Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Battle of Gainesville, Florida 150th Anniversary

Scene of the Battle of Gainesville, Florida
Today (8/17) marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gainesville, Florida.

The Battle of Gainesville is one of the most overlooked military encounters in Florida history. It even shares a state historical marker with the earlier First Skirmish at Gainesville, an encounter of the Olustee Campaign.

Confederate monument in Gainesville
Like the small but desperate Battle of Marianna, the engagement at Gainesville is not listed on the American Battlefield Protection Program's list of recognized battles and skirmishes in Florida. The less bloody encounters at Fort Brooke, Tampa and St. John's Bluff are included on the list, but the furious fights at Marianna and Gainesville are not. Both are deserving of inclusion.

In addition, the Battle of Gainesville was won by outnumbered Confederates due to one of the most impressive battlefield performances of the "Swamp Fox" of Florida, Captain J.J. Dickison of the Second Florida Cavalry. Dickison and 175 of his men were engaged at Gainesville. They killed, wounded or captured 211 Federal soldiers.

Please click here to visit my new webpage on the Battle of Gainesville, Florida.



Friday, August 1, 2014

Woman in combat at the Battle of Marianna, Florida

Women saw action at the Battle of Marianna
Union officers reported that when they attacked Marianna, Florida on September 27, 1864, they were opposed by "every man, woman and child of the place." This was not just a figure of speech.

The roles played by women on the battlefields of the War Between the States (or Civil War) were varied and of great importance. The women of Atlanta and Vicksburg had their homes blown to bits and their families slaughtered around them when those cities were bombarded by Union troops. The ladies of LaGrange, Georgia, found their city's defenses so depleted that they formed into a military company dubbed the "Nancy Harts" in order to protect themselves.

In other cases, women served as nurses and provided critical medical services - often under fire - as battles swept across the South and small areas of the North.  They served as spies and in some cases even put on uniforms and disguised themselves as men in order to fight.  The ladies of St. Augustine even sparked a major incident by chopping down the flagpole at the city's St. Francis Barracks to prevent the U.S. flag from ever being hoisted on it again.

And then there was the Battle of Marianna.

Battle of Marianna marker at St. Luke's Episcopal Church
When Union troops swept down on the Jackson County city on September 27, 1864, the Confederates did not have time to evacuate most of the city's civilians. Boys as young as 12 and men as old as 76 turned out to fight alongside Poe's Battalion of the 1st Florida Reserves (CS) and Chisolm's Woodville Scouts of the Alabama State Militia. The girls and women of the city lined the roadways as their sons, nephews, brothers, husbands, uncles, cousins and fathers marched to the west side of town to await the Union advance. They prepared bandages and other medical supplies to treat the wounded. And in some cases they loaded their weapons and prepared to fight.

The Battle of Marianna is unique among most of Florida's battles because it took place in the streets of the city and involved house to house fighting. With civilians trapped in their homes, there was no way for the women and younger children to escape to safety.
St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Marianna, Florida

After driving back the screen of Confederate cavalry at Ely Corner (today's intersection of Lafayette and Russ Streets), Union troops drove straight up Lafayette Street only to be ambushed by the men and boys of the Marianna Home Guard and the volunteers that had turned out to defend the town.  A Union flanking column swept around the north side of town and occupied Courthouse Square, where some Confederates broke through in severe fighting.

Courthouse Square, scene of heavy fighting.
The heaviest fighting took place around St. Luke's Episcopal Church.  Confederate defenders fought a desperate resistance in the cemetery, where monuments and headstones still bear the scars of bullets. As the flanking party closed in behind them, they were cut off from retreat but refused to surrender. The fighting intensified with Confederate soldiers, militia and volunteers firing from the tower and windows of the church and the windows of the home of Dr. R.A. Sanders to the east across Wynn Street.

With the outcome of the battle in doubt and Union officers desperate to bring the fighting to a close, soldiers from the 82nd and 86th U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) carried out a bayonet charge into the cemetery.  They came under fire not just from the Confederate soldiers and volunteers, but also from across Lafayette Street as rifles, shotguns and pistols blazed from the windows of Mrs. Caroline Hunter's Boarding House.

