Friday, March 6, 2009

Gadsden County at the Battle of Natural Bridge

Today is the 144th anniversary of the Battle of Natural Bridge, fought south of Tallahassee on March 6, 1865.

Men and boys from Gadsden County played a critical role in this fight, which preserved Tallahassee's status as the only Southern capital east of the Mississippi not conquered by Union troops during the War Between the States.

The following is excerpted from my recent book, The Early History of Gadsden County, now available at


Located north of Newport, the Natural Bridge was the next viable place where Newton’s Federals could cross the river. As the name implies, it was a natural formation where the St. Marks flowed underground for a short distance, creating a “bridge” where the river could be crossed. The march was long, dark and exhausting:

Sleeping and marching did not go well together for me, and my experience was shared by many others, we would strike a smooth bit of road, and five or six would probably be marching along asleep. Presently one would stumble and fall, not along, mind you for he would bring the sleeping fellows ahead like ten pins. It was not an unfrequent occurrence to see four or five on the ground at once, which would wake us up a little only to enact the same over again.

The column reached the Natural Bridge before daybreak and found Colonel Scott and a few of his cavalry from Newport already there. They were immediately formed into a line of battle.
Three of the Gadsden County home guard units were on the field at this time: the Gadsden Grays under Captain DuPont, Miles Johnston’s Company and the men under J. Porter Scott. They were initially placed on the left flank under Lieutenant Colonel Girardeau of the 1st Florida Militia. They had brought their cannon with them and it was placed in charge of a detachment under Lieutenant Whitehead.

The other Gadsden County unit at Natural Bridge before sunrise was Company L, 1st Florida Infantry Reserves, under Captain Gilchrist. These men, along with the six other companies of their regiment, formed the center of the curving Confederate line, while a force of dismounted cavalry under Major William H. Milton were placed on the right flank. Cannon were spaced at intervals along the line and the men fell on their arms to rest.

No sooner had they done so, however, than did the battle start. Dr. Hentz, who was to the rear at an old “piney woods house” designated the hospital, left a vivid description of the opening shots:

…All of a sudden bang-bang-bang-bang-bang went off a scattering volley of musketry down on the bridge accompanied by a wild Confederate yell; I saw the flashing of the guns in the dark; immediately a cannon that was in position began throwing shell into the advancing Yankees; one after another some half dozen were thrown, and exploded down in the darkness about the bridge; when suddenly volleys of musketry were poured from the companies supporting the cannon; and replied to by the Yankees – sheets of flame illuminating the darkness, and Minnie balls were whistling and shrieking all about us; cutting the bushes & hitting trees all about.

The Battle of Natural Bridge was underway. The Federals tried to force their way across the bridge, hoping to overpower the Confederates on the west bank, but were hurled back by the artillery fire and volleys of musketry described by Dr. Hentz. The Gadsden County men on the left flank were heavily engaged in this stage of the fighting and due to their position were able to pour fire into the flanks of the Union troops each time they advanced. After a determined effort to seize the passage, the Union officers pulled their men back to the cover of the woods while they assessed the situation.

To the south at Newport, the men of Smith’s company could hear the artillery fire at Natural Bridge:

…We heard as many as three or four reports of cannon toward a front, seven or eight miles further up the river named the Natural Bridge and at which point a courier told us was desperately threatened by the foe.

Not long afterward we marched thither leaving Newport entirely defenseless since the enemy opposite us had not all gone. Our route was over the Newport Plank Road, hedged on either side by the verdancy of the season.

The men from Newport reached Natural Bridge at around 8:30 a.m., placing five companies of men from Gadsden County on the ground. Major General Jones and Brigadier General William Miller were now both on the scene and after conferring decided to rearrange the position of the men on the line. Lieutenant Whitehead’s detachment with their cannon was moved around to the far right flank of the Confederate line. A section of the Gadsden Home Guards, now commanded by Colonel Love himself, was moved to the center and placed in support of two pieces of artillery from the Kilcrease Light Artillery commanded by Captain Patrick Houstoun. Their position was at the top of the ridge, just to the right of the point where the road now passes through Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park.

