February 20, 1864 – A major confrontation occurred in Florida, as Federal forces tried restoring the state to the Union but ran up against strong Confederate defenses.
Brigadier General Truman Seymour’s 5,500 Federals continued moving west from the state capital of Jacksonville, freeing slaves and destroying anything considered useful to the Confederate war effort along the way. They moved through the pine forests of northern Florida as they sought to destroy the strategically important railroad at Lake City. Seymour’s superior, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, had urged Seymour not to move so far inland, but Seymour insisted on wrecking the railroad.
The Federals approached Olustee Station, a depot on the Florida, Atlantic & Gulf Railroad, about 10 miles east of Lake City and nearly 50 miles southwest of Jacksonville. Brigadier General Joseph Finegan’s 5,000 Confederates set up defenses at Olustee and awaited the Federal approach. Tired of waiting, Finegan directed two brigades under Brigadier General Alfred H. Colquitt to advance.
Colquitt’s troops met advance Federal elements on open ground along the railroad southeast of a lake called Ocean Pond. Colquitt reported, “I threw forward a party of skirmishers, and hastily formed line of battle under a brisk fire from the enemy’s advance.” Colquitt ordered his men forward, which he stated “was gallantly done, the enemy contesting the ground and giving way slowly.”
Seymour directed Colonel Joseph R. Hawley’s brigade to capture Colquitt’s guns in the center of the Confederate line, but as they advanced they fell victim to enfilade fire and were forced to fall back. Two regiments fled in panic, and the Confederates captured two guns.
Colonel George P. Harrison’s Confederate brigade came up to link with Colquitt’s forces, and the opposing sides traded fire for several hours. Colquitt called on Finegan to send more reinforcements, but when they did not come, Colquitt ordered a general advance anyway. As the Confederates started pushing the Federals back, Harrison reported:
“But soon a new line of the enemy appeared, and our advance was checked. His resistance now seemed stubborner than before for more than 20 minutes, when the enemy sullenly gave back a little, apparently to seek a better position, but still held us at bay. Now the results of the day seemed doubtful.”
The Confederates began running low on ammunition, with the ordnance wagons a half-mile away. Couriers worked in teams to deliver more ammunition to the troops so they could renew their offensive. Seymour deployed a brigade under Colonel William Barton, but with replenished ammunition, the Confederates held firm.
Finally, Finegan’s reinforcements joined the main line. Harrison wrote, “These re-enforcements served to embolden our men and intimidate the enemy, for their retreat now became more hurried and their fire less rapid and effective.”
Colquitt directed Harrison to send two regiments against the vulnerable Federal right. Harrison reported that this–
“… succeeded admirably, for soon their right was exposed to a cross-fire, which told upon their ranks with fine effect. A general advance of our line now drove the enemy, who retreated, at first sullenly, but now precipitately, before our victorious arms for some miles, when night came on, and by order of General Colquitt we ceased firing and our line halted.”
Finegan sent the rest of his troops forward, and the Federals gradually gave ground before finally retreating. Seymour sustained nearly the highest casualty percentage rate of any Federal commander in the war, losing over 30 percent of his men (203 killed, 1,152 wounded, and 506 missing or captured). Some Federal soldiers who were veterans of the large battles in the Eastern and Western theaters wrote that this was the most vicious battle they ever experienced.
Three black regiments participated in this contest: the 8th U.S., the 35th U.S., and the 54th Massachusetts. The 8th U.S. Colored Troops lost 310 men, 87 of whom were killed. An officer in the regiment recorded that his commander, Colonel Charles W. Fribley–
“… now ordered the regiment to fall back slowly, which we did, firing as we retired, being unable to withstand so disastrous a fire. The order had just reached me on the extreme right when the colonel fell mortally wounded. The command now devolved on Major Burritt, who soon received two wounds and retired from the field, the regiment at this time engaging the enemy with steadiness, and holding the ground for some time near Hamilton’s battery, which we were trying to save. We here lost 3 color-sergeants and 5 of the color guard while attempting to save one gun, but we were driven back, leaving the gun and, as I afterward learned, the color beside it during the excitement.”
According to Seymour, Lieutenant Colonel William Reed of the 35th U.S. Colored Troops was “mortally wounded while managing his regiment with conspicuous skill, and his major was severely hurt.” Seymour praised the black regiments:
“The colored troops behaved creditably, the 54th Massachusetts and the 1st North Carolina (i.e., the 35th U.S.) like veterans. It was not in their conduct that can be found the chief cause of failure, but in the unanticipated yielding of a white regiment from which there was every reason to expect noble service, and at the moment when everything depended upon its firmness.”
Seymour reported that the white troops had failed because of “conscripts and substitutes, of a very inferior class.” Confederates rounded up the wounded Federals stranded on the battlefield; the white troops were generally treated respectfully, but many blacks were killed. Private James Jordan of the 27th Georgia wrote:
“The Yankee prisoners say they had no idea of meeting with such a force here. They said they did not expect to meet nothing but cavalry here. The negroes were badly cut up and killed. Our men killed some of them after they had fell in our hands wounded.”
Finegan sustained 934 losses (93 killed and 841 wounded). Southerners celebrated this rousing victory, with a Georgia newspaper reporting that the Federals were forced to march “40 miles over the most barren land of the South, frightening the salamanders and the gophers, and getting a terrible thrashing…”
Confederate cavalry pursued the Federals ineffectively, repairing the railroad that the Federals had destroyed along the way. Federal forces retained control of the Florida capital of Jacksonville, but other than destroying vast amounts of property, this campaign proved a total failure for them.
Gillmore, who had opposed Seymour’s westward advance in the first place, reported to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “The enemy have thrown so large a force into Florida that I judge it to be inexpedient to do more at the present time than hold the line of the Saint Johns River.”
Only the weak and timid Confederate cavalry allowed Seymour’s force to return to Jacksonville intact. Nevertheless, this was one of the Confederacy’s most decisive victories of the war, and Florida remained a vital source of cattle, grain, salt, and other staples for the Confederates.
The Federal defeat at Olustee ended President Abraham Lincoln’s hopes of imposing his “Ten Percent Plan” on Florida. His representative/secretary John Hay failed to get the 1,400 voters to pledge loyalty to the Union so they could help form a new Unionist state government. Critics of Lincoln’s plan to reconstruct Florida (as well as Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana) accused him of rushing to install new state governments that would support his upcoming reelection bid.
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