Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Northern Account of the Battle of Natural Bridge


The article below appeared in The New York Times on March 23, 1865. It was written on March 12, 1865, just six days after the Battle of Natural Bridge, by a reporter in Key West. To learn more about the battle, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

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Key West, Florida
March 12, 1865

The military expedition which left this place some two weeks since, returned yesterday, having been unsuccessful in accomplishing its object – the release of some 3,000 Union prisoners at Thomasville, near the southern boundary of Georgia. It consisted of portions of three regiments – the Second United States Colored Infantry, Col. Townsend, the Ninety-ninth United States Colored Infantry, Lieut.-Col. Pearsall, the Second Florida Cavalry, dismounted, Maj. Weeks, and numbered about 1,000 effective men, the whole under the immediate command of Brig.-Gen. Newton.

The troops landed near the mouth of the St. Mark’s River, and moved up the east bank, over a muddy road, skirted by impenetrable swamps. At Newport, some twenty miles up, the enemy made a stand, but, after a short skirmish, retreated across the river and burned the bridge. Here was a foundry for the manufacture of shot and shell, which was burned; also a saw and grist mill, and several dwellings. Being unable to cross at this point, the troops moved up to within about two miles of another bridge, and camped for the night. Early in the morning skirmishers were sent forward to the bridge, fourteen miles from Tallahassee, and by 8 o’clock the whole force was up.

The battle commenced in earnest about noon of the 6th, and continued until 4 P.M. The Second United States Colored Infantry were in front, followed by the Ninety-ninth. The Second Florida remained at Newport, to protect the rear. On account of the delay in landing, the enemy had gained time to concentrate their forces, consequently they met us with superior numbers and heavier artillery. An attempt was made about 12 o’clock to turn the right flank of the enemy, but the flanking column, composed of four companies of the Second United States Colored Infantry, were brought up, after a few minutes’ march, by an old canal, which they were unable to cross. Here they fought until about 3 P.M. when they fell back to the main body on the road. Upon this the enemy attempted an advance, but were repulsed with heavy loss – a piece of artillery which we had captured, in addition to our own battery, opening upon them with canister at short range. But it being found impossible to advance further, and our own supplies being limited, a retreat was ordered – the forces returning with little interruption, save the badness of the roads.
The following list of casualties is as complete as I can make it at present:

KILLED.

Lieut. E. Carrington, A.D.C.
First Lieut. E.K. Landfield, 99th U.S.C.I.

WOUNDED.

Col. B.R. Townsend, 2nd U.S.C.I. – arm, slightly.
Maj. B.C. Lincoln, 2nd U.S.C.I. – groin – since died.
Capt. S.J. Grant, 99th U.S.C.I. – head.
Capt. E.B. Tracy, 2nd U.S.C.I. – thigh, dangerously.
First Lieut. C. Seymour, 2nd U.S.C.I. – breast.
First Lieut. O.H. Carpenter, 2nd U.S.C.I. – arm.
Second Lieut. T.H. Murphy, 2nd U.S.C.I. – artery cut – since died.
Second Lieut. G.W. Woodward, 2nd U.S.C.I. – lost an eye.

The casualties among the enlisted men, of which I can give no detailed account, will not exceed 100, including killed, wounded and missing. The loss of the enemy must have been nearly, if not quite equal to our own.

Maj. Lincoln, who was wounded early in the fight, was as noble as he was brave. He was among the foremost in the conflict, until a fragment of shell inflicted the fatal wound….

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Historic Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad


I've mentioned the old Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad before due to its connection to the Battle of Natural Bridge on March 6, 1865.

The railroad, however, was an important transportation route throughout the Civil War and was one of the few railroads in the South that continued to operate without interruption from 1861-1865.

The Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad was the second such line to begin operation in Florida. When the trains began running in 1836, it stretched from Tallahassee south to Port Leon, then an important port on the lower St. Marks River. The train cars were originally pulled by mules because the railroad was ready for operation before locomotives could be manufactured and arrive.

