Sunday, March 17, 2013

"Jacksonville is in Ruins" - The 1863 Union Burning of Jacksonville, Florida

Riverfront in Jacksonville, Florida
Photo by Brian Mabelitini
This month marks the 150th anniversary of the destruction of Jacksonville by Union troops.

Part of an expedition that had been conceived as a means of placing U.S. Colored Troops in East Florida to encourage an uprising by the African slaves in the state, the episode was disastrous for Federals and Confederates alike. Unable to accomplish the objectives of the expedition, the Union soldiers set far to the beautiful port city.

The following account was written from Jacksonville on March 28, 1863, by a correspondent of the New York Herald-Tribune:

Jacksonville is in ruins. That beautiful city, which has for so many years been a favorite resort for invalids from the North, has to-day been burned tot he ground, and, what is sad to record, by the soldiers of the National army. Scarcely a mansion, a cottage, a negro hut, or a warehouse remains. The long lines of magnificent oaks, green and beautiful, with the thickest foliage, the orange groves perfuming the air with their blossoms, the sycamores, the old century plants adorning every garden, the palmetto and bayonet trees, ever tropical in verdure, the rose and the jessamine - all that at this season...has made Jacksonville a little Eden, has been burned, and scorched, and crisped, if not entirely consumed to ashes, by the devouring flames.

Jacksonville as it appeared one year after the fire.
Writing from the upper deck of the U.S. transport Boston as he witnessed the burning of Jacksonville, the correspondent continued his description:

...On every side, from every quarter of the city, dense clouds of black smoke and flame are bursting through the mansions and warehouses. A fine south wind is blowing immense blaring cinders right into the heart of the city. The beautiful Spanish moss, drooping so gracefully from the long avenue of splendid old oaks has caught fire, and so far as the eye can reach through these once pleasant streets, nothing but sheets of flame can be seen, running up with the rapidity of lightning to the tops of the trees and then darting off to the smallest branches.

As the writer noted, the scene at Jacksonville proved that the war had descended to the depths of the vindictive and bloody fighting that had characterized European wars for centuries. Particularly shocking was his description of the burning of Jacksonville's Catholic church:

...Yesterday the beautiful little cottage used as the Catholic parsonage, together with the church, was fired by some of the soldiers, and in a short time burned to the ground. Before the flames had fairly reached the church the soldiers burst open the doors and commenced sacking it of everything of value. The organ was in a moment torn to strips, and almost every soldier who came out seemed to be celebrating the occasion by blowing through an organ pipe.

According to the account, the various Union regiments pointed fingers at each other to place blame for the destruction. The 6th Connecticut, the writer reported, blamed the 8th Maine, while the men of the 8th Maine blamed the soldiers of the 6th Connecticut.

The destruction consumed the homes and property of Unionist families along with that of their pro-Confederate neighbors. The expedition that was expected to turn hundreds if not thousands of Florida's slaves into soldiers for the North secured only 30 black recruits for the Union army. Jacksonville, however, was all but destroyed and untold millions of dollars in damage done.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida - March 6, 1865

Dogwoods were in bloom at the Battle of Natural Bridge
Today marks the 148th anniversary of the Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida. The last significant Confederate victory of the War Between the States, the battle saved not only Tallahassee from Union capture, but nearby Thomasville, Georgia, as well.

To read about the events leading up to the battle, please visit Skirmish at East River Bridge, Disaster at East River Bridge, Skirmish at Newport and Race through the Darkness.

The race to the Natural Bridge of the St. Marks River ended before sunrise on the morning of March 6, 1865, with a large Confederate force in position on the rising hill or ridge that controlled the western end of the bridge.

The Natural Bridge as it appears today.
Union troops arrived on the scene not long after and attempted to force a passage and break the Confederate line. With virtually no intelligence about the strength and position of the force on the opposite side, Brigadier General John Newton (USA) ordered a direct attack down the road that led across the bridge.

