Monday, March 28, 2011

Growing Interest in the Role of African American Soldiers in Florida

Battlefield Scene at Marianna
With the exception of the Battle of Santa Rosa Island, which took place early in the war, most of the key battles fought in Florida during the War Between the States involved African American soldiers.

The famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry played a critical role in the Battle of Olustee (or Ocean Pond), which took place on February 20, 1864. (See for more.) A strong detachment from the 82nd and 86th U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) carried out a bayonet charge during the Battle of Marianna on September 27, 1864 (see and soldiers from the 2nd and 99th USCT regiments made at least eight charges against entrenched Confederate troops at the Battle of Natural Bridge on March 1864 (see There is also some evidence that at least a few African Americans fought on the Confederate side in the latter two battles.

I was pleased to see a number of African American citizens in attendance at this year's memorial service and reenactment of the Battle of Natural Bridge. It was the first time that a unit of black reenactors had taken part in the annual commemoration and the result was that a much wider spectrum of the community came out to enjoy the activities.

I've also noticed since the reenactment, which took place on March 6th, that I have received a surge in emails seeking information about the role of black soldiers in Florida during the war.

I think this is an outstanding development. The war in Florida included military aspects of importance to several races and many cultures. The higher the interest becomes across the spectrum of Florida's citizenry, the stronger will become the interest in preserving and visiting the state's important Civil War sites. To me, it seems that if this growing interest in the role of the USCT regiments that fought in the state can be nurtured, the result will be a great expansion of interest in the importance of Florida's battles and raids.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Attack on Camp Walton - March 31, 1862

Marker at Fort Walton Beach
One of the least known encounters of the War Between the States in Florida took place 149 years ago this month at what is now Fort Walton Beach.

The Walton Guards, a Confederate unit formed by the men of Walton County in 1861, had established a camp at the Narrows of Santa Rosa Sound in 1861. The sound, shielded from the Gulf of Mexico by the dunes of Santa Rosa Island, is a waterway that leads from Choctawhatchee Bay west to Pensacola Bay. At the time of the war, it was the most common outlet for commerce leaving Walton County. Schooners and steamboats would leave Choctawhatchee Bay by passing through the Narrows and then moving down the sound to Pensacola Bay.

The Walton Guards had excited the ire of Federal forces by firing on boat parties sent into the bay area by the Union Navy, so in March of 1862 a force was sent up Santa Rosa Island from Fort Pickens to retaliate.

Bringing a rifled cannon through the dunes and natural growth of the island, Captain Henry W. Closson of the 1st U.S. Artillery took up a position opposite the sound from Camp Walton on the night of March 31, 1862:

...I remained here until there huts could be seen in the dawn, and then directed Lieutenant Jackson to open fire. The shells burst right in their midst. Loud cries and yells were heard; and the rebels could barely be seen through the brush in their shirt-tails making rapidly for the back country. A scattering volley was fired from what I supposed to be their guard, who then disappeared also.

Carronade at Fort Walton Beach
The Confederates could respond only with musket fire, having no artillery of their own, and quickly withdrew beyond the range of the Union shells. The Federals continued to fire on the camp, but the damage inflicted was of no real significance. As soon as they began their return march back up the island to Fort Pickens, the Confederates reappeared from the woods and set to repairing their camp.

The attack was one of the many minor episodes of the war in Florida and, so far as is known, resulted in no casualties. It did lead Confederate commanders in Pensacola to send over an 18-pound carronade (a short naval cannon) to be mounted at the camp for its defense.

To learn more about Camp Walton, the original "fort" from which Fort Walton Beach takes its name, please visit

Friday, March 11, 2011

Now Available: The Battle of Marianna, Florida (Expanded Edition)

I'm pleased to announce that the new Expanded Edition of my book, The Battle of Marianna, Florida, is now available.

The new edition of the book includes nearly 50 pages of additional information, including maps, more photographs, a detailed bibliography, expanded casualty lists, additional biographical information and a great deal of new information about the 1864 Northwest Florida raid and Battle of Marianna.

The Battle of Marianna was the climax of a raid carried out in Northwest Florida by Union troops under Brig. Gen. Alexander Asboth from September 15 - October 4, 1864. Not only was the raid the deepest penetration of Confederate Florida during the entire War Between the States, it was longer than Sherman's March to the Sea making it one of the most remarkable cavalry raids of the war. In addition, Jackson, Walton, Washington and Holmes Counties in the Florida Panhandle sustained more economic damage during the raid than did any other counties in Florida during the entire war.

