Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Home of Florida's Civil War Princess

It is a little known fact that a Princess of the French Empire lived in Florida during the War Between the States.

Princess Catherine Murat was the great-grandniece of President George Washington and the widow of Prince Achille Murat, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. She was a visitor to the court of Napoleon III and received financial support from the French Empire.

Princess Murat purchased Belleview, a plantation on Jackson Bluff Road in Leon County in 1854. The 520 acre cotton plantation was centered around the house shown here. Built in around 1840, it was more typical of the homes on Florida plantations than the great mansions for which the antebellum South is generally known today. The princess lived here until her death in 1867.

The home has been relocated to the grounds of the Tallahassee Museum of History and Natural Sciences and has been beautifully restored to its appearance at the time of the War Between the States. A parlor and bedroom have been furnished with antique furnishings to demonstrate what life was like in the home of the princess, while other rooms feature exhibits on life on a North Florida plantation.

To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/belleview.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

(Former) Monument to John Wilkes Booth

This site is not in Florida, but I stumbled across it recently and thought it might be of interest. Troy, Alabama, is a university town on U.S. Highway 231 about 70 miles north of the Florida line.

Troy is also the home of what remains of what I believe to have been the only monument erected to the memory of John Wilkes Booth, the man who killed President Abraham Lincoln at the end of the War Between the States.

Contrary to media reports of the time, the monument was not erected by the town or through funds raised by its citizens. Instead, it was placed in 1906 through the efforts of a single individual, Joseph Pinkney "Pink" Parker.

Pink Parker, as the story goes, was a Confederate soldier from Alabama who served in a Georgia regiment. When he returned home from the war, he found that his family had been brutally treated by Federal soldiers and Union sympathizers while he was away at the front. This was not that uncommon, but unlike many others, Parker refused to "forgive and forget."

A teacher, police officer and Baptist church member, he hated Abraham Lincoln with a passion. In fact, he would observe the anniversary of Lincoln's assassination each year by dressing in his finest clothes and holding a one man celebration on the streets of Troy. Then, in 1906, he commissioned a monument bearing the inscription: "Erected by Pink Parker in honor of John Wilks Booth for killing old Abe Lincoln."

Parker hoped to place the monument on the courthouse grounds, but the community's leaders declined. Unwilling to give up his idea, he erected it instead in his front yard facing Madison Street in Troy. The move prompted a national media frenzy, particularly among Northern newspapers which editorialized fiercely for the removal of the monument. It still until the time of Parker's death in 1921, however, when his sons had the Booth inscription removed and used it as his tombstone.

To learn more and see additional photos of the former monument to John Wilkes Booth, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/boothmonument.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bugg Spring - Home of J.J. Dickison

This beautiful setting in Lake County, Florida, provided inspiration for Mary Elizabeth Dickison as she wrote Dickison and His Men, the biography of her husband and his heroics during the War Between the States.
Bugg Spring, on the northern edge of the community of Okahumpka, is one of the most historic sites in Florida. Due to its depth (170-175 feet), the spring is now used by the U.S. Navy for sound testing. The spring and grounds are not open to the public and I wish to thank the owners for kindly allowing photographs to be taken of the Dickison cottage and grounds.

J.J. Dickison, Florida's famed "Swamp Fox" of the Confederacy, was one of the most remarkable officers of the War Between the States. Although he served as a captain for most of the war, he often commanded battalion sized groups of men and proved a formidable foe to Union forces in East and Central Florida. Dickison and his men captured soldiers, officers, steamboats and even a Union general during the war. Although he was promoted to colonel at the end of the conflict, he did not learn of the promotion until after he had been paroled by Union forces.

Dickison and his wife Mary lived at Bugg Spring during the decades after the war. Their cottage still stands and is now a nicely appointed private guest house. Mrs. Dickison completed her book here in 1889, dedicating it from "Dickison Park." A small display of photographs and a copy of the book adorns a desk in the cottage, a silent tribute to the writer, her subject and her work.

To learn more about Bugg Spring and the Dickison cottage, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/buggspring.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Torreya State Park - Liberty County, Florida

This is a perfect time of year to visit Torreya State Park, a beautiful facility overlooking the Apalachicola River that features several sites related to the War Between the States. The dogwoods, redbuds and other spring plants are in bloom and the park is quite beautiful.