The Natural Bridge then was heavily wooded and the banks of the St. Marks River covered with reeds that grew higher than the heads of the soldiers arrayed on opposite sides of the river. The sun had not yet risen and very little moon- and star-light penetrated the thick tree cover of the swamp. Total darkness surrounded Major Benjamin Lincoln and the men of Companies B and G, 2nd U.S. Colored Troops (USA), as they stepped off down the road that crossed the Natural Bridge.

The Confederate line was at the top of the gentle rise.
The firing of Confederate skirmishers alerted the main line that the Federals were coming and as Lincoln and his men emerged from the west end of the bridge into an old field on the level ground near the river, the entire length of the Confederate line opened fire.

One of the participants in the fight wrote a few days later that Major General Samuel Jones (CSA) was under fire, "General Sam Jones was on the field, and fired off the artillery guns himself." Jones had been an instructor of artillery at West Point and commanded Confederate artillery at the Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) early in the war.

Earthwork of a Confederate cannon emplacement.
The Confederate cannon fire, backed by volleys of fire from the 1st Florida Reserves (CSA), 1st Florida Militia (CSA) and dismounted men of the 5th Florida Cavalry (CSA), did its job. The first Federal attack was driven back, as was the second.

The failure of the Union troops to break through in their first two attacks was disastrous for them. General Newton had no additional troops coming up to reinforce his command, but the Confederates had reinforcements and cannon pouring in from all over North Florida.

During the lull that followed the first two Federal attacks, General Jones ordered his men to entrench and earthworks were thrown up along the entire length of the horseshoe-shaped Confederate line. Additional cannon arrived on the field and were positioned at intervals along the lines.

Breastwork of the West Florida Cadets
Having heard the firing to his north from the breastworks at Newport, Brigadier General William Miller left a few civilians in the earthworks there to keep shooting at the soldiers of the 2nd Florida Cavalry (U.S.) on the opposite shore and maintain the illusion that the works were strongly occupied. He then headed north up the Plank Road with the Cadets from West Florida Seminary (CSA), a detachment of Marines from the gunboat CSS Spray (CSA), volunteers from Campbell's Siege Artillery Company at Fort Ward (CSA) and the rest of the home guards of the 1st Florida Militia from Gadsden County (CSA).  This force arrived on the field at about 8:30 a.m., strongly reinforcing the Confederate line.

Monument at Natural Bridge Battlefield
So many Confederates were pouring onto the field that the generals did not need all of them on the firing line and were able to establish a reserve behind their lines.

The Federals tried to find another way across the river, but quickly found that the Confederate line could not be flanked. General Newton then decided to launch a two pronged assault across the Natural Bridge. One column, led by Colonel B.R. Townsend and made up of Companies A, B and H, 2nd U.S. Colored Troops (USA), was ordered to cross the bridge and immediately veer to the left (south) in an attempt to break through the right flank of the Confederate line. A second column, commanded by Major Benjamin Lincoln and made up of Companies E, G and K, 2nd U.S. Colored Troops (USA), was to charge straight up the road against the Confederate center. A third column, led by Lieutenant Colonel Uri B. Pearsall and made up of the entire available force of the 99th U.S. Colored Infantry (USA), was to follow the first two and reinforce any breakthrough made by either of them.

Monument listing the dead of both sides.
The black soldiers of the 2nd and 99th USCT fought courageously, charging across the Natural Bridge over and over, right into the ring of fire that came down on them from all directions as they emerged into the open. Casualties were heavy. The commanders of all three Union columns were shot down, as were many of their men. When told that he probably would die, Major Benjamin Lincoln was heard to say, "I am ready."

The repeated Union attacks failed and the anguish of this failure was magnified when the rebel yells of approaching Confederate reinforcements could be heard coming from across the river. The dismounted men of the 2nd Florida Cavalry (CSA) had arrived on the field, giving off the Confederate battle cry as they approached to hearten the men fighting ahead of them.

Counterattacks now took place, but the 2nd Florida (CSA) was forced back after it stormed across the Natural Bridge in the opposite direction. Heavy fighting moved now to the west side of the river, but General Newton it was over and that his expedition was a failure. Taking advantage of a lull that took place while the men of the 2nd Florida (CSA) waited for additional ammunition to be brought forward, he quit the field and began a rapid return march to the St. Marks Lighthouse.

