Friday, February 28, 2014

Union troops arrive off St. Marks, 149 years ago today (February 28, 1865)

Apalachee Bay off the mouth of the St. Marks River
The U.S transport steamers Honduras, Magnolia and Alliance arrived off the mouth of the St. Marks River 149 years ago today on February 28, 1865. The Battle of Natural Bridge was now just six days away.

On board the vessels were the main bodies of the 2nd and 99th U.S. Colored Troops and Companies C, D and E of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry. The men of the 99th were packed aboard the Magnolia, while the companies from the 2nd USCT filled the decks of the Honduras. The Alliance carried the men of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry along with Brigadier General John Newton and his headquarters staff.

Another view of Apalachee Bay
According to General Newton, the steamers took up a position thirteen miles from shore near the buoy marking the channel into the Ochlockonee River. A dense fog shrouded the ships from the view of Confederate sentries on shore.

The flotilla of Union warships ordered to the mouth of the St. Marks by Admiral C.K. Stribling were expected to assemble with the three transports the next morning.

On shore, the Confederates could not see the Federal ships off the coast and still had no idea that they were there.

Earthworks of Fort Ward at St. Marks, Florida
The largest body of Southern troops in the immediate vicinity was Campbell's Siege Artillery, a company raised at Bainbridge, Georgia. It manned the heavy artillery emplaced at Fort Ward, the name given to the old Spanish fort of San Marcos de Apalache by the Confederates when they reoccupied the site at the confluence of the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers and threw up earthworks as a defense against Union attack.

Tied up alongside the fort was the gunboat CSS Spray, a small high pressure steamer that had been converted from civilian to military use by the C.S. Navy. It carried a crew of Confederate sailors and marines.

Powder Magazine of Fort Ward
Originally an open battery, the rear of the fort had been enclosed the previous winter following the Battle of Marianna. Fought on September 27, 1864, that engagement in the Florida Panhandle had awakened authorities in Tallahassee to the exposed situation of the capital city. In response, they began an aggressive effort to fortify the southern approaches to the city. A rear wall was built at Fort Ward to strengthen it against land attack. At the same time, breastworks were thrown up at Newport, several miles up the St. Marks River to guard the wooden bridge at that point.

Earthworks of Fort Houstoun in Tallahassee
At Tallahassee itself, a semi-circular line of redoubts (square forts) and breastworks was thrown up around the southern side of the city. One of these forts, the well-preserved Fort Houstoun, can still be seen today at Old Fort Park.

General Newton would convene a conference of key U.S. officers the next day to deliberate a plan of action for dealing with these lightly manned defenses. Heavy banks of fog, meanwhile, prevented the Confederates from learning of the danger lurking just offshore.

I will post more tomorrow. To learn more and to view the new mini-documentary on the Battle of Natural Bridge, please visit

To learn more about this weekend's planned reenactment, please visit

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