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

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

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