Tuesday, March 5, 2013

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 An aggressive cavalry officer who understood the tactical situation on the ground, he was superseded on the night of March 4th by Lieutenant Colonel George Washington Scott, the commander of the 5th Florida Cavalry (CSA).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, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/10219
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

You also can read more at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex

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