Saturday, March 1, 2014

U.S. warships off St. Marks, 149 years ago today (March 1, 1865)

USS Hibiscus
U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph
149 years ago today, a massive flotilla of U.S. Navy warships joined the transport steamers Honduras, Alliance and Magnolia off the mouth of Florida's St. Marks River. The Battle of Natural Bridge was now just five days away, but heavy fog continued to hide the Union movements from Confederate sentries onshore.

The flotilla on March 1, 1865, consisted of the steamers Mahaska, Fort Henry, Spirea, Stars and Stripes, Hibiscus and Britannia, as well as the schooners Matthew Vassar, O.H. Lee and Two Sisters. The Honduras, Alliance and Magnolia were also Navy steamers, but were being used as transports for the U.S. Army force from the 2nd and 99th U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) and 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry.

USS Hendrick Hudson
U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph
The vessels would be joined over the next couple of days by the warships Proteus, Iuka, Isonomia, and Hendrick Hudson. The latter vessel was the former Confederate blockade runner Florida, which had been captured at St. Andrew Bay earlier in the war (not to be confused with the raider CSS Florida).

The total Confederate Navy force in the St. Marks River at the time consisted of the small high-pressure steamer CSS Spray and its tender barge. Manned by sailors and a detachment of C.S. Marines, the vessel was tied up alongside Fort Ward at the confluence of the Wakulla and St. Marks Rivers.

USS Isonomia
U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph
...Commander [R.W.] Shufeldt, being the senior officer, assumed the command of the naval forces cooperating with the army. Arrangements were immediately made for the landing of troops and for such of the vessels to enter the river as drew the least water. - Admiral C.K. Stribling (USN) to Gideon Welles (Secretary of the Navy, US), March 14, 1865.

Commander Shufeldt holds a unique place in maritime history as he later became the naval officer who investigated the famed "ghost ship" Mary Celeste after she was found floating in the Atlantic without a soul on board or a sign of what had become of her crew and passengers.

USS Stars and Stripes
Harper's Weekly, 1863.
The Federals were assisted in their planning by the presence of hundreds of men from the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry on the Alliance. These soldiers had been recruited for service in the Union Army from points all along the Gulf Coast of Florida. Southern Unionists, Confederate deserters and others who just wanted to be left alone, many of the men of the regiment were very familiar with the terrain, roads and transportation networks of North Florida.

From them and from his maps, Brigadier General John Newton learned that the Confederates could move troops quickly to and from Tallahassee by rail. The primary east-west railroad extended from Quincy on the west through Tallahassee and on to Monticello, Madison and Lake City to the east. It had once extended all the way into Jacksonville, but the tracks that far east had not been completely rebuilt following the Olustee Campaign.

St. Marks end of the Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad
Now the Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail
A second line, the Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad, connected the capital city with its port facility at St. Marks. It could be used to quickly and efficiently move troops from Tallahassee to the coast.

Newton, however, believed that the Confederates had depleted their forces in North Florida in order to attack the Union outpost at Fort Myers in Southwest Florida (see The Battle of Fort Myers). Because the latter place was more than 400 road miles down the peninsula from Tallahassee, the general did not think it possible for the Confederates involved in that attack to make it back to the capital city in time to resist his advance.

Preserve section of Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad
The Federals, however, had seriously underestimated Confederate resources in Florida. The men of the Special Battalion of Florida Cavalry (the "Cow Cavalry") involved in the Battle of Fort Myers had not come from Tallahassee and the Southern forces in North Florida had not been diminished at all. If Major General Samuel Jones and Brigadier General William Miller, the Confederate commanders in Tallahassee, could pull their troops together in time, they would outnumber Newton's invading force.

I will post more on Union plans for the attack tomorrow. To watch the new mini-documentary and learn more about the Battle of Natural Bridge, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

For information on this weekend's (March 1-2, 2014) annual reenactment, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbreenactment.

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