The Federal troops began crossing Pensacola Bay from Barrancas Post to what is now Gulf Breeze on September 15, 1864. It took three days to get the men, horses and artillery across and on the 18th they began a movement east along the north shore of Santa Rosa Sound to the old Camp Walton site at today's Fort Walton Beach. From there they skirted around the northern shore of Choctawhatchee Bay and turned inland, devastating the farming communities of today's Walton County and skirmishing with Confederate cavalry at Eucheeanna (then the county seat) on September 23rd.

From Walton County the raiders turned north and crossed the Choctawhatchee River at Cerrogordo in Holmes County on the 25th. Some of the men made it as far north as Geneva in southern Alabama. By midday on the 26th of September, they had pushed into the plantation belt of northwestern Jackson County, pushing aside opposition from the Campbellton home guard as they advanced.

The Union troops reached Marianna the next day, launching a two-pronged assault on the city. Marianna was defended by a few hundred Confederate militia, reserves, home guards and volunteers and one of the fiercest small battles of the war took place in its streets. The 2nd Maine Cavalry sustained its most severe casualties of the war on September 27, 1864, and nearly 20% of the male population of the city was killed, wounded or captured in the fighting. A church and homes were burned and some Confederate soldiers died in the flames rather than surrender.

Often overlooked or misunderstood by historians, the engagement had a dramatic impact on the region of Florida west of the Apalachicola River. Many of the soldiers on both sides were combat veterans and those leaving accounts almost unanimously agreed that it was one of the most severe fights for its size they had encountered in the war.

The new edition is available by following the ad above and can also be obtained as an instant download for your Kindle reader or Kindle software on your computer or smart phone. Signed copies are available through Chipola River Book & Tea in Downtown Marianna (across Lafayette Street from the Battle of Marianna Monument). You can also read more about the battle at

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Murders at Natural Bridge Battlefield?

Natural Bridge Battlefield
The Union force retreated as fast as possible from the battlefield at Natural Bridge, marching through the night of March 6, 1865 and reaching the St. Marks Lighthouse at 4 o'clock on the morning of the 7th.

General Newton himself seems to have been one of the sources for claims that some of the African American soldiers from the 2nd and 99th U.S.C.T. regiments were murdered by Confederate soldiers after being found wounded at the battlefield. On March 28th he wrote to General Samuel Jones at Tallahassee to inquire as to whether Union officers and soldiers captured at Natural Bridge had been treated as prisoners of war:

Gen. John Newton
...It is under testimony that Lieutenant Wilson's life was threatened, and several colored soldiers wounded or unable to evade pursuit were murdered in cold blood, by the cavalry under your command. I hope for the sake of humanity that these questions may be satisfactorily answered.

General Jones responded that all of the Federals captured were being treated as prisoners of war, but he did not otherwise elaborate. Similar claims about prisoners being murdered on the battlefield were repeated in the diaries and letters of other officers, as well as in Northern newspapers, but none of the writers were anywhere near the scene after the fight and were in no position to know.

So what is the truth? The answer can be found in the casualty lists prepared by Union officers after the battle and the records of the Confederate prisoner of war stockade of Camp Sumter at Andersonville, Georgia. In his report of April 19, 1865, General Newton listed one officer and 37 enlisted men as missing in action. Thirteen of these men were members of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry, while one officer and 24 enlisted men were from the 2nd and 99th U.S.C.T. regiments. This total did not include eight severely wounded men left at a home just south of the battlefield. The addition of these men, who were treated by Confederate surgeons after the battle, raises the total number of Union soldiers who could have fallen into Confederate hands to one officer and 45 enlisted men.

Of this number, nine men from the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry apparently escaped capture by taking to the wounds. Regimental records indicate they eventually rejoined their regiment at Cedar Key. Two of the severely wounded soldiers left at the house near the battlefield died of their wounds. Another soldier, Private Solomon Perkins of Company E, 2nd U.S.C.T., was found wounded on the battlefield but survived. These subtractions and the addition of Perkins places the final number of potential prisoners as four men from the 2nd Florida and one officer and 31 enlisted men from the 2nd and 99th.