Established as a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project during the Great Depression, Torreya is undoubtedly one of the most unique and beautiful state parks in Florida. It is located at Rock Bluff, a commanding vista that overlooks the Apalachicola and provides a spectacular view of Jackson and Calhoun Counties beyond. This is one of the only places in the world where Florida Torreya trees still grow. Local legend claims that they provided the "gopher wood" from which Noah built the ark.

The park now preserves the historic Gregory House, once the focal point of a large plantation that operated across the river at Ocheesee Bluff. The house, which entertained Confederate army and navy officers during the war, was donated to the park and restored there during the Depression era. It was one of the points to which casualties from the explosion of the warship C.S.S. Chattahoochee were carried in 1863.

Just down a trail from the Gregory House are the well-preserved earthwork remains of an artillery battery constructed on the bluff by Confederate troops. The gun emplacements are still quite visible, as are the infantry trenches and rifle pits that connected them. The fortification never came under attack, but played an important role in defending the Apalachicola River from Union gunboats.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Jesse J. Finley - Fighting Judge of Jackson County

One of the most remarkable individuals to emerge from Florida during the War Between the States was Judge Jesse J. Finley of Jackson County.

Born in Tennessee in 1812, Finley had served as a captain of mounted volunteers during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842) before going on to study law. He moved to Arkansas in 1840 and served a term in the Arkansas State Senate the next year. Then, in 1842, he moved across the river to Memphis, Tennessee, where he practiced law and in 1845 became the city's mayor.

Finley moved to Marianna in 1846 and four years later was elected to the Florida State Senate as a member of the Whig party. He became the judge for Florida's Western Circuit in 1853, a position he held until the secession of Florida in 1861. In this capacity he helped put down a violent regulator insurrection in Calhoun County during the fall of 1860.

When Florida joined the Confederacy, Finley initially continued to serve as a judge but then in March of 1862 he volunteered as a private in the 6th Florida Infantry. He did not remain a private for long, but was named colonel of the regiment just one month later. Finley led the 6th Florida into action during Bragg's Kentucky Campaign and at the Battle of Chickamauga. On November 16, 1863, he was promoted to brigadier general.

As a general, Finley led his brigade in the fighting at Missionary Ridge and subsequently was wounded at Resaca and Jonesboro during the Atlanta Campaign. Disabled from command by his wounds, he assumed a new position as president of a court martial board.

General Finley returned to Florida at the end of the war and settled in Lake City for six years before moving to Jacksonville. A major player in Reconstruction era politics in the state, he served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from two different districts after successfully contesting the elections of former slave Josiah Walls and Northern Republican (and former Union Army officer) Horatio Bisbee, Jr.

Finley was reelected to Congress in 1880, but Bisbee then challenged and successfully contested the election, once again trading places with the determined Florida leader. General Finley was named to represent Florida in the U.S. Senate in 1887, but his credentials were refused on the basis that his appointment had been dated before the position was actually open.

He died in Lake City in 1905 and is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Gainesville.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Confederate Battery at Alum Bluff

These eroded earthworks are all that remain of the artillery battery built by Confederate troops at Alum Bluff in 1862 to defend Florida's Apalachicola River from Union attack.

Alum Bluff was an important post and river defense for much of the War Between the States. Service records of many of Florida's Confederate soldiers show they were mustered into the army here. Surviving documentation indicates the presence of parts of the 1st, 6th and 10th Florida Infantries here, along with other units. A number of men died while camped at Alum Bluff, primarily from fever, and remain buried in unmarked graves somewhere at the site.

The primary purpose of the post on the bluff was to defend the Apalachicola River against attack by the Union Navy. Confederate engineers marked off a semi-circular or "crescent-shaped" battery atop the bluff. Earthwork emplacements were prepared for seven pieces of heavy artillery, brought to the site from Ricco's Bluff downstream. The gun positions were connected by infantry trenches and commanded a sharp bend of the river.

The position was never attacked, but in 1863 soldiers and officers from Alum Bluff assisted in rescue operations following the accidental explosion aboard the C.S.S. Chattahoochee at Blountstown.

Alum Bluff was eventually abandoned in favor of a new location just upriver at Rock Bluff. Sadly, most of the Confederate fortifications have eroded into the Apalachicola River, but a few earthworks and one of the infantry trenches can still be seen.

