Tag Archives: Truman Seymour

The Battle of Olustee

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.”

The Battle of Olustee, or Ocean Pond | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 441; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 375-76; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10303; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 903-05; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 2202-12; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 400-01; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 195; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 466; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 259-60, 545; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q164

Federals Begin Operations in Florida

February 19, 1864 – Federal forces launched an expedition to conquer Florida, while Confederates scrambled to put up a defense.

Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, had been assigned to invade Florida. Gillmore was to impose President Abraham Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan” by registering 10 percent of the state’s voters so they could elect delegates to form a new Unionist state government. Lincoln had dispatched his secretary, John Hay, to register the 10 percent as Federal troops operated in Florida.

Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, granted Gillmore’s request for naval support by providing the screw steamers U.S.S. Ottawa and Norwich to transport troops up the St. John’s River. The gunboats U.S.S. Dai Ching, Mahaska, and Water Witch would also support the army expedition.

Gen Truman Seymour | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Gillmore assigned Brigadier General Truman Seymour, an officer familiar with Florida as a veteran of the Seminole Wars, to lead the division in the field. Seymour had four objectives:

  • Help restore Florida to the Union under Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan”
  • Secure the St. John’s River for Federal trade
  • Liberate slaves and recruit them into the Federal army
  • Destroy Confederate supply lines and any materiel–primarily beef and saltworks–considered useful to the Confederate war effort

Gillmore instructed Seymour to land his troops at the state capital of Jacksonville and then move west to Baldwin, “and, if possible, beyond.” Gillmore told him that the Confederates probably had a “small force of infantry and a battery between Jacksonville and Baldwin.” Seymour was to advance no farther than Lake City.

General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, learned that Seymour was preparing an expedition and correctly guessed that his target would be Florida. Beauregard dispatched troops under Brigadier General Alfred H. Colquitt to reinforce Brigadier General Joseph Finegan, who commanded the District of East Florida.

Seymour’s Federals left Hilton Head, South Carolina, aboard 20 transports on the 5th. The force consisted of 5,500 men in three infantry brigades, two cavalry regiments, and four artillery batteries. The transports and gunboats moved up the St. John’s River and landed at Jacksonville two days later. The city had been virtually destroyed by previous Federal occupiers.

The Federals debarked and quickly captured about 100 remaining Confederates. Hay informed them that if they swore allegiance to the Union, they would be freed and allowed to help form the new state government; if they refused, they would be sent to northern prison camps. Hay said, “There is to be neither force nor persuasion used in this matter. You decide for yourselves.”

Hay received the signatures of about half the prisoners, along with several city residents. During his stay at Jacksonville, Hay invested in real estate as part of his plan to become a congressman in the new state government.

Seymour’s Federals also seized eight cannon and a large amount of cotton awaiting blockade runners for shipment. The Norwich trapped the Confederate steamer St. Mary’s on McGirt’s Creek, forcing the Confederates to burn and abandon her. The Federals prepared to head west along the Florida, Atlantic & Gulf Central Railroad, toward Baldwin and the Suwannee River.

Sporadic skirmishing occurred over the next few days, with the Federals arriving at Baldwin on the 10th. To Seymour’s disappointment, the civilians expressed none of the Unionist sentiment that the Federal high command expected. Moreover, Federal cavalry under Colonel Guy V. Henry probed forward and discovered that Confederates were preparing to make a stand at Olustee.

Seymour reported to Gillmore, “I am convinced that a movement upon Lake City is not, in the present condition of transportation, admissible, and indeed that what has been said of the desire of Florida to come back (to the Union) now is a delusion.” Seymour recommended returning his force to Jacksonville, but Gillmore urged him to continue west to Sanderson, halfway to Lake City, and dispatched the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry as reinforcement.

The Federals advanced to Sanderson, where they destroyed vast amounts of public and private property. During this time, Gillmore left Jacksonville and returned to Hilton Head, where he arranged for supplies to be delivered to Seymour’s men. They were now in the unforgiving Florida country of stunted oaks, pines, and palmettos, and their only train had broken down. When Gillmore received word that Confederate cavalry might be threatening Seymour’s right flank, he ordered Seymour to fall back to Baldwin.

Seymour complied, but by the 16th, he was convinced that he could get to Lake City. He informed Gillmore that he intended to head there and destroy the railroad. He asked Gillmore to send him naval support on the Savannah River, adding, “I look upon this as of great importance.”

Stunned, Gillmore replied that there was no way he could arrange such support so quickly. He wrote, “You must have forgotten my last instructions, which were for the present to hold Baldwin…” Gillmore reminded Seymour that he (Seymour) had argued for returning to Jacksonville, but now he inexplicably sought to capture Lake City. He also informed Seymour that the Federal high command had no plans to operate in the Lake City region of Florida, making his proposed advance there pointless.

Meanwhile, Confederates stationed at Lake City observed the Federal movements and relayed them to Finegan. He reported to Beauregard that the enemy numbered at least 10 regiments. Beauregard responded, “Enemy’s forces should on no account be exaggerated. His regiments average 600 at most, composed largely of newly drafted men and recruits; not a match for one-half of our men.”

Finegan scrambled to build a defense line along the railroad near the small hamlet of Olustee, about 10 miles east of Lake City. He ordered his officers “to impress the required negroes and to collect such tools as might be procured from the surrounding plantations.” By the 19th, the Confederate defenses were not yet completed, but Colquitt’s Confederates had arrived to reinforce Finegan. Seymour’s Federals passed Barber’s Plantation and headed for the Confederate line outside Lake City.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 366, 371, 373-74; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 900-03; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 394-97; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 462; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 545

Charleston: The Second Assault on Battery Wagner

July 18, 1863 – Federal forces suffered a severe repulse in a second attack on Morris Island south of Charleston, despite a heroic effort by the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry.