Lt. Col. George W. Scott
This total matches precisely with the number of prisoners that Lieutenant Colonel George Washington Scott reported as having been captured during or following the battle: "One Lieut., four white and thirty one black persons were captured by the cavalry."

The identical match between the number of prisoners mentioned in Scott's report and the records of the Union army proves conclusively that no prisoners were murdered by Confederate forces after the Battle of Natural Bridge.

Additional proof is provided in a letter from George C. Gibbs, an officer at Andersonville, who reported to the assistant adjutant general in Salisbury, North Carolina, on April 5, 1865, that "about thirty negroes, Louisiana slaves, captured at the battle of Natural Bridge, in Florida, have been ordered here by General Pillow as laborers." The total number of black soldiers captured after the battle was 31, but Private Solomon Perkins died in the Tallahassee hospital a couple of weeks after the battle leaving the final number at 30.

The claims about murders on the battlefield seem to have been nothing more than post-battle propaganda or gossip that swept through the defeated Union force.

To read a more detailed analysis of my investigation into the fates of the men who fought at Natural Bridge, please consider my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida. It is now available in expanded edition by clicking the ad at left. The expanded edition is also available as a Kindle download from

You can also learn more about the battle at

Sunday, March 6, 2011

March 6, 1865 - The Battle of Natural Bridge, Phase Two

Gen. John Newton
The second phase of the Battle of Natural Bridge went no better for the Federals than did the first.

Having decided on a two-pronged attack against the Confederate line, General Newton once again sent his forces blindly out of the tree cover of the Natural Bridge. What he did not know was that the hours he had spent in looking for another way across the river and then in developing a plan of attack had given the Southern forces time to bring up reinforcements and even more artillery as well as to entrench their horseshoe-shaped line.

As the two columns emerged from the tree cover, they came under vicious fire from the entire Confederate line. The column that tried to force its way up the road against the center of the Southern line was driven back repeatedly, yet the soldiers kept trying until the attack was finally called off. The column that tried to strike the right flank of the Confederate line came across what some of the soldiers described as a "bayou" and others as an "old canal." The men were unable to cross and forced to fall back before reaching the Confederate breastworks.

The second round of attacks proved even more disastrous for the Union forces than the first. The attack against the Confederate right completely failed to reach its objective, while the other Union column charged valiantly up the road against the center of the Southern line three times, but was driven back by intense fire each time. Casualties in the attacking columns were extremely high, while Southern forces sustained minimal losses.

Earthworks at Natural Bridge Battlefield
General Newton now found himself in a serious situation. He had already sustained around 25% casualties and had no reinforcements to call up, while it was now obvious that he was facing a Confederate force larger than his own and growing. If he tried to retreat, he knew that the Confederate generals would send their forces charging across the river to strike the rear of his column. To make matters worse, he and his men could hear the rebel yells of the approaching men of the 2nd Florida Cavalry (dismounted) as they came up to reinforce the Confederate forces.

To give himself a chance to withdraw his command, Newton developed a strategy of placing his men in three parallel lines. The Confederates attacked and overran the first line, but the men holding that position had been ordered to break and run for the rear as soon as the attack reached their trench. Believing they had their enemy on the run, the Confederate 2nd Florida Cavalry charged on against the second Union line, only to run into a devastating volley of musket and cannon fire. Forced to fall back briefly, they had to wait until additional ammunition could be brought forward. The Federals took advantage of this lull to withdraw from the field, felling trees behind them as they went to obstruct Southern pursuit.

The Battle of Natural Bridge was over. Confederate Generals Samuel Jones and William Miller had turned back the only serious threat to Tallahassee presented during the entire war. In addition, they had inflicted losses of more than 180 killed, wounded and captured on the Union forces, while sustaining 54 casualties of their own, five of them civilians killed by Union artillery fire at Newport the previous day. The disparity in the number of killed was shocking. Thirty-five Union officers and soldiers were killed or mortally wounded, while only six Confederates were killed or mortally wounded.

I will continue to post on the Natural Bridge Expedition with a look at General Newton's retreat to the Gulf. Until then, read more at and please consider my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (also available as a Kindle download).

March 6, 1865 - The Battle of Natural Bridge, Phase One

Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park
Today marks the 146th anniversary of the Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida. One of the last significant Confederate victories of the War Between the States, it preserved Tallahassee's status as the only unconquered Southern capital east of the Mississippi River.

