The more I dig into the Civil War, the more I find these rare little gems about my own state. It’s incredible what you can find in your own backyard.
Like the fact that Tallahassee was the only capitol of the Confederacy not to fall into Union hands. Thanks, largely to the efforts of young cadets and old men of the Florida reserves who repelled a Federal advance in March of 1865.
While Tallahassee was not the sole objective of Major General John Newton, once he had taken St. Marks River just eighteen miles south of the capitol, it would have been the next probable target. What Newton was after, however, was a band of Confederates who had attacked at Cedar Keys and Fort Myers. Cedar Keys, which had been under Union control since 1862, was a vital source of salt for the Confederacy.
Fort Myers was the most southern fort to be occupied by Union forces in Florida, and became a haven for escaped slaves and Union sympathizers. The fort gave the Federals a strategic advantage in stealing much needed cattle from local ranches that were destined for Confederate troops further north. After the fall of Vicksburg in the summer of 1863, Florida ranchers responded to the call for food by driving their stock through the heart of their state. The Federal intervention from Fort Myers created a problem for them, and a battalion was mustered for an attack under Colonel C. J. Munnerlyn. Comprised of state militia and cattle ranches known as the “Cow Calvary” – men who were exempt from enlistment in the Confederacy – attacked Fort Myers. Though this was a Union victory, the fort was abandoned in March and retribution was demanded for the rather minimal losses sustained.
Newton had received news that these Confederates were hiding out on St. Marks River south of the capitol, and send his troops to confront the rebels.
What they would find, however, was a band of men and boys who were determined to protect their homes.
A Virginia man who chose to remain with the Union and not follow his state in Secession as Robert E. Lee had, John Newton had earned high marks in his military career. Graduating second in his class from the West Point United State Military Academy, he was also commissioned in the Corps of Engineers and taught at the academy he graduated from. An expert in fortifications, his work is sprinkled along the Atlantic coast and the Great Lakes prior to the start of the war. He was also a member of the Gulf Coast defense board, which might have played a heavy hand in his participating in the Civil War’s later years.
Serving at Fredericksburg and in the Overland Campaign until 1864, Newton rose up through the ranks to Major General, but took a demotion when he joined with William Tecumseh Sherman in the push to take Atlanta. Once Georgia’s great city fell into Union hands, despite high praise from the commander of the campaign, Newton retired from field duty and took to commanding the District of Key West and the Tortugas of the Department of the Gulf. This was to be a comparatively more mundane scene, as the only thing he needed to worry about were blockade runners.
Like Newton, Confederate Brigadier General William Miller was a military man, though his service was more practical. A veteran of the Mexican Wars, he was awarded forty acres in Florida for his bravery and valor. Though born in New York, he was raised in Louisiana and attended Louisiana College prior to moving to Florida, where he passed his bar exam to become a lawyer. Along with practicing law in Santa Rosa county, Miller also dabbled in the lumber business before Florida seceded.
Once the war was in full swing, Miller took it upon himself to form the 3rd Florida Infantry Battalion. This battalion later evolved into the 1st Florida Infantry regiment, which saw action at Perryville and Stones River in Tennessee. The colonel was wounded and returned to Florida to recuperate. This, however, wasn’t the end of his career and he was awarded the title of brigadier general in August of 1864 and given the task of organizing the state’s reserve troops. Since most of the soldiers had been sent off to fight on the front lines, Florida was left with cadets too young to enlist and men who were too old for active duty. In charge of the Florida District, Miller raised up the 1st Florida Reserves, who would see action at Natural Bridge.
Samuel Jones, a West Point graduate like his future opponent, was also Virginia-born, but followed his state into the Confederacy. He would later become an assistant professor of mathematics and assistant instructor in artillery and infantry tactics at West Point. By the time Virginia seceded, however, he was on the staff of the Judge Advocate of the Army in Washington, D.C.
Rather quickly in 1861, he was promoted to brigadier general over the brigade consisting of the Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Eleventh Georgia, and the Fourth Kentucky Regiments of Infantry and Alberto’s Artillery, and saw action alongside P.G.T Beauregard at Manassas. Skipping around in military departments across the Confederacy from Tennessee to West Virginia, Carolinas, Georgia, and finally Florida, Jones was present at the 1865 assault on Charleston. When the Union Navy began shelling, Jones placed fifty captured Federal officers brought into town under guard. He then advised Union Major General John Foster to stop the bombardment unless he wanted to risk killing his own men. An irate Foster retaliated by placing captured Confederates, including Brigadier General Jeff Thompson, directly in the line of fire from Jones’s guns. March 1865 found him in command of the Department of Florida and Southern Georgia, which he held until the surrender a month later.
The navy detachment under Commander R.W Shutelt landed Newton’s troops at the lighthouse near the mouth of the St. Marks River. Among them were the 2nd U.S Colored Troops – who were present at the Battle of Fort Myers the previous month – and 99th U.S Colored Troops. Boats ran aground and had trouble getting up the river itself, but this didn’t hamper in Newton’s overall plans. According to his battle reports, two bridges, a foundry, and two mills were burned in his advance up the St. Marks River. The fort and port that opened up into the gulf became thoroughly blockaded in the process. According to one Louisiana soldier from the 99th U.S Colored Troops, they were all equipped with sixty cartridge rounds and two days of rations. Hauling with them were two artillery pieces they would use to force their way across Natural Bridge. In the battel reports, it was said that they marched fifty miles in forty-four hours, only resting for five of them.