St. Marks, Tallahassee and Thomasville had been saved from the destruction visited on so much of the South. Florida's capital city to this day holds the distinction of being the only Confederate capital east of the Mississippi River not conquered by Union troops during the combat phase of the war.

Total Union casualties at the Battle of Natural Bridge included 35 killed or mortally wounded, 96 wounded and 50 captured or missing in action.

Total Confederate casualties were 6 killed or mortally wounded, 39 wounded and 4 captured or missing in action.

If you are interested in reading about the battle in depth, please consider my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida:

The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (Book) - $17.95

The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (Kindle) - $9.95

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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Race through the Darkness - March 5-6, 1865

Old Plank Road near Newport
The failure of the Union force to break across the St. Marks River at Newport (see Skirmish at Newport) ignited a race through the darkness with the success of the entire expedition on the line.

Leaving his companies from the 2nd Florida Cavalry (USA) behind to disguise his movement and prevent the Confederate forces at Newport from crossing over and attacking him from behind, Brigadier General John Newton began to move with the main body of his command up a road that paralleled the east bank of the St. Marks River.  A detachment of the 5th Florida Cavalry (CSA) fell back ahead of this movement, watching the Federal advance and getting word across the river to Brigadier General William Miller and Lieutenant Colonel George Washington Scott on the west bank.

Realizing that the Federals were attempting a flanking movement by way of the crossing at Natural Bridge, General Miller ordered Scott to parallel their advance by moving with his available cavalry up the west bank of the St. Marks. Word of the movement also was sent to the overall Confederate commander, Major General Samuel Jones, who had remained behind in Tallahassee to summon, organize and rush additional forces to the front while Miller had gone forward to assume command in the field.

Newport Spring with Plank Road in background.
Jones by this point had left Tallahassee and was at the Oil Still on the Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad with the main body of the 1st Florida Reserves (CSA). Having assembled in Tallahassee from points all over North Florida, the companies of the 1st Reserves reached the Oil Still by rail well after dark, with part of the 1st Florida Militia and additional guns from Dunham's Battery.

Realizing that the front was shifting north, General Jones formed his command into a long column and began a cross-country march through the open pine woods to the Natural Bridge. Many of the men had already been up and moving for more than 24-hours and were so exhausted that they actually would fall asleep while marching, fall down and trip the soldiers in column behind them.

Old Plank Road, followed by Confederate Cavalry
Colonel Scott, meanwhile, continued to move north up the west bank of the St. Marks River. He had the advantage of a better and shorter road, thanks to the Plank Road that led from Newport north to Tallahassee. His cavalry moved through the darkness past Newport Spring and Rhodes Spring to the Natural Bridge.

On the east bank, the Federals also continued their northward movement, but the distance proved to be longer than General Newton had expected and the exhaustion of his men forced him to pause briefly to allow them to rest. This gave the Confederates the advantage they needed.

Rhodes Springs, near Natural Bridge Battlefield
Scott reached the Natural Bridge first with his horsemen from the 5th Florida Cavalry (CSA).  They dismounted and deployed forward into the heavy woods that shrouded the bridge, waiting for the arrival of the detachment of Confederate cavalry that was falling back ahead of the Union advance up the east bank.

Before the Federals could reach the bridge, however, General Jones arrived with the main body of the growing Confederate army. Despite the darkness, he was able to learn enough about the topography of the scene to position his men on a low, curving rise or ridge that overlooked the west end of the Natural Bridge. This alignment allowed his men to form into a line that was shaped something like a shallow horseshoe.  The two ends of the line rested on the St. Marks River above and below the Natural Bridge, with the line following the curving ridge or rise.

The position selected by the general would force the Union soldiers to charge directly into a crossfire from all directions if they hoped to dislodge him. Eyewitnesses later recalled that General Jones personally positioned the men and cannon along this line, even helping to sight in the cannon for maximum effect.

