Monday, February 28, 2011

February 28, 1865 - The Union Flotilla assembles off St. Marks

St. Marks Lighthouse & Apalachee Bay
The morning of February 28, 1865, dawned with a heavy fog shrouding the coastline of North Florida. The St. Marks Lighthouse had long been darkened, but in the waters off the mouth of the St. Marks River, a large flotilla of Union warships and transports began to assemble.

It was 146 years ago today and the arrival of the flotilla off St. Marks could be called the "official" beginning of the Natural Bridge Expedition. The forces needed to carry out the inland march were now in place and General John Newton convened a meeting aboard a ship offshore to discuss plans with both his own officers and those of the U.S. Navy.

Apalachee Bay from the Lighthouse
As discussed in yesterday's post, the ultimate objective of the expedition seems to have been the prisoner of war camp at Thomasville, Georgia, but to get there the Federals would have to achieve several immediate objectives. The most important of these were the seizure of the point where the St. Marks Lighthouse stands. This would serve as the landing site of the expedition and its possession was vital to the success of the expedition.

It was also vital that the Union troops quickly take possession of the East River Bridge. A sluggish stream surrounded by marshes and swamps, the East River presented a natural barrier to any force marching inland from the lighthouse across the marshes of today's St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. In 1865, the river was spanned by an open wooden bridge that could easily be destroyed by a defending force, thereby blocking the only usable road leading inland from the lighthouse.

If these objectives could be quickly taken, the Union force could march inland fast and surprise the scattered Confederate troops in the area. From East River, it was just a short march to the key bridge over the St. Marks River at Newport. By moving quickly and taking this bridge, the Federals would clear the last significant natural barrier holding them back from St. Marks, Tallahassee, the railroad connecting the two communities, and the South Georgia city of Thomasville where General Newton and his officers thought 3,000 Union prisoners were being held.

To support these movements, the general dispatched small detachments with orders to move up through the swamps and destroy the railroad bridges east and west of Tallahassee. The destruction of these trestles would prevent the Confederates from using the railroad to quickly bring in reinforcements.

Earthworks of Fort Ward
While these activities were underway, the Union navy agreed to move its warships up the lower St. Marks River and engage the Confederate batteries at Fort Ward, now part of San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park. This earthwork fort had been built atop the stone ruins of an old Spanish bastion and was heavily armed with artillery that commanded the approach to the port of St. Marks via the lower river. The gunboat C.S.S. Spray was tied up alongside the fort and her cannon could be expected to assist in its defense.

Once the fort and gunboat were silenced, the Navy would land 1,000 sailors at the site of the hurricane destroyed town of Port Leon just below St. Marks. These men would march inland as infantry to support the army's movement.

Just explaining the plan takes time as it contained many objectives and many different operations. It was a recipe for disaster and that is what would happen over the coming days.

I will continue to post on the Natural Bridge Expedition tomorrow. Until then, you can read more at, or in the expanded edition of my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (also available as a Kindle download).

Sunday, February 27, 2011

February 27, 1865 - Objective of the Natural Bridge Expedition

Harbor at Cedar Key, Florida
Learning from a courier that General Newton was at Cedar Key and had ordered him to turn back, Major Edmund Weeks of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry called off his planned raid and returned to to the Union outpost on February 27, 1865, 144 years ago today.

As soon as the troops reached the harbor, the general ordered Major Weeks to board the transports with Companies C, D and E of the 2nd Florida (U.S.) and Companies E, G and H of the 2nd USCT (U.S. Colored Troops). At the same time, Newton moved his own headquarters to the Alliance. The three vessels - Honduras, Magnolia and Alliance - then steamed out for the mouth of the St. Marks River, where they would arrive the next morning. A strong detachment was left behind to defend the post at Cedar Key (actually located on Depot Key), during their absence.

Historic Old Capitol in Tallahassee
The actual objectives of the Natural Bridge Expedition have been argued almost since the day the Federal troops returned to Cedar Key and Key West in 1865. Southern writers assumed, reasonably, that the general's objective had been to capture Tallahassee, the capital of Florida. Newton, however, denied this, claiming that he had never intended to march on Tallahassee unless a clear opportunity developed. His objective, he claimed, had simply been to close the port of St. Marks. A number of modern historians have accepted the general's statements as the true state of things, although all of his assertions were written after the fact and after he had returned to his headquarters following a failed campaign. So what is the truth?

There is actually considerable evidence that the Union expedition was launched not only to capture Tallahassee and St. Marks, but the nearby city of Thomasville, Georgia, as well!