St. Luke's Churchyard
Union troops made a bayonet charge across this ground.
Briefly the home of famed 19th century novelist Caroline Lee Hentz when it was the residence of her son, Dr. Charles Hentz, the two story frame structure stood across Lafayette Street from St. Luke's near today's MacKinnon House (now home to the Law Firm of B. Shannon Saunders), a beautiful old home built years after the war.

At the time of the Battle of Marianna, a portion of the lot was occupied by Mrs. Hunter's place.No longer a single family residence, it has been converted for use as a boarding house for ladies. With so many of their fathers and husbands off fighting on the front lines, women often clustered together in private boarding homes.

Unable to evacuate ahead of the attack, the ladies there prepared to fight.  Taking aim at Union soldiers from the doors and windows of the house, they opened fire with with every weapon they could find. Reports of their decision to fight in the Battle of Marianna received widespread coverage in both military reports and newspaper accounts of both sides during the days and weeks after the engagement.

MacKinnon House in Marianna
Built during the Reconstruction era, this structure stands
near the site of Mrs. Hunter's Boarding House for Ladies.
Even after the Confederates in the cemetery surrendered, men, boys and ladies inside the church, Dr. Sanders' home and Mrs. Hunter's Boarding House continued to fight. Union Colonel Ladislas L. Zulavsky ordered his men to fire the structures and all three went up in flames.  Four men burned to death inside St. Luke's, which is remembered by some still today as "Florida's Alamo."

At Mrs. Hunter's Boarding House, the ladies fought even as flames licked up the sides of the structure. Forced to lay down their arms and come out, they emerged from the smoke into the street even as screams could be heard from the second floor.  The ladies pleaded with Union officers for help, telling them that a young woman had given birth the night before and was trapped on the second floor with her baby. Soldiers in blue, according to accounts by soldiers in butternut and gray, rushed into the burning house and rescued the young mother and her child.

Bullet hole in a grave monument at St. Luke's Churchyard
The women were moved to a point of safety in the hollow between St. Luke's and today's Wynn Street Park. Their fight was over but their courage remained a point of pride for for as long as participants of the Battle of Marianna lived. The story eventually faded with time.

Marianna will observe the 150th anniversary of the battle with a special commemoration on September 26-27, 2014.  The ladies of Mrs. Hunter's Boarding House will be represented in this year's reenactment of the battle by a small unit of women.

To learn more about the Battle of Marianna, please consider my book The Battle of Marianna, Florida. It is available in Marianna at the Vintage Depot (restored L&N Train Depot) on South Caledonia Street.or online in either book or Kindle format from Amazon.com:

(Book Edition) The Battle of Marianna, Florida: Expanded Edition

(Kindle Edition) The Battle of Marianna, Florida

You can also learn more about the battle at www.battleofmarianna.com.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Battle of Marianna Reenactment is a go for September 27, 2014

Battle of Marianna Reenactment
UPDATE:  Commitments have come through and the Battle of Marianna reenactment will go on as planned on September 27, 2014!  If you are a reenactor and would like to join us, contact me at http://battleofmarianna.com/contact.html.  We are still seeking both units and individuals (who will be formed into a temporary unit)!

Thank you to all who stepped up and helped save our 150th commemoration!!  I will have more details soon.

Best,
Dale Cox

--


September 27th will mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Marianna, Florida.

Fought on September 27, 1864, the encounter was one of the most desperate fights in all of Florida and was compared by seasoned soldiers of both sides with much larger engagements of the war. A Confederate force of 350-400 reservists, militia, home guards and volunteers tried to hold off a larger Union force of 700 men. The result was a bloody "urban" battle that involved house to house fighting and the disappearance in a single day of 25% of the male population of Marianna.

Marianna and Jackson County will be hosting a special commemoration of the battle on September 26th and 27th, 2014.  Planned events include guided tours, memorial services, a tour of homes, historical conference, living history demonstrations and more.  We also would like to include a reenactment of the section of the battle that took place around Courthouse Square in the center of town.

Battle of Marianna Reenactment
That reenactment is currently endangered due to problems and personality conflicts that took place at past Marianna reenactments, as well as competition from events in Atlanta the previous weekend and Tavares on the same day.

In an effort to save the reenactment for this year, we have shifted it from past management to the supervision of the Jackson County Tourist Development Council.  To make it easier and less expensive for reenactors from Florida, Alabama and Georgia to attend, we are planning it primarily as a Saturday morning event and participants will be provided with powder and a free lunch. Camping is available for those who would like to come on Friday and stay overnight.

