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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