Thomas Chatfield, a U.S. Navy officer involved in the expedition, wrote that, "General Newton showed me an open letter from the Admiral...stating that General Newton had planned an expedition having in view the capture of St. Marks, and also for the relief of the Union prisoners camped at St. Marks."

The reference to prisoners of war in Chatfield's account indicates that the true objective of the Union attack may have been a prisoner of war camp established by the Confederates in Thomasville the previous fall. Sherman was them moving through Georgia and Southern commanders feared he might launch a raid to free the prisoners being held at Camp Sumter (Andersonville). As a result, prisoners were moved from that facility to an array of other locations, one of which was Thomasville.  A large compound was established in the city, which at its height held between 3,000 and 5,000 Union prisoners of war. Although the Union officers had no way of knowing this, however, the prison had been closed by the time the Natural Bridge Expedition was set afoot.

Although Newton himself later denied his intent was to liberate the prisoners at Thomasville, there are additional sources that contradict his denials. The New York Times, for example, had a correspondent in Key West at the time of the expedition. As the troops returned, he filed a report that stated the expedition had been, "unsuccessful in accomplishing its objective - the release of some 3,000 Union prisoners at Thomasville, near the southern boundary of Georgia."

I will continue to post on the Natural Bridge Expedition throughout the week, so be sure to check back in regularly. To learn more, please consider my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida, which can be previewed by clicking the ad at left. It is also available as an instant Kindle download. Also be sure to visit my website on the battle at

The anniversary of the Battle of Natural Bridge will be marked this weekend at Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park in Woodville (south of Tallahassee). The memorial service will take place on Sunday, March 6th, at 1 p.m. (Eastern), followed immediately by a reenactment of the battle.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

February 26, 1865 - Union Transports off Cedar Key

Island Hotel at Cedar Key (ca. 1850s)
Daybreak on February 26, 1865 - 146 years ago today - found a small flotilla of Union army transports and navy warships riding off Cedar Key, Florida.

The vessels had come to take aboard men from the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry and the 2nd U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) for transport to the mouth of the St. Marks River for an expedition that would lead 8 days later to the Battle of Natural Bridge, one of the last significant Confederate victories of the War Between the States.

Gen. John Newton
The facts of the expedition are pretty clear. Confederate troops had attacked Fort Myers in South Florida on February 20, 1865, prompting General John Newton at Key West to believe that North Florida might be lightly defended. Relying on faulty intelligence, Newton believed that the soldiers involved in the assault on Fort Myers must have come from the northern part of the state and assumed that, by acting quickly, he might be able to move up the Gulf Coast of the Florida and strike before the Confederates could return back up the peninsula.

While Newton had no way of knowing it, the Southern force engaged at Fort Myers was part of Florida's famed "Cow Cavalry" and its presence in the southern peninsula had in no way weakened the defenses of the northern parts of the state.

Admiral C.K. Stribling
Coordinating with Admiral C.K. Stribling of the U.S. Navy, the general embarked the African American soldiers of the 99th USCT aboard the steamer Magnolia with orders to proceed to Punta Rassa in support of the garrison at Fort Myers. The steamer Honduras was also prepped for immediate service and left Key West on February 23, 1865, carrying General Newton, his staff and three companies from the 2nd USCT. Although he would later claim that he intended to cut off the Confederate troops in South Florida, on the day of the Fort Myers attack (February 20th), Newton had agreed with Admiral Stribling to move up the Gulf to St. Marks.

The Honduras linked up with the Magnolia at Punta Rassa and the two steamers moved together up the coast, arriving off Cedar Key at nightfall on February 25, 1865. The vessels were joined there shortly by the steamer Alliance, which had followed them up from Key West. Other ships, including the warships Mahaska, Stars and Stripes, Spirea and Fort Henry, were ordered by Admiral Stribling to assemble off the mouth of the St. Marks.

It was not until he reached Cedar Key that General Newton learned that that the post commander, Major Edmund Weeks of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry, was away with many of his men on a projected raid into the interior. On the 26th, 146 years ago today, couriers were sent to call him back and the men still at post were ordered to prepare to embark.

The plan devised by Newton and Stribling was simple on its face, but would prove complicated to carry out. Moving up from Key West with the 99th USCT and three companies from the 2nd USCT, Newton would augment his force with three companies from the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry and four companies from the 2nd USCT at Cedar Key before steaming on to the mouth of the St. Marks River. There he would join forces with a large navy flotilla that would assist in putting the me ashore. While the general marched inland with his troops, the warships would move up the St. Marks River, silent the guns of Fort Ward (today's San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park) at the confluence of the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers, and put ashore 1,000 sailors who would assist the army force on its march inland.

