In February 1864, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commander of the Union's Department of the South at Hilton Head, South Carolina, ordered an expedition into Florida to secure Union enclaves, sever Confederate supply routes (especially for beef and salt), and recruit black soldiers. Brigadier General Truman Seymour, in command of the expedition landed troops at Jacksonville, in an area already seized by the Union in March 1862, and made several raids into northeast and north-central Florida. During these raids he met little resistance, seized several Confederate camps, captured small bands of troops, liberated slaves, etc. However, Seymour was under orders from Gillmore not to advance deep into the state.
Seymour's preparations at Hilton Head had concerned the Confederate command in the key port city of Charleston, South Carolina. General P. G. T. Beauregard, correctly guessing Seymour's objective was Florida, felt these Union actions posed enough of a threat that he detached reinforcements under Georgian Alfred H. Colquitt to bolster Florida's defenses and stop Seymour. Colquitt arrived in time to reinforce Florida troops under the command of Brigadier General Joseph Finegan. As Colquitt's troops began arriving, Seymour, without Gillmore's knowledge, began a new drive across north Florida with the capture of Tallahassee as a possible objective.
Following the Florida, Atlantic and Gulf Railroad, Seymour led his 5,500 men in the direction of Lake City. At approximately 2:30 in the afternoon of February 20, the Union force approached General Finegan's 5,000 Confederates entrenched near Olustee Station. Finegan sent out an infantry brigade to meet Seymour's advance units and lure them into the Confederate entrenchments, but this plan went awry. The opposing forces met at Ocean Pond and the battle began. Seymour made the mistake of assuming that he was once again facing Florida militia units that he had previously easily routed and committed his troops piecemeal into the battle. Finegan and Seymour both reinforced their engaged units during the afternoon and the battle took place in open pine woods. The Union forces attacked but were savagely repulsed by withering barrages of rifle and cannon fire.
The battle raged throughout the afternoon until, as Finegan committed the last of his reserves, the Union line broke and began to retreat. Finegan did not exploit the retreat, allowing most of the fleeing Union forces to reach Jacksonville. The Confederates did attempt to engage the rear element of Seymour's forces but were repulsed by elements of the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the 35th United States Colored Troops, both composed of African American soldiers.
Union casualties were 203 killed, 1,152 wounded, and 506 missing, a total of 1,861 men — almost 40%. Confederate losses were lower: 93 killed, 847 wounded, and 6 missing, a total of 946 casualties in all — but still about 20%. Additionally, Union forces allowed six artillery pieces and 39 horses to be captured as well. The ratio of Union casualties to the number of troops involved made this the third bloodiest battle of the War for the Union. Many of the soldiers on both sides were veterans of the great battles in the eastern and western theaters of war, but many of them remarked in letters and diaries that they had never experienced such terrible fighting. In a footnote following the battle, men of the 54th Massachusetts manually pulled a train of wounded Union soldiers for five miles, until horses could be secured to transport them further. This story of bravery and sheer strength became widely known over the whole United States.
The Union losses caused Northern authorities to question the necessity of further Union involvement in the militarily insignificant state of Florida. There is also considerable evidence from Confederate memoirs and letters that the high Union casualties were partially the result of Confederate troops murdering wounded and captured African-American Union soldiers.
In the South, the battle was seen as a spirit-raising rout. One Georgia newspaper referred to Union forces as walking "forty miles over the most barren land of the South, frightening the salamanders and the gophers, and getting a terrible thrashing…"
Today, the battlefield is contained within the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park, a part of the Florida State Park system. This park is located within the Osceola National Forest, on U.S. 90. There is an annual historical reenactment that takes place on the site of the battle and nearby Lake City has hosted the yearly Olustee Battle Festival since 1976.
On one weekend every February (see Footnotes), thousands of reenactors from across the U.S. and even from overseas, come to the Park to reenact the Battle of Olustee. Reenactors begin arriving as early as Thursday to set up. Friday is usually reserved as a "School Day" when thousands of students arrive to spend the day watching demonstrations and listening to living historians discuss various aspects of the war and 1860s life in the United States. The public is invited to attend the reenactment on Saturday and Sunday, visit the camps, view demonstrations, interact with living historians, shop at numerous sutler tents for Civil War merchandise, and attend the battle on each day. A large selection of modern day food is continuously available from Friday through Sunday at the park.
The lithograph in the upper right was printed by the firm of Kurz and Allison in 1894. It depicts soldiers of the 8th U.S. Colored Troops advancing against Confederate entrenchments. While frequently used in media about the Battle of Olustee, it is inaccurate as the artist knew little about the battle. The Confederates troops during the battle were well in advance of their prepared positions, and neither side fought from behind fortifications, as the battle took place in a pine forest (see map - top of map is approximately due West). Plus, there were very few large cleared areas (as also shown incorrectly in the lithograph). The annual reenactment begins in a pine forest so that reenactors can experience fighting as the soldiers did in 1864. However, it then moves into a large cleared area so that spectators also can view the battle.
- Florida in the American Civil War
- Olustee Union order of battle
- Olustee Confederate order of battle
- List of conflicts in the United States
- National Park Service "American Battlefield Protection Program Battle Summary". National Park Service. http://www.cr.nps.gov/hps/abpp/battles/fl005.htm National Park Service. Retrieved 2007-12-31.
- Wynne, Lewis N. and Taylor, Robert A. (2001). Florida In The Civil War. Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 0738513687.
- Battle of Olustee "Web site". Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park Citizens Support Organization. http://battleofolustee.org/ Battle of Olustee. Retrieved 2008-07-24.
- Florida State Parks "Olustee State Park information". State of Florida. http://www.floridastateparks.org/olustee Florida State Parks. Retrieved 2007-12-31.
- Olustee Battlefield Reenactment Battle Of Olustee Web site. Last accessed 2008-08-17
- Boyd, Mark F. 1950. The Federal Campaign of 1864 in East Florida. Florida Historical Quarterly. Vol. XXIX, No. 1.
- Nulty, William H. 1990. Confederate Florida: The Road to Olustee. University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0817307486.
- Schmidt, Lewis B. 1989. The Civil War in Florida, A Military History, Vol. II: The Battle of Olustee. Allentown, PA.
- Battle of Olustee award-winning Web site
- Olustee Battlefield Page: Battle maps, photos, history articles, and battlefield news (CWPT)
- Perry's Saints at the Battle of Olustee
- Olustee Battle Festival
- Baker County listings at National Register of Historic Places
- Baker County listings at Florida's Office of Cultural and Historical Programs
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