It did not take the Confederate forces on the west side of the St. Marks River long to realize that the Union troops on the east side were moving north. Although the Federal commanders seem not to have recognized it, a race was underway for control of the only other viable crossing of the river, the Natural Bridge located east of today's community of Woodville.

Although the term "natural bridge" often brings to mind images of the beautiful natural arches in Virginia and elsewhere, the Natural Bridge of the St. Marks River was actually just a place where the river flowed underground for a short distance before rising back to the surface and continuing its way to Apalachee Bay. With the St. Marks at flood stage and the bridge at Newport blocked, the natural feature was the only other place a Union force could hope to quickly pass the barrier of the river.

Gen. Samuel Jones
Recognizing that Natural Bridge was the objective of the Federal force, Confederate General Samuel Jones began to divert troops from the Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad to that point. Both of the Southern generals were now in the field. Brigadier General William Miller had gone down to Newport with the cadets from the West Florida Seminary (today's Florida State University), while Jones directed the movement of the 1st Florida Militia (the area home guards) and the 1st Florida Infantry Reserves from the railroad through the pine woods to Natural Bridge.

The Confederates reached the bridge first. Coming up from Newport with a detachment of men from the 5th Florida Cavalry, Lieutenant Colonel George Washington Scott took up a position on the low ridge overlooking the west end of the bridge. He was joined there by the troops being sent forward by General Jones and a horseshoe-shaped defensive line was established, with both "ends" of the horseshoe anchored on the St. Marks River above and below the bridge. This alignment created a brutal crossfire into which the Federals would have to advance.

On the east side of the river, the Federal troops moved up a little used road and reached the bridge in the predawn darkness. Unable to see what was on the opposite side due to the darkness, high grass that grew along the river and the heavy tree cover that grew on the natural bridge itself in those days, General John Newton took the bold step of ordering his men forward. They advanced blindly, quickly brushing away minor resistance from Confederate skirmishers and crossed the bridge.

Natural Bridge
As the head of the Federal column advanced from the tree cover of the bridge into an old field on the low ground at its west end, the Confederate troops opened fire on them with muskets and cannon. The attack was driven back, yet the African American soldiers charged over and over. Flame from cannon and musket barrels lit up the night and heavy smoke settled over the river as the two sides blasted away at each other. Despite their brave attacks, however, the Federals were unable to force the Confederates back.  General Newton called a temporary halt to the fighting and advanced skirmishers to keep the Southern troops occupied while he looked for another way to cross.

The river was high and even possible crossings were found to be already guarded by Confederate soldiers. Newton quickly realized that he had no other option but to cross at Natural Bridge or retreat. He convened his officers and explained his plan. He would commit almost his entire force. One column would advance directly up the road across the bridge and against the center of the Confederate line. A second column, meanwhile, would cross the bridge and turn off to the left in order to assault the right flank of the Confederate position. The general hoped that the two pronged attack would break the Southern lines at some point.

I will continue with the second phase of the Battle of Natural Bridge later this evening. If you are interested in learning more about this battle, I encourage you to consider my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida. You can also learn more at

Saturday, March 5, 2011

March 5, 1865 - Fighting at East River and Newport Bridge

Marshes near East River
Daybreak on March 5, 1865 - 146 years ago today - brought a dramatic escalation of fighting as General John Newton finally turned his column of Union troops inland and began his long-anticipated march for Newport on the St. Marks River.

The entire army land force was now ashore and the navy had also provided two 12-pounder boat howitzers with crews to man them. As the column began its march up the road through the marshes to the East River bridge, the warships of the flotilla also began their move up the lower St. Marks River. The plan called for them to silence the Confederate guns at Fort Ward (today's San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park) and then land an additional 500-600 sailors just below the fort to serve as additional infantry.

The gunboats quickly found the going slower and tougher than expected. The lower St. Marks River was shallow and the channel tortuous and the ships quickly fell behind schedule. For the Union land forces, however, things initially went better.

Major G.W. Scott, C.S.A.
As the column approached the East River Bridge, the soldiers found a force of dismounted Confederate cavalry blocking their way. The Southern forces, now commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George Washington Scott, had also brought up a single piece of artillery. For some reason, though, they did not open fire on the Federals as they advanced up the road across the open marsh. One of the artillerymen later said that Colonel Scott ordered his men to change their load after the cannon was already prepped for action, causing a delay that gave the Union soldiers a chance to approach to within close range. The colonel himself reported that he "allowed them to approach to within easy range."