Please help us save the Battle of Marianna!  I was not involved in past reenactments, but hear constantly of issues and problems from previous years.  We are under different leadership this year and are doing everything we can to save this event and improve it for future years.

I am issuing a personal appeal to my many friends and relatives who do reenacting to join us and save the event so that it can be part of our 150th anniversary commemoration. Please join me and let's save the Battle of Marianna.  We will continue with our commemoration plans either way, but it would mean a great deal to the community and its citizens to save the reenactment.

Contact me at http://battleofmarianna.com/contact.html with questions or to let us know you will come and help us. It would be a real shame to see this event become a thing of the past, especially on the 150th anniversary of this deadly Northwest Florida engagement.

To read more about the Battle of Marianna, please visit www.battleofmarianna.com.

I hope to hear from you.  We welcome individuals or organized groups.  Our deadline for deciding on the reenactment is Friday, August 1st.

Best,
Dale Cox
http://battleofmarianna.contact.html

Sunday, July 20, 2014

St. Andrew Bay Raid 150th Anniversary (July 20, 1864)

St. Andrew Bay at Panama City, Florida
The Union transport steamer Ella Norris arrived at St. Andrew Bay in Northwest Florida 150 years ago tonight.

On board were troops from the 2nd U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) and the 2nd Florida Cavalry (U.S.) under the command of Major Edmund Weeks. Their objective were the bridges, mills, small farms, plantations and a Confederate camp along Econfina Creek in what are now Bay and Washington Counties. The entire area was then part of Washington County.

St. Vincent Island
Numbering 400 men, the raiding force had reached St. Vincent Island off Apalachicola on July 16, 1864. The island was the site of a large refugee colony populated by the families of Southern Unionists, Confederate deserters and escaped slaves. Major Weeks spent time interviewing leaders of the camp along with new arrivals to obtain more information about the location and strength of Confederate troops around St. Andrew Bay.

Major Edmund Weeks, USA
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
This intelligence in hand, Weeks returned to the Ella Norris and the steamer set sail for St. Andrew Bay where it arrived late on the evening of July 20, 1864, 150 years ago today.

St. Andrew Bay was notorious for its shoals and oyster bars and navigating its waters under cover of darkness could be extremely treacherous, as the Union navy learned during an 1862 raid to capture the blockade runner Florida.

Despite the danger, the Ella Norris moved into the bay and passed the chimneys of the town of St. Andrew. Once a popular resort area for the citizens of the interior counties, the community had been shelled and burned to the ground by the U.S. Navy earlier in the war. It stood on the bluff along what is now Beach Drive in Panama City.

St. Andrew Bay
Passing around Dyer's and Sulphur Points the steamer moved up the bay and around into North Bay. Its route took it past the sites of today's Naval Coastal Systems Center, Gulf Coast College, Southport and Lynn Haven and to an anchorage at Bayhead in the far eastern end of North Bay. This area is recognizable today as the site where Deer Point Lake meets the bay.

During the mid-19th century, this area was an important port for the farms along Econfina Creek which entered the bay there before the construction of the Deer Point Lake Dam. Farmers would barge their shipments of cotton, timber, corn and other commodities down the creek on small flatboats to North Bay where the cargoes were transferred to sloops, schooners and steamboats for passage on to Pensacola, Mobile and New Orleans.

Map of St. Andrew Bay (right) by Major G.W. Scott (CSA)
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
The 400 soldiers of Major Weeks' command came ashore at sunrise on July 21, 1864, pausing briefly to make coffee and rest before turning inland on the Econfina Road.

Among the officers of the 2nd Florida Cavalry (U.S.) was William McCullough. A Florida Unionist, he reported that the force had marched out at 8 a.m., covering 8 miles over 5 hours to reach the Bear Creek ferry at 1 p.m. There he was left behind with 30 men to guard the ferry until the main command returned. He remembered it as something of a picnic, describing how he and his men raided the farm of a "Mr. Vickrey" where they stole a cow, chickens, corn, salt and honey. They killed the cow and chickens and dined well that night.

