Friday, January 2, 2009

San Marcos de Apalache - Part Six

In late February of 1865, a Confederate attack on the Union post at Fort Myers in South Florida convinced Gen. John Newton in Key West that Southern troops might have left the northern part of the state unprotected. After discussing the situation with Admiral C.K. Stribling of the Union Navy, he loaded his forces aboard transports and began a voyage up the west coast of Florida.

Taking on additional troops at Cedar Key, Newton arrived off the mouth of the St. Marks River where he was joined by a large flotilla of Union blockade ships. Concealed from shore by a heavy fog bank that had settled along the coast, the general convened a council of war and planned for an attack on the port of St. Marks.

As expressed in Newton's reports, his plan was to come ashore with an infantry force at St. Marks Lighthouse and march inland to Newport in Wakulla County. There he expected to seize the bridge over the St. Marks River while the Union navy pushed up the river, landed 1,000 sailors at Port Leon to support the land movement and then engaged and silenced the batteries at Fort Ward (San Marcos de Apalache).

Although he later denied that his intent was to seize Florida's capital city of Tallahassee, officers in his command and Northern newspaper writers covering the campaign wrote that Newton planned to move quickly on Tallahassee and then advance to Thomasville, Georgia, where he believed thousands of Union prisoners of war could be liberated. He had no way of knowing that the temporary prison at Thomasville had been evacuated when Sherman's March to the Sea reached Savannah and the prisoners returned to Andersonville.

Either way, a clear objective of the campaign was the capture of the Confederate batteries at Fort Ward and the occupation of the Southern port of St. Marks.

The troops were in the final stages of preparing for their landing when the heavy fog blanketing the coastline suddenly lifted on the morning of March 3, 1865. Hoping to avoid detection by Confederate pickets stationed along the coast, the Union ships raised anchor and sailed out beyond the horizon. At nightfall they began their return to the mouth of the St. Marks, anticipating that the invasion would begin that same evening.

Our series on San Marcos de Apalache will continue.

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