It was a mistake. Led by Major Benjamin Lincoln, Companies G and H, 2nd U.S.C.T., made a sudden charge on the Confederate position. The Southern cannon got off only a single round as the African American soldiers stormed across the stringers of the East River bridge (the planks had been removed). Scott and his men broke and ran, leaving behind their cannon to fall into Union hands. Two men had been severely wounded in the single blast from the Confederate cannon. One of them, Private John Griffin (Company G, 2nd U.S.C.T.) died from his wounds. Two Confederates were taken prisoner.

Major Edmund Weeks, U.S.A.
The planks that had been removed from the bridge were found on the Confederate side and the span was quickly repaired, allowing the Federals to cross and continue their advance. Fearful that the retreating Southerners might try to set fire to the bridge over the St. Marks River at Newport, General Newton ordered Major Edmund Weeks to advance quickly with his dismounted battalion from the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry and secure the span before they could do so. Weeks pushed forward as fast as possible, but saw smoke rising above the trees before he reached the east bank of the St. Marks opposite Newport.

The Confederates had made it to Newport in the time it took the Federals to repair the bridge at East River. Falling across the Newport bridge to prepared entrenchments on the west bank, they set fire to one end of that structure and dismantled a section of the other end. As the dismounted Union cavalrymen came up on the scene, they found the bridge impossible to cross.

St. Marks River at Newport
Sharp firing broke out as the two forces opened up from opposite sides of the river. Colonel Scott had been reinforced shortly after his arrival at Newport by the appearance of Captain James Smith's Home Guards from Gadsden County, 25 C.S. Marines from the gunboat C.S.S. Spray and 20 members of Campbell's Siege Artillery from Fort Ward (temporarily serving as infantry). These reinforcements gave the colonel enough men to direct a good volume of fire on the opposite end of the Newport bridge. The Federals were unable to approach their end of the bridge and took up sheltered positions and began to return fire.

General Newton arrived on the scene to find that a stalemate had developed. His men were unable to drive the Confederates from their earthen breastworks with musket fire alone, so he ordered his artillery brought forward. The Federals did not have any horses, so the guns were hand-dragged by men from the 99th U.S.C.T. One of the navy boat howitzers was placed to fire directly across the partially dismantled bridge, while the other was moved a short distance up the river to enfilade the left flank of the Confederate line. The two pieces opened a fierce cannonade that was accompanied by steady small arms fire.

Artifacts recovered from the vicinity indicate that the Union guns were firing shells and naval grape shot. The aim of the guns, however, was too high and the projectiles flew over the Confederate entrenchments and smashed into the homes and fences of the town of Newport instead. No Confederate soldiers were reported injured in the shelling, but at least one Union projectile exploded in a house and killed five slaves who had taken shelter there.

Natural Bridge
The ferocity of the bombardment failed to move the Confederates from their entrenchments and the cannonade was eventually called to an end. Realizing he would not be able to cross at Newport, General Newton consulted with his guides. Members of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry who were familiar with the area, the recommended that he move upstream to a second crossing known as the Natural Bridge. A place where the St. Marks River flowed underground for a short distance before rising again to continue its passage to the Gulf of Mexico, the Natural Bridge was a well-known crossing place. With no other option, the general turned his men north. The battalion from the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry was left behind to prevent the Confederates from crossing Newport bridge themselves and attacking the rear of the Union column.

I will post on the Battle of Natural Bridge tomorrow, but until then you can read more in my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (also available as a Kindle download), or by visiting my site on the battle at

The annual reenactment of the battle will take place tomorrow (Sunday, March 6th) at Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park south of Tallahassee. The memorial service will begin at 1 p.m. and will be followed by the main reenactment. You can learn more and obtain directions to the park by visiting the link in the previous paragraph.

Friday, March 4, 2011

March 3-4, 1865 - Amphibious Operations Begin...

St. Marks Lighthouse
The morning of March 3, 1865, dawned unexpectedly bright and sunny over Apalachee Bay. The fog that had obscured the Union flotilla from view for days had disappeared and the ships suddenly faced a very real possibility of discovery by Confederate troops onshore.