The main body of the Union force, meanwhile continued its march north up the Econfina Road, raiding farms and plantations along the way. They pushed as far as Orange Hill in Washington County, less than 30 miles from the Confederate headquarters at Marianna. Along the way the soldiers inflicted devastating damage, destroying 2 bridges, a grist mill, 80 bales of cotton, an unoccupied military camp with storehouses and corn cribs, barns and anything else of use to the Confederates.

Among the farms they raided was that of William Gainer. One of the largest plantations in the county, his place was worked by 56 enslaved African Americans and he lost almost all of them to the Union raiders. Weeks and his men liberated 115 slaves (or "contrabands" as the U.S. Army called them), nearly one-third of the total slave population of Washington County.

The raid took Confederate forces in the area by complete surprise. A detachment of Captain William Jeter's Company E, 5th Florida Cavalry (C.S), was stationed at St. Andrews to watch for signs of a Union attack, but the Federals came in under cover of darkness and passed by the town site and into North Bay before Jeter's scouts became aware of their presence. By the time the Confederate cavalry realized the situation the next morning, the Union troops were between them and their headquarters at Marianna, with McCullough's small detachment guarding the ferry over Bear Creek on the main road connecting the two places.

Col. A.B. Montgomery, CSA (at left)
Cut-off and blocked from using the most direct route, the Confederate scouts were forced to make a 45 mile detour to the east in order to cross Bear Creek at what is now White City so they could get to Marianna and alert Colonel Alexander Montgomery of the situation. By the time they got to Marianna and Montgomery could respond, the raiders were already on their way back to the bay.

A raid was made by the enemy on last Thursday composed principally of Negro troops (supposed to be between three and four hundred strong) into the Econfinee settlement near St. Andrews Bay and upwards of one hundred negroes, mules, horses and provisions were captured and carried off before my forces could reach them, although a cavalry co. was dispatched in pursuit of them as soon as the news reached me. - Col. A.B. Montgomery, CSA, to W. McCall, July 24, 1864.


St. Andrew Bay at site of old St. Andrew
The Confederate company sent in pursuit of the raiders was Captain Jeter's unit from the 5th Florida Cavalry. It reached St. Andrew Bay only to find the Federals already gone. As they withdrew without losing a man, however, the Union soldiers warned local residents that they would be back:

The enemy informed residents whose houses [they visited] during this raid that this place [i.e. Marianna] would be their next point of attack. This may be mere bravado on their part. I think the next raid they make will be in the direction of Hickory Hill [i.e. Orange Hill] & Campbellton twenty miles west of this point and represented by large planting interests. - Col. A.B. Montgomery to W. McCall, July 24, 1864.


Governor John Milton of Florida
Montgomery asked for 1,000 infantry reinforcements and that he be allowed to maintain the services of the full strength of Captain Wilson W. Poe's Company C, 1st Florida Reserves (C.S.). Poe's unit had previousl been ordered to send half its men to Quincy.

The state had no infantry to send to Marianna, but orders transferring half of Poe's men to Quincy were rescinded.

The St. Andrew Bay was a serious warning for Confederate authorities in Florida. The Union soldiers had marched to within 30 miles of Marianna without encountering opposition of any kind. They expressed in their letters and reports that they could have taken the city with relative ease. Governor John Milton, Colonel Montgomery and other officers in the state would tried improve the defenses of Northwest Florida over coming weeks, but their efforts would fall short at the Battle of Marianna on September 27, 1864.

If you would like to read more about the St. Andrew Bay raid and related events, including the Battle of Marianna, please consider my book:  The Battle of Marianna, Florida: Expanded Edition.

It is also available as an instant download for Kindle readers at: The Battle of Marianna, Florida.


Monday, April 28, 2014

Florida's Oldest Confederate Monument re-dedicated in DeFuniak Springs

U.S. and C.S. flags fly over the restored monument.
I had the rare opportunity and honor today to speak at the re-dedication ceremony for Florida's oldest Confederate Monument.

Located on the grounds of the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs, the monument was erected in 1871 just six years after the end of the War Between the States (or Civil War). Carved from Alabama marble, it once stood in Eucheeanna when that community was the county seat of Walton County. The village had been severely looted by Union troops on their way to the Battle of Marianna in 1864.

Rev. Tyrone Broadus delivers the Invocation
The county seat was moved from Eucheeanna to DeFuniak Springs after the courthouse in the former community burned in an arson-related fire. The monument followed in 1927 and has stood on the grounds of the courthouse in DeFuniak Springs ever since.

