When I started my big research into the Civil War, I had never heard anything about Florida, my current resident state. I took for granted the lack of obvious materials I found, so I just assumed nothing happened in Florida of any significance besides maybe some forts being taken. Well, I was wrong. Especially once I began to delve deeper into the pivotal battles. While watching a documentary, they briefly mentioned something about a place called “Olustee”. Sounded funny to me, but it stuck in the back of my mind. Then, while on my journey to Virginia, I saw the signs for the battlefield park and I became more intrigued.
Little did I know that I’d be standing in an inch of mud just five or so months later, recording the most amazing Civil War battle reenactment I’ve ever witnessed. Olustee (pronounced “oh-lust-ee” NOT “oh-loose-tee”) was the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War. While it’s actual casualty numbers don’t necessarily compare to Antietam, Gettysburg, or Shiloh, it’s percentages of wounded and killed to engaged troops is staggering.
Florida is kind of in a weird place on the map when you begin to consider key Civil War engagements. The capitol of the Confederacy is in Richmond, Virginia and the Eastern Theater is jammed with battles. Then you’ve got the most-fought over river in history, the Mississippi, is getting burned at both ends by Union troops. To the north is Tennessee, where the Confederacy is putting up a losing fight toward the end of 1863 and beginning of 1864 to defend its heartlands.
Florida is stuck at the bottom, blockaded by the Union fleet on pretty much all sides thanks to Winfield Scott’s anaconda plan to strangle the Confederacy. The majority of its troops have been sent out of the state, leaving militia and the home guard to defend its cities, especially in the northern portion around Jacksonville, Tallahassee, and Pensacola.
By March of 1864, Jacksonville is under Union occupation. Pensacola had its own scuffle in 1861, but for the most part, Florida had gone unmolested until now.
While, yes, there were troops from Florida involved in the war, Florida itself didn’t have a lot to offer except beef, salt, and black recruits. Something to remember is that by this time, the Mississippi is completely taken. This means that any supplies that could have been transferred up the river or across it from Texas (which had supplied beef to the Confederacy) was not getting to the troops and civilians. Deep in southern Florida, cattle could be driven north to help supply the army. There was also a railroad connecting the eastern portion of the state to the western.
Capturing this railroad would not only help the Union army, but complete the cutoff of supplies. Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi would be in trouble.
And, as above mentioned, the Emancipation Proclamation is in full swing. Any slave in any state in rebellion to the Union was now considered free. Of course, the south wasn’t going to listen to this proclamation, so when a Federal force came to town, they would enforce this new law and free the slaves. Florida could be a fresh source of colored troops freed by a total Federal occupation. And with the final push for a victory coming later that year, the Union needed all the hands they could get.
A Vermont veteran of the Mexican War and Seminole War, Brigadier General Truman Seymour graduated 19th in his class at West Point alongside notable generals like Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, George McClellan, and George Pickett in 1846. It was at West Point, just before the war, the Seymour taught drawing to new cadets who would soon be going into battle on either the Union or Confederate side. Seymour commanded an artillery unit during the defense of Fort Sumter in 1861. He went on to serve in the Peninsular Campaign, and later battles with the Army of the Potomac at Manassas, South Mountain, and Antietam, where he earned the rank of colonel. He was transferred to the Department of the South, commanded by Major General Quincy Gillmore. He led the unsuccessful attack on Fort Wagner, featured in the movie “Glory” with the 54th Massachusetts Colored Troops. There, he was seriously wounded by grapeshot and didn’t see much battling for the rest of 1863. However, come 1864, he was given the assignment of taking Florida. He was known as a brash commander, making dangerous calls at the cost of his troops.
