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Battle of Olustee
By Lydia Filzen - Photos by Kathleen Walls - American Roads Travel Magazine

For a walk back in time, plan to attend the Battle of Olustee reenactment, which will take place February 16-19. This event commemorates the largest battle fought on Florida soil.

Come to the Olustee State Park, located on U. S. 90 15 miles east of Lake City, and experience life as it was lived in 1864. Men in Confederate and Union uniforms and ladies in period clothing will behave and speak as did their ancestors over 140 years ago. At this event slave reenactors will protray another side of that era as well.

During the War Between the States, Florida was a backwater district. The overextended Confederate government found it too difficult to adequately defend the thinly populated southernmost state with the vast coastline. By the end of 1963, the Union had taken the coastal population centers of East Florida and controlled the area east of the St. Johns River. The state Confederate cavalry’s main job was to protect citizens in the north central part of the state safe from Yankee raiding parties.

Still, the state had its importance to both sides. For the Confederates, Florida became a critical source of supply by 1863. Cattle drives, guarded by the “cow cavalry” poured beeves northward toward Confederate commissaries. Citrus and sweet potatoes helped soldiers stave off the ravages of scurvy. Salt extracted from seawater was required for food preservation.

For the North, Florida offered a political opportunity. In January of 1964, correspondence between President Lincoln and General Quincy A. Gillmore, commander of the Federal Department of the South, set forth hopes that Florida was ripe for reentry into the Union. Such an accomplishment would enhance Lincoln’s prospects for reelection and strike a devastating blow to the struggling Confederacy.

Gillmore devised a plan to bring in more troops to win and occupy the area to the west of the St. Johns River. He believed that 10% of the citizenry could be persuaded to pledge their allegiance to the Union, enough for re-entry into the Union. Other benefits from this campaign were to cut off the much-needed food supply from Florida to the rest of the Confederacy, open trade with the North for cotton, lumber, turpentine and other supplies, and recruit more Blacks for the Union army.

Early in February troop transports left the Union base at Hilton Head, South Carolina and steamed down the coast to Jacksonville. Once again the oft-exchanged Jacksonville was in Union hands. From there, the army, over 5,000 strong, set out westward in a three-pronged expedition. The force consisted of Colonel William B. Barton’s Brigade, Colonel Joseph R. Hawley’s Brigade, Colonel James Montgomery’s Brigade, and artillery under Captain John Hamilton. Among the three “colored” regiments was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the same unit featured in the movie “Glory.”

The Confederates reacted frantically to the new threat. While a Yankee feint toward the South Carolina coast threatened that area, and Sherman’s pressure on North Georgia kept the Confederates busy, the new menace in the far south called for attention. They also looked to the west, fearing a landing of more Yankees that with the forces from the east could converge on the State Capital of Tallahassee.

Confederate General Joseph Finnegan, commanding the District of Middle and East Florida, gathered up all available forces, concentrating them at Olustee, a point about 15 miles east of Lake City and 40 miles west of Jacksonville. Brigadier General Alfred H. Colquitt’s Brigade, Colonel George P. Harrison’s Brigade, and Colonel Caraway Smith’s Cavalry Brigade, all consisting of Georgia and Florida regiments were ordered to converge.

While the Confederates were convinced the invasion was headed toward Tallahassee, the Federals weren’t so sure how to proceed. Despite their success at dispersing Confederate picket posts, confiscating supplies or destroying them, it seems the Union command was frightened of ambush.

General Seymour, who commanded the expedition, began to doubt that enough Floridians would follow the program and meekly slip into the fold of Unionism. On February 11 he wrote to General Gillmore “…the desire of Florida to come back now is a delusion.” He recommended withdrawing troops from the interior of the state and maintaining a garrison at Jacksonville and possibly Palatka.

The dithering continued. On February 14 at a meeting in Jacksonville, General Gillmore instructed General Seymour not to advance without his consent. Gillmore returned to his headquarters in South Carolina, then learned that Seymour had inexplicably changed his mind. Seymour informed him that he intended to advance to the Suwannee River to destroy the railroad. Gillmore dispatched an officer to stop him, but it did not reach the errant Seymour until after the battle of Olustee had started.

The dawdling, on again, off again Yankee invasion ate twelve days, which gave the Confederates time to pull an equal number of troops from South Carolina, Georgia, and central Florida on foot and over incomplete railroad systems. General Finnegan’s engineers picked a defensible dry area along the railroad abutted by swamps and lakes. They dug in and prepared for the expected attack.

The Federals advanced in along the Lake City and Jacksonville pike and the railroad track. Early in the afternoon of February 20, advance Union cavalry started skirmishing with their Confederate counterparts. The running fight through an open pine forest drew the Yankees ever closer to the waiting main force of Confederates. As both sides fed more troops into the fighting, the battle escalated.

A mistaken command in the 7th New Hampshire sent the Union troops into confusion and the line collapsed, allowing a Confederate incursion. General Seymour ordered Colonel William Barton’s Brigade of New York infantry to stop the Confederates, and the line stabilized as casualties mounted on each side. Partly because of the difficulty presented by the terrain, Seymour failed to send in a large force at once, and his units were devastated in turn.

For a time the Confederates ran low on ammunition, but the officers shuttled cartridges on horseback from the rearward railroad cars in caps, haversacks and whatever containers they could find. Reserves came up and again the Confederates advanced, largely under the direction of Colonel Colquitt.

By dusk the Federals were in full retreat, leaving wounded and equipment behind them. Although Confederate cavalry was ordered to pursue them, they were reluctant to push through in the dark, citing wires strung between trees and fear of ambush. General Finnegan also failed to follow up in the next morning’s light, choosing instead to remain close to the battlefield and press only a few miles forward. Considering the shattered condition of the Federals, he could have done much more damage, and he incurred much criticism for this lack of diligence.

The Federals continued their long retreat back to Jacksonville, carrying their wounded. Cavalry loaned their horses to wounded men. After a steam engine broke down, men pulled train cars full of wounded along the tracks. Fear of a pursuit that didn’t materialize spurred their haste.

The battle cost the Union forces 1,861 killed, wounded or captured. It was among the highest percentages of Union casualties in any battle. The Confederates admitted to 946 casualties.

The battle did little to advance either cause. The Confederacy had to commit troops to Florida that were needed for the defense of Savannah, Charleston and Atlanta. The Union accomplished none of its immediate goals, though they disrupted the flow or supplies into the rest of the Confederacy at a critical time and solidified their domination of northeastern Florida.

That being said, General Finnegan and his army prevented the Federals from taking Tallahassee, and reclaiming the state, if that was indeed on their agenda. By the end of the war, Tallahassee was the last Southern capital east of the Mississippi to surrender to the Union.

Sources: Confederate Florida, The Road to Olustee by William H. Nulty, University of Alabama Press, 1990p; Discovering the Civil War in Florida by Paul Taylor, Pineapple Press, 2001; The Battle of Olustee, prepared by Historical Research Committee of the Olustee Battlefield Citizens Support Organization, 1992; Confederate Military History of Florida, by J. J. Dickison, reprint www.ebooksondisk.com.

Those interested in Civil War Reenactments may want to check out this one also. Click here for Battle of Forks Road Reenactment

Lydia Filzen's Website

Provided by American Roads Travel Magazine - Visit American Roads Travel Magazine website.