Sunday, March 6, 2011

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 www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

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