Unlike his counterpart, Brigadier General Joseph Finegan wasn’t a hardened veteran of war, nor did he attend West Point or have any official training in military matters. Born in Clones Ireland, Finegan moved to Florida in the 1830s, where he made his fortune as a politician, attorney, lumber mill operator, slave owner, and railroad builder. He had a hand in building the Florida Railroad that connected the east coast near Jacksonville to the Gulf Coast. This might have been made possible with some possible help from his brother-in-law, Florida’s territorial governor Robert Raymond Reid. When the Civil War broke out, and Florida’s secession convention was held, Finegan represented Nassau County alongside James G. Cooper. While most of his concerns between 1862 and 1864 consisted of blockade runners and organizing cattle drivers to shuttle beef to the north, Finegan was the highest ranking officer in the state at the time. The newspapers that advertised his death in 1885 described him as “hearty, unaffected, jovial, clear-headed, and keen-witted”.
While Seymour was graduating from West Point, another non-military student of the Confederacy was passing his bar examine in Georgia. Alfred Colquitt was the son of a United States Representative and Senator, he began to practice law in Monroe, his hometown. When the Mexican War came, he served as paymaster with the rank of major. When the war was over, he followed in his father’s footsteps and was elected as a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1853 to 1855. When Georgia succeeded from the Union, like Finegan, he was a delegate at the concession and votes in favor of detachment from the Union. Colquitt would soon become a battle-hardened soldier as he served in northern campaigns, fighting at Seven Pines, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. In 1863, his troops were transferred to South Caroline to defend Charleston. However, he would be sent even further south one more time under P.G.T Beauregard’s express orders.
The commander of the Department of the South, Major General Gillmore, saw that Florida needed to be exploited. With the election of 1864 coming up, Lincoln wanted all the morale-boosting he could get. In some instances, he even entreated for Florida to come back to the Union. To cut off supply line, recruit black troops, and generally terrorize Florida towns, he sent Brigadier General Seymour onto the scene. With Jacksonville as his base, Seymour marched his troops westward with Tallahassee in his sights. However, Gillmore specifically told him not to get too deep into the state. So, he conducted various raids throughout northeast and north-central areas, including taken Camp Finegan (named after the man he would soon be battling).
Seymour and his troops arrived to Barber Planation in what’s now MacClenny Florida – twenty-five miles east of Lake City – on February 20th, 1864. Their objective for the moment would be to march to Suwannee River and blow up the railroad bridge. His army was comprised of three infantry brigades, one mounted (cavalry) brigade and one artillery, all of which advanced in three columns as they traveled west along the Lake City-Jacksonville road, which runs fairly parallel to the Florida Atlantic and Gulf Coast Railroad. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Finegan helped to build that. To put it in perspective, this route runs with U.S Highway 90. Seymour stops his troops, totaling 5,500, in Sanderson for lunch around noon that same day.
Leading up to the battle, Florida wasn’t well supplied in the way of troops. In all of middle and east Florida, there were less than 3,000 effectives, with only 1,500 of this total present in the District of East Florida. To make things worse, these soldiers were not experienced in battle. They didn’t have to be. They hadn’t seen any major fighting in their state up to now. This fact didn’t go unnoticed. By the time the Federals invaded, Finegan had been reinforced by Colquitt’s troops from South Carolina because Beauregard, who commanded the Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, caught wind of what Gillmore and Seymour were planning. The Cajun understood the ramifications of losing Tallahassee, the railroad, and an important supply route for the southern half of the Confederacy.
Finegan had his troops, 5,000 in all, set up at Olustee Station, which was nicely situated amongst swampy ground with Ocean Pond to the north. This ground, now part of Osceola National Park, is open pine forests with little vegetation apart from palmetto plants. Thankfully, February in Florida isn’t like July in Vicksburg, otherwise mosquitos would have been a big problem. The troops created strong earthworks long before Seymour made his move, which helped to fortify their position.
When Finegan learned about the Federal advance, he sent out a detachment of cavalry to begin skirmishing, hoping to draw the Union toward their fortifications. This didn’t happen. Seymour thought he was facing down more militia, as he had before, and sent his men in piecemeal – which he would be criticized for later. This skirmishing began about 2:30pm in the afternoon and thus begins the biggest battle in the state of Florida.
