Sunday, February 27, 2011

February 27, 1865 - Objective of the Natural Bridge Expedition

Harbor at Cedar Key, Florida
Learning from a courier that General Newton was at Cedar Key and had ordered him to turn back, Major Edmund Weeks of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry called off his planned raid and returned to to the Union outpost on February 27, 1865, 144 years ago today.

As soon as the troops reached the harbor, the general ordered Major Weeks to board the transports with Companies C, D and E of the 2nd Florida (U.S.) and Companies E, G and H of the 2nd USCT (U.S. Colored Troops). At the same time, Newton moved his own headquarters to the Alliance. The three vessels - Honduras, Magnolia and Alliance - then steamed out for the mouth of the St. Marks River, where they would arrive the next morning. A strong detachment was left behind to defend the post at Cedar Key (actually located on Depot Key), during their absence.

Historic Old Capitol in Tallahassee
The actual objectives of the Natural Bridge Expedition have been argued almost since the day the Federal troops returned to Cedar Key and Key West in 1865. Southern writers assumed, reasonably, that the general's objective had been to capture Tallahassee, the capital of Florida. Newton, however, denied this, claiming that he had never intended to march on Tallahassee unless a clear opportunity developed. His objective, he claimed, had simply been to close the port of St. Marks. A number of modern historians have accepted the general's statements as the true state of things, although all of his assertions were written after the fact and after he had returned to his headquarters following a failed campaign. So what is the truth?

There is actually considerable evidence that the Union expedition was launched not only to capture Tallahassee and St. Marks, but the nearby city of Thomasville, Georgia, as well!

Thomas Chatfield, a U.S. Navy officer involved in the expedition, wrote that, "General Newton showed me an open letter from the Admiral...stating that General Newton had planned an expedition having in view the capture of St. Marks, and also for the relief of the Union prisoners camped at St. Marks."

The reference to prisoners of war in Chatfield's account indicates that the true objective of the Union attack may have been a prisoner of war camp established by the Confederates in Thomasville the previous fall. Sherman was them moving through Georgia and Southern commanders feared he might launch a raid to free the prisoners being held at Camp Sumter (Andersonville). As a result, prisoners were moved from that facility to an array of other locations, one of which was Thomasville.  A large compound was established in the city, which at its height held between 3,000 and 5,000 Union prisoners of war. Although the Union officers had no way of knowing this, however, the prison had been closed by the time the Natural Bridge Expedition was set afoot.

Although Newton himself later denied his intent was to liberate the prisoners at Thomasville, there are additional sources that contradict his denials. The New York Times, for example, had a correspondent in Key West at the time of the expedition. As the troops returned, he filed a report that stated the expedition had been, "unsuccessful in accomplishing its objective - the release of some 3,000 Union prisoners at Thomasville, near the southern boundary of Georgia."

I will continue to post on the Natural Bridge Expedition throughout the week, so be sure to check back in regularly. To learn more, please consider my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida, which can be previewed by clicking the ad at left. It is also available as an instant Kindle download. Also be sure to visit my website on the battle at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

The anniversary of the Battle of Natural Bridge will be marked this weekend at Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park in Woodville (south of Tallahassee). The memorial service will take place on Sunday, March 6th, at 1 p.m. (Eastern), followed immediately by a reenactment of the battle.

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