Monday, March 3, 2014

Natural Bridge invasion begins, 149 years ago today (March 3, 1865)

Apalachee bay
On March 3, 1865 - nine days after the first Union troops had departed Key West - the first action of the invasion of North Florida took place. The Battle of Natural Bridge was now just three days away.

The sun rose over Apalachee Bay that morning to reveal that the fog that had shrouded the coastline for days was gone. Alarmed that Confederate sentries might see the ships offshore and realize that an attack was coming, the entire flotilla of sixteen warships, transports and steamers set sail for the horizon. The rapid maneuver worked. The ships managed to get out of sight without being detected by Southern troops onshore:

USS Hibiscus (Part of the Flotilla)
Naval Historical Center Photograph
...After dark, returned to the bar, which the pilot in vain endeavored to cross, though he had indicated no difficulty previously. A heavy gale sprang up and the vessels were of necessity anchored until morning, by which the landing of the troops was unfortunately delayed. - Brig. Gen. John Newton (US) to Lt. Col. C.T. Christensen (US), March 19, 1865.

A cold front swept in from the northwest that evening, its strong winds pushing water out into the Gulf and reducing the depth over the bar of the St. Marks River. Unable to cross the bar, the ships spent the night tossing in the gale that swept across Apalachee Bay.

East River at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
Despite the turn in the weather, a boat party left the ships and made its way into the mouth of the East River. This short river flows into the mouth of the St. Marks from the east after passing through what is now the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. The wooden bridge that spanned East River on the road from Newton's intended landing point at the St. Marks Lighthouse to the town of Newport was a vital link in the general's plans for a rapid movement inland.

Rowing up the river in the darkness, the party of sailors from the U.S. Navy surprised the handful of Confederate pickets camped at the bridge. So far as is known, no one was killed or wounded in the brief encounter. Unfortunately for the Federals, they failed in their goal of capturing all of the Southern sentries.

William Dunham, 5th Florida Cavalry
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
A few of the guards managed to escape and quickly headed up the road to Newport, where Major William H. Milton of the 5th Florida Cavalry (son of Governor John Milton) was posted with a detachment of his men. Alerted to the situation, Milton immediately sent a courier to commandeer a train on the Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad in order to carry news of the incursion to Tallahassee as quickly as possible.

Milton then formed his handful of men and started out through the storm for the East River bridge to investigate. He would arrive there before dawn on the morning of March 4th.

Major Edmund Weeks, 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
Major Edmund Weeks of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry, meanwhile, landed about 60 of his men at the St. Marks Lighthouse. The operation was extremely difficult and took most of the night to complete due to darkness, stormy weather and shallow water.

The first real fighting of the Natural Bridge expedition would take place the next day. I will post more tomorrow. Until then, read more and watch the new mini-documentary on the Battle of Natural Bridge by visiting www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

Also, be sure to check out the new mini-documentary on Old Fort Park, site of one of the Confederate fortifications built to defend Tallahassee. You can see it at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/oldfortpark.



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