The site is now preserved by the Nature Conservancy as part of its beautiful Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve. The surviving earthworks can be reached via a more than 3-mile hike down the Garden of Eden Trail, which begins at a trailhead just north of Bristol, Florida. The trailhead kiosk is located on Garden of Eden Road, which leads to the left off S.R. 12 at Bristol.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The "Jackson County War"

During the years after the end of the War Between the States, an outbreak of violence took place in Jackson County that was so severe it is often called a war in its own right.

The "Jackson County War" was one of the most violent uprisings in the Reconstruction era South. Murders, political assassinations, assaults and bitter reprisals were the tactics of the day and over a period of several years, the Northwest Florida county literally became the scene of a bloodbath as bad as any in Missouri and Kansas during the years before the war.

The uprising targeted both white leaders and their supporters as well as black freedmen and the exact number of deaths that took place may never be known. Some estimates have ranged as high as 168 over a four year period.

Dan Weinfeld, an accomplished researcher and writer, has just completed a new book on the "Jackson County War" that will be released this summer. He also has an outstanding blog that covers events of the Reconstruction era violence in Jackson County. I strongly encourage you to take a look. The address is http://danshistoryblog.blogspot.com/. He has more knowledge about the events of the "Jackson County War" than any person I've ever encountered and also has written the Reconstruction chapters of my soon to be released second volume of The History of Jackson County, Florida.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

International Military Delegation Tours Marianna Battlefield

More than 60 military officers from around the world spent part of Saturday touring the historic scene of the Battle of Marianna, the second such group to tour the battlefield in the past year.

Arranged by the International Military Student Office of the U.S. Army's "Strength through Allies" program, the tour gave officers from numerous countries the opportunity to learn about the tactics of the historically unique battle and discuss the guerrilla fighting that took place in Jackson County during the Reconstruction era's "Jackson County War." Canada, Germany, Norway, Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines and a number of other countries were represented.

The Battle of Marianna has received growing recognition over recent years as the unique nature of the 1864 engagment has become better understood. As the international officers learned on Saturday, the battle marked a rare combination of unusual circumstances ranging from untrained and barely organized militia companies standing up to seasoned and well-armed U.S. troops to armed involvement by women and children and an unusual situation in which both Unionists and Secessionists fought beside each other using ambush and "urban warfare" tactics to defend their community.

In addition, the destruction and loss of life resulting from the battle played a role in sparking one of the most brutal Reconstruction era uprising's in the South. The "Jackson County War" can only be described as a full-fledged guerrilla war that involved armed attacks, murders, assassinations and what we would today label "terrorist activities." I'll have more on that tomorrow.

To learn more about the battle, please consider my book, The Battle of Marianna, Florida. It is available through http://www.amazon.com/ and most other online booksellers and can also be purchased through Chipola River Book and Tea in Downtown Marianna. You can also visit http://www.battleofmarianna.net/ for more information.

If you are interested in arranging a guided tour of the battlefield either for yourself or a group, please contact me at www.twoeggfla.com/contactus and I will be glad to help arrange it for you.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Pearl Harbor Veteran Pays Tribute to Southern Dead

Among those who gathered on the banks of the St. Marks River in North Florida on Sunday to remember the men and boys that served in the Battle of Natural Bridge was a gentleman with a remarkable story.

Mr. Newton Brooks of Gadsden County was in Hawaii on the morning of December 7, 1941, when Japanese aircraft launched a surprise attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. Unlike many of his brothers-in-arms aboard the ships that morning, he survived the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

It is rare to come across a Pearl Harbor survivor these days. In just three years we will mark the 70th anniversary of that day of infamy. To see one at a memorial service on a battlefield paying tribute to his Confederate ancestors is an extremely moving experience.

In his childhood, Mr. Brooks knew men from his own family that had ridden with Nathan Bedford Forrest in Tennessee. He has told me of how his father, as a young boy, was standing watching Forrest's men ride by the family farm when the general himself suddenly stopped and spoke to him. Mr. Brooks' father wound up accompanying Forrest and his men on the Johnsonville raid and was returned back to his family, safe and sound, as the men rode back from the expedition.

I've had the pleasure to become acquainted with Mr. Brooks and his wonderful wife in recent years. Both were on hand at the Battle of Natural Bridge memorial service on Sunday, paying their respects to the memory of the men and boys that defended Tallahassee on March 6, 1865.

Mr. Newton Brooks is one of our last direct links with the men who fought in 1861-1865 and also stands humbly as a man who stood and fought on America's darkest day. I pray he remains with us for many years to come.

