Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Last Florida Officer to Fall?

Tucked away in an almost forgotten corner of an old cemetery in West Point, Georgia, can be found the grave of Captain Celestine Gonzalez of the 1st Florida Infantry.

Gonzalez was killed on April 16, 1865, seven days after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee, while fighting in the defense of Fort Tyler, an earthen redoubt built to protect a vital bridge over the Chattahoochee River at West Point.

A close friend of Brigadier General Robert C. Tyler, who had lost a leg at Missionary Ridge, Gonzalez was with the general when he occupied Fort Tyler on the morning of April 16th with a small force of Confederate regulars, convalescents, militia and volunteers in a heroic attempt to hold back a strong column of Union soldiers led by Colonel Oscar H. LaGrange. It is said in West Point that prior to walking up the hill to the fort that bore his name, General Tyler promised the ladies of the town that he would either prevail in the battle or perish in their defense.

For hours Tyler, Gonzalez and their men held Fort Tyler against overwhelming odds. With three pieces of artillery and volleys of musket fire, they held off three Union regiments that swarmed toward the fort from three sides. Union artillery blasted the fort until its cannon were dismounted, but still the Confederates clung to their earthworks and refused to surrender.

Realizing that the tide of the battle was turning against him, General Tyler undertook one last dramatic act of defiance to inspire his men. He walked in front of the walls of the fort, in full view of the Union attackers, until he was shot down by an unknown Federal soldier. Captain Gonzalez died not long after.

Fort Tyler eventually fell and the Federals secured the vital bridge over the Chattahoochee. Colonel LaGrange later expressed regret at the loss of life in the battle, noting that had he known of Lee's surrender, he would not have forced the issue.

General Tyler and Captain Gonzalez are buried today side by side in a common grave at the Fort Tyler Cemetery in West Point. Tyler was the last general on either side killed during the war. Gonzalez, I believe, may have been the last Florida officer to die in the war.

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