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 www.exploresouthernhistory.com./nbindex and please consider my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (also available as a Kindle download).

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