Monday, February 28, 2011

February 28, 1865 - The Union Flotilla assembles off St. Marks

St. Marks Lighthouse & Apalachee Bay
The morning of February 28, 1865, dawned with a heavy fog shrouding the coastline of North Florida. The St. Marks Lighthouse had long been darkened, but in the waters off the mouth of the St. Marks River, a large flotilla of Union warships and transports began to assemble.

It was 146 years ago today and the arrival of the flotilla off St. Marks could be called the "official" beginning of the Natural Bridge Expedition. The forces needed to carry out the inland march were now in place and General John Newton convened a meeting aboard a ship offshore to discuss plans with both his own officers and those of the U.S. Navy.

Apalachee Bay from the Lighthouse
As discussed in yesterday's post, the ultimate objective of the expedition seems to have been the prisoner of war camp at Thomasville, Georgia, but to get there the Federals would have to achieve several immediate objectives. The most important of these were the seizure of the point where the St. Marks Lighthouse stands. This would serve as the landing site of the expedition and its possession was vital to the success of the expedition.

It was also vital that the Union troops quickly take possession of the East River Bridge. A sluggish stream surrounded by marshes and swamps, the East River presented a natural barrier to any force marching inland from the lighthouse across the marshes of today's St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. In 1865, the river was spanned by an open wooden bridge that could easily be destroyed by a defending force, thereby blocking the only usable road leading inland from the lighthouse.

If these objectives could be quickly taken, the Union force could march inland fast and surprise the scattered Confederate troops in the area. From East River, it was just a short march to the key bridge over the St. Marks River at Newport. By moving quickly and taking this bridge, the Federals would clear the last significant natural barrier holding them back from St. Marks, Tallahassee, the railroad connecting the two communities, and the South Georgia city of Thomasville where General Newton and his officers thought 3,000 Union prisoners were being held.

To support these movements, the general dispatched small detachments with orders to move up through the swamps and destroy the railroad bridges east and west of Tallahassee. The destruction of these trestles would prevent the Confederates from using the railroad to quickly bring in reinforcements.

Earthworks of Fort Ward
While these activities were underway, the Union navy agreed to move its warships up the lower St. Marks River and engage the Confederate batteries at Fort Ward, now part of San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park. This earthwork fort had been built atop the stone ruins of an old Spanish bastion and was heavily armed with artillery that commanded the approach to the port of St. Marks via the lower river. The gunboat C.S.S. Spray was tied up alongside the fort and her cannon could be expected to assist in its defense.

Once the fort and gunboat were silenced, the Navy would land 1,000 sailors at the site of the hurricane destroyed town of Port Leon just below St. Marks. These men would march inland as infantry to support the army's movement.

Just explaining the plan takes time as it contained many objectives and many different operations. It was a recipe for disaster and that is what would happen over the coming days.

I will continue to post on the Natural Bridge Expedition tomorrow. Until then, you can read more at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex, or in the expanded edition of my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (also available as a Kindle download).

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