Editor’s note: The Polk Standard Journal inadvertantly ran the second part of this 2-part series by Ross Rogers last week before running the column below. Read the fate of the Colquitt gang, Haden Prior’s remaining days and John T. Prior’s legacy at polkstandardjournal.com. We regret the error.
“So now I have told you the tragedy part of my life as it occurred. I have told you all the truth, for half the truth is worse than a lie.” So concludes John T. Prior’s account of his vengeance to Houstoun R. Harper, an early reporter for the Rome Tribune who referred to Prior as the “Esau of Georgia.”
Prior witnessed firsthand the lawlessness and desperation gripping Northwest Georgia in the wake of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to Atlanta. It was a time of freedom, albeit transient freedom, for those enslaved. It was a time of terror for those in the path of the Union army. Many in Cedartown fled as Gen. H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry burned the city. John T. Prior’s father, Haden Mathew Prior, suffered the loss of his barns and warehouses despite being a Union sympathizer.
Roving bands of Confederate scouts, originally organized to impede Union forces, only furthered the misery of those who remained. The most notorious of these gangs in Rome and Cedartown was that of Capt. Jack Colquitt. Colquitt and his men deserted from the 8th and 11th Texas Cavalries, and “hanged Judge Burrell near Rome and got his money; killed Mr. Omberg, and a villain named Phillips ... got his watch; Mr. Allgood, the owner of an iron factory, was hanged and left for dead because he would not tell where his money was hidden; Mr. Cohen, a wealthy miller and merchant, was hanged until his life was almost extinct, and until he told the hiding place where several thousand dollars were dug up,” wrote Harper.
In the midst of this chaos, Georgia Gov. Joseph “Joe” E. Brown appointed local militia to help wrangle the desperado Confederate scouts. Haden Prior was appointed captain of the Cedartown home guard, and as fate would have it, it was John T. Prior who would bury the Colquitt gang.
John T. Prior recalled his first encounter with the renegades on a road between Prior’s Station and Cave Spring, saying, “...we came upon a band of five of the so-called scouts, whom we had been pursuing. The desperadoes were armed to the teeth, but my father and I and the others of the party got the drop on them and ordered them to ride up.” One of the men, a Texan named “Ducky” Ward, attempted to flee on horse, but a shot from Prior’s rifle found his back. As the Prior party ushered their prisoners to the Cedartown jail, a man approached leading Ward’s horse. “There’s a man lying dead up the road,” he said.
Colquitt’s men would be sent to prison in Newnan, where they were released after only two weeks.
“Colquitt, the leader of the Colquitt scouts, was in Cedartown shortly after this, and his men were terrorizing everybody,” John T. Prior said. “I was detailed to arrest Colquitt and went in search of him one night with another officer.”
Prior and the second officer would find Colquitt thoroughly soused in a grocery store. They roused him and he cursed them and went to draw his pistol. “I saw I had not a moment to lose. I sent a bullet through his heart. All the people said it was good riddance.” But Prior’s entanglement with the Colquitt gang was just beginning.