Once both sides begin to realize they were getting into something more than just a little skirmish, they sent in more troops. Finegan advanced first the 64th Georgia and part of the 32nd Georgia, followed by the 6th, 19th and 28th Georgia Regiments, and Gamble’s Florida Artillery. All of this was lead by Colquitt, who had far more experience in battle than Finegan and knew how to command. General Seymour brought forward the 7th Connecticut, followed by the remainder of Colonel Joseph Roswell Hawley’s Brigade, the 7th New Hampshire and the 8th United States Colored Troops.
The skirmishing intensifies into a major battle and the casualties begin to rack up. It gets even worse when a command on the Union side was either given wrongly or misinterpreted for the 7th New Hampshire under Hawley. There’s plenty of opinions and testimonies about this dreaded command, but Sergeant Otis A. Merrill, of company H, in a letter written home six days after the battle, in regard to the attempt at the formation of the line of battle, says:
“We had marched all day by the flank, left in front. The column was not deployed until we were all under fire, and the wrong order was given. The order was, ‘By company into line, march!’ ‘Close column!’ ‘On eighth company deploy column, battalion, left face!’ when the order should have been, ‘Battalion by the right and left flank, march!’ The regiment was not fairly deployed before the men began to fall back amidst the confusion, and became more or less scattered, and could not be properly re-formed again.”
Yes, it was just as confusing as it sounds. Troops were reduced into a disorganized mob and Hawley’s brigade soon crumbled. In response to this, the 8th US Colored Troops were sent int to compensate. This wasn’t much better because the soldiers in this regiment had never seen battle. It was like putting fresh, green troops in front of men who had been in the war from day one. To make it worse, these troops were also not fully trained by Colonel Charles Fribley, who fell mortally wounded. They held their ground admirably, despite the obvious challenges and suffered over 300 casualties before they finally gave the field to the Confederates.
Colquitt took advantage of this momentary setback and ordered his men forward. By now, Finegan had sent additional units to Colquitt’s aid, included the 6th Florida Battalion; the 1st, 23rd, 27th, and the remainder of the 32nd Georgia Regiments, and the Chatham Artillery. This new bolstering of the troops helped to stretch out the Confederate line for a mile going from north to south as they pressed further east. Colonel George Harrison commanded the left flank, while Colquitt continued his control over the right.
General Seymour realizes that his line is faltering and hastily orders forward Colonel William Barton’s Brigade of the 47th, 48th and 115th New York. This steadies his battle lines for a time and halts the Confederate advance. One complete rout was delayed, but not completely avoided. Especially when the Confederates manage to capture a few Federal artillery pieces.
As the battling intensified, wounded and dead dropping all over, the worst possible thing happened to the Confederacy. They ran out of ammunition. And when I mean “ran out”, I mean SLAP out. Nothing. Soldiers were rifling through their dead comrade’s cartridge boxes. And there was no ordinance train in sight to give them relief. Colonel Harrison personally dismounts from his horse, grabs volunteer help from staff and couriers, and runs half a mile back to the supply railcar to get the ammunition they needed and bring it forward for the troops. This left many men standing for 15-20 minutes without a bit of ammunition, while the Federals continued to fire at them. Next to Pickett’s Charge, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a better example of bravery during my research about the war. With the new ammunition came fresh reinforcements from Finegan in the form of the 1st Florida Battalion and Bonaud’s Battalion.
Despite all of this, Seymour begins to realize that he’s whipped. Instead of an all out retreat, he implements more troops to cover their steady withdrawal from the battlefield. In comes the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment and the 35th United States Colored Troops led by Colonel James Montgomery. They were ordered onto the scene, double-quick, dropping extraneous gear along the way. They manage to stall the Confederates as Seymour orders out the other battered regiments. One account given said that “The colored troops went in grandly, and they fought like devils”.
