Sunday, March 8, 2009

Battle of Natural Bridge Anniversary - Part Four

Realizing that he could not hope to break through the Confederate lines at Natural Bridge, General Newton now faced the tricky proposition of how to withdraw his men from the battle.

He logically concluded that if he turned around and marched away, the Confederates would come storming across the bridge and attack him from the rear. After considering the situation, he developed a plan for ending the battle that would actually lead to the most severe Southern casualties of the day. Thus far, Confederate casualties had been very light, while the Union force had been severely bloodied.

Newton ordered his men to dig three lines of trenches, each far enough behind the one in front of it to be invisible to an attacking force. Assuming the Confederates would soon start moving across the Natural Bridge to see what was happening, his plan called for the men in the first entrenchment to put up a brief fight and then fall back rapidly as if they were breaking and running. This, he hoped, would lead the Confederates to charge forward, a movement that would bring them directly into the face of the cannon and muskets in the second entrenchment.

The plan worked. When it became evident that the Federals would not be attacking again, Major General Jones ordered Brigadier General Miller to send forward pickets. These scouts found the Natural Bridge itself abandoned. The 2nd Florida Cavalry (dismounted) was then ordered forward across the bridge. The men charged the first entrenchment and rebel yells echoed through the swamps as the Federals in this line suddenly broke for the rear. Rushing forward, the men of the 2nd Florida charged straight into the ambush waiting for them at the second line of Union entrenchments.

The charge was broken and the Floridians fell back into the tree cover, exchanging fire with Union soldiers. They were by now running low on ammunition and had to wait for a fresh supply to be brought forward. By the time this could be done, the Union soldiers were gone. Newton took advantage of the lull in the fighting to extricate his force from the battlefield and begin his march back to the St. Marks Lighthouse. His men felled trees across the road as they went to delay Confederate pursuit.

It had been a bloody debacle for the Union troops. In the fighting at East River, Newport and Natural Bridge, they suffered a loss in excess of 21 killed, 13 mortally wounded, 77 wounded and 40 captured or missing in action, a total loss of 150. Most of the losses were sustained at Natural Bridge.

The Confederates, by comparison, had lost only 4 killed, 2 mortally wounded, 39 wounded and 4 captured or missing in action, a total loss of 50.

The plan to capture Tallahassee and march on to Thomasville, Georgia, had failed. The port of St. Marks, despite Union claims to the contrary, had not been closed as a result of the expedition. Blockade runners continued to sleep from the mouth of the St. Marks River until the end of the war, which was not long in coming. Tallahassee would end the war as the only Southern capital east of the Mississippi not conquered by Union troops.

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