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.

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