Sunday, February 23, 2014

Newton leaves for Natural Bridge, 149 years ago today (February 23, 1865)

Brig. Gen. John Newton, USA
Union General John Newton left Key West 149 years ago today to command the expedition that would culminate eleven days later at the Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida, the last significant Confederate victory of the War Between the States (or Civil War).

The expedition had begun on the previous day when the 99th U.S. Colored Troops left Key West on board the steamer Magnolia. Companies A, B and K of the 2nd U.S. Colored Troops followed 149 years ago today on board the steamer Honduras, along with General Newton and his staff. Their immediate destination was Punta Rassa near Fort Myers, but Newton had already reached agreement with Admiral C.K. Stribling for a movement on St. Marks, Tallahassee and Thomasville, Georgia (see First Day of the Natural Bridge Expedition).

Brigadier General John Newton was a well-regarded Union commander when he set off on the Natural Bridge Expedition. A Virginia native and the son of a U.S. Congressman, he had attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He graduated second in the Class of 1842, finishing ahead of future Union generals William S. Rosecrans, John Pope, Abner Doubleday and George Sykes, as well as Confederate generals Mansfield Lovell, G.W. Smith, A.P. Stewart, Martin L. Smith, D.H. Hill, R.H. Anderson, Lafayette McLaws, Early Van Dorn and James Longstreet.

Fredericksburg, Virginia
Before the war he had taught engineering at West Point and served as the Chief Engineer of the Utah Expedition. When Virginia left the Union, Newton gave his loyalties to the Union and helped design and construct the massive chain of defenses built to protect Washington, D.C.

As a combat officer, General Newton led a brigade during the Peninsula campaign. He fought at South Mountain and Antietam and led a division of the VI Corps at Fredericksburg. He was one of the Union generals who visited President Abraham Lincoln after the defeat at Fredericksburg to express a lack of confidence in the leadership of Army commander Major General Ambrose E. Burnside. He was promoted to Major General, but lost that rank and was reduced back to Brigadier General after his involvement in the Burnside episode became public.

Wounded at Salem Church during the Chancellorsville Campaign, Newton replaced Major General John Reynolds in command of I Corps after the latter officer was killed in the opening hours of the Battle of Gettysburg. His Corps was instrumental in rolling back Pickett's Charge on the final day of that battle.

Sent to the Army of the Cumberland ahead of General William Tecumseh Sherman's Atlanta Campaign, he served throughout that campaign and was credited with possibly saving Sherman's entire army at the Battle of Peachtree Creek.

Waud sketch of Key West in 1863.
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
After the fall of Atlanta, General Newton was sent to Key West. He knew from his involvement with Sherman that thousands of Union prisoners of war were supposedly held at Thomasville, Georgia, and this played a part in his decision to launch the Natural Bridge Expedition.

As he left Key West with the troops from the 2nd and 99th U.S. Colored Troops, Newton appears to have seriously underestimated his opponents in Florida. He took no field artillery with him from Key West, nor did he arrange to transport horses for use by officers or mounted scouts. He seemed to feel that the Confederates in North Florida would not be able to assemble enough men to oppose his movements. He would learn otherwise.

I will post more on the Natural Bridge Expedition tomorrow. You can learn more anytime at or by reading my book - The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida - which is available on the right side of this page.

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