When word of Newton’s coming attack spread through to Tallahassee, Brigadier General William Miller snapped into action. The 1st Florida Reserves were called to Newport and Natural Bridge. In the capitol, cadets from the military branch of Florida State Seminary, called the Florida Military and Collegiate Institute, were mustered into quite possibly the first bit of fighting they would ever be subjected to. Trained up by Valentine Johnson – a graduate of Virginia Military Institute – they along with their teachers, marched south to meet the Union assault.
Five artillery pieces pointed east along Natural Bridge Road, trained upon a forty-yard stretch of land in which the Union troops had to pass. Three from Milton’s Light Artillery under Captain Abel and Captain Dunham, two from Kilcrease’s Light Artillery under Captain Patrick Houston (Houstoun). Between these artillery pieces were troops of the 1st Florida Reserve, the 1st Florida Militia units under Colonel Girardeau, Love, and Daniels, and dismounted cavalry of the 5th Florida Cavalry. The “Baby Cadets” as they were affectionately named, were positioned just left of Houston’s artillery, and not far behind them were the Gadsden County Grays of the home guard.
Colored troops marched down the other side of Natural Bridge Road and the battle began the morning on March 6th. They initially were able to push the skirmishing Confederates back, but not so far to the bridge. General Samuel Jones, seasoned as he was, repelled the Union troops and protected the breastworks that gave cover to the artillery.
“In the early dawn the enemy advanced in force across the pass, firing rapidly, but after a short contest were driven back by a mingled fire of musketry and cannister.” – Brig. General William Miller.
The young cadets were ordered not to fire unless a direct charge endangered the artillery pieces they were positioned aside. For these teenage boys, it must have been a harrowing experience. The noise of the cannon, the crack of muskets that were trained upon their position, dirt and woodchips flying in all directions.
“… No doubt many of the cadets would have been struck if our teachers had not watched us constantly and make us keep behind cover.” – Cadet 2nd Lieutenant Byrd Coles.
Three times the Union charged and three times, they were unable to advance far. One final push around noon opened the way, but Confederate reinforcements arrived in the form of the 2nd Florida Cavalry. Even with the added force of the two cannons on the Union side, they were forced to fall back.
“It had now been demonstrated that the enemy’s position was too strong in numbers and strength to be carried, and as our position was in law salient to the marshes, exposed to his cross-fire, of which he was no slow to avail himself, it was determined to withdraw, to the open pine barrens about 300 yards distant.” – General John Newton
The battle lasted for most of the day, with the heaviest of the fighting around noon and the afternoon after the Union’s single breakthrough. The Federal troops retreated back to the protection of their fleet waiting outside St. Marks.
Union – Approximately 700, 500 of which were colored troops
Confederate – Approximately 1,000
Union – 148 total, 21 killed, 89 wounded, 38 captured
Confederate – 26 total, 3 killed, 23 wounded
As I said before, Tallahassee remained out of Union hands for the entirety of the war. This didn’t last long, however. One month after the battle at Natural Bridge, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in Virginia and those cadets who had braved the trauma of battle found their military branch at Florida State Seminary in the hands of the enemy who couldn’t take them during the war. After the fall of the Confederacy, campus buildings were occupied by Union forces for over a month. It was later
disbanded and the Institute became purely academic. The name of the Institute was changed to what we now know today as Florida State University. Based on the involvement of the students, the Florida State University Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program is one of only four Army ROTC programs to have a battle streamer for their actions in the Civil War. The streamer reads NATURAL BRIDGE 1865 and I can imagine how proud the cadets would have been to fly that streamer after the battle.
Natural Bridge could be considered one of the last Confederate victories of the war, and falling just behind Olustee, it’s the second largest battle to be fought on Florida’s soil.
Major General John Newton, despite this seemingly humiliating defeat by Florida reserves, continued his military career in the Corps of Engineers and accomplished much work in New York after the war. He is famed for blowing up New York’s Hell Gate Rock with 140 tons of dynamite on October 10, 1885. He died in New York City on May 1, 1895 of complications from heart disease and rheumatism, and is buried at West Point.
William Miller hung up his military cap and returned to his lumber business, and later settled in Port Washington in Walton County. His career as a politician, however, wasn’t over and he served two terms in the House of Representatives for the state he helped to defend during the war. He’s buried in St. Johns Cemetery in Pensacola Florida.
Quite different than his counterparts from the battle, Samuel Jones retired from military altogether and served as president of the Maryland Agricultural College between 1873 to 1875. But, even in death, he’s still honored as a soldier. Jones died in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania, and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia alongside many more veterans of the war between the states.
Natural Bridge Today
The Civil War Trust, a division of the American Battlefield Trust, and its partners have acquired and preserved 110 acres of the battlefield that are now part of the state park. It’s unmanned, and easy to walk through. For about $3 per vehicle, you can park at their picnic/restroom area and cross Natural Bridge Road to the monument erected to honor the Confederate troops.
Every year in the first week of March, a ceremony and reenactment are held for the public at no charge.