The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida - In Depth
The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida - In Depth
The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida - In Depth
Note: Writer and historian Dale Cox is the author of the critically-acclaimed 2007 book - The Battle of Natural Bridge,
Florida: The Confederate Defense of Tallahassee. It is available at right.
You can see photographs of the places mentioned here and learn more about the battle by visiting our Battle of
Natural Bridge Home Page.
The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida: The Confederate Defense of Tallahassee
by Dale Cox
On September 27, 1864, Union troops attacked the Northwest Florida city of Marianna. It was the deepest penetration
of Confederate Florida by Federal forces during the entire Civil War and sparked an engagement remembered today
as the Battle of Marianna.
The ease with which Union forces reached Marianna and the destructiveness of the raid alarmed military leaders in
the state. Although the Northwest Florida raid was never intended to penetrate east of Marianna, Confederate
commanders had no way of knowing this and realized that had the enemy continued to advance, there was little they
could have done to stop them.
This realization prompted Brigadier General William Miller in Tallahassee to take immediate steps to improve the
defenses of the capital city. Fortifications were constructed at key points around Tallahassee, among them strongly
built forts from which artillery could devastate any attacking force. Most of these earthworks have long since
disappeared, but at least one - Fort Houston or "Old Fort" - can still be seen. Located in Old Fort Park within cannon
shot of the old state capitol building, the fort originally overlooked open fields that are now wooded residential areas.
Confederate engineers recognized that the greatest threat to the city was of an attack by Union troops coming up from
Apalachee Bay. The primary defense against this was Fort Ward, a battery constructed earlier in the war onto the ruins
of the old Spanish fort San Marcos de Apalache. The fort stood on the point of land at the confluence of the St. Marks
and Wakulla Rivers, where its guns could engage approaching warships from long range.
Although it was isolated in the marshes, the fort was vulnerable to attack from the rear. Engineers constructed earthen
breastworks to address this weakness and by March of 1865 the fort had been entirely enclosed.
The bridge at Newport, just upstream from St. Marks, was also fortified with entrenchments on the west bank from
which Confederate infantrymen could sweep the bridge and a nearby deep ford should Union troops try to get across.
Pickets were stationed at the St. Marks Lighthouse, the site of old Port Leon below Fort Ward and at Alligator Point
where they could observe any attempted landing of troops by the Union navy. A small Confederate steam gunboat, the
C.S.S. Spray, also patrolled the lower river.
These defensive preparations played a critical role the coming Southern victory at the Battle of Natural Bridge.
The new Confederate defenses were put to the test in early March of 1865 when a Union flotilla arrived off St. Marks
carrying the 2nd and 99th U.S. Colored Troops, a battalion from the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry (dismounted) and a
supporting force of nearly 1,000 U.S. sailors with artillery. The commander of the offensive was General John Newton,
a veteran Union officer who had performed well during the Gettysburg, Atlanta and other campaigns.
Difficulties beset the Union flotilla almost immediately after it arrived off St. Marks. A fog that had disguised the
appearance of the ships suddenly lifted on the morning of March 4, 1865, and the officers decided to sail out across
the horizon to hide their intentions.
The ships returned that night and Major Edmund Weeks went ashore at the St. Marks Lighthouse with some of his
men while a small party of sailors rowed up East River to seize the vital bridge there.
Confederate cavalry scouting in the area quickly detected these movements and attacked the Federals at the bridge.
Weeks came up to support them, but when no additional reinforcements landed he withdrew slowly back to the
lighthouse, Major William H. Milton and the Southern cavalry hard on his heels.
A courier sent back to the railhead at St. Marks commandeered a "special" train and rushed through the night to warn
headquarters in Tallahassee. Residents later recalled hearing the train arrive. Alarm guns were fired from the Capitol
building and the local home guards turned out. The alert was also wired both east and west by telegraph and a
massive mobilization of troops began from as far east as Lake City and as far west as Marianna.
With Major General Samuel Jones remaining behind in Tallahassee to coordinate these movements, Brigadier
General William Miller headed south by rail with a company of militia and the cadets from the West Florida Seminary
(today's Florida State University).
The main Federal force began its much delayed landing and by the morning of March 5th was entirely ashore at the
lighthouse. Their delay in landing after the first contact with Confederates at East River Bridge proved fatal to their
Newton began his primary inland movement on the morning of March 5, 1865. His total force consisted of around
1,000 officers and men, with two pieces of artillery (boat howitzers) provided by the Navy. Hundreds of additional men,
sailors from the U.S. warships anchored offshore, were to be landed to protect their flank as the army troops
Leaving the lighthouse at around 8 a.m., the Federals pushed along the narrow path through the marshes and across
spots of high ground until they reached the East River Bridge, where a force of around 60 Confederates under Lt. Col.
