Saturday, January 3, 2009
San Marcos de Apalache - Part Seven
As the Federal ships returned to the coast on the evening of March 3, 1864, they found themselves tossed by a sudden storm that whipped up the waters off the mouth of the St. Marks River.
Weather conditions delayed the planned landing of the main force until the afternoon of March 4th and it was not until the morning of the 5th that General Newton finally turned his force inland. The Confederates by this time were well aware of his presence and reinforcements were swarming to the area from across North Florida. Newton succeeded in taking the East River Bridge between the St. Marks Lighthouse and Newport, but Confederate resistance stiffened at the latter place and he was unable to seize the Newport Bridge. Left with no choice, he turned north up the St. Marks River to the Natural Bridge where he hoped to cross the next morning.
The Union navy, meanwhile, began its planned advance up the St. Marks River but quickly encountered far more problems than expected. The shallow channel and twisting nature of the river created massive difficulties for the Union warships. Instead of steaming up, bombarding Fort Ward and landing hundreds of sailors at Port Leon to support Newton's land movements, they spent the 5th and 6th of March running aground and picking their way up the lower river.
By the time the Battle of Natural Bridge ended with the Federal forces in full retreat on the evening of March 6, 1865, the Union navy had still not moved within artillery range of the Confederate fort at San Marcos. Following a consultation with the army officers, the attack was cancelled and the vessels dropped back down the river. Fort Ward had held without firing a shot.
The only critical moment had come early in the fighting at Newport when Brig. Gen. William Miller received a report that the garrison of the fort had laid explosives and were planning to blow up their position. According to his reconstructed report, he rode quickly to Fort Ward, assembled the garrison and informed them that the fort was vital to Confederate defensive efforts and would be held to the last extremity.
Following the general's address, the gunners of Fort Wood stood by their pieces and watched the Union warships slowly work their way up the river, then turn back to the Gulf before ever testing the metal of the defenders.
Our series on San Marcos de Apalache in St. Marks, Florida, will conclude with the next post. Until then you can read more by visiting www.exploresouthernhistory.com/sanmarcos1.