About 1,200 Confederates defended Battery Wagner, an open embrasure on the northern section of Morris Island. They had repulsed a Federal assault a week earlier, but this time, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, planned a much stronger attack. Unlike the first attempt, Gillmore would employ artillery support from both land and water.

The assault had been postponed a day due to rain, and the artillery bombardment that was supposed to begin at 9 a.m. on the 18th was delayed due to damp powder. The naval bombardment began after noon, when the tides allowed the Federal warships to get within range. Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren’s ironclad flotilla (the U.S.S. Catskill, Montauk, Nantucket, New Ironsides, Patapsco, and Weehawken) heavily shelled Battery Wagner, producing what Dahlgren wrote called, “Such a crashing of shells and thunder of cannon and flying of sand and earth into the air.”

The ships moved to within 300 yards as the tides rose, with the New Ironsides staying back and firing over the rest of the flotilla. Dahlgren wrote, “The gunnery was very fine, the shells of the ‘Ironsides’ going right over the ‘Montauk,’ so we had it all our own way.” The Federal guns scored hits at a rate of one every two seconds. They silenced the Confederate cannon after seven hours, which signaled the Federal infantry to begin its advance.

Gillmore watched the bombardment and believed Battery Wagner had been reduced to rubble. The Federals had done extensive damage, piling shells in passageways and exposing the magazine, which put the Confederates at risk of being “blown in the marsh.” But Gillmore was unaware that the sandy walls had absorbed most of the shells, and the defenders remained hidden within their strong bombproofs.

Gillmore ordered Brigadier General Truman Seymour to launch a night attack. Seymour’s force consisted of 6,000 Federals in two brigades gathered on the southern end of Morris Island. Seymour planned to send three attack waves against Battery Wagner to the north, with Brigadier General George C. Strong commanding the first wave.

The 54th Massachusetts, a black regiment, would lead the first wave. Colonel Robert G. Shaw, the son of Boston abolitionists who commanded the 54th, had lobbied Strong for a chance to prove what his men could do in combat. This would be one of the first times in which a black regiment led Federal troops into battle, and their performance would influence future decisions on how best to deploy black troops.

Despite the politics behind the decision to place the 54th in the lead, Seymour later explained that “the 54th was in every respect as efficient as any body of men; it was the strongest (with 650 troops) and best officered, there seemed no good reason why it should not be selected for this advance.”

As the Federals began advancing at 7:45 p.m., it instantly became clear that the bombardment had not subdued the Confederates, who had quietly withstood the barrage from the safety of their bombproofs. They suddenly came out to the parapets and opened heavy fire on the attackers moving along the narrow 200-yard beach. The Federal ships offshore stopped their shelling because, as Dahlgren wrote, “There could be no more help from us, for it was dark and we might kill friend as well as foe.”

54th Massachusetts charging Battery Wagner | Image Credit: Bing Public Domain

The black troops valiantly fought their way to a small angle of the fort’s wall and began scaling the parapet. As Shaw reached the top ahead of his troops, he shouted, “Onward, Fifty-fourth!” He was shot in the chest and killed, but his men held the parapets for nearly an hour as they waited for reinforcements that never came. Strong was wounded in the leg; he later developed tetanus and died.

As the 54th fell back in disarray, the Confederates repelled the rest of the first wave. Colonel Haldimand S. Putnam, commanding the second wave, held his men back, ostensibly under orders from Gillmore not to advance because he had been certain only one wave would be needed to take the works. Putnam finally put his men in motion after being ordered twice by Seymour to attack.

The lag between the first and second waves resulted in two separate, piecemeal attacks that the Confederates easily thwarted. Seymour then ordered his reserve brigade, under Brigadier General Thomas G. Stevenson, to advance, but Gillmore overrode Seymour and directed Stevenson to wait until Putnam’s men made headway. Some Federals got into the fort on the sea-facing side, but the Confederates counterattacked and drove them out, killing Putnam in the process.

Distraught over the heavy losses, Gillmore refused to commit the third wave under Stevenson. The Federals sustained 1,515 casualties (246 killed, 880 wounded, and 389 missing), including five regimental commanders. The 54th lost 272 of its men, or 41 percent. Sergeant William H. Carney brought the U.S. flag back to Federal lines despite suffering four wounds; he later became the first black man awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The Confederates lost just 174 men (36 killed, 133 wounded, and five missing). A witness described the scene when the Confederates came out of their works to tend to the dead and wounded the next day:

“Blood, must, water, brains and human hair matted together; men lying in every possible attitude, with every conceivable expression on their countenances; their limbs bent into unnatural shapes by the fall of 20 or more feet, the fingers rigid and outstretched as if they had clutched at the earth to save themselves; pale, beseeching faces looking out from among the ghastly corpses, with moans and cries for help and water and dying gasps and death struggles.”

The Confederates treated the black and white casualties the same, sending the wounded off together and burying the dead together in mass graves. But General Johnson Hagood, commanding the burial detail, refused to send Colonel Shaw’s body back to his family in accordance with the traditional treatment of officers. Instead, he directed Shaw to be buried with his troops in the ditch. Shaw’s father later said that burying his son with his men was the highest honor the Confederates could have bestowed upon him.

Gillmore lost a third of his men in 10 days of operations on Morris Island, with Battery Wagner still in Confederate hands. He realized that Morris Island and Charleston could not be taken by a joint army-navy force without first besieging Wagner. Despite the setback, this effort earned fame for the 54th and legitimized the role of blacks as Federal combat soldiers.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 120, 124-28; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 310-11; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 696-97; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 332-33; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 364-65, 382-83, 387-88; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 727; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 480; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 686; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 174; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 248; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 672-73