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.

To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Battle of Natural Bridge Anniversary - Part Three

The fighting escalated at Natural Bridge late in the morning of March 6, 1865, when the Union forces launched their main attacks.
Storming across the bridge from their positions on the east bank of the St. Marks River, the Federals attempted to strike the right flank and center of the Confederate lines. Union officers later reported that the grass and cane growing along the river was so high that they couldn't see their enemy and really had no idea of the situation into which they were charging.

The left attack column was led by Colonel B.R. Townsend of the 2nd U.S. Colored Infantry and consisted of Companies A, B and H from his regiment. Its objective was to swing left after crossing the bridge (seen above) and strike the right flank of the Confederate line. The other column was let by Major Benjamin Lincoln of the 2nd U.S. Colored Infantry and consisted of Companies E, G and K of the regiment. Each column consisted of around 240 men, who would strike the Confederate lines in two places at once.

Behind them, Lieutenant Colonel Uri B. Pearsall and the 99th U.S. Colored Infantry would wait to exploit a breakthrough by either of the assault columns.

The Union officers had no way of knowing it, but they would be attacking into the a brutal crossfire of musketry and canister from an estimated 1,000 Confederate soldiers and six pieces of field artillery. To make matters worse, they would come off the Natural Bridge in a compact column formation. This would make the fire of the Confederates even more deadly.

The attacks were carried out with great courage by the African American soldiers of the 2nd and 99th, but they were doomed to fail. The left column quickly encountered a body of water that they couldn't get past. The exchanged fire with the Confederate troops along the right of the Southern lines, but couldn't get close enough to assault the entrenchments.

The other column, led by Lincoln, charged straight up the road from the Natural Bridge into a brutal crossfire of shot and shell from all sections of the Confederate line. In fact, they launched five different attacks up the road, but never got close to the Confederate lines.

When the smoke finally cleared, the battered assault columns withdrew back across the Natural Bridge, leaving behind heaps of dead bodies.

I will continue to post on the anniversary of the Battle of Natural Bridge through the weekend. Keep in mind that the annual memorial service and reenactment will be held tomorrow (Sunday) beginning at 1 p.m. Eastern at the Natural Bridge Battlefield State Park. (Remember the time change tonight!).

To read more before the next post, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Battle of Natural Bridge Anniversary - Part Two

The low mound visible in this photograph is what remains of some of the field fortifications on the battlefield at Natural Bridge.

These earthworks sheltered Confederate cannon near the center of the main Southern line of battle and are now preserved at Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park.

The Confederates took advantage of the lull following the initial three Union attacks to entrench in a long line that ran in a horseshoe shape from the St. Marks River at the northern edge of the battlefield, along the high ground west of the river and then back to the river at the southern edge of the field. Artillery was spaced at key points along this line. The 1st Florida Militia, the official regiment of the numerous Home Guard companies that poured onto the battlefield, occupied the left flank. The Cadets of the West Florida Seminary occupied a salient in the line in the left center. Immediately to their right were two pieces of artillery supported by the Gadsden Grays, a Home Guard company from Gadsden County. The right center was held by the 1st Florida Infantry Reserves and the far right flank was held by the dismounted men of the 5th Florida Cavalry under Major William H. Milton.

Colonel J.J. Daniel had taken over the command of the entire Southern line when he arrived on the scene with the 1st Flroida Reserves, but he was wounded during the initial attacks after his horse dashed him against a tree. Major General Samuel Jones soon assumed the overall command and, according to eyewitnesses, assisted in aiming the Confederate cannon.

As the morning progress, Brigadier General William Miller marched up from Newport with the men from that point and joined the fighting. He was placed in command of the main battle line and Jones assumed overall command in the rear.

On the east side of the river, General Newton sent scouting parties up and down the river to look for crossing points that might be used to flank the Confederate position. These efforts failed and he was forced to decide to launch additional attacks across the Natural Bridge. After consulting with his officers, it was decided to send two columns across to assault the Confederate lines. One would veer left to strike the Confederate right flank. The other would charge straight up the road at the center of the Southern lines.

I'll continue to look at the Battle of Natural Bridge in the next post. To learn more before then, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

Battle of Natural Bridge Anniversary - Part One

Union and Confederate forces raced for the Natural Bridge of the St. Marks River through the pre-dawn darkness of March 6, 1865. The Confederates got there first.

