The Battle of Olustee

On January 10, 1861, Florida officially seceded from the Union as the third of the original states to secede. Florida remained an independent state for about a month before officially becoming a Confederate state on April 22, 1861. Florida was an enthusiastic member of the Confederacy, albeit with a small population and lack of traditional resources. Florida provided some 15,000 men to the Confederate army, with over a third of them failing to return home after the war. In the beginning of the war, Florida held little strategic value to either side of the conflict.

As the war progressed and resources began to become scarce for the South, Florida proved itself invaluable as a source of salt, which was derived from the sea, and both beef and leather from its substantial cattle industry. Towards the end of the war, as Southern hopes for victory faded, some Floridians began displaying anti-war sentiment and in some cases, even pro-Union loyalties, with two Union cavalry regiments organized by “loyal” and disaffected elements of Florida’s population.

In February of 1864, Major General Quincy Gillmore received approval from Washington to dispatch forces from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina and occupy Jacksonville, Florida with the ultimate goals of cutting Florida off from the rest of the Confederacy, capturing Tallahassee, and installing a pro-Union puppet government in time to send Republican delegates to Washington to ensure Honest Abe’s re-election as tyrant.

General Gillmore placed Brigadier General Truman Seymour in charge of the expedition. On February 7, 1864 some 6,000 troops captured Jacksonville and quickly captured outlying Confederate positions. The Confederate forces under Brigadier General Joseph Finnegan had little resources to stop the invasion. He immediately called on reinforcements from General P.G.T Beauregard in Charleston, South Carolina. The reinforcements, under the command of Georgian Brigadier General Alfred Holt Colquitt, with his battle hardened Georgian soldiers arrived in South Georgia and immediately marched South towards Lake City, Florida, while skirmishers tried their best to halt Union advances west towards Tallahassee.

Brigadier General Alfred Holt Colquitt

By February 19, Union forces assembled at Barbers Plantation, while Confederate forces began entrenching themselves at Olustee Station under Colquitt’s command. When Union forces arrived outside Olustee, they found themselves positioned between two swamps to their north and south. Around 2:00 PM, the Yankees began to face increasing resistance from the Confederate troops. The 7th Connecticut began opening heavy fire from their new Spencer repeating rifles, catching the men from the 64th Georgia infantry off guard with their ferociousness, killing all their regiment’s field officers. As the 64th began to fall back, General Colquitt rushed reinforcements to their position. As the 7th Conn. began to advance, they pushed too far and found themselves outflanked and began taking heavy casualties. With heavy losses and low ammunition, they withdrew to the Union rear.

At around 3:00 PM, the 7th New Hampshire deployed on the Confederate right flank, taking heavy fire. The 7th’s commanding officer, Colonel Hawley, either gave a wrong command or was misunderstood, causing confusion among his troops. The confusion caused his men to scatter and drift to the rear of the Union lines. General Colquitt ordered a brigade of troops into the area vacated by the 7th N.H. With the collapse of the 7th, this directed Confederate attention towards the 8th US Colored Troops, which covered the left of the Yankee line. Prior to the engagement, they received very little training and had seen no combat. The colored boys of the 8th stood firm under heavy fire and high casualties, losing 310 out of 575 soldiers, but they too fell back under confusion, leaving the Confederates in command of the field.

At this point, General Colquitt ordered an advance. Having been receiving reinforcements from General Finnegan the entire battle, General Colquitt’s battle line stretched about a mile. General Seymour advanced the 47th, 48th, and 115th New York to halt the Confederate advance. The Federal lines were bordered to the north and south by swamps, and the field itself was an open pine barren with little cover. General Colquitt’s battle line took a concave feature, with the northern and southern positions flanking the Union lines. Fighting during this period of battle was particularly severe, with high losses on both sides. During combat, the Confederates were able to capture five pieces of Union artillery, and rendered almost every other piece of artillery useless. With Confederate victory almost a certainty, our boys began to run low on ammunition. With the firing from Confederate lines slowing and some Confederate soldiers searching the corpses of their dead comrades for ammunition, the Union sent the 54th Massachusetts and 1st North Carolina, both colored regiments, into the fray, momentarily staggering the Confederate forces. After what seemed to be a long and devastating delay, both ammunition and reinforcements arrived for the Confederates. At this time, General Colquitt had a large cannon mounted on a railroad flat car, which fired a shell every five minutes, devastating the Union troops. With fresh reinforcements and resupplied, General Colquitt ordered his men forward once again, led by the 27th Georgia infantry, finally driving the Union from the field once and for all.

The loss of life for both sides were staggering compared to the total number of troops who fought. Union casualties totaled 1,861 out of approximately 5,500, which is roughly 34% of soldiers brought to battle. This casualty percentage ranked as the second bloodiest battle for the Union during the war. Confederate losses were not as great, but still high, with 946 of the 5,400 killed, wounded, or missing. With the Yankees defeated, it stopped all Union efforts to capture Tallahassee and install a lackey government. Thanks to the valiant efforts of the brave soldiers from Florida and Georgia, and the great leadership by General Colquitt, praised as the “Hero of Olustee”, Tallahassee would be the last Confederate capital east of the Mississippi river to be captured. Also, saving North Florida and South Georgia the same fate as North and Central Georgia from Sherman’s criminal March to the Sea.

-By Kenward