This, however, doesn’t completely turn the tide. Colquitt sends the 6th and 32nd Georgia regiments to the Union right flank, with the 6th Florida doing the same on the other side. They managed to aggressively push the Union for several miles before Colquitt sent in the southern cavalry, led by Colonel Caraway Smith to solidify the retreat. The efforts weren’t as good as they could have been, but Seymour fell back to Barber Plantation where he had started out earlier that day. It took only three and a half to four hours for the Confederates to completely halt any further advance into Florida.
US: 203 killed, 1,152 wounded, and 506 missing, a total of 1,861 men, which comes up to about 34 percent. Union forces also lost six artillery pieces and 39 horses that were captured
CS: 93 killed, 847 wounded, and 6 missing, a total of 946 casualties in all—but still about 19 percent.
The 47th New York had 313 casualties and the 8th U.S.C.T. had 310.
Among the Confederate units, the 32nd Georgia lost 164 men and Bonaud’s Battalion 107
The devastating results of the Battle of Olustee (or some call it the Battle of Ocean Pond) would make it the second bloodiest battle in the Civil War due to its percentage. Florida fell off the Union’s radar and its occupation didn’t play much of a role in the 1846 election at all.
Seymour and his army were back in Jacksonville by February 22nd, but further disaster strikes. A train carrying Union wounded broke down and it was feared that the Confederates would capture them and send them on to Andersonville prison camp in Georgia. The 54th Massachusetts were sent down to retrieve the wounded. They ended up tying ropes to the railcars and literally pulled the train into Camp Finegan, where horses were procured to take them the rest of the way.
After Olustee, despite criticism for his failure to take Tallahassee or any part of his original objectives, Seymour went on to command a brigade in the Army of the Potomac to the north. He was captured at the Wilderness just a few months after Olustee, but was returned to the army after a prisoner exchange. By the end of the war, he had rose to the rank of major general. After the war, he remained in the army and commanded various forts in Florida, Massachusetts, and Maine. He retired and moved to Italy, where he died in 1891.
Now having seen battle but still criticized for his lack of initiative in a pursuit, Finegan was quickly relieved of his command and replaced by Major General James Patton Anderson. His awkward military career wasn’t over, however, as Finegan was ordered to lead the “Florida Brigade” in the Army of Northern Virginia, where he served effectively until near the end of the war. After the Confederacy was grafted back with the Union, Finegan returned home to an irony. His stately, forty-room mansion in Fernandina had been confiscated by the Freedman’s bureau and was being used as an orphanage and school for black children. After selling some land along Lake Monroe to pay his lawyers, he managed to get his property back. However, he found a better home in Savannah Georgia amongst other Irish businessman and become a cotton broker. He died of a cold in Rutledge Georgia.
Colquitt, among all the other generals in command at Olustee, was proclaimed the driving force behind the victory. This must have saved him some face after rumors regarding his unscathed status after the battle at Antietam. He rejoined the Army of Northern Virginia, and then ended his military career in South Carolina where he surrendered in 1865. Opposed to Reconstruction, Colquitt returned to the political arena to help Republicans take control of Georgia again. After suffering two strokes in the span of two years, he died in 1894.
To honor the sacrifice of both Confederate and Union soldiers, the Battle of Olustee has been faithfully reenacted every year since 1976. The battlefield is owned by the state of Florida and was made into a public park in 1970. Every year, Civil War reenactors from across the country come for the four-day mainstream event. Sutlers (tent merchants), food trucks, living history demonstrations, and other fun, educational activities draw thousands of visitors on President’s Day weekend. It’s one of the few battle reenactments that takes place not only on the anniversary of the battle, but also on the same ground in which it was fought. If you’re ever in Florida in February, it’s worth braving the crowds just to witness a piece of recreated history.
https://battleofolustee.org/letters/history_7th_nhv.htm (explaining wrong command)