouts in the swamps of the Choctawhatchee, Chipola and Chattahoochee/Apalachicola Rivers, these bands emerged with growing frequency during the final months of the war to prey on helpless communities and isolated farms.

Historic Douglas' Ferry Road
One of the most dangerous and ruthless of these groups was Ward's Raiders. Led by an Alabama refugee named Jim Ward, its members operated from a swampy hideout on Boynton Island at the confluence of Holmes Creek and the Choctawhatchee River. The group was notoriously responsible for burning the Coffee County Courthouse in Elba, Alabama.

Although defeated at the Battle of Fairview in September 1864, Ward and his men were undeterred and continued their guerrilla campaign against the people of Northwest Florida and Southeast Alabama. Their war was one of murder, robbery and destruction.

The raiders were riding at full strength on March 23, 1865, when a detachment from Company A, 5th Florida Cavalry, came up with them at Douglas' Ferry in Washington County:

Floodplain swamp at Douglas' Ferry
...[A] detachment of cavalry, fifteen in number, under Lieut. Jos. B. Barnes, encountered about fifty deserters near Doughlas Ferry on the Choctawhatchee river, Fla., and after a short engagement they were compelled to retreat, their ammunition being wet. (Augusta Chronicle, April 15, 1865).

A son of Lt. Col. W.D. Barnes of the 1st Florida Reserves, Joseph Barnes had served in both the 2nd and 5th Florida Cavalries during the war. He was a veteran of the Battle of Olustee and several other actions and was the ranking officer in his company following the promotion of Captain William H Milton to the battalion major.

Picnic pavilion at Douglas' Ferry
The retreat of the lieutenant's detachment was brief. Despite the rain-soaked condition of his ammunition and the numerical superiority of Ward's band, Barnes soon led his men back into action:

...On the second charge they discovered the body of Lieut. Frank M. Stovall, who is supposed to have been killed after he surrendered. His person was robbed of his pistol, sword and coat buttons. (Augusta Chronicle, April 15, 1865).

According to his Confederate Service Record, Stovall had enlisted as a private in Company A, 5th Florida Cavalry, at Camp Governor Milton on January 25, 1864. Not to be confused with the better known Camp Milton near Jacksonville, this camp was at Jackson Blue Springs near Marianna. He had been promoted from the ranks during the winter of 1864-1865 to fill a lieutenant's vacancy.

Unknown Confederates at Riverside Cemetery in Marianna
Lt. Stovall may be buried here.
The newspaper account of the skirmish indicates that Stovall's body was carried to Pensacola where it was buried with military honors, but this is highly unlikely as Pensacola was then in Federal hands and Stovall's company was headquartered at Marianna. An editor likely confused Confederate-held Marianna for Union-held Pensacola.

The boldness of the second charge by Barnes and his outnumbered cavalrymen stunned Ward's men and they broke for the woods, disappearing into the thickets of the floodplain swamp. Their casualties in the fight are not known.

The Skirmish at Douglas' Ferry is believed to have been the final action of the war on the Florida section of the Choctawhatchee River. It took place two days before the Action at Canoe Creek (or Bluff Springs) north of Pensacola.

The site of Douglas' Ferry is now a park and boat landing maintained by Washington County. It is located on Douglas' Ferry Road near Hinson Crossroads northwest of Vernon.

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