In the next post, I'll look closer at the objectives of the Natural Bridge Expedition and discuss some of the targeted communities as part of a week long series marking the 146th anniversary of the Battle of Natural Bridge. Until then, you can read more in the new Expanded Edition of my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (also available as a Kindle download), or by visiting

The annual Memorial Service and Reenactment of the Battle of Natural Bridge will take place next weekend, March 5-6, 2011. The Memorial Service will be held at the battlefield at 1 p.m. next Sunday, March 6th, followed by the main battle reenactment.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Kindle versions of two Florida Battle books now available!

Instant downloads of two of my books on the Civil War in Florida are now available for your Kindle reading device or for the free Kindle software Amazon offers for your computer, Ipad or smartphone.

The Battle of Natural Bridge was fought on March 6, 1865, along Florida's St. Marks River and was one of the last significant Confederate victories of the war. Confederate regulars, reservists, cadets, militia and volunteers commanded by Generals Samuel Jones and William Miller turned back desperate assaults by Union troops at the Natural Bridge of the St. Marks, preserving Tallahassee's status as the only Southern capital east of the Mississippi not captured during the war. The battle also saved a large area of North Florida and South Georgia from economic destruction at the hands of Federal troops. The Battle of Natural Bridge was a significant action fought near the end of the war and also holds a unique place in African American history as nearly all of the Union soldiers taking part in the main fight were men from the 2nd and 99th U.S.C.T. regiments.

The Battle of Marianna took place on September 27, 1864, a day long observed in Florida as "Marianna Day." Sometimes called "Florida's Alamo," the engagement developed when a force of Confederate reserves, militia, home guards and volunteers tried to defend the Northwest Florida city of Marianna against a column of Union cavalry and mounted infantry led by Brigadier General Alexander Asboth. The two forces collided in a fierce battle that ended with hand to hand fighting in and around St. Luke's Episcopal Church, which was destroyed in the action. Several Confederates were burned to death in the church after they refused to surrender. The culmination of the deepest penetration of Confederate Florida by Union forces during the entire War Between the State, the battle was described by participants with extensive battlefield experience as the most intense fight, for its size, they encountered during the entire war.

The Kindle versions are of the expanded editions of both books and are priced at $9.95 each, a substantial savings over the cost for the print version. Print copies of the expanded version of The Battle of Natural Bridge are now available and can be ordered in the column at right. The print version of the new expanded edition of the Battle of Marianna will be available next week.

To learn more about the Battle of Natural Bridge, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.nbindex.

To learn more about the Battle of Marianna, please visit

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Kindle Version of "The Battle of Marianna, Florida" is Now Available!

I'm pleased to announce that the new expanded edition of "The Battle of Marianna, Florida" is now available for immediate download if you have one of Amazon's Kindle reading devices or have the free Kindle software on your computer, Ipad, smartphone, etc.

The print version of the book will be released next week. I will let you know as soon is it out and how you can obtain a copy.

Including roughly 50 pages of new information, this book represents a major expansion from the original edition. A number of recently discovered Confederate and Union eyewitness accounts were used to expand the narrative and the book includes additional photographs, maps, bibliography and more.

If you aren't familiar with the Battle of Marianna, it took place on September 27, 1864 in Northwest Florida when Confederate reservists, militia and home guards battled a column of 700 Union soldiers in the streets of Marianna. It was one of the fiercest small battles of the war and culminated the deepest penetration of Confederate Florida by Union soldiers during the entire war. By the time the Marianna raid was over, Jackson, Washington, Holmes and Walton Counties suffered greater economic losses than any other Florida counties during the War Between the States.

The Battle of Marianna, Florida examines the reasons for the raid and follows its path from Pensacola to Marianna and back, looking at its impact not just on the soldiers who took part, but on the civilians and communities it affected as well.  The book also includes detailed casualty lists and the most detailed listing of the defenders of Marianna yet assembled.

To download the Kindle version instantly, please click the book ad at the upper left. I'll let you know next week as soon as the new expanded print edition is available for order.

If you would like to learn more about the Battle of Marianna, please visit

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Orman House Historic State Park - Apalachicola, Florida

Orman House in Apalachicola
One of the most beautiful antebellum homes in Florida was also the home of a noted soldier of the Confederacy.

William Orman was only 8 years old when the elegant old Orman House was built in Apalachicola in 1838. The son of a wealthy cotton merchant, he attended Yale and was a lawyer in Apalachicola when Florida seceded from the Union in 1861. When the call went out for volunteers to defend the state, he was among the first in his city to step forward.

