Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Battle of Natural Bridge, FL (March 6, 1865)

Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park
Woodville, Florida
Today marks the 149th anniversary of the Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida.  Fought along the banks of the St. Marks River, the engagement was the last significant Confederate victory of the War Between the States (or Civil War).

Natural Bridge not only prevented the Union capture of Tallahassee and St. Marks, it stopped a planned Federal advance on Thomasville, Georgia, that would have devastated a vast area of North Florida and South Georgia.

To learn more about the history of this Florida battle, I encourage you to visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

The page includes information, photos and links that will help you learn about the Battle of Natural Bridge and also features the new mini-documentary on the history of the engagement.

To learn about other sites associated with the battle, please follow these links:



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.

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.

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.



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.

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.