ExploreSouthernHistory.com - The Bible of St. Luke's Episcopal Church
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - The Bible of St. Luke's Episcopal Church
St. Luke's Episcopal Church
Scene of a critical part of the
Battle of Marianna, St. Luke's
is the focus of a fascinating
The Bible of St. Luke's
The Bible at the focus of the
legend is now on display
inside the church.
The Battle of Marianna
A marker on the grounds of
St. Luke's Episcopal Church
provides details on the Battle
The Bible of St. Luke's Episcopal Church - Marianna, Florida
A Legend of the Battle of Marianna, Florida
On September 27, 1864, a large force of Union soldiers attacked the Northwest Florida city of
Marianna. Remembered today as the Battle of Marianna, the engagement is memorialized by a
monument and several markers. The most poignant memorial of the battle, however, is not
written in stone or bronze, but on paper. A large 19th century Bible is carefully preserved in a
case at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. While Bibles of its age are not all that rare, this one is the
focus of an unusual and treasured Northwest Florida legend.
During the final stages of the Battle of Marianna, after a portion of the Confederate forces had
been pushed across the Chipola Rivers and others forced to abandon the fight, the last
organized defenders withdrew into the yard surrounding St. Luke’s and prepared to fall back
deeper into town to continue their fight. A second column of Federal attackers came in behind
them, however, and forced these men to make a desperate last stand among the graves of
The battle waged by Norwood’s Home Guards at St. Luke’s Church became a Florida legend.
The Union general, Alexander Asboth, had been severely wounded earlier in the battle and by
the time of the last stand in the churchyard, command of the Federal soldiers had fallen to
Colonel L.L. Zulavsky of the 82nd U.S. Colored Infantry.
Even after most of the defenders had been killed, wounded or captured, several men inside St.
Luke’s Church and two nearby homes continued to shoot at the Federals outside, refusing all
demands to throw down their arms. Colonel Zulavsky ordered the buildings set afire to force
these men out.
A young child named Armstrong Purdee, only eight years old and the son of an enslaved
laborer on the John R. Waddell plantation northwest of Marianna, had joined hundreds of other
slaves following in the steps of the Union column. He witnessed the Battle of Marianna from
the back of a soldier’s horse and was only about 40 steps away when the orders came down:
All of the soldiers were off their horses. Orders were given to fire the church. Three men, two with
long poles, and one with what seemed to me to be a can, threw something up on the church
and the other two having something on the end of their poles, seemed to rub it as high as the
poles would reach, after which something like twisted paper was lighted and placed to whatever
was put on the church and it blazed up. Men were shot down as they came out of the building.
The church was torched at its southwest corner and at least four of the men inside never made
it out. The Southerners who burned to death were later identified as John C. Carter, Littleton
Myrick, Francis “Frank” Allen and Woodbury “Woody” Nickels.
According to legend, a remarkable incident took place that afternoon. According to the
“Reminiscences” of an eyewitness to the battle, one of the Union officers objected when
Colonel Zulavsky ordered the burning of the church. This officer, 20-year-old Major Nathan
Cutler of the 2nd Maine Cavalry, supposedly tried to have the orders countermanded, but they
were repeated and the structure soon went up in flames.
According to Mrs. Daniel Love, Major Cutler was a pious and brave man. Unwilling to stand by
while the church and its Bible were destroyed, he dashed through the kerosene-fueled flames
and saved the St. Luke’s Bible from its lectern.
Shortly after he emerged from the church, however, he was confronted by two young boys from
Norwood’s company. They ordered him to halt and he wheeled on them with his saber, but
then saw how young they were and was unable to strike. They had no such reservations and
blasted him from his horse with shotgun blasts.
The story of Cutler’s courage and chivalry became quite well known in Marianna within weeks
of the battle. Severely injured in the engagement, he remained in a bed at the home of Mayor
Thomas M. White for months, recuperating from his wounds. He was treated kindly by local
citizens and remained in Marianna until he was well enough to be sent away to prison at Macon
and Andersonville. He returned after the war at the head of a detachment of Union occupation
troops and, unlike most of his counterparts, was well-received by the people of the community.
It is a fascinating story, but could it be true? The most significant piece of evidence, of course,
is the Bible itself. Not only did it survive the 1865 fire, but somehow was also rescued during
another blaze that destroyed the replacement sanctuary during the 1940s. The edges of the
Bible, in fact, show smoke damage from one of the fires.
