By Tom Fasulo
I. Why Invade Florida
By late 1863, despite important Union victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga, a final Union triumph was not certain. The Confederacy had stripped Florida of troops to fight in other areas, Republican politicians hoped to return Florida to the Union.1 Union forces increased their pressure on Florida by approving more raids and as a result, the discontent with the Confederacy began to spread. Republicans hoped it would be possible to return Florida to Union control. In January 1864, the president expressed this desire to Major General Quincy Gillmore, Union commander, Department of the South.2 To assist in this, Lincoln sent John Hay, one of his personal secretaries, to obtain loyalty oaths.
On February 20, 1864, the New York Times reported that there were an estimated “2,000,000 [cattle] in the state.” These cattle were feeding the Confederate armies of General Lee in Virginia and General Johnston in Georgia. A large Union raid into Florida could disrupt Confederate food supplies and help end the war. The Union also hoped to obtain needed war materials (cotton, lumber, turpentine, etc.) and enlist freed slaves into its army.3 With these aims, Union commanders began planning “The Florida Expedition.”
On February 20, 1864, the New York Times reported that there were an estimated 2,000,000 cattle in the state.
Prelude to Battle
Union Brigadier General Truman Seymour was selected to command the expedition.4 He embarked forces in early February at Hilton Head, Georgia, arriving in Jacksonville on February 7th.5 Meanwhile, Confederate General Gustave Beauregard, commanding the southern Atlantic coast, correctly guessed the destination of the Union force. He dispatched a reinforced brigade of veteran Georgia troops, under the command of Brigadier General Alfred Colquitt.6 This important action would significantly affect the coming battle.
After Union forces occupied Jacksonville, Seymour immediately sent out raiding parties to capture or destroy known rebel positions. One column went as far as the outskirts of Lake City. The Union troops often surprised and overwhelmed less-experienced Florida militia units. On February 14th, another small column attacked and captured Gainesville.7 It easily repulsed a larger Confederate cavalry force that counterattacked. After these raids, on orders from Quincy, Seymour withdrew his troops to Jacksonville.
Brigadier General Joseph Finegan was the local Confederate commander in Florida.8 He fought a series of delaying actions with the small forces under his command.9 At the same time, he began assembling troops from across Florida. These included the 1st and 6th Florida Infantry Battalions and several small artillery and cavalry units. When Colquitt’s large brigade finally arrived from Georgia, Finegan divided his forces into two brigades, totaling approximately 5,000 men. The Confederate forces entrenched near Ocean Pond, east of Lake City, and awaited a Union advance.10
By now, General Seymour realized Unionist sympathies in Florida were not as strong as hoped. He recommended Union troops fortify coastal towns and send raids into the interior.11 General Quincy approved this decision. A few days later, Seymour ignored his own advice. He launched a major thrust with 5,000 troops toward Lake City and the railroad over the Suwannee River.12
II. The Battle
By February 19th, Seymour’s forces occupied Barber’s Plantation (now MacClenny, Florida).13 The next day, Seymour continued his advance toward Lake City in three columns. Union forces approached Ocean Pond by early afternoon on February 20th.
Finegan sent cavalry forward to skirmish with the Union army. The cavalry’s mission was to draw the Union troops onto the strong Confederate fortifications. However, the fighting intensified two miles forward of the Confederate entrenchments. To support his cavalry, Finegan ordered Colquitt, with the 32nd and 64th Georgia Infantry, to move forward. These troops were soon followed by three more Georgia infantry regiments, the 6th, 19th and 28th, and Gamble’s Artillery.
Meanwhile, Seymour ordered forward three Union infantry regiments to assist his own cavalry. Soon after arriving, conflicting orders caused confusion in the 7th New Hampshire Infantry, which then retreated. This left the inexperienced 8th United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) and the veteran 7th Connecticut Infantry holding the line against the Confederates. The 8th U.S.C.T. stood its ground but suffered heavy casualties. When its commander was killed, it also retreated.14
It was now mid-afternoon and the Confederates took control of the battlefield. Their line began to advance to the east, driving the Union forces back. To support this advance, Finegan sent forward additional infantry and artillery units. These included the 6th Florida Battalion, the 1st, 23rd and 27th Georgia regiments and the Chatham Artillery. The Confederate line now stretched about one mile in length, north to south. Colonel George Harrison commanded the Confederate left, while Brigadier General Colquitt commanded the right.15
Seymour also committed another brigade, consisting of the 47th, 48th and 115th New York Infantry regiments.16 These veteran units stopped the Confederate advance. As the battle lines stabilized, the two armies began the serious business of killing each other.17 With swampy areas on both flanks, the Union forces were unable to maneuver. There was also little cover for both sides. Men fell by the hundreds during this period of severe fighting.
