Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Murders at Natural Bridge Battlefield?

Natural Bridge Battlefield
The Union force retreated as fast as possible from the battlefield at Natural Bridge, marching through the night of March 6, 1865 and reaching the St. Marks Lighthouse at 4 o'clock on the morning of the 7th.

General Newton himself seems to have been one of the sources for claims that some of the African American soldiers from the 2nd and 99th U.S.C.T. regiments were murdered by Confederate soldiers after being found wounded at the battlefield. On March 28th he wrote to General Samuel Jones at Tallahassee to inquire as to whether Union officers and soldiers captured at Natural Bridge had been treated as prisoners of war:

Gen. John Newton
...It is under testimony that Lieutenant Wilson's life was threatened, and several colored soldiers wounded or unable to evade pursuit were murdered in cold blood, by the cavalry under your command. I hope for the sake of humanity that these questions may be satisfactorily answered.

General Jones responded that all of the Federals captured were being treated as prisoners of war, but he did not otherwise elaborate. Similar claims about prisoners being murdered on the battlefield were repeated in the diaries and letters of other officers, as well as in Northern newspapers, but none of the writers were anywhere near the scene after the fight and were in no position to know.

So what is the truth? The answer can be found in the casualty lists prepared by Union officers after the battle and the records of the Confederate prisoner of war stockade of Camp Sumter at Andersonville, Georgia. In his report of April 19, 1865, General Newton listed one officer and 37 enlisted men as missing in action. Thirteen of these men were members of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry, while one officer and 24 enlisted men were from the 2nd and 99th U.S.C.T. regiments. This total did not include eight severely wounded men left at a home just south of the battlefield. The addition of these men, who were treated by Confederate surgeons after the battle, raises the total number of Union soldiers who could have fallen into Confederate hands to one officer and 45 enlisted men.

Of this number, nine men from the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry apparently escaped capture by taking to the wounds. Regimental records indicate they eventually rejoined their regiment at Cedar Key. Two of the severely wounded soldiers left at the house near the battlefield died of their wounds. Another soldier, Private Solomon Perkins of Company E, 2nd U.S.C.T., was found wounded on the battlefield but survived. These subtractions and the addition of Perkins places the final number of potential prisoners as four men from the 2nd Florida and one officer and 31 enlisted men from the 2nd and 99th.

Lt. Col. George W. Scott
This total matches precisely with the number of prisoners that Lieutenant Colonel George Washington Scott reported as having been captured during or following the battle: "One Lieut., four white and thirty one black persons were captured by the cavalry."

The identical match between the number of prisoners mentioned in Scott's report and the records of the Union army proves conclusively that no prisoners were murdered by Confederate forces after the Battle of Natural Bridge.

Additional proof is provided in a letter from George C. Gibbs, an officer at Andersonville, who reported to the assistant adjutant general in Salisbury, North Carolina, on April 5, 1865, that "about thirty negroes, Louisiana slaves, captured at the battle of Natural Bridge, in Florida, have been ordered here by General Pillow as laborers." The total number of black soldiers captured after the battle was 31, but Private Solomon Perkins died in the Tallahassee hospital a couple of weeks after the battle leaving the final number at 30.

The claims about murders on the battlefield seem to have been nothing more than post-battle propaganda or gossip that swept through the defeated Union force.

To read a more detailed analysis of my investigation into the fates of the men who fought at Natural Bridge, please consider my book, The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida. It is now available in expanded edition by clicking the ad at left. The expanded edition is also available as a Kindle download from Amazon.com.

You can also learn more about the battle at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

3 comments:

Terry Sirmans said...

Good work Dale! Never believed it happened.
Terry

Daniel R. Weinfeld said...

Really interesting research work Dale. Is Natural Bridge one of the examples in George Burkhardt's "Confederate Rage, Yankee Wrath"? I'm pretty sure he uses Olustee. I might suggest checking it out and pointing out your findings to the author.

Dale said...

I am not sure if it is one of the examples he uses or not. I will have to take a look at the book.

The evidence on Olustee is also very questionable and, in fact, the first references to murders on the battlefield there actually came from the Lake City, Florida, newspaper which raised allegations that wounded Confederate soldiers had been killed. I'm in the process of working on Olustee. It is taking longer than expected, but I think it will be enlightening as well.

Dale