By the time the sound of the skirmishing could be heard approaching the Natural Bridge through the darkness from the east side of the river, the Confederates were in position and ready for action. The Battle of Natural Bridge was about to begin.

If you are interested in reading about the battle in depth, please consider my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida:

The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (Book) - $17.95

The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (Kindle) - $9.95

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Skirmish at Newport - March 5, 1865

Site of the Skirmish at Newport
Heavy fighting erupted for control of the vital Newport Bridge over the St. Marks River on March 5, 1865. Today is the 148th anniversary of the skirmish.

Having broken through at East River Bridge earlier in the day (see Disaster at East River Bridge), Union general John Newton pushed his column up the main road from the St. Marks Lighthouse to Newport as rapidly as possible. Some of the men of the 5th Florida Cavalry (CSA) remained organized enough to skirmish with the Federals as they advanced, but most of the Confederate force fell back from East River to the town of Newport itself.

Brig. Gen. William Miller, CSA
A company of Gadsden County Home Guards from the 1st Florida Militia (CSA) had crossed the St. Marks River on its way to East River when they observed Confederate soldiers fleeing across the marshes with Union troops in pursuit. Falling back, they recrossed the river at Fort Ward (today's San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park) and turned north up the road to Newport.

At the same time, Brigadier General William Miller (CSA) was approaching the scene with additional militia and the Corps of Cadets from the West Florida Seminary (today's Florida State University).

With the forces of both sides converging on Newport, a race developed for control of the key bridge there. General Newton ordered the 2nd Florida Cavalry (USA) to take the lead and seize the bridge, but the Federal cavalrymen were on foot because there had not been a way to bring their horses with them. The Confederate cavalrymen were mounted and got there first.

St. Marks River at Newport, Florida
Breaking up the planking from one end of the bridge and setting fire to the other, the soldiers from Company F, 5th Florida Cavalry (CSA), streamed across the bridge and took up positions in the breastwork that had been built there the previous winter under the direction of Confederate engineers.

The earthwork controlled the bridge and allowed the men holding it to sweep the span with fire not only from straight ahead, but from both flanks as well. The Gadsden County men coming up from Fort Ward soon joined the exhausted cavalrymen, firmly securing the west end of the bridge.

It did not take long for the dismounted men of the 2nd Florida Cavalry (USA) to appear at the opposite end of the bridge.  Their attempt to take the span, however, was driven back by fire from the breastwork on the west side of the river.

Brig. Gen. John Newton, USA
General Newton came up and examined the situation for himself.  Ordering that an ironworks and other buildings on the east side of the river be burned, he ordered his men to dig into rifle pits as well as they could and return the fire coming from the Confederates on the west bank.

Hoping to shell the Southern troops from their fortifications, Newton moved his artillery upriver past the bridge and began a bombardment of Newport.  The plan was for enfilade fire from the cannon to drive the Confederates from their works, but most of the shells flew high and went over the heads of the Southern soldiers, crashing into the town itself.

One shell struck a house where seven slaves had taken shelter. All seven were killed in the explosion. Other projectiles hit houses and stores throughout the town. No other civilians were injured, although the fighting had erupted so fast that many had been unable to escape their homes.

Brigadier General William Miller arrived on the scene after the fighting had started. Accompanied by the Cadets from the West Florida Seminary (CSA), he ordered the young men into the breastworks. They remained under fire there for sometime, joining with the other Confederate soldiers in returning the musket and carbine fire from the Union soldiers on the other side of the river.

Union cannon position was upriver on right bank.
Ultimately, though, the effort to drive the Confederates from their fortification failed and General Newton was unable to take the vital Newport Bridge. Some of the officers from the 2nd Florida Cavalry (USA) were from the area and told him of the Natural Bridge, a place where the St. Marks River flowed underground for a short distance. A road crossed the river there and they believed Newton's force could as well.

His plan to cross at Newport dashed, the general questioned the officers about the Natural Bridge and was told it was only 8 miles upstream. With no other option available, he ordered the soldiers of the 2nd Florida Cavalry (USA) to remain behind to keep up a steady fire on the Confederates at Newport while he turned north up the east side of the river with the black soldiers of the 2nd and 99th U.S. Colored Troops (USA).

