By Dr. Sean Adams
On 20 February 1864, Confederate forces met and defeated a Union military expedition near Olustee Station in Northeastern Florida. That simple statement of military fact is usually all the attention that Florida gets in popular histories of the American Civil War, aside from supplying beef and salt to the more important campaigns up north. Why should anyone care about this brief event on the fringes of the Confederacy? The Battle of Olustee may seem inconsequential, but if we widen the lens a bit to include its political context, a fascinating story emerges.
In late 1863, President Lincoln proposed a very lenient strategy of Reconstruction called the “Ten Percent Plan,” in which southern states could come back into the Union as soon as 10 percent of the voting population of 1860 took a loyalty oath to the Union. Under Lincoln’s plan, the only southerners denied the chance to do so would be certain high-ranking Confederate officials. In terms of what to do about the ex-slaves, Lincoln’s last public speech did endorse the idea of black suffrage, although he suggested it be limited to literate African-Americans and veterans of the Union Army. Lincoln’s plans for Reconstruction, like his reasoning behind the Emancipation Proclamation, sought first and foremost to undermine the war effort in the South. Abolitionists in the North, however, really despised the plan. Wendell Phillips, for example, called it a plan that “frees the slaves and ignores the negro.” Nonetheless, Louisiana offered one example of how the “Ten Percent Plan” might work. In January 1864, General Nathaniel Banks set up elections there in which he favored moderate Unionist voters (who tended to be white) over the more radical members of the free African-American Free State Committee. Members of the Free State Committee, who were among the elites in the free black community, lobbied to have black suffrage in the new state. Lincoln’s Reconstruction program had begun; he hoped that it would succeed by the time of the presidential election in late 1864.
What does all this have to do with Florida? These political initiatives influenced the military decision by Union officials to send an expedition to Florida to capture a major port, drive into the interior, and capture the state capital at Tallahassee. If Florida could join Louisiana as a reconstructed state by the time of the presidential election in 1864, they reasoned, the war’s days might be numbered. President Lincoln wrote to General Quincy Adams Gillmore, the head of the Department of the South, regarding a Florida expedition, “I wish the thing done in the most speedy way possible, so that when done it will be within the late proclamation on the subject.”
Military leaders took Lincoln’s message as an endorsement for a rapid campaign to occupy Florida. Union forces had Jacksonville under control in early February 1864, and gathered up three columns to march westward. The Confederates could not defend the coast, and instead chose to organize resistance at Lake City and meet the invasion from the West. Confederate General Joseph Finegan led a combined force of Georgians and Floridians that numbered 4,600 infantry, 500 cavalry, and 12 artillery pieces. Finegan chose to organize a defensive line south of Ocean Pond and north of swampland. This position, near Olustee Station offered the Confederates the chance to concentrate their fire along a very narrow front, thus maximizing their effectiveness. Union General Truman Seymour marched with 5,500 soldiers on 20 February 1864. Among the Federal contingent was the Eighth U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), a unit comprised of African-American soldiers that had been organized in Philadelphia as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation’s call to arms. The very presence of black troops in the Confederate South was a revolutionary event, as it undermined the institution of racial slavery. This incident was not a mystery to Confederates fighting at Olustee. Just before they engaged Union forces, Confederate Lieutenant A.H. McCormick exhorted his men to fight this Union army “made up largely of negroes from Georgia and South Carolina, who come up here to stead, pillage, run over the state and murder, kill and rape our wives, daughters and sweethearts.”In chilling foresight as to what would transpire on the battlefield, McCormick concluded that “I shall not take any negro prisoners in this fight.”
Once in full swing, the fighting at Olustee was intense. When the smoke cleared, the Confederates had repulsed the Federal expedition and thwarted the attempt to secure Florida’s interior. As a result of the fierce fighting, Union forces lost 1,806 killed or wounded, while Confederates suffered 946 casualties. Although these numbers seem low in comparison with the 46,000 men lost at Gettysburg or the 34,000 at Chickamauga, the proportion of soldiers deployed to those lost makes Olustee one of the bloodiest conflicts in the entire Civil War.
There was ugliness in this battle’s aftermath as well. As the Union retreat unfolded, Confederate soldiers executed wounded African-Americans stranded on the battlefield. As one soldier put it in a letter to his family, “I tell you our men slayed the Negrows & if it had not been for the officers their would not one of them been spaired.” Of the 150 prisoners General Finegan sent from the battlefield, only 3 were African-American. This would not be the only example of cruelty demonstrated towards African-American soldiers during the Civil War. Nor would it be the worst. But the severity of this event suggests just how brutal this conflict had become by 1864.
And finally there was the political fallout. Union General William T. Sherman’s success at Atlanta in September 1864 compensated for Olustee. President Lincoln won reelection in 1864 but his plan to show lenience in Reconstruction would never come to fruition. Yet Florida remained a Confederate state through the end of the Civil War in 1865, and Olustee remained the most significant military conflict on its soil. Florida was readmitted into the Union in July 1868.
Florida in the Civil War: A Soldier in Camp was produced by Bill Dudley with special guests Dr. Sean Adams, Department of History, University of Florida.