Taking position on the high ground overlooking the bridge on the west side of the river, Lt. Col. George Washington Scott put his small force into a line of battle and sent forward skirmishers to take positions on the bridge itself. The site where the battle would be fought was an ideal defensive position. Heavy tree timber grew on the bridge itself, but to approach the Confederate lines, the Federals would have to advance across the narrow bridge and then charge across an old field. This meant they would be in concentrated formation as they advanced from the bridge and then have to cross open ground to reach Scott's men.

The only real concern for the colonel was the fact that he was seriously outnumbered. If the Union column reached the bridge in force before reinforcements came up, he would easily be thrown out of the way.

This fear was eliminated when 8 companies of the 1st Florida Infantry Reserves arrived on the battlefield shortly before dawn. General Samuel Jones had intercepted them at the Oil Still on the Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad and diverted them to the Natural Bridge instead of Newport. Accompanied by companies of home guards from the 1st Florida Reserves and two cannon, they marched through the pine forests to the Natural Bridge in pitch blackness, men often falling asleep as they marched.

The men were quickly formed off into a line of battle along the high ground overlooking the old field and the Natural Bridge and had barely stacked their weapons and fallen on the ground to rest when suddenly shots rang out on the bridge.

The head of the Federal column had arrived and engaged Scott's skirmishers on the bridge. As the Confederate pickets fell back to the Union line, Major Benjamin C. Lincoln led a battalion of Union troops forward in a charge to try to take the bridge and drive off any Confederates on the west bank. He ran headlong into the now formed Confederate battleline.

The Confederates opened on the African American soldiers of Lincoln's command with both musket and artillery fire, driving back three distinct charges. Unable to force his way across, Lincoln ordered his men to fall back into the tree cover of the Natural Bridge and wait for the rest of the column to come up. The Confederates, meanwhile, busily started digging trenches along the high ground in anticipation of a severe fight.

I will post more on the Battle of Natural Bridge, which took place 144 years ago today, as the day goes along. To read more before the next post, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

Fight at Newport Bridge - March 5, 1865

The Confederates reached the bridge over the St. Marks River at Newport ahead of Major Weeks and the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry.

When the Federals arrived, they found one end of the bridge in flames and the flooring already torn up from the other week. Weeks ordered his men to charge, hoping to save the span before it was too late. He did not realize, however, that Col. Scott's cavalrymen and the company of Gadsden County Home Guards had taken up positions in previously prepared entrenchments on the west bank.

As the Federals came into the open, the Confederates opened a concentrated fire on them from the shelter of their entrenchments. The dismounted Union cavalrymen returned the fire, moving from position to position due to the fact that Southern troops had set fire to several buildings on the east bank.

The rest of the Union force came up and General Newton positioned two pieces of artillery to the north of the bridge hoping to drive the Confederates from their breastworks. The effort failed, however, although several structures were damaged and some civilians in the town killed.

Additional Confederate troops continued to arrive and Newton finally realized he could not hope to force a passage at Newport. He checked another crossing just upstream, but found it already guarded. His scouts told him the only other reasonable crossing point was upstream at the Natural Bridge. With no other choice, he prepared to move in that direction.

From the west bank of the river, the Confederates watched these activities with interest. As the Federals started north, Colonel Scott shadowed them, moving up the west bank of the river.

I'll have more on the Battle of Natural Bridge in the next post. Until then, you can read more at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Advance to Newport - March 5, 1865

By the morning of March 5, 1865, the Federal troops were ready to advance. General Newton commanded a force of just under 1,000 soldiers from the 2nd and 99th U.S. Colored Infantries and the 2nd Florida U.S. cavalry (dismounted). In addition, the U.S. Navy provided the force with 2 boat howitzers and a party of sailors to fire them.

Turning up the narrow road through the marsh, the Federals marched on East River Bridge. Lieutenant Colonel George Washington Scott had come up with a few reinforcements and a single piece of artillery during the night, taking over the command from Major Milton. The Confederates could see the long blue column as it advanced through the marshes.

The skirmish was not handled very well by Col. Scott. One of his artillerymen later wrote that they could have shelled the approaching Federals from long range as they approached over open ground, but that Scott ordered them to remove the shell from their gun and reload it with a short range anti-personnel load. This allowed the advancing Union troops to reach the far edge of the bridge before the cannon was fired.

The Confederates got off only a single shot before Union soldiers came storming across the bridge. The cannon was captured and the Southern troops broke and ran.

