Tuesday, March 4, 2014

First Skirmish at East River Bridge, 149 years ago today (March 4, 1865)

East River in the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
During the predawn hours of March 4, 1865, Major William H. Milton (CS) approached East River Bridge in today's St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge with a detachment of Confederate soldiers from the 5th Florida Cavalry. The first recorded shots of the Natural Bridge expedition would take place that morning, 149 years ago today.

Milton dismounted his men as he approached the bridge, leaving part of his small force to the rear to hold the horses. With the rest of his men, he then crept forward through the trees and brush to reconnoiter the situation at the bridge.

Another view of East River
Upon examination, he found that the vital span was still protected by the party of U.S. sailors who had seized it the previous evening. Commanded by Acting Ensign John F. Whitman of the USS O.H. Lee, the landing party numbered only 10 or 12 men and Milton realized he could take or drive them off with a sudden attack.

Spreading his men out, he moved aggressively and opened fire on the Union sailors. The Confederate cavalrymen were armed with single shot carbines and were able to maintain a steady volume of fire on the Federal shore party. Unsure of the size of the Confederate force but convinced from its aggressiveness that he was heavily outnumbered, Whitman and his men began to give way.  Milton's dismounted cavalrymen surged across the wooden bridge in hot pursuit.

Road from the St. Marks Lighthouse (left of photo)
Meanwhile, a second Union landing party of 60 men from the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry was making its way forward along the road from the St. Marks Lighthouse under the command of Major Edmund Weeks of that regiment. He was accompanied by Acting Master Thomas Chatfield of the U.S. Navy.  As the dismounted Union cavalrymen were approaching East River bridge, they heard the sudden crash of gunfire from Milton's attack.

Weeks immediately ordered his men to form a line of battle on both sides of the road in the marsh. To let the sailors at the bridge know that help was on the way, Chatfield fired a series of shots from his revolver. The U.S. sailors fell back to link up with the oncoming Federal soldiers.

Marshes of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
Milton, however, continued his aggressive attack. Although he was now outnumbered by the 70 or so Union soldiers and sailors in the field, he had the momentum and kept it. As the firing increased, Chatfield stood in an exposed position on the road watching the men of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry deploy on each side of him. Major Weeks warned him to take cover, pointing out that the Confederates were excellent shots. One of the Southern soldiers quickly proved the point by firing a shot that neatly clipped away one of the shoulder straps from Chatfield's uniform.

St. Marks Lighthouse
As he tried to hold his position, Weeks sent a courier back to the St. Marks Lighthouse to check on the status of the effort to land more Federal troops. When the courier returned to tell him that no additional soldiers had yet come ashore, the Union major decided he could not hold back the Confederates and began a fighting withdrawal back to the lighthouse. Major Milton and his men from the 5th Florida followed.

As the sun rose over the marshes, the Confederates continued their advance. The Union force - which had about a 2 to 1 numerical superiority - was pushed all the way to the lighthouse. As he arrived there, however, Milton could see the Union ships and transports moving offshore and realized that a major invasion was underway. He fell back to East River bridge where he ordered the floor planking removed and prepared for defense.

The first armed encounter of the Natural Bridge expedition, however, had been a clear victory for the aggressive Confederate major and his outnumbered men.

I will post more on the Natural Bridge expedition later today. To learn more and to see the new mini-documentary on the Battle of Natural Bridge, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

Also please consider my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida: The Confederate Defense of Tallahassee. It is available on the right side of this page.

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