The Battle of Natural Bridge – Then and Now
Here is the latest CONFEDERATE JOURNAL article prepared by Bob Hurst for publication in the Wakulla Area Times. Please share with your friends, family and others interested in Southern history and heritage.
Bob is the Commander of the Col. David Lang Camp, Sons of Confederate Veterans, in Tallahassee and is 2nd Lt. Commander of the Florida Division, SCV. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-878-7010.
Cmdr., 9th Brigade
FL Division, SCV
The Battle of Natural Bridge: Then and Now
On March 6, 1865, federal forces attempted to cross the land bridge over the St. Marks River near Woodville to continue a planned northward trek with the goal of capturing Tallahassee and eventually moving farther north to Thomasville, Georgia to release prisoners they thought were being held there.
When word of federal troops landing on the Florida coast near the St. Marks lighthouse had reached Tallahassee and surrounding areas just days before, the response from the people of the area was a tribute to the bravery and determination of the Southern people of the Big Bend region. From as far west as Jackson County and as far east as Madison (and reportedly some from as far away as Bradford County), there was a rush to Tallahassee of home guard and militia units and many volunteers. There were also cadets from the West Florida Seminary (now known as Florida State University) who joined with these units to head down to Woodville and the natural bridge to repel the yankee advance. Among these Southern defenders were two sons of Governor John Milton and two young men who would later become governors of Florida – A.K. Allison and Francis Fleming. Some Confederate regular troops (infantry and cavalry) arrived just in time to also play a role in the conflict.
The Battle of Natural Bridge resulted in the last significant Southern victory of the War. It was a resounding win for the Confederates as approximately six times as many Union troops were killed as Confederates and the total casualty count was about three times greater for the federal forces.
The victory resulted in Tallahassee being the only Confederate capital east of the Mississippi River not taken by Union forces during the War. Even more significantly, by driving the federals back to their ships in the Gulf of Mexico ( on which they quickly sailed away) the victory spared Tallahassee and the entire Big Bend from the inevitable looting, plundering and marauding that was occurring throughout the South as the federals engaged in the atrocious policy of "total war" during the last stages of the War for Southern Independence.
The victory also spared towns and civilians of the area from the economic and infrastructure devastation wreaked upon so much of the South by the Union army (with the blessings of Abraham Lincoln) and allowed the area to recover more quickly than was possible for so many other parts of the torched and decimated Southland.
For many years this victory was celebrated in Florida and school children were pridefully taught of the gallant efforts of the Southern troops to prevent the yankees from taking the state capital. As a result of the involvement of the West Florida Seminary cadets, the ROTC Corps at Florida State University is one of only three in the entire country (Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel are the others) approved to fly a battle streamer with their corps colors. Sadly, as Florida has changed to a now hard to recognize Southern state, the importance of the battle and its celebration have been greatly lost from the collective memory of the state.
The re-enactment of the battle is held the first weekend in March and draws a large crowd who are only too happy to watch the "good guys" in gray win one over the invaders. The re-enactment this year was especially fine. The beautiful spring weather complemented the large contingent of re-enactors who were dressed in a variety of uniforms to portray the varied garb of the actual participants, at least on the Confederate side. There were many cannon present to the delight of the crowd and the pyrotechnics (thanks to SCV bridage commander Clement Lindsey and his crew) were just outstanding (louder is always better).
Barry Burch, park manager at Natural Bridge, told me that the recent state acquisition of additional acreage adjacent to the current re-enactment site will allow for even bigger and better events in the future as more of the actual battlefield will be available for the action. This is good news and I know the re-enactors and history buffs who attend will appreciate this since it will allow for a more accurate portrayal of the actual battle.
Altogether it was a fine occasion for those of us who cherich our Southern and Confederate heritage and appreciate seeing it portrayed in a positive and factual manner , except….
Yes, there always seems to be an "except" in these politically-correct times when it comes to anything "Confederate".
There were two events Sunday afternoon that I found disappointing and disturbing – not to mention inappropriate.