Last year the Walton County Heritage Association launched a drive to raise funds to restore the monument, which had been vandalized several years ago. The $3,500 restoration is now complete and citizens from throughout Northwest Florida gathered this afternoon for an official re-dedication of the monument.

Honor Salute by the Walton Guards
As both the Confederate and United States flags flew overhead, participants and guests enjoyed a breezy, warm afternoon that culminated with an Honor Volley fired by the reenactors of the Walton Guards and a sidewalk social.

The restored monument is designated by a historical marker and faces U.S. 90 on the southeast corner of the courthouse grounds in DeFuniak Springs.

Here are more photos from the ceremony:
Setting up for the Ceremony
The restored monument and the Walton County Courthouse
Speaker's view of those assembled from the ceremony.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Florida's Confederate Governor did NOT commit suicide!

Governor John Milton of Florida
For nearly 150 years, a lie has been perpetrated on the people of Florida, the South and the United States. Governor John Milton, who led Florida through the War Between the States (or Civil War), did not commit suicide.

The governor died of a gunshot wound at Sylvania, his Jackson County plantation, on April 1, 1865.

Northern newspapers immediately leaped on the incident, claiming that Milton was so terrified of losing the war that he took his own life:

The late Gov. Milton, of Florida, was first a lawyer, then a duellist, then a preacher, then a politician, and, finally, a suicide. - Newport (Rhode Island) Mercury, May 6, 1865.

We learn through a gentleman recently from Barrancas, that a report reached there a short time before he left, that upon hearing of the capture of Petersburgh and Richmond, Gov. Milton, of Florida, committed suicide at his residence, a few miles from Marianna. The report was subsequently confirmed by a refugee directly from that place. - Trenton State Gazette (New Jersey), May 2, 1865.

Governor John Milton
The only rebel who has killed himself because of the killing of the Confederacy, is Gov. Milton of Florida. His name was John Milton, and as he thought paradise was lost, he shot himself...The world is rid of him. - Lowell (Massachusetts) Daily Citizen and News, May 8, 1865.

Gov. Milton, of Florida, has committed suicide. He did not want to be hanged. - Newport Mercury (Rhode Island), April 29, 1865.


Hundreds of such accounts appeared in Northern newspapers, almost all of them claiming that Milton killed himself after hearing of the fall of Richmond. This claim remains widely accepted today, even though it is completely false. Richmond did not fall until after the death of Governor Milton.

A newly discovered account of the governor's death tells a very different story. It appeared in an Extra edition of the West Florida News, a Marianna newspaper, on April 3, 1865:

Sylvania Plantation historical marker at Blue Springs
A TRAGIC ACCIDENT!
Gov. Milton has been killed by the accidental discharge of a gun. The Governor was in his home when he retrieved a shot gun in expectation of an expedition to shoot birds. The gun discharged and the Governor was killed.

The discovery of this long lost account confirms tradition in the Milton family regarding the circumstances of Governor Milton's death. Mrs. Bruce Milton Singletary repeated family legend of the Governor's death to me in a 1982 interview. According to her grandfather, Major William Henry Milton who was present when Governor Milton was killed, the shooting was an accident.

William Hall Milton, grandson of the Governor
Major Milton later told his son, William Hall Milton, that the Governor had returned home to Sylvania following the crisis surrounding the Battle of Natural Bridge and subsequent events. Under intense stress because of the inevitable collapse of the Confederacy, Governor Milton, but was badly in need of rest. Major Milton suggested to his father that they go out and shoot birds. According to his account, the Governor responded, "That is just the thing." He went to retrieve his shotgun, but when he removed it from its rack on the wall the butt of the stock banged hard against the floor and the gun went off. Governor Milton was killed.

The discovery of the 1865 Marianna newspaper account substantiates family tradition of how Governor John Milton died and confirms that he did not commit suicide, but instead was killed in "a tragic accident." This, of course, explains why the Governor was buried in the cemetery of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Marianna, since in those days suicide victims were not allowed to be interred on sacred ground.

Governor John Milton rests in sacred ground.

Note: Thank you to Albert Milton of Marianna for inspiring me to dig deeper into the story of Governor Milton's death. Our recent conversation about the Governor raised my curiosity and I began to look for a local account of the incident. I was able to find one and it changes accepted history.  - Dale Cox

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.