Hoping to keep his plans secret, General Newton quickly conferred with naval commanders and a decision was made to steam out across the horizon until after dark. The ships immediately turned about and moved out into the Gulf of Mexico, surprisingly without being seen by the Confederate pickets in the area.

Apalachee Bay
Once darkness had fallen, the flotilla started to make its way back to the mouth of the St. Marks River, but things quickly got very complicated. The weather turned stormy and as the ships were tossed and rolled by the waves in the bay, the pilot was unable to find his way across the bar at the mouth of the river. He was familiar with the channel and it seems likely that the wind was driving water out of the bay creating treacherous conditions for navigation. Hopes of landing the troops on the night of the 3rd were dashed and the ships dropped anchor to ride out the storm.

Despite the stormy weather, General Newton decided to make an attempt on the Confederate pickets stationed at the East River bridge on the road leading from the St. Marks Lighthouse inland to Newport. Acting Ensign John F. Whitman set out from the schooner O.H. Lee with a detachment of 10 or 12 sailors in a small boat and rowed for the mouth of the East River. He and his men soon found the river and rowed up to the bridge where they tried to capture the Confederate pickets.

The Southerners were from the 5th Florida Cavalry and, despite the storm and late hour, proved alert enough to avoid capture. They fled up the Newport Road while Whitman and his men took possession of the vital bridge. At the same time, Major Edmund Weeks of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry led 60 of his men ashore from a second boat party near the St. Marks Lighthouse. The early stages of the expedition were beginning to take shape.

The Confederates from East River fell back to Newport where they alerted Major William H. Milton of the 5th Florida Cavalry that Federal troops were on the mood. Milton, the son of Florida's Confederate governor, sent a courier to St. Marks with orders to commandeer a train and proceed immediately to Tallahassee to alert Generals Samuel Jones and William Miller of the incursion. He then took his available force, only around 40 men, and headed directly for the East River Bridge.

Marshes near St. Marks Lighthouse
The small party of sailors under Acting Ensign Whitman had taken up positions on the opposite side of the river to guard the bridge until Major Weeks and his men could reach the position from the St. Marks Lighthouse. Major Milton, meanwhile, came up on the north side of the stream. His men advanced cautiously through the swamp bordering the river and a sharp exchange of gunfire soon erupted.

Major Weeks and his men were approaching along the road through the marsh when the sounds of Major Milton's attack ripped through the predawn darkness on March 4, 1865, 146 years ago today. The 60 or so dismounted cavalrymen immediately spread out into a loose line of battle in the high grass and rushed up to reinforce Whitman's sailors near the bridge. Even though he was outnumbered, Milton pushed across the bridge and drove the Union force hard. Fearing they were outnumbered and seeing that no reinforcements were coming up to support them, Weeks and Whitman withdrew to the lighthouse, with the Confederates skirmishing with them as they went.

Both sides now clearly knew that more than a salt raid or similar minor incursion was underway. As daylight spread across the marshes, Major Milton could see the Union ships offshore. Additional information was sent to Tallahassee and soon telegraph wires were humming from the capital city calling in reinforcements from all across North Florida.  At the same time, the Federals began to push additional troops ashore at the lighthouse. The crisis was building.

I will post more tomorrow, but until then you can learn more in my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (also available as a Kindle download), and by visiting

The annual reenactment of the Battle of Natural Bridge will take place on Sunday (March 6th) at Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park south of Tallahassee. The memorial service will take place at 1 p.m. followed by the reenactment.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

March 2, 1865 - Wrecking Parties Come Ashore

St. Marks Lighthouse & Apalachee Bay
The land operations of the Natural Bridge Expedition began 146 years ago today on March 2, 1865.

Leaving the Union ships positioned off the mouth of the St. Marks River, small boats pulled for shore with wrecking parties of soldiers from the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry. Under orders from General John Newton to destroy the railroad bridges east and west of Tallahassee, these men were engaged in an extremely dangerous mission. If captured, they would in essence be treated as terrorists.

One of the parties, led by a somewhat shadowy civilian named "Mr. Green," went ashore at Shell Point east of the mouth of the St. Marks and started inland for the railroad bridge that spanned the Ochlockonee River between Quincy and Tallahassee. Destroying this trestle would prevent the Confederates from bringing in reinforcements by rail from their posts at Quincy and Marianna.

