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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