The Command Advanced Gallantly: The Battle of Natural Bridge
Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Adam Jacobs graduated with a B.A. in History from UVA in May 2020. He worked as an intern for the Nau Center in the 2019-2020 academic year.

Despite major inroads made by Union armies across the South during the Civil War, the state of Florida existed largely on the periphery and experienced few major battles within its borders. As Florida was a sparsely populated state compared to its neighbors, and contained meager industrial resources, the Union did not prioritize an invasion to its inland portions. Strategically, devoting substantial resources to the state made little sense for the Union high command. As late as February 1864, only one major battle occurred within its borders—the Battle of Olustee or Ocean Pond. In a drive on the state capital at Tallahassee, Union forces had misjudged the Confederates’ commitment to protecting their interior supply lines to the Western Theater, and were repulsed with significant casualties. Emboldened by their victory at Olustee, Confederate commanders began raiding ports on the coasts in order to restrict the movement of supplies and break the northern blockade.

In an attempt to engage and destroy the Confederate units that had attacked the crucial gulf port of Cedar Key in one of these raids, Brigadier General John Newton led approximately 700 troops to aggressively confront the Rebels. It is possible that Newton was aiming for the state capital of Tallahassee, the only state capital not captured by Union forces during the war. The fact that Newton removed his troops from Key West and Punta Rassa in order to invade the Florida panhandle certainly gave credence to this theory. Snuffing out Confederate resistance in the area would give Union troops a stranglehold on the region, and Newton may have believed a knockout blow would effectively secure the panhandle for the Union. Whatever his reasons, Newton marched toward Tallahassee a little more than a year after the northern defeat at Olustee.

Newton’s force encountered resistance in early March, when his vanguard, which included two USCT regiments, skirmished with Confederates proceeding the battle of Natural Bridge on March 4 and 5: Colonel Benjamin Townsend’s 2nd USCT Infantry Regiment, as well as Major Samuel Pollock’s 99th USCT Infantry Regiment. Muster rolls show three soldiers from Albemarle County appeared present for duty among these soldiers. James T.S. Taylor of the 2nd USCT, who had just received release from arrest, may have participated in the fighting. Meanwhile, Solomon Perkins, also of the 2nd USCT, went missing before the army listed him as killed in action at the battle. Joseph Yates, of the 99th USCT, formerly the Corps d’Afrique, also engaged in the fighting. Perkins and Yates will be the focus of this essay.* While USCT units that fought in Virginia or even the Carolinas received more attention, those stationed at Florida also provided crucial manpower for the Union occupation of the South. The wartime careers of Yates and Perkins were similarly defined by occupation duty, not large battles, and thus their experiences proved typical of many Black soldiers who served mostly in supporting capacities during the war.

Solomon Perkins of the 2nd USCT, Company E, was born into slavery in December 1839, the property of Martha Louisa Moon until 1845, when Timoloen G. Trice of Frederick Hall in Louisa, Virginia, acquired him. Following the outset of the war, Trice leased Perkins to work on the construction of the Virginia Central Railroad. Perkins managed to escape to Washington, D.C. shortly afterward where he enlisted in the 2nd USCT. He served primarily in Florida, likely including the repulse of the Confederate attack on Fort Meyers on February 20, 1865.

Joseph Yates, born in Charlottesville, Virginia, in approximately 1828, was present in the 99th USCT at the time of battle. Yates had enlisted in New Orleans, Louisiana, and joined the 15th Corps d’Afrique Infantry Regiment on August 20, 1863, a regiment later known as the 5th Corps d’Afrique Engineers. A private in Company D, Yates was first posted in New Orleans, Brashear City, and Berwick City until March 1864, when the regiment participated in the Red River Campaign. Lasting until May 22, 1864, the campaign ultimately failed in its attempt to establish a base in western Louisiana to aid in Union expeditions to Texas. Yates’s duty during this time, like that of many other USCT soldiers, was primarily construction—this included tasks such as bridge repair, fortification construction, and road building—in areas around Grand Ecore and Alexandria, Louisiana. During the campaign, the unit’s name changed from the 5th Corps d’Afrique Engineers to the 99th USCT. Upon the conclusion of the failed campaign, and following their return to New Orleans until December 1864, the 99th USCT received orders that they were to move to Key West, Florida.

On March 6, 1865, following a brief set of skirmishes, the 99th USCT and 2nd USCT engaged in battle together at Natural Bridge. During the skirmishes on March 5, attempting to cross the East River and subsequently the St. Mark’s River, the USCT regiments, along with the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry Regiment (Dismounted), partook in the brunt of the fighting. Perkins engaged in a skirmish in which he and his comrades succeeded in forcing an initial Confederate retreat. Pressing on, General Newton quickly ordered the 99th USCT, skilled in bridge construction, to repair the crossing. Upon doing so, the Union army made their way to the bridge on the St. Mark’s River. However, upon finding the next bridge destroyed, Newton turned his army upriver to a crossing named Natural Bridge. Observing Newton’s movements, the Confederates deduced that their foes would most likely cross at Natural Bridge and moved into a position to defend it.

The following morning, the Battle of Natural Bridge commenced at the crossing. Members of Company E of the 2nd USCT, which included Perkins and possibly Taylor, were ordered to offer support to Companies A, B, and H. These attack companies had received directives to turn the right flank of the Confederate entrenchments that had repelled an initial Union advance. Company E’s task to provide support meant that they needed to draw fire away from their comrades and back towards the Union center. During the fighting, Solomon Perkins disappeared in the fray. Initially, the battle report listed him as “Missing since action of Natural Bridge Fla. March 6/65.” Later, the Union Army listed him “killed in action” at the battle.

