Thursday, March 6, 2008
Natural Bridge (22) - The Battle of Natural Bridge, Phase One
Today our series continues with looks at the Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida itself, fought on this date in 1865. I'll be adding new posts throughout the day, so check back for more.
This photo shows the modern road as it curves and crosses the Natural Bridge of the St. Marks River. The river descends into a natural sink at this point and flows underground for a short distance before rising to the surface again and continuing its passage to the Gulf of Mexico.
Throughout the predawn hours of March 6, 1865 (143 years ago today), both Union and Confederate forces raced to gain control of this spot. Confederate cavalry under Lt. Col. George W. Scott was moving rapidly up the west bank of the St. Marks River, while the Union force of Gen. John Newton was winding its way up an old road along the east bank. Scott and the Confederates won the race.
Reaching Natural Bridge during the early morning hours, Scott deployed skirmishes on the bridge itself and then put the rest of his small force (now numbering several companies from the 5th Florida Cavalry) in position on the low ridge that overlooks the crossing from the west. He was joined here shortly by the main body of the 1st Florida Infantry Reserves, commanded by Col. J.J. Daniel. These units had reached Tallahassee by rail the previous night, boarded another train for the trip to the Oil Still station between today's Woodville and St. Marks and then marched cross country through the night to reinforce Scott in time. They were accompanied by several pieces of artillery.
It was still dark when they exhausted men of the 1st Florida Reserves reached the battlefield and they had just stacked their weapons and fallen on the ground to rest for a few minutes when the sound of firing suddenly erupted on the east bank. Scott's skirmishers had engaged the head of the Union column as it approached the crossing from the opposite direction.
The Federals had no way of knowing that hundreds of Confederates were now waiting for them on the west bank, so they immediately pushed forward hoping to drive off the skirmishers and take control of the vital crossing. Scott was still forming his line on the ridge when the Union troops came storming across the Natural Bridge.
The initial Union charge was made by Companies B and G of the 2nd U.S. Colored Infantry. Commanded by Major Benjamin Lincoln, the African American soldiers rushed forward across the bridge only to run head on into a wall of fire from the newly arrived Confederates on the west side. Charles Rockwell, a Navy officer accompanying the Federal artillery, described hearing the sudden booming of Confederate cannon followed by a volley of musketry from Lincoln's men. The Battle of Natural Bridge had begun.
Falling back in the face of the unexpected and heavy resistance, Major Lincoln reformed his men and charged a second time about twenty minutes later. Lt. Col. Scott reported that both of this charges took place between 4 and 5 a.m., "when it was yet quite dark." The Confederates again unleashed heavy cannon and musket fire on the Union soldiers, from a range of less than 75 yards.
Both sides sustained casualties in these initial attacks, both of which were repulsed. On the Confederate side, Private John Grubbs of Company B, 1st Florida Reserves, was shot through the heart and killed and Col. J.J. Daniel of the same regiment, at this point the senior officer on the field, was dashed against a tree by his horse and severely injured. On the Federal side, several men from the 2nd U.S. Colored Infantry were wounded in the attacks, but the exact number is not known.
The predawn fighting let both sides know that a significant battle was building. After the second repulse, General Newton temporarily halted his attacks and sent out scouts to look for another way to get across the river and flank the Confederates out of their position. They found one crossing a short distance downstream from the Natural Bridge, but reported that it was already guarded by Confederate soldiers.
On the west bank, meanwhile, Major General Samuel Jones arrived on the field at about the time of the second charge. He ordered the Confederates to begin digging rifle pits and supervised the placement of cannon and additional troops as they arrived on the field.
Additional posts on the Battle of Natural Bridge will be coming throughout the day, so check back often. You can also read more at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex and in my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida, now available from www.barnesandnoble.com, www.amazon.com or for order through most bookstores.