Enlisting in Company B, 1st Florida Infantry, on April 4, 1861, he was quickly selected its 1st lieutenant. The 1st Florida Infantry was one of the regiments sent to Pensacola Bay in 1861 to become part of General Braxton Bragg's Army of Pensacola. Lieutenant Orman was detached in November to do duty on a harbor patrol boat in Pensacola Bay, a duty which he continued into early 1862.

Orman House Historic State Park
The "old" 1st Florida Infantry was a 12-months regiment and its service came to an end in the late spring of 1862. Orman then reenlisted as a private in Company K of the "new" 1st Florida Infantry on September 5, 1862, and was appointed quartermaster sergeant of the regiment the following month. He served in that capacity with the 1st Florida until the end of the war, when it was surrendered in North Carolina as part of General Joseph E. Johnstons's army. The 1st Florida took part in the most fierce battles waged by the Army of Tennessee during the last three years of the war.

The Apalachicola home where he spent his childhood before becoming a soldier of the Confederacy is now preserved as Orman House Historic State Park. To learn more, please visit

Thursday, February 17, 2011

35th Annual Battle of Olustee Reenactment Scheduled for Sunday

Olustee Battlefield Historical State Park
The 35th Annual reenactment of the Battle of Olustee will take place this Sunday (February 20, 2011) at Olustee Battlefield Historical State Park on U.S. Highway 90 East of Lake City, Florida.

The Battle of Olustee (or Ocean Pond) was Florida's largest battle of the War Between the States. Fought on February 20, 1864, the Confederate victory ended an unauthorized expedition by Union General Truman Seymour to capture a vital railroad bridge over the Suwanee River. Among the units that fought in the battle were Confederacy's famed Colquitt's Brigade and the Union's famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry.

Fought in the open pine woods along the Florida & Atlantic-Gulf Central Railroad just east of Olustee Station, the battle was a brutal stand-up fight involving charges and counter-charges, flank attacks and brutal artillery fire. More than 10,000 men took part and by the time it was over, more than 1,860 Union soldiers and 950 Confederates were reported killed, wounded or missing. To learn more about the history of the Battle of Olustee, please visit

Cannon at Olustee Battlefield
This year's reenactment will take place on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. (Eastern) at the battlefield, which is located 45 miles west of downtown Jacksonville and 13 miles east of Lake City. Please note that no pets will be allowed on the day of the reenactment.

To reach the park from Lake City, take U.S. 90 East for 13 miles through the community of Olustee. The battlefield entrance will be just ahead on your left.  From Jacksonville, take I-10 East to the Exit #324 (Sanderson/Olustee), turn left on U.S. 90 and follow it around 7 miles to the park, which will be on your right.

Other events will take place in Lake City throughout the weekend, beginning at 9 a.m. tomorrow (Friday) with a memorial service at Oaklawn Cemetery in Lake City. Please click here for a complete schedule of the weekend's events.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Plan to Destroy Fort Pickens, Details Emerge in the North

Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, U.S.A.
Before the implementation of the Fort Pickens Truce between state forces at Pensacola and President James Buchanan in late January of 1861, the prospect of violence that could spark war loomed at Pensacola Bay.

Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer and a garrison of fewer than 100 U.S. sailors and soldiers held Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, while state militia troops from Florida, Alabama and Mississippi took up positions on the mainland and besieged the fort. The commander of state forces at the bay, Colonel William H. Chase, demanded three times that Slemmer surrender Fort Pickens but each time he refused.

While Slemmer believed he could use his artillery to hold the masonry fort against an attacking force of as many as 5,000 men, he also knew there was a strong possibility that he and his men would be overwhelmed if Chase launched a sudden assault. As result, he he took steps to prepare Fort Pickens not only for defense, but for an emergency evacuation. Part of this plan, according to his wife and the wife of Lieutenant J.H. Gilman, involved reducing the fort to rubble if he was forced to evacuate:

Fort Pickens
The United States steamer Wyandotte is kept constantly under steam, at a safe distance from the reach of enemies, and in readiness to co-operate in the defense of the fort. In case of an emergency she will be at hand ready to receive on board the garrison, should they be overpowered and obliged to abandon the fort to the enemy. There are arrangements by which the entire forces will be able to escape through a covered way to the beach, where they can take the boats and go on board any vessel that may be in waiting to receive them. In such event it will probably be blown up. - Statement of Mrs. Lieutenant Slemmer and Mrs. Lieutenant Gilman, February 5, 1861.