Port Leon was soon destroyed by hurricane and St. Marks became the southern terminus of the railroad. From 1836 until 1861, the trains rain daily back and forth between the capital city and the coast twenty miles away. Shipments of cotton, lumber, naval stores and passengers went down to the port while returning trains brought passengers and a wide variety of items brought to St. Marks by shallow draft steamer and schooner. Since Tallahassee had no source of water transportation, the railroad brought virtually everthing needed for the development of the city, from pre-fabricated houses to window panes, doorknobs to furniture, food and medicine.

When the war broke out in 1861, the cargo carried by the trains diminished as the Union blockade grew tighter, but official records indicate that blockade runners continued to slip out of the port of St. Marks until the end of the war. As these went out with cargoes of cotton and naval stores, they came back in with loads of military supplies, medicine and other necessities.

The Tallahassee-St. Marks line also carried troops back and forth from the coast to Tallahassee, as well as to a number of Confederate camps established along the railroad. Among these was Camp Leon, an important training camp south of Tallahassee.

The railroad is now a major "rails to trails" project that features a paved trail following the old rail bed from the southern edge of Tallahassee all the way to the waterfront at St. Marks. To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/tallahasseerr.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

Fort Pickens Once Again Accessible by Car


Historic Fort Pickens near Pensacola can once again be reached by automobile.

Hurricane Ivan had inflicted heavy damage on the western 7 miles of Santa Rosa Island, where the historic fort is located, and the road leading down the island to the fort has been closed for years. After much work and effort on the part of the National Park Service, the road reopened at the end of May and is now accessible 7 days a week.

The speed limit on the repaired access road is 15 miles per hour and the Fort Pickens area is open from 8 a.m. until sunset. The visitor center at the fort is open from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. and ranger guided tours are once again given daily at 2 p.m. The entrance fee is $8 and is good for 7 days.

In addition to Fort Pickens itself, visitors can once again access the historic concrete artillery batteries on Santa Rosa Island. These date from 1898 through World War II and were once an important part of our nation's defenses.

Fort Pickens itself dates from the early 19th century and played a critical role during the Civil War. It took part in two major bombardments with Confederate troops on the mainland and in later years served as a prison for the famed Apache leader Geronimo.

To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/fortpickens1.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Old Capitol - A Confederate Headquarters


It is a little known fact that Florida's historic Old Capitol in Tallahassee was also an important military headquarters and armory during the Civil War.

Built between 1839 and 1845 using a $20,000 appropriation from the U.S. Congress, the central part of the Old Capitol was completed in the days when Florida was still a U.S. Territory. It became a state in 1845, the same year that the capitol was completed.

It was here that the state Secession Convention met in January of 1861 and it was from the front steps of the historic structure that the state's declaration of independence from the Union was announced on January 10, 1861.

Throughout the war, the Old Capitol served both political and military purposes. Governors Madison S. Perry, John Milton and A.K. Allison maintained their offices there and the state legislature continued to meet through the war years. In addition, the Old Capitol became the military headquarters for the state and the basement or "lower" floor was used to store arms and ammunition belonging to the state.

In March of 1865, the Old Capitol served as a rallying point for troops arriving in Tallahassee to meet Union General John Newton's advance from the St. Marks Lighthouse. Artillery on the grounds was fired to alarm the citizens and the Leon County Home Guards met there to receive arms and ammunition for the coming fighting.

Major General Samuel Jones and Brigadier General William Miller met here in the early stages of the campaign to discuss strategy. These meetings led to the Confederate victory at the Battle of Natural Bridge on March 6, 1865.

After the battle, Governor John Milton addressed the victorious troops inside the old capitol and it was here that the Cadets of the West Florida Seminary were presented a flag by the ladies of the community.