The floor of the bridge was replaced and the Federals continued their advance north toward the St. Marks River at Newport with Col. Scott and his men falling back ahead of them. A company of Gadsden County Home Guards had arrived at St. Marks by rail and started a march across the marsh to East River as this fight unfolded. When they saw the Confederate troops retreating, they fell back to the river and turned north to Newport.

Realizing that Scott's men were falling back and probably planned to destroy the bridge at Newport, General Newton ordered Major Weeks to push forward with the dismounted men of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry and try to seize the span before it was too late.

I'll post on the fighting at Newport later today, so be sure to check back. Until the next post, you can read more on the Natural Bridge expedition at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Skirmishing in the Marshes - March 4, 1865

As the Union sailors at East River Bridge waited for Major Weeks to bring up reinforcements from the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry, they failed to detect the approach of a small detachment of Confederates from the 5th Florida Cavalry led by Major William H. Milton.

Moving up through the tree cover on the north side of the river, Milton formed his men in a line along the river bank and then sent forward scouts to unveil the situation. As the Union sailors saw these men in the predawn fog and darkness, they opened fire, but were stunned when Milton's full force responded with a volley that rippled like lightning along the bank of the river.

Marching north on foot along the old road that led from the lighthouse to the bridge, Major Weeks and his men heard the firing. Spreading his men out into the marsh on each side of the road, Weeks rushed them forward to the sound of the firing. Pushing through the thick grass and reeds, they joined the sailors on the south back and engaged Milton's force. The Federals actually outnumbered the Confederates by more than 2 to 1 at this stage of the fight, but the intensity of the fight being put up by Milton convinced Weeks that he was severely outnumbered.

A courier was sent back to check on the status of the landing of the main Union force, but when he reported back that there was no sign of additional troops being landed, Weeks became convinced he could not hold his position and began to fall back across the marsh to the lighthouse. Milton followed, skirmishing with the Federals as they went, and soon was able to observe the Union ships offshore. Realizing that a major landing was about to take place, he pulled his men back to the East River Bridge, tore up the flooring and sent more urgent calls for reinforcements.

The Federal landing went slowly and it was not until late afternoon that Newton finally got his full force ashore at the lighthouse. Even then he still needed supplies, ammunition and cannon to be brought ashore from the ships, so he gave up on advancing that day and only pushed far enough inland to reach some dry ground where his men could camp for the night.

The Confederates observed the entire operation from across the marsh.

I'll continue to look at some of the other incidents of the Natural Bridge expedition in the next post, as we mark the 144th anniversary of the 1865 event. To learn more before the next post, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

St. Marks Lighthouse - Union Landing Point

The first Union troops of the Natural Bridge expedition came ashore at the St. Marks Lighthouse, seen here, in stormy weather on the night of March 3, 1865. Commanded by Major Edmund Weeks, they were dismounted members of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry.

The plan had originally called for the entire Union force to land earlier that day, but a sudden lifting of fog that had shrouded the coast forced the Federal ships to steam across the horizon to avoid detection of the Confederate pickets on shore. By the time they came back that evening, the weather had turned stormy and the pilot was unable to guide the ships over the bar at the mouth of the St. Marks River.

Unwilling to let another day pass, pushing his plans further behind schedule, General John Newton coordinated with naval officers to move a small force ashore to seize the vital East River Bridge as well as the planned landing point at the St. Marks Lighthouse. The bridge was an important link on the road connecting the lighthouse with the inland town of Newport.

A small boat party of sailors rowed up the East River for the bridge, while other boats struggled against the wind and waves to get Major Weeks and his men ashore at the lighthouse. The first party reached the bridge with little problem, scattering but not capturing a party of Confederate pickets camped at the bridge. The larger force under Major Weeks, however, experienced extreme difficulty due to the weather and darkness and it was well after midnight before the men waded ashore into the marsh near the lighthouse.

Although the Federals had no way of knowing it, their plans were already in serious trouble. The pickets scattered from East River Bridge had notified Major William H. Milton of the 5th Florida Cavalry that something was afoot. He had immediately sent a messenger by train to Tallahassee to call for reinforcements and Generals Samuel Jones and William Miller already knew of the threat by the time Weeks got his men ashore at the lighthouse.

I'll post more on the Natural Bridge expedition tomorrow. Until then, you can read more by visiting www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.