The eyewitness was a young girl at the time of the battle but saw some of the fighting from the
home of her grandparents on East Jackson Street. In her “Reminiscences” she said that she
heard the story from the major’s own lips. This is certainly possible. Mayor White’s home,
where Cutler was treated after the battle, stood at the intersection of Jackson and Madison
Streets, diagonally across from the Jackson County Courthouse. The home of her
grandparents was just a few doors away. Major Cutler often visited the White family when he
returned to Marianna after the war and he undoubtedly came into contact with neighbors.
Mrs. Love’s account is further strengthened by the fact that she was a family member of Frank
Baltzell. Only thirteen years old at the time of the battle, Frank was one of the two young home
guard members who confronted and shot the major.
The Cutler story also attracted the attention of John Carter, an early 20th century Marianna
resident and historian. Mr. Carter became interested in the legend while trying to help the St.
Luke’s Parish secure Congressional reimbursement for losses sustained during the Battle of
Marianna. He learned from the War Department that Major Cutler was still alive and living in
Brooklyn, New York, so he traveled there to visit him:
…I told him of the town in general, and of the esteem in which the people still held him on
account of his broadmindedness, and especially for his clemency of two young men who shot
him off his horse, causing him to remain in Marianna for several weeks in a wounded bed. At
this his face lightened up as if to speak of the present. He said, “Ah, yes, those dear boys.” He
told me how they “literally peppered” him with shot, and that he could have cut them down with
his saber while they were in the act of shooting, but they were so young and so gallant it
seemed a pity to cut them down, and he sat on his horse until they actually shot him off before
he would maim them.
Cutler did not, however, claim to have saved the Bible from St. Luke’s Church. He related to Mr.
Carter what he could remember of the incident:
He said that he did not remember all the circumstances, as he was shot from his horse about
that time, but he afterwards learned that an express order was given to fire the church.
Someone from the Federal forces protested, but the command from the same source was
repeated, at which kerosene swabs were run up the sides of the building, the flames licked
furiously upward and the whole church stood ablaze, and soon burned to the ground.
The major’s account of the burning was strikingly similar to that written by Armstrong Purdee,
down to the use of swabs to spread kerosene on the sides of the building to help spread the
Another eyewitness, Surgeon George Martin of the 2nd Maine Cavalry, saw Major Cutler go
down at Marianna and treated him for his wounds after the battle:
I saw Major Cutler wounded at Marianna. He was charging at the head of his command down
the main street when a volley was fired by the Rebs from the churchyard, making 8 wounds in
the left leg, thigh and forearm. His horse fell dead, riddled with bullets. I had him taken to the
mayor’s house and dressed his wounds. His arm was severely fractured, and we were obliged
to leave him there when we retreated the next day. I think his ankle was also broken.
Cutler confirmed Martin’s account in his own 1880 application for a government pension,
reporting that he was wounded “while leading a charge through the streets of that town.” He
stated that he received eight wounds in the battle, breaking the femur and tibia of his left leg
and thigh and fracturing the bones of his left forearm and wrist.
Based on these accounts, it appears likely that Cutler was wounded prior to the burning of the
church. Considering the severity of his wounds, he probably was capable of doing little after
that point. He identified Frank Baltzell as one of the youths who shot him, so that part of the
story is undoubtedly true. In his interview with Mr. Carter, he also confirmed that someone in the
Union force objected to the orders to burn St. Luke’s and his description of how the church was
fired matches almost precisely with Armstrong Purdee’s account. He probably saw the burning
While these facts raise questions as to whether Cutler could have been the individual who
saved the Bible, they in no way discredit the story that one of the Union officers did so. In fact, by
confirming that someone in the attacking forces objected to the orders to burn the church,
Cutler’s account actually adds strong supporting evidence to the legend. His confirmation that
he was shot by Frank Baltzell and another youth also is of value in adding support to another
critical part of the story.
Curiously, long after his interview with the major, Mr. Carter wrote a history of St. Luke’s in
which he repeated the story as truth. This could imply that he believed the story, but felt the
major was simply being modest in the interview.
The legend of the Bible of St. Luke’s probably will forever remain one of the mysteries of the
Battle of Marianna. Enough details of the story can be confirmed that it appears likely that the
story, at least in some form, is true. Whether or not Major Nathan Cutler was the individual
responsible, someone saved the Bible from St. Luke’s Church. It remains there to this day, a
treasured memory of a long ago event.
Cemetery at St. Luke's
The historic cemetery at St.
Luke's Episcopal Church was
the scene of heavy fighting
during the Battle of Marianna.
|Copyright 2011 by Dale Cox
All rights reserved.