Saturday, February 26, 2011

February 26, 1865 - Union Transports off Cedar Key

Island Hotel at Cedar Key (ca. 1850s)
Daybreak on February 26, 1865 - 146 years ago today - found a small flotilla of Union army transports and navy warships riding off Cedar Key, Florida.

The vessels had come to take aboard men from the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry and the 2nd U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) for transport to the mouth of the St. Marks River for an expedition that would lead 8 days later to the Battle of Natural Bridge, one of the last significant Confederate victories of the War Between the States.

Gen. John Newton
The facts of the expedition are pretty clear. Confederate troops had attacked Fort Myers in South Florida on February 20, 1865, prompting General John Newton at Key West to believe that North Florida might be lightly defended. Relying on faulty intelligence, Newton believed that the soldiers involved in the assault on Fort Myers must have come from the northern part of the state and assumed that, by acting quickly, he might be able to move up the Gulf Coast of the Florida and strike before the Confederates could return back up the peninsula.

While Newton had no way of knowing it, the Southern force engaged at Fort Myers was part of Florida's famed "Cow Cavalry" and its presence in the southern peninsula had in no way weakened the defenses of the northern parts of the state.

Admiral C.K. Stribling
Coordinating with Admiral C.K. Stribling of the U.S. Navy, the general embarked the African American soldiers of the 99th USCT aboard the steamer Magnolia with orders to proceed to Punta Rassa in support of the garrison at Fort Myers. The steamer Honduras was also prepped for immediate service and left Key West on February 23, 1865, carrying General Newton, his staff and three companies from the 2nd USCT. Although he would later claim that he intended to cut off the Confederate troops in South Florida, on the day of the Fort Myers attack (February 20th), Newton had agreed with Admiral Stribling to move up the Gulf to St. Marks.

The Honduras linked up with the Magnolia at Punta Rassa and the two steamers moved together up the coast, arriving off Cedar Key at nightfall on February 25, 1865. The vessels were joined there shortly by the steamer Alliance, which had followed them up from Key West. Other ships, including the warships Mahaska, Stars and Stripes, Spirea and Fort Henry, were ordered by Admiral Stribling to assemble off the mouth of the St. Marks.

It was not until he reached Cedar Key that General Newton learned that that the post commander, Major Edmund Weeks of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry, was away with many of his men on a projected raid into the interior. On the 26th, 146 years ago today, couriers were sent to call him back and the men still at post were ordered to prepare to embark.

The plan devised by Newton and Stribling was simple on its face, but would prove complicated to carry out. Moving up from Key West with the 99th USCT and three companies from the 2nd USCT, Newton would augment his force with three companies from the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry and four companies from the 2nd USCT at Cedar Key before steaming on to the mouth of the St. Marks River. There he would join forces with a large navy flotilla that would assist in putting the me ashore. While the general marched inland with his troops, the warships would move up the St. Marks River, silent the guns of Fort Ward (today's San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park) at the confluence of the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers, and put ashore 1,000 sailors who would assist the army force on its march inland.

In the next post, I'll look closer at the objectives of the Natural Bridge Expedition and discuss some of the targeted communities as part of a week long series marking the 146th anniversary of the Battle of Natural Bridge. Until then, you can read more in the new Expanded Edition of my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (also available as a Kindle download), or by visiting

The annual Memorial Service and Reenactment of the Battle of Natural Bridge will take place next weekend, March 5-6, 2011. The Memorial Service will be held at the battlefield at 1 p.m. next Sunday, March 6th, followed by the main battle reenactment.

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