Monday, February 9, 2009
Sketoe's Hole - A Reminder of the "Deserter War"
In a little known front of the War Between the States, armed bands of guerillas carried out a brutal war of attrition with the citizens of Northwest Florida and Southeast Alabama.
These groups, called "raider gangs" by the people of the region, were made up of Unionist men who took to the swamps to avoid the conscription or draft, Confederate deserters and others. Most of the true Unionists quickly passed on through the lines, but hard core groups of outlaws remained in hiding in the swamps and deep woods, coming out from time to time to attack communities and isolated homes in search of food, supplies, valuables and other items.
Over the last three years of the war they proved quite proficient at their irregular operations. An entire company of Confederate cavalry was surrounded and disarmed near the Chattahoochee River in eastern Jackson County. The Coffee County, Alabama, Courthouse in Elba was burned to the ground and a sharp battle fought with a local militia company. A band hiding in the swamps of the upper Chipola River battled state troops from both Florida and Alabama through the winter of 1863-1864.
By the winter of 1864-1865, the raider gangs had become enough of a threat that regular campaigns were launched to root them out. These efforts intensified after the successful Union raid on Marianna in September of 1864. By November, Alabama had put more than 500 men into the field in a campaign that moved down into the swamps of the Choctawhatchee River.
The operation met with some success and several deserters were captured and hanged by the Alabama troops.
A strange relic of this campaign existed for many years on the bank of the Choctawhatchee River near the small Dale County, Alabama, community of Newton. Called "Sketoe's Hole," it served as a macabre reminder of the brutal deserter war that raged in the Alabama-Florida borderlands.
A detachment of men from Captain Joseph Breare's company of Alabama Militia captured a man named William "Bill" Sketoe and summarily hanged him as a deserter. The man's family has long maintained that the execution was nothing short of murder and that Sketoe was not a deserter, but had come home to take care of his sick wife.
Bill Sketoe was a tall man and as the militiamen tried to hang him, his feet unexpectedly touched the ground. One of the citizen soldiers used a crutch to dig out a hole under the unfortunate man's feet, so that the hanging could continue. For more than 100 years after, "Sketoe's Hole" could be seen. As the story goes, it was swept clean nightly by the swinging feet of Bill Sketoe's ghost.
If you would like to learn more about this story and find out what happened to Sketoe's Hole, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/sketoe1.