While the Union forces were hard-pressed, many Confederate units ran short of ammunition. Several units simply stayed in place, taking casualties while awaiting the arrival of more ammunition. Finally, the ammunition arrived, along with the remaining Confederate forces. General Finegan also arrived and took command on the field. At this point, the Confederate line again advanced.
Slideshow of surviving 54th Massachusetts Volunteers
Union General Seymour realized the battle was lost and ordered a retreat. His battle weary and bloodied regiments left the field. However, he ordered his last infantry brigade forward to cover the withdrawal. This consisted of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers (Colored) and the 35th U.S.C.T. These two regiments stood and fought, covering the retreat of the rest of the Union Army.18 Finally, after dusk, they were ordered to withdraw and the Union Army safely reached Barber’s Plantation that night.
The Confederate cavalry consisted of approximately 500 men in the 2nd and 5th Florida, and 4th Georgia. These were under the command of Colonel Caraway Smith. A close and active pursuit could have inflicted more casualties on the Union army. However, the cavalry was criticized for its poor performance in pursuing the retreating Union forces. Colonel Smith soon left the Confederate Army while under suspicion for “neglect of duty.”19
III. Results of the Battle
Unfortunately, the Union forces left many of their wounded comrades on the battlefield. Private papers from Confederate soldiers confirm that numerous colored troops were killed after they were captured.20
Veterans of both sides felt that the Battle of Olustee was one of the fiercest they had ever fought. The casualties (killed, wounded and captured) also confirmed this. Total Confederate casualties were almost twenty percent of those engaged. Meanwhile, the Union suffered almost forty percent casualties. The Battle of Olustee was the second bloodiest battle for the Union Army during the War. This was in the proportion of casualties to the number of troops engaged.
The Battle of Olustee was the second bloodiest battle for the Union Army during the War. The Civil War Book of Lists - Combined Books (ed.)
While the terrain contributed to the Union defeat, General Seymour was also at fault. Both armies were comparable in numbers. But the Union cavalry and artillery units were much better than those of the Confederates. These Confederate units suffered from poor weapons and equipment, especially their horses. In addition, Seymour did not recognize that he was fighting veteran infantry until late in the battle. As a result, he committed his units piecemeal into the fight. The Union troops were overwhelmed by the larger Confederate presence on the battlefield.
Seymour withdrew his army to Jacksonville, which remained under Union control for the rest of the war. Areas around St. Augustine and Fernandina were also under Union control. The Union forces staged periodic raids into Florida. This increased presence of Union forces allowed for some disruption of beef, salt, and other supplies to the Confederacy. In addition, these areas permitted increasing numbers of slaves to obtain sanctuary and freedom. However, the political objectives of “The Florida Expedition” were not realized.
IV. The Olustee Video
The Olustee video was produced by Bill Dudley with special guests Tomas R. Fasulo, Olustee Reenactor and Robert A. Taylor, Professor of Humanities and Communication, Florida History of Technology.
V. Possible Outcomes
If the battle had resulted in a Union victory, its effects might have been significant. With the loss of valuable war resources, the Confederacy would have found it more difficult to continue the war. This loss and a Union recapture of Florida would have lowered the morale of soldiers and civilians in the Confederacy. As a result, this battle would be more important in Civil War studies than it is. However, since the Confederates won, and none of the above happened, this small battle is seldom covered in most Civil War histories.
VI. Lesson Plans
The Battle of Olustee took place in an open pine forest. Due to frequent forest fires at that time, today’s thick ground cover of palmetto plants was not common. There were few treeless areas. The annual reenactment of the battle takes place in both the forest and an open field. The former allows reenactors to experience the battle as it actually was. The latter allows spectators to clearly see movement of the military formations.