Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Last Man Killed in the Civil War was a Florida Soldier

New research indicates that the last man killed in the Civil War was not the individual honored by most historians.

It has long been held that Private John J. Williams of the 34th Indiana was the last soldier killed in the war. He fell at the Battle of Palmitto Ranch, which was fought in Texas on May 12-13, 1865. While Palmitto Ranch was undoubtedly one of the last engagements of the war, fighting did not end with that Confederate victory in Texas. In fact, the U.S. Government later ruled that a soldier killed in a skirmish on the Pea River in Alabama had died in combat six days after Palmitto Ranch.

The soldier in question was Corporal John W. Skinner of Company C, 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry. A resident of Alabama before the war, Skinner had crossed through the lines and joined the Union army after serving for a time in the 57th Alabama Infantry (Confederate). Enlisting in the 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry at Fort Barrancas near Pensacola, he served in a number of actions across Northwest Florida and South Alabama.

As the war entered its final days, Skinner's command was sent to Montgomery which had been surrendered to the Union forces of General James H. Wilson. The situation throughout the region was deteriorating rapidly. As regular Confederate forces surrendered, there was a complete breakdown in order. The Union army assigned men from the 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry to escort mail shipments and Skinner was part of a detachment that guarded a mail delivery from Montgomery to Eufaula, Alabama, in May of 1865.

As Skinner and a handful of his fellow soldiers were making their way back to Montgomery, they were ambushed at Hobdy's Bridge on the Pike and Barbour County line by a group of men described as "Confederate guerrillas." Skinner was killed in the sharp skirmish that resulted and three other Union soldiers were wounded. The Skirmish at Hobdy's Bridge took place six days after Palmitto Ranch.

The Assistant Secretary to the U.S. Commissioner of Pensions would later rule that Skinner and the men wounded at Hobdy's Bridge had fallen in action while on active duty during the Civil War. "To hold otherwise," he wrote, "would not only be unjust and inequitable, but contrary to the dictates of sound reason and common sense as well."

As a result, a forgotten soldier from a Union regiment raised in Florida appears to hold the sad distinction of being the last man killed in the Civil War. To read a detailed account of the Skirmish at Hobdy's Bridge, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/hobdys2.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

145th Anniversary of the Battle of Natural Bridge

Today (March 6th) marked the 145th anniversary of the Battle of Natural Bridge, the Florida engagement fought in 1865 that was one of the last significant Southern victories of the Civil War.

The annual reenactment of the battle will take place tomorrow (Sunday) at the Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park near Woodville (just south of Tallahassee). Events get underway with the opening ceremonies and memorial service at 1:45 p.m. (Eastern time), followed by the battle reenactment at 2:30 p.m. The weather looks perfect for this year's event, which means you probably can expect a very large crowd, so be sure to head out early in order to get a good spot. Concessions are available at the battlefield.


The Battle of Natural Bridge was fought on March 6, 1865, when a Union force led by Brigadier General John Newton tried to force its way across the St. Marks River in the face of heavy resistance from Confederate forces led by Major General Samuel Jones and Brigadier General William Miller. The Southern troops reached the battlefield firest and were able to entrench on rising ground overlooking the Natural Bridge, which was a place where the river flowed underground for a short distance before rising back to the surface and continuing its course to the Gulf of Mexico.

With a superior position, more cannon and a strong force, the Confederates were able to hurl back at least eight Union charges. By the time the smoke cleared, 151 Union soldiers had been killed, wounded, captured or were missing in action. Southern forces lost 49 killed, wounded or captured. The battle preserved Tallahassee's status as the only Confederate capital east of the Mississippi not captured by Union forces before the end of the war.

If you would like to learn more about the Battle of Natural Bridge, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex. My book on the topic can be purchased by clicking the ad you see above.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

More on Fort Ward at St. Marks, Florida

By the early months of 1865, the Confederate fort at St. Marks was complete.

In addition to heavy guns that covered both the St. Marks and Wakulla River, Fort Ward was well protected by geography. Vast marshes spread out in all directions from the point of land formed by the confluence of the rivers and it would have been extremely difficult for a large land force to approach the defenses. The narrow and winding nature of the channel that approached St. Marks from the Gulf also meant that any attacking warships would have to approach under heavy fire from the fort's cannon from long range, without being able to reply with broadsides of their own.

The primary garrison of the fort was Campbell's Siege Artillery, a heavy artillery company raised primarily in Decatur County, Georgia. A strong or large company, the unit had drilled with the guns at Fort Ward for months and were well familiar with the natural and manmade defenses of the position. They were well housed in the former Marine Hospital.

In addition to the earthworks of the fort itself, St. Marks was also defended by the gunboat C.S.S. Spray. Armed with several pieces of heavy artillery, the Spray was a small river steamer with high pressure engines that made her both fast and highly maneuverable. Manned by a large crew of sailors and marines from the C.S. Navy, she had enjoyed a fairly successful career and was one of the longest operating such vessels in the Confederate Navy. By March of 1865, she was tied up alongside the east or St. Marks River battery of Fort Ward, but routinely moved up and down the lower river to watch the movements of the Federal blockade ships offshore.
As the war neared its end, Fort Ward and the Spray were the primary defenders of the Florida capital of Tallahassee. They were expected to offer the most formidable opposition to the campaign launched by General John Newton in March of 1865, but the Federal force would instead be surprised at Newport and Natural Bridge and neither the fort or gunboat at St. Marks would come under fire.

To learn more about San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park, which preserves the earthworks of Fort Ward, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/sanmarcos1.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Fort Ward - Confederate Bastion at St. Marks, Florida

As the War Between the States entered its final year, Confederate efforts to defend Florida's capital city of Tallahassee focused on an earthwork fort on the point of land formed by the confluence of the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers.

Fort Ward was named after Colonel George Ward and stood atop the ancient stone ruins of the Spanish fortress San Marcos de Apalache. This was the Fort St. Marks captured by Andrew Jackson in 1818 and even earlier by the pirate and adventurer William Augustus Bowles. It was the scene of the hanging of the Creek Prophet Josiah Francis and the executions of Arbuthnot and Ambrister during the First Seminole War. All of these were major events in American history.

The strategic location of the old fort made it a key point in Confederate defensive plans. The small port of St. Marks was immediately upstream and within sight of the fort. This was the point where the Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad terminated and where the cotton, timber and other products of the countryside arrived for shipment out via the Gulf of Mexico. It was also the place where schooners came in and unloaded cargoes for transport up to the capital city and beyond.

Evacuating a fort they had built at the St. Marks Lighthouse because it was too exposed, Confederate engineers focused on the old Spansish ruins. The original fort was never complete, but included a moat cutting across the narrow peninsular, stone walls and a bastion overlooking the Wakulla River. Some of the old stonework had been dismantled before the war and the material used to build a Marine Hospital at the site.

The Hospital served as the barracks for the fort. The original Spanish moat was filled to form a floor for the new Confederate work. Earth was banked up against the old stone walls to form the ramparts of the new fort and batteries of heavy cannon were placed to control both the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers. A fortified magazine was built to house the ammunition and other vital supplies of the fortification. The rear of the battery was later enclosed with a breastwork to provide a stronger defense against a land assault.

I'll post more on Fort Ward tomorrow. Until then, you can read about the state park that now preserves the site at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/sanmarcos1.