The Battle of Vernon, Florida
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - Battle of Vernon, Florida
ExploreSouthernHistory.com - Battle of Vernon, Florida
One of the least known encounters of the Civil War in Florida took place as Union troops were
returning to Pensacola from their September 27, 1864, attack on the city of Marianna. As they
passed through Washington County, the Federals ran head on into a small company of home
guards from Vernon that was trying to respond to a call for help from neighboring Jackson
County. So far as is known, the skirmish was not described in any official reports of the
Marianna raid. Over the years it became one of the legends of Washington County, a story about
which little could be proved and yet much was told.
When Governor John Milton ordered the formation of the state home guards during the summer
of 1864, Washington County had only enough men remaining to form a single company.
Everyone else of military age was either already in the service or had defected to the Federal
camps around Pensacola. The sheriff of the county, Abram Skipper, was among the defectors.
As required by the instructions of the state adjutant general, the Washington County company
mustered at Vernon, the county seat. The men elected W.B. Jones as their captain. A former
Vernon justice of the peace, Jones had served as a second lieutenant with Company K of the
6th Florida Infantry earlier in the war. He became sick and disabled while serving in Tennessee
and was released from service and allowed to return home. There is some evidence that he
may have formed a volunteer company prior to the governor’s order, but if so then this unit was
merged into the state home guards when they were organized in 1864.
A muster roll of Jones’ company has not survived, so it is impossible to know exactly how many
members his unit mustered. Estimates in witness statements accompanying state pension
applications vary, but the minimum number was probably no less than 30.
On the morning of September 27, 1864, as Union troops were advancing on Marianna, officers
there sent out riders to call in home guard units from throughout the area to help defend the city.
The call went out too late, however, and the men of the Vernon Home Guard did not learn of the
emergency until well after the Battle of Marianna was over.
Once he received the news, however, Captain Jones immediately began to assemble his
company. In addition to the regular members of his company, he forced every available man
into service, regardless of age. Several men well over the age of 60 later recorded that they
were conscripted into the service. The company probably included at least 50 men when it rode
out from Vernon on the morning of September 28, 1864. Following orders, they headed for
At the same time, however, the Union force of 700 men that had attacked Marianna the previous
day was heading for Vernon on the same road used by Captain Jones and his men. Neither
force knew of the other's presence.
The Union soldiers reached Orange Hill at around noon on September 28, 1864. According to
legend, they halted there on the grounds of the old Baptist Academy for their noon meal. The
raided several homes in the area and then headed down the hill and continued on in the
direction of Vernon.
Later that afternoon, the Union soldiers came down the hill to the crossing at Hard Labor Creek
near today’s Washington. They were concerned about Confederate cavalry that was rumored to
be pursuing them, but had no idea that Captain W.B. Jones was approaching from the opposite
direction with the severely outnumbered men of the Vernon Home Guard. John J. Wright, a
member of Jones’ company, recalled what happened next:
…We suddenly met the Northern soldiers and they demanded that we surrender, fighting
opened and a large man by the name of Pierce was killed near me. I was wounded, and was
taken home. Captain Jones was captured, and was taken away.
Legend holds that a member of Jones’ company named Stephen Pierce, the “large man by the
name of Pierce” mentioned in Wright’s account, verbally taunted or cursed the enemy soldiers
when they made their demand that Jones and his men surrender. They responded by opening
fire on the Confederates, scattering them with a single volley. Pierce was supposedly dragged
away behind a gallberry bush and executed, although Wright’s account suggests that he was
actually killed in the brief firefight.
Pierce was a 46-year-old farmer who supported his wife, Jane, and at least six children. He
owned no slaves and his total worth at the time of the 1860 census was only $100. Although he
is often identified as a member of the 4th Florida Infantry who was home on leave, he actually
was no longer a member of the regiment. Like many of his neighbors Pierce had enlisted in the
“Washington County Invincibles” in September of 1861. The unit became Company H of the 4th
Florida Infantry and Pierce served with it in the Army of Tennessee, fighting at Shiloh and Stones
River. He received a medical discharge in 1863, however, and returned home to his farm. He
joined Captain Jones’ company in August of 1864 after Governor Milton ordered the formation of
the state home guards.
Pierce was the only man killed in the Battle of Vernon. John J. Wright, mentioned above, was the
only man known to have been wounded. In his pension application, he reported that he was
shot twice in the skirmish. “I have lost the use of my right arm,” he wrote, “never could use it as
good after I was shot in the shoulder. I was also hit in the left leg that soon got well and has not
bothered me but little.”
Another member of the company, M.L. Lassiter, wrote years later that he was chased from the
scene at Hard Labor Creek in a running skirmish that continued all the way to Vernon:
…On our way to Marianna we met a company of Federals, near Hard Labor Creek, and Jones
company was captured and taken to Ship Island Prison. I made my escape on horseback and
outran them. I was pursued all the way back to Vernon and shot at many times but escaped
In either the initial melee or the running fight that followed, Captain Jones and ten of his men
were captured. Four of these men, Andrew and James Gable of the 6th Florida Infantry and H.R.
and B.A. Walker of the 1st Florida Reorganized Infantry, were Confederate regulars home on
leave who volunteered to fight with the home guards. Also captured were Enoch Johns,
Shadrick Johns, John Nelson, Cary Taylor, Freeman Irwin and Nathaniel Miller. Irwin had
represented Washington County at Florida’s secession convention in 1861 and Taylor was a
former Washington County sheriff.
The Federals pursued the remnants of Jones’ company on into Vernon, but the rest of the
Confederates managed to escape. The raiders halted in the town to rest for a few hours, but
moved on later in the night and continued their march to Point Washington on Choctawhatchee
The stories of the prisoners tare quite tragic. Carried away by the Union troops, they were
shipped to prison camps first at New Orleans and then Ship Island, Mississippi, before finally
reaching the disease-ridden compound at Elmira, New York. Cary Taylor and Enoch Johns died
there of small pox on December 27, 1864, less than two months after the Battle of Vernon.
Shadrick Johns and Cary Taylor tried to secure their freedom by offering to swear oaths of
allegiance to the United States government. They both said they had been “conscripted, ordered
out by the Governor to resist a raiding party, and had been captured the same day.” Although
they were seriously ill and over 50 years old, their request was denied and both men remained
at Elmira until the end of the war.
Three more of the Washington County prisoners died at the prison. Andrew Gable lost his life to
pneumonia on January 1, 1865. Freeman Irwin died from illness on February 7th and Nathaniel
Miller followed on March 13th. Captain Jones, according to his wife, returned from prison greatly
enfeebled from sickness, but survived another thirty years.
No markers or monuments recount the history of the Battle of Vernon, yet for the people involved
it was a significant event. Long relegated to the status of legend, the skirmish demonstrates
through the mists of time how desperate things had become during the final days of the War
Between the States. The tragic stories of the Vernon captives and their families are but a few of
the hundreds of thousands of similar stories that can still be told about a war that most
Americans no longer even remember.
by Dale Cox
|Copyright 2011 by Dale Cox
All rights reserved.