|Map of the St. Marks River mouth, showing disposition of Navy gunboats during the landing of troops. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies|
In the early days of 1865, with the war starting to wind down, Union Army General John Newton decided to organize an assault on the Florida state capitol, Tallahassee. He would land his troops at St. Marks and march northward to the city. Perhaps some of his motivation was to try to avenge the stinging defeat the Union Army had suffered a year earlier at Olustee.
A joint Army/Navy task force began to land Union troops near the lighthouse at the mouth of the St. Marks River on 3 March 1865. Heavy weather hampered the operations, but all forces were landed by 5 March 1865. Assisting in the operation were the Union Navy gunboats Stars and Stripes, Fort Henry, Mahaska, Honduras, Hibiscus, and Britannia. Landing parties of sailors and marines were also put ashore to capture critical bridges and occupy Confederate forces at St. Marks to prevent their interfering with the Union Army advance.
|USS Hibiscus. Naval History and Heritage Command|
The Union forces were landed on the east side of the St. Marks River, which meant they had to cross the river to advance on Tallahassee. The Confederates burned a bridge over the river at Newport, which forced the Union troops to head northward to cross the St. Marks River at a “natural bridge” feature where it dips underground for a stretch. The Union column was met at this feature by a rag-tag Confederate defense consisting of soldiers on leave, local militia, and cadets from the West Florida Seminary (now Florida State University) on 6 March 1865. Supported by several pieces of artillery, the Confederate force repulsed multiple advances by the Union forces, who ultimately withdrew back to their landing at the mouth of the river and were evacuated by the Navy gunboats. The “Battle of Natural Bridge” was the second largest land engagement in Florida after Olustee, and the result was the same; yet another Union defeat. Tallahassee became the only Confederate state capitol east of the Mississippi River that was not taken by the Union during the war.
The weekend of 7-8 March 2015, the 38th reenactment of the Battle of Natural Bridge was held at the Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park (the site of the original battle). This was a special event, as it commemorated the 150th Anniversary of the battle. Reenactors from the USS Pawnee Guard marines and USS Ft. Henry Living History Association portrayed a naval landing party and, as they did in the original engagement, provided flanking cover to the Union Army advance on the battlefield.
|Members of the Pawnee Guard (US Marines) and a sailor with the USS Ft. Henry Living History Association in camp at the Natural Bridge battle reenactment in March 2015. Courtesy Pawnee Guard.|