Friday, February 27, 2009

What was the real objective of the Natural Bridge campaign?


From the time it happened, there has been considerable debate about the real purpose of General John Newton's expedition that ended at the Battle of Natural Bridge on March 6, 1865.

Confederate authorities assumed, logically, that his plan was to capture Tallahassee. It was the capital of Florida and the state's military headquarters as well. Two vital railroads, one linking Quincy to the west with the outskirts of Jacksonville to the east and the other connecting the Tallahassee with St. Marks on the coast passed through the town. And finally, the city was the center of a vast agricultural district that contributed heavily to the supply of the Confederate armies in the field.

General Newton, however, denied in his post-battle reports that he planned to capture Tallahassee. Instead, he claimed that his movements were entirely planned to end the use of the port of St. Marks by Confederate blockade runners. In fact, he indicated that when he left Key West in late February, he had not even decided to move on St. Marks at all, but instead was hoping to cut-off Confederate troops in South Florida. Unable to do so, he settled on St. Marks as a reasonable alternative.

Newton's claims were made following his defeat at the Battle of Natural Bridge, however, when he was clearly trying to protect his reputation. Other sources indicate that his plans were much more ambitious.

Admiral C.K. Stribling, for example, reported while Newton was still steaming up the Gulf that the plan of the campaign was to strike at St. Marks, an indication that he and the general had agreed to this well before Newton left Key West.

A correspondent of The New York Times and another of the New York Herald reported from Key West before the Battle of Natural Bridge that Newton's plan was to march not just on Tallahassee, but on Thomasville, Georgia. According to the reporters, Newton believed that thousands of Union prisoners of war were being held in Thomasville and he launched the campaign in hopes of liberating them. After the expedition returned to Key West, both correspondents further reported that the expedition had not achieved its objective, the liberation of the prisoners in Thomasville.

The newspaper reports are worth consideration. Both reporters clearly were close associates of Newton, who was a native of New York. They knew significant detail about his plans ahead of time and it is likely that he discussed his movement with them so it could be relayed to readers in his home state.

There was, in fact, a Confederate prison in Thomasville. It had been established as Sherman made his way to the sea during late 1864, but had been evacuated by the time of the Natural Bridge expedition. General Newton, however, had no way of knowing this.

Despite his later denials, it seems likely that his plan from the beginning was to descend on St. Marks and then march inland to Thomasville, taking Tallahassee on the way.

To read more about the Battle of Natural Bridge before the next post, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

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