Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Fighting at East River and Newport as Battle of Natural Bridge looms (March 5, 1865)

Vicinity of Union camp on night of March 4, 1865
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
149 years ago today, Union forces began their march to the Battle of Natural Bridge. Confederate forces resisted in sharp encounters at East River and Newport, both in Wakulla County, Florida.

The final day of fighting leading up to the Battle of Natural Bridge began when Brigadier General John Newton ordered his column of Federal soldiers to advance from the pine grove where the men had camped after coming ashore the previous evening at the St. Marks Lighthouse. The camp was in the vicinity of today's Picnic and Headquarters Ponds at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.

East River at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
After chasing the initial Union landing force back to the St. Marks Lighthouse the previous day, outnumbered Confederate forces under Major William H. Milton of the 5th Florida Cavalry had fallen back to the wooden bridge over the East River and pulled up the flooring. Lt. Colonel George Washington Scott of the 5th Florida Cavalry arrived during the night with a few reinforcements and a single piece of artillery. He assumed command of the force from Milton.

The events that took place as the Union column advanced the short distance from their camp to the East River bridge on the morning of March 5, 1865, did not characterize Colonel Scott at his best.

Lt. Col. George Washington Scott, CSA
5th Florida Cavalry
The Confederates could see the long blue line of the Union troops as it advanced along the Lighthouse Road across the marsh. Southern artillerymen later recalled that they could have blasted the Federals from long range and were prepared to do so when Colonel Scott suddenly ordered them to load canister for close-in defense. They had to extract the shell they had already loaded and switch to a canister load.

Canister loads consist of many small projectiles packed into a single container. When the cannon fires, the container breaks apart and the balls spread out much like a gigantic shotgun shell.

The time it took for the artillerymen to switch loads allowed the charging troops from the 99th U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) to reach the opposite side of East River bridge. The Confederate cannon got off only a single shot against the charging Union soldiers as they streamed across the stringers of the bridge.

The Confederates were severely outnumbered and broke into a wild retreat as the Union infantrymen reached their side of the river. Their cannon was abandoned and captured by the oncoming Federals.

Historic photo showing Newport Breastworks
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
Colonel Scott recovered quickly from his tactical mistakes at East River bridge and ordered his men to move rapidly to the bridge over the St. Marks River at Newport. Arriving there, they tore up the planks from one end of the bridge and set fire to the other end before taking up positions behind breastworks on the west bank.

In a move that proved extremely beneficial, Brigadier General William Miller and Captain Theodore Moreno had fortified the west end of Newport Bridge with earthworks during the fall of 1864. The capture of Marianna in the Florida Panhandle by Union troops on September 27, 1864, had alarmed authorities in Tallahassee and they had fortified the southern approaches to the capital city.

In addition to the breastworks at Newport, Confederate engineers had enclosed Fort Ward (San Marcos de Apalache) at St. Marks and built a series of fortifications around the southern side of Tallahasee. One of these can still be seen today at Old Fort Park. Click here to see a mini-documentary and read more about Tallahassee's forgotten Confederate forts.

James C. Haynes of the 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
General Newton ordered Major Edmund Weeks and the dismounted men of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry to move on the Newport Bridge as quickly as possible and seize the span before the Confederates could organize a proper defense. Weeks and his men rushed forward but arrived too late. As they came into the open on the east side of the St. Marks, the Confederates opened fire from behind their breastworks on the west bank.

The Federals scrambled for any shelter they could find and returned fire as a sharp skirmish erupted over the water of the St. Marks River. As the fighting continued, reinforcements came up for both sides. On the east bank, General Newton arrived with the main body of the Union force. On the west bank, units from the Gadsden County Home Guard arrived, along with Brigadier General William Miller and the Cadets from the West Florida Seminary (today's Florida State University).

Post-war photo of the West Florida Cadets
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
The Cadets would gain eternal fame the next day at the Battle of Natural Bridge, but they came under fire for the first time on March 5, 1865, at Newport Bridge.

Unable to dislodge the Confederates from their breastworks with musket and carbine fire, General Newton ordered his artillery moved into position. One gun was dragged upriver to fire down into the Confederate works from their left flank. Another was positioned to fire directly across the bridge. This accomplished, the Federals opened a heavy cannonade of Newport.

Site of Battle of Newport Bridge
Their firing, however, was high and did no injury to the Confederates behind their earthwork. Instead, the shells crashed into houses in the town, many of which were still occupied by civilians, most of them women and children. One Union shell exploded in a house where a group of African American slaves had taken shelter. Seven were killed.

In the end, though, Newton was unable to drive out the Confederate defenders and could not cross the St. Marks River at Newport. Informed by some of the men of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry that another crossing could be found upriver at the Natural Bridge, he turned his column north and began his final march to the Battle of Natural Bridge.

Observing the Union movement up the St. Marks, the Confederate cavalry under Lt. Colonel Scott began to move north as well. As the Federals marched up the east side of the river, the Confederate paralleled them up the west side. The race to Natural Bridge was on.

I will post on the Battle of Natural Bridge tomorrow in commemoration of its 149th anniversary. To read more and see the new mini-documentary on the battle, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

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