Although detailed modern histories are few and far between, the state of Florida saw its share of military action during the Civil War. Expanding upon his previous research (1989), Dale Cox has now given us the first full account of Union general Alexander Asboth's raid into northwest Florida that culminated in the September 27, 1864 Battle of Marianna. As Cox makes clear, the town of Marianna was an important communication and transportation center in an economically important (and largely untouched) region of the state.
By 1864, regular Confederate forces were withdrawn from West Florida to reinforce threatened fronts deemed to be of greater importance. This vacuum allowed ever larger and better organized bands of army deserters and Unionists to roam the countryside freely. Under the aegis of the U.S. Navy, refugee camps for both escaped slave and white Unionist families were established along the coast. They proved to be fertile ground for U.S. recruiters. Into this scene stepped Hungarian emigre Alexander Asboth and his mixed force of white cavalry and USCT (82nd and 86th) mounted infantry.
In The Battle of Marianna, author Dale Cox does an excellent job of setting the stage for the first significant inland incursion into West Florida by these Union forces. The deteriorating civilian and military situation in the region is ably outlined for the reader. Due notice of the conflicting loyalties and war weariness of the populace is made and detailed attention is given to the Confederate struggle to assemble regular, reserve, and home guard units for local defense in the face of increasing Federal military activity. On the Union side, the raiders employed a policy of economic destruction. Plantations along the route of advance were thoroughly stripped of forage, livestock, and foodstuffs; additionally, an estimated 600 slaves were liberated.
Cox writes very well, and his account of the conduct of the raid and the Battle of Marianna is richly detailed and skillfully analyzed, with eyewitness accounts seamlessly incorporated into the narrative. Thorough in his research, the author appropriately notes where source materials conflict and his assessment of contradictory accounts is evenhanded. Cox also sought the truth behind several of the myths and legends surrounding the Battle of Marianna. For example, he did not find convincing evidence of a massacre of Confederate prisoners by angry soldiers from the USCT units. Also, Cox's arguments convincingly retrieve the reputation of Confederate Col. Alexander B. Montgomery, who was viciously attacked by newspapers and local historians for his conduct during the Battle of Marianna.
Supplementing the main text, several appendices are included in the book. They range from casualty lists (prisoners and dead) to rosters and short biographies of members of home guard and reserves units that participated in the battle. A list of recruits obtained during the raid by the two USCT units is also compiled.
My only complaint is with the book's cartography. The West Florida overview sketch labels only four locations and the two period map reproductions are small and difficult to read. A map tracing the complete route of the Union raiders and another detailing the Marianna street grid and battlefield would have been very helpful.
The Battle of Marianna, Florida is a completely original and most welcome piece of regional military history. This book is carefully researched, soundly analyzed, and well written, and I would recommend it unreservedly to anyone interested in the Civil War in Florida. Connoisseurs of obscure or forgotten military actions will also be richly rewarded.