The Old Capitol is today a beautiful museum facility, with exhibits interpreting the political history of Florida. To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/oldcapitol.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Union Soldiers of Florida, Part Eight


As they left Marianna on the morning of September 28, 1864, the Union soldiers turned southwest down the old Vernon road.

Crossing over Hickory Hill (today's Orange Hill) into Washington County, they struck the plantation of David Porter Everett there, clearing out his livestock and burning his barn to the ground. They ate their noon meal on the grounds of the old Orange Hill Academy.

From there, the column continued down the Vernon road into the drainage valley of Hard Labor Creek. They had no way of knowing it, but they were on the same road as a company of Confederate militia from Vernon that was on its way to Marianna in response to an urgent call for reinforcements received the previous night.

Led by Captain W.B. Jones, a former lieutenant in the 4th Florida Infantry, the Vernon Home Guard had mustered in response to the plea for help. Numbering only 30-50 men, the unit had mounted up on the morning of the 28th and started for Marianna. The had no idea they were moving along the same road as the advancing Union column.

The two forces ran head on into each other at a small bridge over Hard Labor Creek. Members of the Vernon Home Guard later recalled that they had just descended the slope to the bridge when suddenly members of the 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry approached from the other side.

The Florida Union cavalrymen ordered the militia members to disperse, but according to tradition they were berated by Stephen Pierce, a member of Jones' company and formerly a soldier in Company H of the 4th Florida Infantry. He had been discharged for disability, but joined Jones' company as the men rode out on the morning of the 28th.

Exactly what happened next is not clear, but the Union troops suddenly unleashed a volley of fire on the men and boys of the Vernon Home Guard. Pierce was killed and another man wounded. Captain Jones ordered his men to retreat, but the Federal troops immediately charged, storming into the ranks of the Vernon men. Legend that Pierce was executed is not confirmed by eyewitness accounts of the skirmish.

A number of the men of the Vernon Home Guard were captured, but others managed to escape in a running fight that continued all the way to Vernon. The soldiers of the 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry bore the brunt of the fight for the Union forces. It was the last skirmish of the Marianna raid and no Union soldiers were wounded.


Friday, June 5, 2009

Union Soldiers of Florida, Part Seven


Note: This posting is part of a series on Union soldiers from Florida. To read previous posts, please scroll down the page or check the Archives section.

In the wake of the fighting at Marianna, the men of the 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry played an unusual role in helping to protect the citizens of the community and care for the wounded.

An account that appeared in the West Florida News, a local newspaper, shortly after the Battle of Marianna, for example, credited "deserters" who knew the people of the town with protecting many of the Confederate fallen from further injury. The paper also reported that orders were given to burn the town, but the command was withdrawn due to "intercession" by deserters from the community, clearly members of the 1st Florida U.S.

In addition, it appears that the men of the 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry were instrumental in summoning additional medical help to the scene to assist in caring for the wounded men of the local home guard. Dr. Ethelred Philips, a local physician, wrote to a cousin in North Carolina about one week after the battle and described how he had been summoned by a man from the community but then with the Union forces. The surgeons of the 2nd Maine Cavalry were overwhelmed with their own wounded and many of the doctors of the town had fought in the battle and been either wounded or taken prisoner. Individual soldiers from the 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry were familiar with the town, however, and knew where to find additional doctors.

There also must have undoubtedly been some involvement on the part of the Union soldiers from Florida in General Alexander Asboth's decision to parole a number of men and boys captured during the battle. While he initially took a large number of prisoners, more than one dozen were released on parole before the Federals left town. All of these were either known Unionists or men and boys associated with Union families. Clearly someone familiar with their views intervened in their favor and secured their releases, despite the fact that they had taken up arms with their pro-Confederate neighbors to defend their homes, community and families.

The Union column left Marianna at around 3 a.m. on the morning of September 28, 1864. Subsequent events indicate that it was led by a vanguard of men from the 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry as it moved southwest away from town in the direction of the Washington County seat of Vernon. More on the "Battle" of Vernon in the next post.