By the beginning of 1864 the Union was convinced of the necessity of controlling the Florida port of Jacksonville to interrupt Confederate logistics, and they were equally confident in their ability to actually accomplish such a thing. Brigadier General Truman Seymour came to Jacksonville to capture the port and found his task easier than anticipated. Once he was satisfied that the port was under wraps, he proceeded with his troops marching westward towards Tallahassee, planning also to capture the state capital. Seymour’s campaign for Tallahassee was directly against his superiors’ orders to remain in Jacksonville, but he presumed that taking Tallahassee would be easy and that the only fight he might encounter would be from irregulars of the Florida militia and not actual Confederate Army troops.
Alerted to General Seymour’s advances west, Confederate Major General Alfred Colquitt (future governor and noted politician of Georgia) became alarmed and sent Brigadier General Joseph Finnegan to cut off Seymour’s forces in western Baker County. Near a large lake known as Ocean Pond, the two armies met on the twentieth of February 1864.
Seymour’s forces had been following a railroad line, so Finnegan was able to scout out their location and movements without much trouble. Seymour, for his part, presumed once he got word that the Rebels were scouting and preparing an attack that, as in Jacksonville and its environs, he once more was only facing a rag-tag band of militiamen. He was wrong: Finnegan’s men were highly-organized Confederate Army regulars, seasoned to combat and with impressive cavalry and artillery capabilities.
At the time, there was a town or at least a village of Olustee, but it numbered only a couple of families. Most of the fighting when the two opposing armies met was done in the pine woods—a place monotonous and vast yet not terribly dense, with palmettos growing for ground cover between the long, thin trunks of the pines. Given the time of year, foliage other than the palmettos was scarce, and while not the same as fighting on an open meadow, the terrain did little to shelter or seclude the combatants and allowed for cannon fire and cavalry maneuvers alike to be effective. Seymour did not expect Confederate artillery: again, he presumed the men he would meet here on his enemy’s behalf to be locals—perhaps older men and young boys pressed into emergency service to defend their homeland, nothing more.
Aside from General Finnegan, Colonel John Paul Harrison, Jr., led the Confederates. Harrison came from Savannah and was a well-respected officer of the Georgia militia, having been trained by the prestigious Georgia Military Institute. He was but one example out of many professional soldiers in the officer corps of the men under Finnegan. Seymour was assisted at the command level by Colonels Vernor Henry and James Montgomery, but these officers were not expecting a serious fight out of any Confederates they might encounter. Instead, they found themselves up against the likes of Colquitt’s Brigade which included the famed Chatham Artillery and other elements of numbered, regular CSA units. These units were augmented by the Floridian units under Finnegan and together formed a formidable offensive.
The men serving under Seymour in contrast were officers picked for administrative abilities more than battlefield acumen, as the expectation was a ready victory over the Confederates nearer to Tallahassee rather than meeting their enemy before they ever even reached Lake City. Had things gone according to Seymour’s plan, his senior officers could have been installed to manage a weak Tallahassee which would cowardly cave in to the Union. Instead, he encountered some of the most able commanders and men in the CSA. Finnegan himself went on to command units in Virginia to great acclaim despite the Confederates’ waning fortunes in the war by this point.
The Confederates applied very well their advantages in battle, and the results tell this tale: the Union suffered 203 men killed, 1,152 wounded, and 506 missing. Confederate forces only had 93 killed, 847 wounded, and six missing. That’s less than half as many dead as the Union, far fewer wounded, and the staggering number of missing troops on the Union side obviously speaks to desertion. Union dead were hastily buried on the battlefield, whereas the Confederate dead were claimed by their families when possible, and many were buried properly in Lake City’s Oak Lawn Cemetery.
Finnegan’s forces pursued the fleeing Union troops, who quickly made their way back to the safety of Jacksonville, but Finnegan called off the pursuit far sooner than many historians speculate was necessary and wise: in some circles of Civil War strategy, a dim view is taken of Finnegan for his post-battle actions, in that he did not fully render the Yankees helpless or even succeed in retaking Jacksonville, which remained under Union control for the rest of the war. His men did at least manage to capture much of the weaponry and ammunition abandoned by Seymour. While the Union held on to their control of the port of Jacksonville for the remainder of the war, they abandoned their efforts to take the entire state of Florida due to the ill-fated campaign at Olustee.
Every February, reenactments of the fateful Battle of Olustee are held at the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park on what is approximately the actual battlefield. In the 1910’s a monument was erected in memory of the battle and Confederate victory, and in the 1990’s a stone monument was erected to replace an original wooden cross in memory of the Union dead buried on the battlefield. The reenactment at this point has become a very popular seasonal attraction drawing re-enactors from all over the South displaying an incredible level of professionalism and authenticity. Watching it this past month I was awestruck: with cannons roaring—and carefully-placed pyrotechnics exploding to indicate where a cannonball would have thrashed the ground—men getting into their positions, officers on horseback, and clouds of smoke drifting over the palmettos, you seriously feel as if you’ve been transported back in time to view the actual battle. Only a passing helicopter briefly reminded me this was 2017 and not 1864.
Aside from the battle itself, there is an accurate encampment to represent the townspeople and sutlers, who were merchants who followed brigades of troops and sold them provisions. Sutlers of the Civil War era would sell mostly foodstuffs and civilian clothing the soldiers could not easily get otherwise if away from a town and its merchants. However, for the reenactment, the sutlers focus on authentic re-creations of period clothing including uniforms plus weapons for the re-enactors. Everything from a cavalry officer’s riding gloves to accurate facsimiles of swords are for sale, which is quite useful to the re-enactors. Not every corner shop sells a quality 1860’s man’s hat, after all.
Lake City itself, not far to the west, the city which was grateful to Generals Colquitt and Finnegan for saving them from what would otherwise have been certain pillage at the hands of Seymour’s men, now holds a two-day celebration with concerts, a 5K race, beauty pageants, and arts and crafts vendors, as well as historical events tied to the actual battle. Living history seriously doesn’t get much better—or bigger—than what the Olustee Festival offers up.
SEE MORE BATTLE OF OLUSTEE PHOTOS HERE