The stage was set for the Battle of Natural Bridge, which would erupt before sunrise the next morning. If you are interested in reading about the battle in depth, please consider my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida:

The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (Book) - $17.95

The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (Kindle) - $9.95

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Disaster at East River Bridge - March 5, 1865

East River at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
As auspiciously as things had started for the Confederates in turning back the Union invasion at St. Marks (see yesterday's post Skirmish at the East River Bridge), things quickly went from good to bad 148 years ago today.

Major William Henry Milton of the 5th Florida Cavalry (CSA) had disrupted the first Union attempt to seize the East River Bridge, driving a Union force that outnumbered his own by three to one away from the span and all the way back to the St. Marks Lighthouse. Seeing the fleet that had assembled offshore and the boats bringing load after load of Union soldiers to land, however, Milton fell back to the bridge and prepared for defense.

St. Marks Lighthouse
An open wooden bridge that crossed East River in what is now the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, the span was a vital link on the road that connected the St. Marks Lighthouse with Newport, St. Marks and Tallahassee in Florida as well as Thomasville in Georgia. If the Confederates could hold it, they might well turn back the Union invasion before it got underway.

It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had Major Milton been left in command of the Confederate force at East River Bridge. An aggressive cavalry officer who understood the tactical situation on the ground, he was superseded on the night of March 4th by Lieutenant Colonel George Washington Scott, the commander of the 5th Florida Cavalry (CSA).

When Scott arrived on the scene, he found that Milton had removed the wooden floor planks from the bridge and had positioned his men under the cover of trees and brush on the north (or west) bank, opposite the side from which the Federals would be approaching. In addition to a few extra cavalrymen who had arrived with Scott, the Confederates also brought up a 12-pounder cannon from Lieutenant Drury Rambo's section of Dunham's Battery of the Milton Light Artillery (CSA).

Open marshes across which the Union troops approached.

The gun crew came prepared for both long- and short-range fighting, its caisson filled not only with canister, but also solid shot and shells.

Since the Federal column had to approach by way of a narrow road that led across wide expanses of open
marsh, the Confederates should have been able to shell them from long range as they approached. Such a bombardment of soldiers in column formation in the wide open marshes undoubtedly would have inflicted heavy casualties on the Union force. It was not to be, as artilleryman Thomas Spicer later noted:

Lt. Col. George W. Scott, CSA
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,
Colonel Scott commanded our detachment to hold our fire although we had loaded a shell to shoot 1,250 yards. We had to depress the gun and take this shell out. We then put in a shell "Special Case" loaded with 80 ounce [80 one-ounce] balls. The Federals (Negroes) had then formed a line of battle.

Spicer was severely critical of the colonel's decision to hold the fire of the artillery piece as the Union soldiers advanced and formed for the battle. He remembered seeing the enemy in "a blue stream which seemed endless, reaching from the lighthouse to near East River bridge."

It was a disastrous mistake. Scott later claimed that he had been confronted by more than 2,000 Union soldiers, although the actual number was less than half that many. He also said that he "welcomed them to approach within easy range."  Why he did so is one of the great mysteries of the Natural Bridge expedition.

Alligator in the East River marshes
Allowed this opportunity to form his men for battle, Brigadier General John Newton ordered Companies G and H of the 2nd U.S. Colored Troops (USA) to charge the bridge. They did so, supported by fire from the main column, and the Confederates holding the opposite bank fired a single round from their cannon then broke and ran as the black soldiers came charging across the stringers of the bridge.

John Blocker, another of Rambo's artillerymen, remembered that he ran away so fast through the marsh that "one of my shoe-strings broke and I lost a valuable brogan shoe, which I did not try to recover thankful to get away from the hail of bullets that were encouraging my weary footsteps."