Marker for Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad
The other detachment of bridge wreckers was put ashore near the mouth of the Aucilla River east of Tallahassee with orders to destroy the railroad trestle over that stream. This, of course, would prevent the Confederates from bringing in troops from across Middle and East Florida. Led by two sergeants, this party included at least ten men, among them a rather fascinating individual named William Strickland.

A resident of Taylor County, Florida, when the war erupted, Strickland had served in the Confederate army but had a falling out with the Confederacy when his commanding officer was changed and his unit was ordered from Florida to the main lines. Deserting from the Southern army, he went home to Taylor County and organized a company of like-minded men for mutual self defense. The Confederates tried to force them back into service, but they refused to go and declared themselves the "United States of Taylor." Strickland even contacted Confederate authorities, proposing that he and his men be given neutrality if that agreed to supply cattle to the South.

The Confederates instead launched a military expedition into the Taylor County area and tried to round up the men. They disappeared into the swamps, but the Confederate officer in charge decided instead to round up their wives and families and send them to a concentration camp south of Tallahassee. This move, as might be expected, outraged not only Strickland and his men but many of Florida's state officials and citizens. Governor John Milton formally protested the action and personally intervened to secure the freedom of the arrested civilians. He arranged for them to be passed through the lines to the Union blockade ships off St. Marks.

Strickland and his men were so angered by the episode that the crossed lines and joined the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry. By the time of the Natural Bridge Expedition, they had been in the service for sometime and their prior guerrilla experience made them ideal men for carrying out the bridge wrecking assignments.

Although General Newton would not know it until after the Battle of Natural Bridge, both of the parties failed. The detachment sent to destroy the Ochlockonee bridge turned back without ever reaching its objective. The Aucilla bridge detachment actually reached the railroad and set the trestle on fire, but was spotted by Confederate soldiers on a train crossing the bridge at the time. Home Guards were sent into the Aucilla River swamps with dogs and several of the bridge wreckers were captured. Among them was William Strickland. He and one of his fellow Union soldiers would meet their fates before a firing squad in Tallahassee shortly after the battle.

I will post more on the Natural Bridge Expedition tomorrow as the commemoration of its 146th anniversary continues. You can read more in my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (also available as a Kindle download), or by visiting

The annual reenactment of the battle will take place this Sunday, March 6th, at Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park south of Tallahassee. The memorial service will take place at 1 p.m. (Eastern), followed by the reenactment. Follow the link above for a full schedule of events.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

March 1, 1865 - In the Fog of Apalachee Bay...

Looking down the St. Marks River to Apalachee Bay
Heavy fog continued to hide the gathering flotilla from Confederate pickets on shore and March 1, 1865 - 146 years ago today - was spent making preparations for the assault on the "Big Bend" coast of Florida.

The flotilla was the most powerful sent against any Florida port during the entire war and it included warships, transports, tenders and General Newton's command ship. Most of the vessels were powered by steam, but a few of the smaller ones were schooners. The firepower of their combined armament far exceeded that of Fort Ward and the C.S.S. Spray which were positioned to defend the port of St. Marks against attack.

The U.S. Navy, in fact, contributed heavily to the firepower of the army troops making up Newton's expeditionary force. The general had brought no field artillery up the Gulf with him, but the navy officers agreed to supply him with two 12-pounder boat howitzers as well as sailors to man them. Although it is unclear if these were "light" boat howitzers or "heavy" boat howitzers, they did provide the Union troops with the ability to shell Confederate positions to soften up any opposition ahead of an infantry assault.

March 1st was spent arranging such aspects of the expedition and making sure the officers and men understood their orders. The fog, fortunately for the Federals, obscured the Union ships from view throughout the day and the small detachments of Confederates around the mouth of the St. Marks did not detect the presence of the vessels. As darkness fell, General Newton's complicated plan remained intact.

I will continue to post on the events of the Natural Bridge Expedition tomorrow as we approach Sunday's 146th anniversary of the Battle of Natural Bridge. If you would like to read more before the next post, be sure to visit or consider the expanded edition of my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (also available as a Kindle download).

The anniversary commemoration of the battle takes place this weekend at Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park near Woodville south of Tallahassee. The memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. (Eastern) on Sunday at the battlefield, followed by the main battle reenactment.