Tuesday, March 5, 2013

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

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

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