The first involved the memorial service at the monument which is held each year before the battle re-enactment begins. This service is coordinated by the Tallahassee chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. At the monument site are three flagpoles which, historically, have flown the State of Florida Flag, the American Flag and the Confederate Battle Flag. This year the Confederate Battle Flag was replaced by the Confederate 1st National Flag which, of course, is better known as the "Stars and Bars". The "Stars and Bars" is a beautiful flag but, while many people recognize the nickname, very few other than those familiar with Confederate history can identify this flag or even recognize it as a Confederate emblem. Indeed, the decision was made in mid-1861 to design the CBF because the "Stars and Bars" looked so much like the "Stars and Stripes" that it led to confusion on the battlefield. Naturally, the Confederate re-enactors at Natural Bridge were carrying the CBF, as well they should.
Why did the display of the "Stars and Bars" disturb me? For one reason, it is historically inaccurate to fly the "Stars and Bars" at Natural Bridge since that flag had been replaced in May 1863 as the official flag of the Confederacy. Also, it seems that many Southerners (I think of them as "Confederate-lite") have taken to displaying the "Stars and Bars" because it does not contain the most-recognized Confederate symbol – the St. Andrews Cross. The Confederate Battle Flag is one big St. Andrews Cross with an inlay of thirteen stars within the saltier.
Perhaps the ladies of the UDC thought they should display a government flag rather than a battle flag. At the time of the Battle of Natural Bridge the Confederate government had just adopted the 3rd National Flag as the official flag of the Confederacy. Since this change was made only two days before the battle, it would also have been historically appropriate to fly a 2nd National Flag ("Stainless Banner") which had replaced the "Stars and Bars" in 1863. Word of the flag transition might not have reached the troops at Natural Bridge in time to sew a 3rd National before the conflict. (Note: It was the Confederate 2nd National Flag which flew for many years on the west front of the Florida Capitol until ordered removed by a former carpetbagger governor about seven years ago.)
If it was the intent of the UDC to avoid a Confederate flag containing the St. Andrews Cross, both the 2nd National and the 3rd National present a problem as each contains the SAC element in the canton of the flag. Anyway, I hope the UDC will choose to fly either a 3rd National or a Confederate Battle Flag at next year’s monument memorial service.
I was also disappointed that the UDC chose not to invite the best color guard in this area to present colors at the memorial service. The CSS Tallahassee Marine Guard have the best-looking uniforms around and they are a snappy outfit with their white trousers, gray tunics and kepis. Their camp flag, however, is a CBF with the camp information located strategically around the face of the flag and they always carry their camp flag when they present colors. Obviously, this presented a problem for the UDC. Too bad, they missed out on a fine unit.
The other occurrence that disturbed me was something I did not see but, boy, did I hear about it. As I approached the re-enactment site after the service at the monument, I saw a tall black man with prominent white hair dressed in a black suit appropriate for the 1860’s period. I thought nothing ot it other than wondering who he was. I have to say I was late getting to the battle site because I had been talking with many people and visiting the living history exhibits. I also have to say how much I truly enjoy and appreciate so many of the spectators coming over and telling me that they read this column regularly and enjoy it. It really made my day.
Anyway, by the time I got to the action site the stands were full so I walked up a rise behind the stands to get a better view. Here again, I ended up talking to some more good folks and missed a lot of the action.
Later, after the last shot had been fired, the re-enactors had left the field and the stands were emptying, about a half dozen people approached me and asked, "What can we do about this Frederick Douglass character?" I had to admit ignorance to what they were talking about. It seems the guy dressed in the 1860’s suit was there to portray the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and had, with approval of event organizers, been given about 20 minutes to speak to the crowd immediately before the battle re-enactment began. He was not listed in the program for the event. The group told me that they found much of what he said offensive and thought it detracted from the afternoon’s main event. As I was walking back to my Jeep, I spoke with many other spectators who felt the same way.
Now, I did not hear his harangue, but what I find inappropriate is that on March 6, 1865 Frederick Douglass was not within a thousand miles of the Natural Bridge battlefield so why should there be a characterization of him at the re-enactment. It is historically inaccurate to have him there and totally unnecessary. Plus, based on the comments of many I spoke with, unappreciated.
I intend to speak with the state Division of Recreation and Parks about this but I would appreciate some assistance from you. If you attended the Natural Bridge re-enactment, heard this guy’s presentation and found it inappropriate and unnecessary for the event, please send me an email or give me a phone call (emails preferred) and let me know. (See contact information at end of column.)
Many re-enactors I spoke with did not appreciate the Douglass characterization either and, of course, without re-enactors there can be no re-enactment. Thank you for reading and let me hear from you.
Battle Of Natural Bridge
The Battle of Natural Bridge – Then and Now