Union hopes in Florida end with a thud at the 1864 Battle of Olustee.
The value of Florida to Union prospects in the Civil War— and to some degree President Abraham Lincoln’s reelection hopes—was apparent by December 1863. Confederate authorities had conceded earlier in the conflict that they didn’t have the man power, resources or even the need to defend the entire state. But that began to change in July 1863, when the fall of Vicksburg, Miss., and Port Hudson, La., gave the Federals complete control of the Mississippi River, depriving the South of perhaps its most vital supply line. Though Florida was sparsely populated, its plentiful supplies of livestock and crops, particularly beef, pork and corn, were needed more than ever for Southern troops and citizens.
As 1864 dawned, Lincoln’s political future was also very much at stake. Despite a string of battlefield successes in 1863, among them Gettysburg and Vicksburg, there had been significant setbacks, too. Lincoln determined that a victory in Florida would serve at least two purposes: Disrupting the state’s flow of supplies would of course jeopardize the effectiveness of the Confederate armies and further dampen Southern morale, and there was also a realistic chance a Union-loyal state government could be returned to power in Tallahassee. That would mean additional delegates for Lincoln in the Republican Party’s upcoming nominating convention, as well as vital electoral votes in the election that fall.
Officials were perhaps unduly optimistic that even limited success in Florida would be enough to embolden local Unionists and spur recruitment of African-American soldiers. The consensus was that control of the northeastern part of the state was critical to any success. After occupying Jacksonville to establish a base of operations on the Atlantic coast, the Federals would move to capture positions to the west along the Florida, Atlantic & Gulf Railroad and to the south along the St. John’s River to Palatka.
Department of the South commander Maj. Gen. Quincy Gillmore, still consumed with the draining siege of Charles ton, S.C., tabbed Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour to lead the Florida operations, scheduled to begin in February. Severely wounded in the failed Fort Wagner assault in July, Seymour had just returned to action. His 5,500- man force had its share of veterans from the Charleston fighting, but it also had three fairly raw U.S. Colored Troop regiments—the 54th Massachusetts, which had been cut apart dearly at Fort Wagner, 1st North Carolina and 8th USCT.
As planned, the Federals moved into Jacksonville on February 7, then took Camp Finegan and Baldwin the next day. Possession of Bald win was important, as it was located at the junction of two rail lines used by the Rebels to transport supplies.
Commanding the Confederate defenses was Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan, whose superior, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, had so little faith in him that he was recruiting other generals to replace him as the Union threat intensified. Finegan sent Beauregard a quick plea for reinforcements and then waited, doing little more than harass the Federals as troops from Georgia and South Carolina made their way to him. When the Federals occupied Baldwin—capturing several prisoners and artillery pieces, as well as railroad equipment and ample quantities of tobacco and cotton—Finegan consolidated his army at Lake City, not far from the Suwannee River. He hoped Seymour could be lured his way and ambushed.
Despite the early success, Gillmore advised Seymour to stay put in Baldwin and not push things. But on February 17, Seymour informed Gillmore he was heading west to destroy a railroad crossing over the Suwannee River, confident it would be a routine endeavor. He was unaware Finegan’s reinforcements had already arrived.
The Federals met little resistance the first two days, as they moved along a road paralleling the railroad. But about noon on the 20th, they finally made contact with an enemy force at Olustee, near Ocean Pond. Early fighting was sporadic, but even after Seymour realized he faced a larger army than expected, he opted to attack. Some of the Union troops carried Spencer repeating rifles, giving Seymour an added sense of confidence.
At 3 p.m., the 3rd U.S. Artillery moved up and began firing both shell and canister, but the Rebels, using the trees as cover, closed to within 50 yards of the battery and started taking out the Yankee gunners. Meanwhile, a misinterpreted order had the veteran 7th New Hampshire on the verge of collapse on the Union right. The 8th USCT rushed forward and deployed on the left, only to be quickly decimated by enemy soldiers hidden in the trees. The black troops hadn’t been adequately trained with their weapons and struggled to return fire. As their commander, Col. Charles W. Fribley, ordered a retreat, he was mortally wounded and left behind on the field.
For the next few hours, the Federals did what they could to hold on before retreating. The 54th Massachusetts and 1st North Carolina provided one positive, rushing through a horde of wounded comrades to stifle a Confederate onslaught. Later, with the battle’s outcome no longer in doubt, the 54th made an orderly retreat, firing volleys at the enemy as it left the field. But wounded black troops left behind apparently were killed rather than taken prisoner. “They would beg and pray,” one Rebel wrote, “but it did no good.”
Union casualties totaled 1,861—a combined 626 for the USCT units alone. Confederate losses were half the Union total, with only 93 killed. The abrupt defeat at Olustee ended Union attempts to conquer the state. Seymour returned his army to Jacksonville and was soon transferred to division command in the Army of the Potomac.
Chris Howland is a senior editor for America’s Civil War.
Originally published in the January 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.