The rest of the Gadsden County citizens, now serving under Lieutenant Colonel Girardeau, remained in position with the other home guards on the left flank, while Gilchrist’s company of reserves was positioned with the rest of that regiment along the right side of the long curving line.

These rearrangements had just been perfected and the Confederates were busily engaged in throwing up earthen breastworks when the Federals suddenly launched their main attack. Dr. Hentz, serving at the hospital to the rear, remembered that shot and shell began falling heavily around him:

At about noon the battle began in earnest; shells flew thick and fast; and balls were whistling and falling everywhere. Where Dr. Mapp and I were sitting, a distance in the rear of the line of battle, Minnie balls were falling about us all day, making the dirty fly; and shells thrown by the Yankees’ cannon, burst occasionally in the air. One shell burst so close to us that a fragment as large as the palm of my hand tore the ground up just beyond my foot….

Among the soldiers on the field at this time was the editor of the Quincy Semi-Weekly Dispatch. From his position with the home guards on the left flank, he described how, “The enemy attacked with considerable spirit and made three attempts to cross the bridge, but each time was repulsed with comparatively heavy loss.

The sound of the battle could be heard for miles around and the residents of North Florida listened intently to the boom of the cannon, silently hoping and praying that the Confederates would hold. The situation now was far more than political. If the Federal troops forced their way across at Natural Bridge, then all of Florida between the Suwannee and the Apalachicola would be open to them. As the raid on Marianna had demonstrated the previous fall, this would mean devastation of the local economy and infrastructure and misery beyond description.

In one of the rare occurrences of the war, however, the Confederates at Natural Bridge outnumbered their enemy in both men and artillery. Eight courageous charges by the Federal troops were driven back and General Newton was finally forced to acknowledge that his campaign was at an end. His troops began a slow withdrawal from the battlefield, hurling back Southern counterattacks by the 2nd Florida Cavalry (C.S.) and felling trees across the road to slow pursuit. By nightfall the Union soldiers were in full retreat to the Gulf of Mexico.

The men and boys from Gadsden County had played a critical role in the fighting of the Natural Bridge campaign. The presence of Smith’s company had been vital in allowing the Confederates to hold the position at Newport Bridge, forcing the Federals to march north and try to cross at Natural Bridge. The efforts of the other companies there during the early stages of the battle, in a stand-up fight on open ground before they had time to build breastworks, gave Confederate officers time to bring enough reinforcements in men and artillery to the field to win the battle. Tallahassee would remain the only Southern capital east of the Mississippi River not captured by Union forces during the War Between the States.

When the smoke cleared and casualties could be assessed, the disproportionate outcome of the battle was obvious. Southern forces lost 6 killed or mortally wounded, 39 wounded and 4 captured or missing. Five African American civilians at Newport had also been killed by artillery fire. The Union forces, by comparison, had suffered the loss of 34 killed or mortally wounded, 77 wounded and 40 captured or missing in action. The Confederates had sustained a total loss of 49 (exclusive of the civilians at Newport), while the Federals had lost 151. Amazingly, none of the citizen soldiers from Gadsden County were killed or wounded in the battle.

Beyond its obvious role in preventing the capture of Tallahassee and St. Marks, the Battle of Natural Bridge served a greater purpose in preventing the desolation of Gadsden, Leon and surround counties by Union forces. The north was then practicing a strategy of “total warfare,” as evidence by their actions at Marianna and during Sherman’s March to the Sea. Had Newton and his men broken through at Newport and Natural Bridge, it is reasonable to assume that the entire region would have experienced vast economic damage and destruction.

Instead, by achieving the last significant Southern victory of the War Between the States, the men from Gadsden and the surrounding counties saved their homes and communities as well as their state capital. The war ended just a few months later, but with its infrastructure still intact, the people of Gadsden County were able to rebound quickly from the horrors of the war. The county stepped through the door into the future even as the area of Florida to the west descended into a brutal time of post-war violence and bloodshed.

--To read this chapter in its entirety, including the lists of Gadsden County men known to have been at the Battle of Natural Bridge, please consider purchasing a copy of The Early History of Gadsden County now available at

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