Saturday, February 22, 2014

First Day of the Natural Bridge Expedition, 149 years ago today (February 22, 1865)

Key West Lighthouse
Photo by Lauren Pitone
On February 22, 1865 - 149 years ago today - Union troops at Key West began boarding transport steamers for the expedition that would end with their devastating defeat at the Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida.

During the previous night news had reached their commander, Brigadier General John Newton, that the Union outpost at Fort Myers was under attack from the Special Battalion of Florida Cavalry (often called the "Cow Cavalry"). The transport steamer Alliance, which had arrived late in the night, also brought a report that Captain J.J. Dickison of the 2nd Florida Cavalry (CS) had turned back a raid from Cedar Key by the 2nd Florida Cavalry (US) at the Battle of Station Four.

Admiral C.K. Stribling, U.S. Navy
After conferring with Admiral C.K. Stribling, General Newton began boarding troops to go to the relief of Fort Myers 149 years ago today:

...The kindless of Admiral Stribling having placed at our disposal the steamer Magnolia, the Ninety-ninth U.S. Colored Infantry, Lieutenant-Colonel Pearsall, was embarked, destined for Punta Rassa. In the meantime the steamer Honduras arrived from Punta Rassa, whither it had gone on the receipt of the news of the rebel attack (to protect our depot there), and communicated the intelligence of the retreat of the enemy from Fort Myers. - Brig. Gen. John Newton (US) to Lt. Col. C.T. Christensen (US), March 19, 1865. 

Despite the arrival of news that Fort Myers was safe, Newton decided to continue his movement. The Magnolia steamed out of the harbor at Key West while the steamer Honduras was ordered to prepare to transport additional troops - including the general himself - on the following day

Brig. Gen. John Newton, USA
...In the meantime, after consultation with the admiral, the following general plan was adopted: The troops to be landed at Tampa or Cedar Keys, in order to cut off the force of the enemy sent to the Lower Peninsula, or else to proceed to the neighborhood of Saint Mark's for a raid or sudden expedition, in which the co-operation of the navy was promised. - Brig. Gen. John Newton (US) to Lt. Col. C.T. Christensen (US), March 19, 1865.

General Newton's report of how the Natural Bridge Expedition began was a bit less than truthful. In fact, he had already decided to strike at St. Marks in a bold attempt to capture not only the capital city of Tallahassee, but the Georgia city of Thomasville as well:

...General Newton showed me an open letter from the Admiral, addressed to several commanding officers of the fleet, stating that General Newton had planned an expedition having in view the capture of St. Marks, and also for the relief of the Union prisoners camped at Thomasville, a few miles distant from St. Marks.... - Thomas Chatfield (U.S. Navy).

The New York Times who wrote on March 23, 1865, that the expedition had been launched to secure the "release of some 3,000 Union prisoners at Thomasville, near the southern boundary of Georgia."
Civil War prison site in Thomasville, Georgia
This statement by Thomas Chatfield, a U.S. Navy officer serving in the Gulf at the time, was confirmed by a correspondent for

There had in fact been a prisoner of war camp at Thomasville. Built by the Confederates when Sherman's March to the Sea threatened existing prisons at Andersonville and Millen, the camp had been used only for a brief time. Once Sherman's threat had passed by, the Thomasville prisoners were returned to Andersonville. General Newton, however, had no way of knowing that the men he sought to free were no longer at Thomasville. Click here to learn more about the Thomasville Civil War Prison.

Magnolia marked the beginning of the Natural Bridge Expedition. I will continue to post on this movement over the next two weeks.
Soldiers believed to be from the 99th USCT
The departure from Key West of the first companies of the 99th U.S. Colored Troops aboard the steamer

To read more on the Battle of Natural Bridge, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex or consider my book on the battle, The Battle of Natural Bridge. It is available on the right side of this page.


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