Thursday, March 24, 2016

Spurling's Raid into Conecuh County took place 151 years ago this month

Andrew Barclay Spurling
This month marks the 151st anniversary of one of the most dramatic events in the history of Conecuh County, an event that was so important that it resulted in a Congressional Medal of Honor.

The story begins in the closing months of the Civil War. The Confederacy was on the ropes, and the Union was doing all it could to win the war. In March 1865, those Union efforts included a sweep of forces up from Pensacola and Mobile into Southwest Alabama.

On Thurs., March 23, Union forces led by Lt. Col. Andrew Barclay Spurling departed Andalusia, where they’d destroyed Rebel arms, ammunition and government property, and began making their way to Evergreen. Spurling’s men drew close to Evergreen at dark and established a picket line of sentries. Spurling, a native of Cranberry Isles, Maine, is said to have advanced alone in the dark beyond the Union picket line to survey what lay beyond when he came upon three Confederate soldiers.

Spurling opened fire, and the Confederates shot back. Spurling wounded two of the rebels, and he took all three captive. One of the wounded men was a young officer, who also happened to be the son of Alabama’s Confederate governor, Thomas H. Watts.

It was for this incident that Spurling would eventually receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. War Department records say that Spurling’s actions prevented the Confederates from obtaining information about Union troop movements and “was of great value to the Union cause.” His obituary said that the Confederates were riding to get reinforcements, “which probably would have wiped out the Federal command.”

Later on March 23, around midnight, Spurling and his men reached the Alabama & Florida Railroad at Gravella. Located five miles north of Evergreen, today we call it Owassa. Almost immediately, Spurling’s men cut the telegraph lines running through the area and then started to tear up the railroad tracks, which Confederates used to ferry troops between Montgomery and the huge Confederate depot at Pollard, which is located in Escambia County.

Not long after, around 4:30 a.m., a train from Pollard came up the tracks, derailed and caught fire. Three hours later, a train from Montgomery came along carrying 100 soldiers and seven officers headed for Mobile. That train didn’t derail, but Spurling’s men captured it, burned the locomotive, a baggage car, four passenger cars and two freight cars containing clothes, corn and other supplies.

People living in Belleville heard about the Union invasion and all available men went to help. On the way to Gravella, they met a squad of Spurling’s cavalry and turned back toward Belleville. All the Belleville men got away except for one, who was riding a sick horse and was taken prisoner.

According to B.F. Riley’s 1881 book, “History of Conecuh County, Alabama,” the “people of Bellville, having learned of the capture of their sister village, Evergreen, a body of mounted citizens proceeded in that direction, for the purpose of reconnoitering. When they had come within three or four miles of Evergreen, they suddenly encountered a small squad of Spurling’s command, that had been sent forward upon the Belleville road to guard against any sudden demonstration on the part of the citizens, while the chief command was moving along the dirt road toward Sparta.

“This squad had dismounted near the Bradley Plantation, in a sudden curve of the road, to burn a wagon, which had just been captured, when the Belleville deputation rode suddenly upon them. The surprise was equally shared in by both parties, but evidences of precipitate flight having been first given by the reconnoitering Bellvillians, nothing was left the invaders but a hot pursuit. When a clattering, pell-mell, the citizen soldiery, still clinging to their shotguns, fled back toward home.

“All would have reached their homes in safety, but for a diseased horse, which was ridden by Willie McCreary. Unable to keep abreast of the others in the stampede, his animal, continued to slacken in speed until he was finally overtaken at Hunter’s Creek. Here, Willie, then a lad of 16, fell into the hands of the enemy and was sent at once to Ship Island, as a prisoner of war.”

This same day, according to the late A.D. Clark of Castleberry, Spurling’s troopers encountered a Mr. McCreary on the road leading into Evergreen at the top of Murder Creek Hill, present day Fairview. Near the site where the antique store is currently located near the intersection of U.S. Highway 31 and U.S. Highway 84, McCreary was said to have been killed near this spot when he resisted as Union troops confiscated his wagon, goods and animals. Some say that the wagon contained corn, while others say the wagon also contained several piglets.

With all this in mind, you have to wonder if the wagon belonging to the “Mr. McCreary” mentioned by A.D. Clark was the same wagon that the Union troops were burning when the men from Belleville rounded the curve at the Bradley Plantation. Also, you have to wonder if the “Mr. McCreary” who was killed was related to the 16-year-old Willie McCreary who was taken prisoner. There’s also reason to wonder if the two names may have gotten confused over the years (or that if it was just a coincidence that they both had the same last name).

Ship Island is located off the Mississippi coast and was used as a prisoner of war camp and base for the U.S. Second Regiment throughout the Civil War. According to local Civil War historian Steve Stacey of Monroeville, Ship Island “was an awful place,” where the guards “took potshots at Confederates going about their daily life.” What became of young Willie McCreary of Belleville remains unknown.

In any event, around 11 a.m. on Fri., March 24, Spurling entered Evergreen, where he destroyed some stores, foraged for rations and burned rolling stock at the train station. Evergreen was defenseless, and Spurling’s troops fired upon civilians and pillaged, stealing silver plate and jewelry. They also stole a number of mules and horses from surrounding plantations.

Around 2 p.m., Spurling headed toward Sparta, which was the county seat until 1866. Along the way, he burned railroad trestles and six box cars at the Sparta train station. His men went on to burn the train station and the Conecuh County Jail.

The next day, Sat., March 25, 1865, Spurling’s men left Sparta and headed for Brooklyn. They passed through Brooklyn around noon before entering present day Escambia County, headed for Pollard, which they reached around 6 p.m. on Sun., March 26. Between Sparta and Pollard, Spurling captured 20 prisoners in skirmishes and reached Pollard without losing a single man.

In the end, if you’re interested in reading more about this event, I encourage you to read “History of Conecuh County, Alabama” by Benjamin Franklin Riley and “Word From Camp Pollard, C.S.A.” by William H. Davidson. Both books go into greater detail about Spurling’s Raid, and history buffs in the reading audience will likely enjoy both books. 

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