G.W. Scott were waiting to oppose them. Scott's men had a single piece of artillery, but eyewitnesses later recalled
that the colonel for unknown reasons declined to let them open on the approaching Federals at long range. Instead,
they had to unload the gun and then reload it with canister and managed to get off only a single shot before Union
troops stormed across the stringers of the bridge. Scott ordered his men to save their gun and retreat, but in the
confusion the men took off running and the cannon was captured by Union soldiers.
Hoping to take advantage of the confusion, General Newton pushed the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry (dismounted)
forward with orders to take the bridge over the St. Marks River at Newport.
Scott's men made it there ahead of them, however, and had just managed to partially dismantle the flooring of the
bridge when the Union soldiers approached. The Confederates took shelter behind entrenchments on the west bank,
where they were reinforced by a company of home guards from Gadsden County and a detachment of sailors from
the C.S.S. Spray.
A sharp skirmish opened from opposite sides of the river, but the Confederates were able to hold back all attempts to
take the bridge.
After bombarding Newport and killing several African American civilians, General Newton General Newton quickly
decided he could not force his way across. Informed by guides of a second crossing upstream, he turned north up
the east bank of the river and headed for the Natural Bridge. This crossing, in southern Leon County, was a place
where the river sank underground for a short distance before rising back to the surface and continuing its flow to the
Gulf of Mexico.
Confederate scouts observed this movement and Lt. Col. Scott and the Southern cavalry were ordered to move up the
west bank opposite the Federals and block the crossing. Additional reinforcements coming down the railroad from
Tallahassee were directed to the Natural Bridge. Although Newton did not know it at the time, a race was on for
control of the crossing. The Confederates won.
By sunrise on the morning of March 6, 1865, Scott's cavalry was in position at the Natural Bridge, along with the main
strength of the 1st Florida Infantry Reserves, several militia ("home guard") companies and a number of pieces of
field artillery. The troops took up positions along a curving ridge overlooking the Natural Bridge and began to throw up
When the Federals arrived at the Natural Bridge before dawn, they pushed across but were greeted with by showers
of artillery and musket fire. They brought up their own artillery and a furious cannonade erupted.
As it became clear that the climactic battle was developing at Natural Bridge, the Confederates pushed additional
troops and artillery to the scene. By midday they had at least six cannon on the ground as opposed to only three for the
Federals. They also extended their lines to form a shallow semi-circle connecting to the river both above and below
the crossing. This formation forced the Union troops to advance into a fierce crossfire each time they attacked the
The Union forces tried eight times to assault the Confederate lines, but were driven back each time by severe fire and
blocked by natural sinks and sloughs. They suffered severe casualties in the process.
After a day of fighting, Newton was finally forced to admit he could not force his way across the St. Marks at Natural
Bridge. Some A portion of his men were ordered to begin preparing entrenchments on the east bank of the St. Marks,
while the rest of the force continued to engage the Confederates from the tree cover around the Natural Bridge. Once
these works were completed, the Federal troops fell back from the bridge and took positions in them.
Brig. Gen. William Miller now ordered the 2nd Florida C.S. Cavalry (dismounted) and some additional troops to cross
the bridge and find out whether the Federals had withdrawn. The Union troops opened fire on them from within their
new works and sharp fighting opened on the east bank of the river.
The Confederates charged the initial line of Union entrenchments, but the Federals withdrew to successive lines from
which they opened a withering fire on the Southern troops. Miller's attack was temporarily checked and the Union
troops took advantage of the pause in the fighting to withdraw from the battlefield. They felled trees across the road in
their wake to slow any attempt at pursuit. Although Newton would later claim victory, the real outcome on the ground
The Battle of Natural Bridge was over. Confederate casualties had been remarkably light, 3 killed and around 22
wounded. Most of the wounded fell during the final attacks on the Union entrenchments east of the river. The Federals
suffered much more severely. Newton lost an estimated 21 killed, 89 wounded and 38 captured.
Exhausted from marching and fighting, the Union troops retreated back to the Gulf as quickly as they could. Southern
troops tried to pursue, but had to clear fallen trees and logs from the road. About 100 Confederate cavalrymen finally
caught up with the Federal rear guard just north of Newport, but were able to do much as darkness had now fallen.
Another detachment of Southern soldiers cut off and captured a Union lieutenant and several men that had been
assigned to guard a minor crossing one mile south of the Natural Bridge. They had been forgotten during the
withdrawal of the main body.
Newton marched on to the East River Bridge, which a party of sailors destroyed behind him. The Navy had failed in its
effort to get warships up the shallow river to attack Fort Ward, but had shown considerable foresight in sending a party
ashore to protect the bridge pending the return of the main body.
The Confederate infantry pursued to a point south of Newport, but was unable to catch the retreating Federals before
the men of both sides collapsed from exhaustion.
The Union column completed its return to the lighthouse the next morning with no additional Confederate pursuit.
They soon set sail on the return voyage to their bases at Cedar Key and Key West.
Return to the Battle of Natural Bridge Main Page
|Copyright 2010 & 2013 by Dale Cox
All rights reserved.
Last Updated: February 23, 2013
Civil War Sites in Florida