Sunday, March 2, 2014

Natural Bridge Plan of Attack, 149 years ago today (March 2, 1865)

Brig. Gen. John Newton, USA
Fog continued to blanket the waters off the mouth of the St. Marks River 149 years ago today, as Brigadier General John Newton met with Commander R.W. Shufeldt and other officers of the U.S. Army and Navy.

Their purpose was to develop a plan for the attack that they hoped would lead to the capture not only of St. Marks, but Tallahassee and the nearby city of Thomasville, Georgia as well. The meeting consisted of what Newton called a "full and free consultation." By the time it ended, the collected officers had agreed on a plan of attack that would go into operation on the night of March 3, 1865.

As devised by the officers, the plan consisted of five key elements:
  1. Parties of men were to be sent ashore to destroy the railroad and other bridges over the Aucilla River east of Tallahassee, the Ochlockonee River west of Tallahassee and to break the railroad between Tallahassee and St. Marks. This would prevent the Confederates from using the railroads to move troops quickly.
  2. A party of sailors and a detachment from the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry would seize the East River bridge on the road connecting the St. Marks Lighthouse with the mainland on the night of March 3, 1865.
    St. Marks Lighthouse
  3. The main body of the Union force would come ashore at the St. Marks Lighthouse on the same night in anticipation of a forward movement on the morning of March 4, 1865.
  4. On March 4, 1865, the land force would advance via the East River bridge to Newport, cross the St. Marks River and then take St. Marks from the rear. If conditions appeared favorable, however, it could move instead to break the Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad between the coast and the capital city.
  5. The warships would move up the St. Marks River and attack Fort Ward. Once the fort was captured, 500-600 sailors would be put ashore at Port Leon on the lower St. Marks to cover the movements of the Army column.
St. Marks River at Newport
These objectives accomplished, General Newton would then advance on Tallahassee and Thomasville (Georgia) to liberate the thousands of Union prisoners of war believed to be held in the latter city. He hoped to escort them safely back to the coast, while inflicting heavy damage on Florida's capital city and its surrounding area.

The general was so confident that the Confederates would not be able to assemble a sufficient force to oppose him that he had brought neither field artillery nor horses for his cavalry and key officers.

Boat howitzer on a field carriage
The Navy helped rectify the former deficiency by providing two 12-pounder boat howitzers on iron carriages. Since the Army had not brought artillery crews, Commander Shufeldt provided a handful of sailors to man the guns. There were no horses to pull them, so a company of the 99th U.S. Colored Troops was assigned to drag the cannon by hand until horses could be captured.

Major General Samuel Jones, CSA
Newton did not realize that the success of his entire operation depended on the ability of the demolition parties to reach and destroy the railroad bridges over the Aucilla and Ochlockonee Rivers east and west of Tallahassee. Contrary to his belief, there were thousands of Confederate troops in North Florida. If the railroad remained intact, they would be able to board trains for a quick movement to the capital city and then down the Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad to the coast.

The general also underestimated his Confederate counterparts, Major General Samuel Jones and Brigadier General William Miller. The former officer was the overall Southern commander in Florida and was widely regarded as an artillery expert (he had commanded the Confederate cannon at First Manassas). General Miller, meanwhile, had served with distinction at Stones River where he had been badly wounded.

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

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