Marching through the night along with the 2nd USCT, the 99th USCT arrived together on the morning of March 6th at the Natural Bridge sink, a spot where the St. Mark’s River flowed underground allowing easier troop movement. While the 2nd USCT had received orders to effectively split into two groups, one on the right flank, and one drawing fire towards the center of the line, the 99th USCT was held in reserve. Newton’s plan was ultimately to send the bulk of the regiment to follow whichever attack succeeded. Thus, following the 2nd USCT’s initial successful charge, Yates went into battle with his fellow soldiers. Writing after the fact, General Newton lauded his USCT regiments for having “advanced gallantly,” and wrote that they deserved to be “highly complimented for good conduct in this battle.” Unfortunately for Union forces, they found no practical site for crossing. Under fire from advancing Confederate reinforcements, the Union soldiers regrouped near the spot they had started their advance. The Confederate forces then continued their push with a failed charge on the Union army that was enough to deter Newton from trying to cross the sink again. Without a clear way forward, Newton marched his troops back to the lighthouse, where the first skirmish had taken place.

Newton ended his campaign shortly after the Battle of Natural Bridge. The engagement ended as the last formative battle in the state of Florida and second-largest in the state during the war. The 2nd USCT suffered 58 casualties—1 missing, 47 wounded, and 10 dead—Solomon Perkins among them. The 99th USCT suffered 72 casualties—24 missing, 39 wounded, and 9 killed. Among the final Confederate victories of the war, Tallahassee ultimately survived as the only Confederate capital east of the Mississippi River not to fall into Union control during the war. For Newton, the loss was an embarrassment, and he quickly tried to pass blame off onto the navy, while continuing to praise his troops, including many USCT veterans. With the promise the end of the war brought, the surviving soldiers who fought bravely at Natural Bridge anxiously waited to return home, optimistic that their participation had gained them new freedoms in life.

Joseph Yates never filed for a pension, and he completely disappeared from historical record, a frequent story among USCT veterans.  While Solomon Perkins’s life ended at Natural Bridge, the difficulties his family went through following the war reflected both an entirely unique situation, and epitomized a common struggle many families of Black veterans dealt with in securing consideration from wartime service. One of the seventy-two USCT soldiers from Charlottesville who died during the war, the rights to Yates’s pension passed on to his dependent. Since slaves rarely had documentation from before the war, this matter quickly fell into dispute when Perkins’s mother, Winnie, and alleged daughter, Catherine, both laid claim to his pension. Special examiners interviewed witnesses to prove the veracity of each one’s assertions. Ultimately, the court sided with Catherine upon listening to statements from Timoleon G. Trice, the former owner of Solomon Perkins, and Catherine’s mother Susan. Trice claimed that Solomon Perkins had participated in a slave marriage with Susan while in Louisa County and that Catherine was the result of this relationship. Revealingly, his testimony was held more reliable than the account Winnie Perkins offered, in which she stated that her son had never married, nor had a child. This privileging of White testimony—a common practice in such cases—reflected the pervasive biases among examiners. One such special examiner, John Lux, wrote “the reputation for truth of all the witnesses who are colored cannot be rated higher than ‘fair.’ As those of that race who can be counted reliable and absolutely truthful, are a rarity indeed.”

While this particular case, involving a soldier’s mother and his daughter, told a unique story, disputes and difficulties over obtaining pensions proved common for Black veterans and their survivors. Donald R. Shaffer, in his book After the Glory, highlighted some of these issues: “due to slavery and racial discrimination, a much higher percentage of black applicants for Civil War pensions were poor and illiterate—factors that made it more difficult for them to complete a successful application.”  Soldiers who fought for their country on southern battlefields often received praise for their valor, and yet their post-war experiences demonstrate that these soldiers and their families still faced daunting discrimination and hardships that they needed to overcome.

*The life of James T. S. Taylor was covered by historian Jonathan W. White in a previous essay.

Images: (1) Map of Operations, printed in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1897), series 1, volume 49, part 1, page 68); (2) General John Newton (courtesy Library of Congress).


Compiled Service Records for James T. S. Taylor, Solomon Perkins, and Joseph Yates, RG 94, National Archives and Records Administration (hereafter NARA), Washington D.C., accessed through Fold3; Pension Records for James T. S. Taylor and Solomon Perkins, RG15, NARA; William A. Dobak, Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867 (U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2011); Donald Robert Shaffer, After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans (University Press of Kansas, 2004); Paul Taylor, Discovering the Civil War in Florida: A Reader and Guide (Pineapple Press, Inc., 2012); United States. Adjutant-General’s Office. Official Army Register of the Volunteer Force of the United States Army for the Years 1861, '62, '63, '64, '65: Territories of Washington, New Mexico, Nebraska, Colorado, Dakota; Veteran reserve corps, U.S. veteran volunteers (First army corps), U.S. Volunteers, U.S. Colored Troops (Republished by Ron R. Van Sickle Military Books, 1987); Irvin D. S. Winsboro, “Give Them Their Due: A Reassessment of African Americans and Union Military Service in Florida during the Civil War.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 92, no. 3 (2007):327–346.