First blood, however, had been drawn. The single shot from the Confederate cannon, which the Federals captured as they streamed over the framework of the bridge, severely wounded two of the soldiers from the 2nd USCT (USA). One of them can be identified as Private John Griffin.  The name of the other is unknown. Two Confederates, Corporal John P. Carlton and Private Wesley Hendry from Company F, 5th Florida Cavalry (CSA), were captured.

The disaster at East River Bridge took place 148 years ago today and ended the only Confederate opportunity to hold back the Union invasion before it pushed out of the coastal marshes and onto the solid ground of Wakulla County.

More fighting would take place at Newport later in the day and I'll post about that later today, so check back tonight.  If you are interested in reading about the Battle of Natural Bridge in depth, please consider my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida:

The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (Book) - $17.95

The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (Kindle) - $9.95

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Monday, March 4, 2013

Skirmish at East River Bridge - March 4, 1865

East River at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
Today marks the 148th anniversary of the Skirmish at East River Bridge, the first armed confrontation of the Natural Bridge expedition.

The U.S. Army and U.S. Navy had combined forces to launch an expedition against St. Marks and Tallahassee in Florida, as well as Thomasville in Southwest Georgia. The entire available force from Key West, Fort Myers and Cedar Key had assembled off the mouth of the St. Marks River, along with virtually every major warship assigned to blockade the Florida coastline between St. Andrew Bay and Key West.

St. Marks Lighthouse
The expedition was headed by Brigadier General John Newton, a seasoned combat officer who had served at Gettysburg and during the Atlanta Campaign. His plan was to seize the wooden bridge that spanned the East River between the St. Marks Lighthouse and Newport and then bring his main force ashore at the lighthouse for a rapid march inland. To support the army troops, a second force of around 1,000 sailors would come ashore at Port Leon on the lower St. Marks River even as the vessels of the U.S. Navy silenced the Confederate cannon at Fort Ward (formerly the Spanish fort of San Marcos de Apalache).

The weather, however, did not cooperate with the Union forces. A fog that had been hiding their ships from view suddenly lifted on the morning of March 3, 1865, forcing the vessels to head out beyond the horizon lest they be discovered by Confederate pickets. When they returned after dark that night, wind and waves caused a series of problems for them.

Site of the Skirmish at East River Bridge

Despite the problems caused by the weather, the Federals went ahead with a plan to take the vital East River Bridge. A boat party of U.S. sailors was sent up the East River to secure the bridge and capture the Confederate pickets known to be stationed there.  The bridge was captured, but the pickets got away.

The Southern cavalrymen stationed at East River Bridge fell back to Newport where they alerted Major William H. Milton of the situation. The Confederate officer immediately dispatched news of the attack to Tallahassee and then pushed forward with fewer than 60 men intent on retaking the bridge and denying its use to any invading force.

St. Marks Lighthouse
Meanwhile, efforts to land a force of dismounted soldiers from the 2nd Florida Cavalry (U.S.) to support the sailors at East River Bridge encountered a laundry list of problems. Darkness, shallow water and weather combined to prevent the reinforcements from coming ashore at the St. Marks Lighthouse until early on the morning of March 4, 1865.

The reinforcements were moving forward up the road connecting the lighthouse to the bridge at sunrise when Major Milton's Confederates attacked. The Union sailors initially held their ground, but Milton's men were so aggressive and kept up such a volume of fire that the Federals quickly came to believe that they were outnumbered.  In fact, with the reinforcements in sight coming up across the march, the Union force significantly outnumbered Milton's command.

East River and the St. Marks Lighthouse are now part of
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge near St. Marks, Florida.
The Confederate major, son of Florida Governor John Milton, kept up such an aggressive attack, however, that the Federals decided to fall back to the St. Marks Lighthouse until additional U.S. soldiers could be brought ashore.  Milton and his outnumbered cavalrymen stayed on their heels, literally chasing them back to the lighthouse in a running fight.

The stage was being set for the Battle of Natural Bridge and the Confederates had quickly gotten the upper hand.

I'll post more on the events leading up to, during and after the battle over the next three days so be sure to check back often. If you would like to learn about the expedition in detail, please consider my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida:

The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (Book) - $17.95

The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (Kindle) - $9.95

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