Tuesday, March 10, 2015

150th of Battle of Natural Bridge a spectacular success

A four-gun Confederate battery fires during the reenactment.
The 150th anniversary commemoration of Florida's Battle of Natural Bridge drew one of the largest crowds in memory over the weekend.

State park officials estimate that more than 4,000 spectators visited Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park for the event. Sunday afternoon's main battle reenactment saw crowds that stretched from one end of the reenactment field to the other.

Buzz Gifford speaks at the eagle dedication.
The reenactment itself was the largest ever staged on the battlefield. Union and Confederate reenactors from throughout the Southeast attended the battle, which is hosted by the Leon Rifles. Pyrotechnics, barrages of cannon fire and heavy volleys of musketry thrilled the crowd as Union troops relived the charges made by the 2nd and 99th USCT (U.S. Colored Troops) during the real battle on March 6, 1864. Among the units participating was the 2nd USCT reenactment group.

The event was made noteworthy by the dedication of a new sculpted eagle atop the main battlefield monument. The original eagle had deteriorated over time, but a massive effort by the Natural Bridge Historical Society (CSO), the Florida Park Service, the staff of Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park, and others led to the sculpting of a new eagle. It was lifted into place shortly before the weekend and its dedication was an important part of this year's memorial service.

Visitors learn about artillery from Capt. Allen Gerrell
Other activities included a heavily attended memorial service in which the soldiers and casualties of both sides were remembered, a civilian camp recreating life in the town of Newport, demonstrations, a ball and a recreation by Union troops of the seven mile march from the St. Marks Lighthouse through the marshes of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge as they headed for the Battle of Natural Bridge.

The event takes place each year on the weekend closest to the battle anniversary (March 6). For more information on the history of the battle, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

Here are some additional photos from this year's event:

Dale Cox, author of The Battle of Natural Bridge, speaks at the memorial service.
A Confederate line of battle stands its ground.
A battery fires by section during the reenactment.
Column of Union troops takes heavy fire.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Fighting in Wakulla County, 150 Years Ago

St. Marks Lighthouse
Today marks the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of heavy fighting in Wakulla County as Union troops began their march to the Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida.

After a myriad of problems caused by storms, shallow water, darkness and unexpected resistance from Major William H. Milton and a handful of men from the 5th Florida Cavalry (CS), Gen. John Newton brought his troops to shore at the St. Marks Lighthouse. The main body of the Union force was comprised of the main bodies of the 2nd USCT (U.S. Colored Troops) and 99th USCT. These were supported by a strong battalion of dismounted men from the 2nd Florida Cavalry (US). The U.S. Navy contributed two 12-pounder howitzers to the expedition along with gun crews to man them. Since Newton had no horses, the guns were dragged by men from the 99th USCT.

The Federals rested briefly on the higher ground near today's Mounds Pool nature trail in the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge before starting north along the old road through the marshes to the wooden bridge over East River. A small force of Confederates had taken up the flooring of the bridge and positioned a single cannon on the opposite shore.

East River at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
Lt. Col. George Washington Scott of the 5th Florida Cavalry (CS) commanded the outnumbered Confederates but made a critical mistake by ordering his men not to shell the long Federal line as it advanced through the open marshes. Instead Scott had them extract a shell from the muzzle of his cannon and reload with canister. By the time the artillerymen could complete this dangerous process, the Union troops were approaching East River Bridge in a line of battle.

The Confederates got off only one blast of their cannon as USCT troops stormed the bridge, charging across the stringers despite the absence of the floor planks. Confusion broke out in the Confederate ranks and Scott's line broke in retreat. The Union soldiers captured the colonel's cannon, found the stacked floor planks from the bridge and soon Newton's entire command was across East River.

The Confederate breastworks were on the far bank of the river.
The Confederates fell back rapidly to the St. Marks River where they set fire to one end of the Newport Bridge, tore up the planking from the other end, and took up positions behind earthen breastworks. These defenses had been prepared the previous winter in anticipation of such an emergency.

Additional Confederate troops were quick in coming up. A detachment of C.S. Marines arrived from the gunboat CSS Spray, then stationed at St. Marks. Volunteers from Campbell's Siege Artillery also came up from Fort Ward at St Marks (today's San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park). Although they had no field guns, the artillerymen brought their musket and joined the fight as "red-legged infantry."

St. Marks River at Newport
The troops from St. Marks were joined by a company from the Gadsden County Home Guards of the 1st Florida Militia (CS) and the Cadets of the West Florida Seminary (today's Florida State University). Gen. William Miller arrived on the scene and assumed the command from Lt. Col. Scott.

Seeing the smoke from the burning bridge rise above the treetops, Gen. Newton pushed forward the dismounted men of the 2nd Florida Cavalry (US) with orders to save the crossing. Led by Major Edmund Weeks, they stormed into the open on the east side of the St. Marks River and came under heavy fire from the Confederates on the opposite shore.

Looking up the St. Marks River at Newport.
Gen. Newton soon arrived on the scene. Assessing the situation he ordered his three cannon brought up. His plan was to place one gun to fire directly across the river at the Confederate breastworks while another was positioned upstream slightly in a position from which it could enfilade the left flank of the Confederate line. He then ordered his gunners to cannonade Gen. Miller's forces.

The Confederates had no cannon with which to reply to this bombardment, but clung to their breastworks in the face of the superior fire.

The bombardment did not go as Gen. Newton had hoped. The Federal gunners fired too high so their shells sailed over the Southern breastworks and into the town of Newport itself. Civilians fled or took shelter as cannonballs crashed into houses and exploded in the streets. One shell struck a home in which a number of African American slaves had taken shelter. Seven were killed in the blast.

When the Federals finally stopped firing, however, the Confederates were still in their breastworks. Newton would not be able to force a crossing at Newport.

Old Plank Road at Newport. Confederate troops shadowed
Newton's advance to Natural Bridge by moving up this road.
Pondering his position, he turned his command north up the east side of the St. Marks River and headed for the Natural Bridge. Confederate cavalry under Lt. Col. Scott shadowed the movement on the opposite side of the river. The Battle of Natural Bridge would erupt before dawn the next morning.

The annual reenactment of the Battle of Natural Bridge takes place this weekend and is expected to be largest ever as the battlefield commemorates the 150th anniversary of the engagement. To learn more about the battle and this weekend's planned events, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

If you would like to read an in-depth account of the battle, please consider my book:

The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (Paperback)

The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida (Kindle)