The negotiation of the Fort Pickens Truce prevented Slemmer from having to resort to such measures, by guaranteeing that Southern forces would not assault the fort so long as Union forces did not try to reinforce it. 

To read more about Fort Pickens, please visit  

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park
The preliminary proposal from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to close 53 of Florida's state parks and historic sites - including both of the state's Civil War battlefields -  is before the Florida House of Representatives' Agriculture & Natural Resources Subcommittee, which will meet again on February 9th.

The proposal would close one-third of Florida's state parks and historic sites to save $6.5 million from DEP's monstrous current budget of more than $1.4 BILLION. It would also devastate the economies of smaller communities across the state that benefit from tourism at many of the parks, at a time when the nation is in recession.

Among the parks recommended for closure are a number with Civil War features, including:
If you would like to voice your thoughts on the proposal to rid the state park system of so many of its Civil War historic sites, please visit the subcommittee's website and just click on the names of the individual members:

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Civil War and Seminole War Battlefields on the Chopping Block in Florida

Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is considering locking the gates to dozens of key historic sites in the Sunshine State. Included among these are both of Florida's state-owned Civil War battlefields (Olustee and Natural bridge), the Dade Battlefield site where the Second Seminole War ignited, historic forts and more. 

The DEP says that closing 53 state parks would save the agency $6.5 million. The number, however, is but a small fraction of the economic impact of the tourism dollars generated by visitors to the parks. Olustee, for example, is the focus of a major annual festival that attracts tens of thousands of people to the Lake City area. The loss of the park would cost the community millions of dollars.

Natural Bridge Battlefield
Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park was the site of the last significant Confederate victory of the Civil War. The Battle of Natural Bridge not only preserved Tallahassee's status as the only Southern capital east of the Mississippi not taken by Union forces during the war, it saved a large area of North Florida and South Georgia from extensive destruction. The state just spent a large sum of money to acquire additional property at the battlefield, with help from concerned citizens who donated as well. To close the park now seem a slap in the face to all those who fought so hard to save the battlefield and devoted their own labor and money to the effort.

I encourage you to write to Governor Rick Scott and recommend that DEP look at slashing its administrative side instead of the state parks that mean so much to the heritage and economy of Florida. He can be reached via this link:

Here is a complete list of the parks being reviewed for closing, along with links for information on some of them:

Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park, Haines City
Atlantic Ridge Preserve State Park, Stuart
Big Shoals State Park, White Springs
Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park, Flagler Beach
Camp Helen State Park, Panama City Beach
Cedar Key State Museum State Park, Cedar Key
Colt Creek State Park, Lakeland
Constitution Convention Museum State Park, Port St. Joe -
Crystal River Archaeological State Park, Crystal River -
Dade Battlefield Historic State Park, Bushnell -
Dagny Johsnon Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, Key Largo
Deer Lake State Park, Santa Rosa Beach
Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park, Gainesville -
Don Pedro Island State Park, Boca Granda
Dudley Farm Historic State Park, Newberry
Dunn’s Creek State Park, Pomona
Estero Bay Preserve State Park, Estero
Fort Cooper State Park, Inverness -
Fort George Island Cultural State Park, Jacksonville
Fort Mose Historic State Park, St. Augustine -
John Gorrie Museum State Park, Apalachicola -
Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial at Gamble Plantation Historic State Park, Ellenton -
Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park, Tallahassee -
Lake June-in-Winter Scrub State Park, Sebring
Lake Talquin State Park, Tallahassee
Letchworth-Love Mounds Archaeological State Park, Tallahassee -
Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park, Islamorada
Madison Blue Spring State Park, Lee
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park, Cross Creek -
Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park, Woodville -
Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park, Olustee -
Orman House Historic State Park, Apalachicola -
Paynes Creek Historic State Park, Bowling Green
Peacock Springs State Park, Luraville
Perdido Key State Park, Pensacola
Ponce de Leon Springs State Park, Ponce de Leon -
Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park, Jacksonville
Rock Springs Run State Reserve, Sorrento
San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park, Alachua
San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park, St. Marks -
Savannas Preserve State Park, Jensen Beach
St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park, Stuart
St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park, Fellsmere
Suwannee River Wilderness Trail/Nature and Heritage Tourism Center, White Springs
Terra Ceia Preserve State Park, Palmetto
The Barnacle Historic State Park, Coconut Grove
Troy Spring State Park, Branford
Wacasassa Bay Preserve State Park, Cedar Key
Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, Palm Coast
Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park, Port Richey
Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park, Islamorada
Ybor City Museum State Park, Tampa
Yellow River Marsh Preserve State Park, Holt