Battle of Gainesville
Gainesville – August 1864
The failure of the Olustee Campaign returned the military situation in Florida to one of minor raiding and skirmishing. Union expeditions reaching out from Jacksonville, Fort Myers, and Pensacola supplied the impetus for some of the more dramatic, if smaller, actions of the war. The first of these was a raid to Gainesville conducted by COL Andrew Harris,75th Ohio Infantry (Mounted) and COL William Noble, of the 17th Connecticut Infantry.
The two pronged raid left Baldwin at dawn on 15 August. The mounted element ,led by Harris, was comprised of 173 men from the 75th Ohio, 12 men and one 12lb piece from Company A, 3rd Rhode Island Artillery, and 15 teamsters, cooks ,and smiths. The infantry column contained the 34th, 35th, and 102nd USCT, a 20 man mounted detachment from the 75th Ohio, and a three gun detachment of the 3rd Rhode Island Artillery. Although the Official Reports do not make it clear exactly how the two groups were to cooperate but it is believed that the cavalry troopers were to seize the city and hold it until the infantrymen arrived to act as an occupation force. The two columns met at Trail Ridge were Harris reported the capture of a picket post at New River. After a short rest the troopers headed out for a 0230 rendezvous with the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry at Starke. The Bay State horseman numbered 89 officers and enlisted men, commanded by CPT Morton. They were accompanied by “some 12 or 15 loyal Floridians” including a Mr. Sykes who acted as the guide. The united column left Starke the next morning at 0730 “after destroying a lot of Confederate commissary stores” and six railroad cars. They entered Gainesville on the morning of the 17th.
The town was held by about 70 militiamen who were easily driven off by Company B, 4th Massachusetts Cavalry. Thinking they had won the town from the only enemy force available Harris ordered his men to unbridle their horses and had coffee put on. Rather than tend to the business of preparing to defend their prize the Union troopers started milling about and possibly even pillaging the town. They were caught totally unprepared by a well coordinated attack by CPT J. J. Dickison and about 175 men from the 2nd and 5th Florida Cavalry. Desperately trying to organize a last minute defense Harris managed to blunt the main attack but found himself “immediately surrounded” by a flanking party of Confederate troopers. Harris frantically threw men in every direction trying to address the rapidly developing trouble spots. He estimated that the attack was being made by an enemy that numbered “not less than 600.” At 0900 Harris received reports that his only piece was “nearly out of ammunition” and to half his horses were disabled. With his troubles seemingly compounded by the moment Harris decided to make a run for it. He called his commanders in and planned an escape by cutting their way out on the Waldo Road.
On the order of execution a large part of his command started out on the wrong road. COL Harris made a dash to inform the wayward column of their mistake. He caught up with them but they were forced to abandon their artillery piece when “the enemy again surrounded me.” The retreat suddenly became an everyman for himself rout. Harris and 42 men still lucky enough to have horses bolted to the east in hopes of finding COL Noble’s infantry column. LTC Benjamin Morgan and another group were broken up near Magnolia and were forced to “take to the swamps.” The expedition that may have been intended to secure Gainesville for permanent occupation had held the town for less than three hours.
The Harris party reunited with the infantry column in the late afternoon of the 17th at their camp. With hopes that more of the destroyed cavalry column would come in Noble maintained his camp until late on the morning of the 18th. That night they made camp near Lake George and the following day completed their march at Magnolia late in the afternoon of the 19th. An accounting of Harris’ command told the true story of the failed expedition. BG John Hatch reported on the 23rd that the total loss to Harris’ command was 14 officers and 171 enlisted men. Stragglers continued to come in from the swamps and forests until the 25th but there could be no denying the extent of the disaster. Dickison’s total loss was reported as 1 killed and 5 wounded.
A month later a 55 man detachment of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry made an expedition form Magnolia and met a similar fate at the hands of Dickison’s troopers. After a 40 minute gunfight that ended when the Union troopers again “took to swamps” Dickison reported taking 23 prisoners (including 8 wounded men) and killing 10-12. No loss other than a couple of wounded horses was reported from the Confederate forces involved.