Symposium Spotlight: Forgotten Confederate Victory in a Forgotten Confederate State

In this installment of our 2019 Emerging Civil War Symposium Spotlight we feature longtime ECW member and ERW co-founder Phillip Greenwalt. Phill will be taking us through the much overlooked battle of Olustee this August. We can’t wait to hear his presentation this year!

On January 10, 1861, sixty-two of sixty-nine delegates voted in a special counsel organized to discuss the option whether to secede from the Union. When the vote was tallied the 27th U.S. state had seceded. Three years and three days later, United States President Abraham Lincoln informed Department of the South Major General Quincy Gillmore of his interest to form a loyal, reconstructed government in Florida by letter.

Within twenty-four hours, Gillmore was sending a letter to Major General Henry W. Halleck, General-in-Chief of Union armies in Washington D.C. The entire communication consisted of one sentence.

[If agreed, Gillmore would campaign to] occupy the west bank of the St. John’s River [in Florida]..and establish small depots there prepatory to an advance west at an early day.”

Maj. Gen. Quincy Gillmore

Although not keen on the idea, Halleck’s response left the entire the premise of a campaign in East Florida “entirely to your [Gillmore’s] judgment and discretion, with the means at your command.” Gillmore set four primary objectives of this operation within ten days of sending that missive to Halleck.

“First. To procure an outlet for cotton, lumber, timber, turpentine, and the other products of the State. Second. To cut off one of the enemy’s sources of commissary supplies. Third. To obtain recruits for my colored regiments. Fourth. To inaugurate a means for the speedy restoration of Florida to her allegiance, in accordance with instructions which I have received from the President by the hands of Maj. John Hay, assistant adjutant-general.”

After establishing another occupation of Jacksonville, Florida, raids and Union preparations for a move into the interior of the state commenced. By February 10, 1864, Gillmore and his chief subordinate in Florida, Brigadier General Truman Seymour met in conference in Baldwin, Florida, an important railroad hub in the region. Both officers seemed to agree, that no further advance into the interior of Florida would be considered and that Seymour would oversee fortifications being built to keep footholds in the region, at Jacksonville, Baldwin, and Palatka. With this, four days later, Gillmore would proceed back to departmental headquarters in Hilton Head, North Carolina.  

Less than forty-eight hours later, Gillmore received alarming news from Seymour, of the latter’s change of opinion on what was agreed upon. The native Vermonter had changed his opinion on local Floridians’ support of the Union and that he was in the process of moving the army further into the interior of the state. To aid his efforts, he asked Gillmore to devise a diversionary movement in Georgia to tie potential Confederate reinforcements from coming to Florida.

This news struck Gillmore like a thunderbolt. Gillmore immediately dispatched Chief of Staff General John Turner to rush to Florida to stop Seymour’s planned advance. Severe weather delayed Turner and by the time the officer arrived in Florida, Seymour’s forces, numbering 5,500 infantry and cavalry, accompanied by 16 artillery pieces were engaged with Confederate forces.

That engagement, known as the Battle of Olustee in the North or the Battle of Ocean Pond in the South, erupted on February 20, 1864 near Olustee Station, a hamlet, approximately thirteen miles to the east of Lake City, Florida. At approximately 2:30 p.m. Union forces ran into entrenched Georgians and Floridians, not the militia Seymour assumed was the only enemy forces blocking his advance. With the pond and swamps anchoring the Confederate flanks, the Union soldiers were funneled directly into the mouth of the Southern defenses.

For the next four hours, the battle raged in the pine barrens, as the antagonists, approximately equal in numbers engaged and in percentages of veterans and inexperienced foot-soldiers slogged it out. When dusk descended the Federal line began to give way yet pockets of resistance, especially from the 54th Massachusetts—of Battery Wagner fame—and the 35th United States Colored Troops provided a breaker between the victorious Rebels and the retreating Yankees.

Confederate cavalry also failed to capitalize on the demoralization and hurriedness of the Union forces, allowing a battlefield victory to fall into a hollow triumph. Yet, the casualties in this engagement were horrifying, in percentages, one of the worst for the blue-clad forces. Out of the 5,500 soldiers brought into the contest, 203 were killed, 1,152 wounded, and 506 declared missing for a total of 1,861 or 34% of those engaged. Southern forces suffered 93 killed, 847 wounded, and six missing for a total of 946 men, 19% of their forces.

The Battle of Olustee, the largest engagement fought in Florida, had reverberations that rippled through both sides. For the Union, the failure to subdue the entirety of East Florida, sever the rail link across the Suwannee River, and interrupt the flow of material and aid to Southern armies in other theaters was a direct cause of their defeat. Yet, the North retained a foothold in Florida, to coincide with permanent occupations of Fernandina and St. Augustine and with the United State Navy blockading the coastline and patrolling the vital St. John’s River.

General Alfred Colquitt (Courtesy LOC)

For the Southerners, the failure to follow-up the victory and crush Seymour’s forces allowed for a continued Union army presence in the state. The lack of railroad infrastructure kept more Confederate foot-soldiers from being available. Georgians under General Alfred Colquitt marched over 40 miles in a 24-hour period just to reach Florida just to be available for the contest. Issues with the general officer corps also plagued the rebels.

With the presence of African-American soldiers, atrocities committed and blamed also ensued which underscored the racial tensions that the war had provoked by 1864.

These elements in addition to the failure of both sides, before, during, and after the Battle of Olustee make this engagement a “forgotten battle” that had implications that reached farther than the swamps, wetlands, and pine barrens of Florida.

To put it more bluntly, one only has to read the last four words of the telegram that Seymour sent to Gillmore following the battle;

Olustee was “a devilish hard rub.”

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