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 www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

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.

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