Battle of Olustee
In February 1864, the commander of the Department of the South, Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, launched an expedition into Florida to secure Union enclaves, sever Rebel supply routes, and recruit black soldiers. Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour moved deep into the state, occupying, destroying, and liberating, meeting little resistance on February 20, he approached Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan’s 5,000 Confederates entrenched near Olustee. One infantry brigade pushed out to meet Seymour’s advance units. The Union forces attacked but were repulsed. The battle raged, and 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. (NPS summary)
The Battle of Olustee
The first major land campaign in Florida had its roots not in the state but in South Carolina. Stalled outside of Charleston MG Quincy Gillmore was looking for a way to revive his sinking reputation. In early December he proposed a strike into northern Florida to check the flow of supplies into South Carolina. At the same time a political mission, led by Lyman Stickney, was raising the possibility of an early political reversal in Florida. As a means of supporting his planned campaign Gillmore included the “speedy restoration of Florida to her allegiance” as a goal for the proposed action. With an election year coming up President Lincoln saw promise in the plan and dispatched John Hay, with a provisional commission to major, to Gillmore with instructions that “the thing be done.” Not surprisingly military approval soon followed with the details of the campaign left to Gillmore on 22 December. Halleck informed Gillmore that he was “at liberty to undertake such operations in your department as you deem best.” The only restrictions placed on Gillmore were that his position in front of Charleston had to be maintained and that no reinforcements would be available.
Gillmore did not hesitate to put his plan in motion. BG Truman Seymour was ordered to depart from Hilton Head, SC with his troops on 4 February, 1864. They landed in Jacksonville on 7 February and quickly dispersed the few Confederate troops in the area to claim the city once again. The departing Confederates rushed word to BG Joseph Finegan, commander of the district of East Florida, of the Union expedition. Finegan had but 1500 troops available to meet the Federal advance. He immediately sent an appeal for reinforcements to P.G.T. Beauregard. Beauregard directed Finegan to conduct delaying operations while troops could be gathered in South Carolina, Georgia, and elsewhere in Florida to come to his assistance. On the evening of the 8th the 40th Massachusetts Mounted Infantry and the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry headed west from Jacksonville with “Union men” as guides. In the darkness the column lost the road several times but managed to skirt the main Confederate camp and came upon the camp of the Milton Light Artillery. A lone mounted picket detected the approach of the Federal column and raised the alarm at the camp. CPT Dunham described what happened next in just three words; “my command fled.” They left behind 4 cannon, 6 wagons, 45 horses and mules, and 18 prisoners. The Union troopers pushed on to the railroad town of Baldwin, about 20 miles west of Jacksonville. Arriving at 0700 the found the town empty of Confederate troops who had retreated leaving an additional 8 artillery pieces behind as well as 40 horses and mule and a small stock of commissary supplies.
The successful early going left the Union troops confident and they marched out of Baldwin the next morning on a reconnaissance toward Lake City expecting more of the same. The column was formed by the 40th Massachusetts Mounted infantry and 1st Massachusetts Cavalry Battalion, roughly 1000 strong. Unbeknownst to the Union commanders MAJ Robert Harrison’s portion of the 2nd Florida Cavalry was traveling to Lake City to link up with the Confederate forces that were being gathered there to confront the Federal expedition. Harrison’s men arrived at the crossing before the Union column and planned a surprise greeting. As the Federal troopers made an approach to the plank bridge over the St. Mary’s River a fusillade of shots rang out from across the river. Three of the four men riding in advance were unhorsed. The ambush had been expertly planned and the location well chosen. The stream was wide enough and swift enough to make fording difficult and the nearby foliage provided excellent cover and concealment for the Confederate troopers waiting at the bridge. The stream acted as a barrier to the more numerous Union troops and the bridge, which had been partially destroyed, was a focal point to enemy movement allowing them to concentrate their fire there. The startled Union column broke into the brush on either side of the road and dismounted. After seeing to the safe removal of their mounts the Federal troopers began laying down return fire on their attackers with their Spencer carbines. With the initial shock of the ambush gone COL Henry ordered up artillery and sent Co. E of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry to attack the bridge hoping to gain some knowledge of the enemy strength. CPT Webster led his troopers on a mounted dash for the bridge but they were quickly pinned down after discovering that the bridge was ruined. The attack helped discover the disposition of the Confederate troops and a dismounted company of the 40th was sent forward in an effort to gain the far side of the river. The volume of fire coming at them was too great and they were pulled back after discovering that the bridge was in ruins. A second company was committed to attempt to ford the river but they too had to give way to the fire from the Confederate troopers. By this time Elder’s battery had come on line and began to pour fire into the Confederate position. The barrage significantly slowed the Confederate fire and Henry decided to attempt to ford the river with mounted troops while a dismounted force attempted another crossing near the bridge. Once it was clear that the Union troopers would gain the near side of the river the Confederates began pulling back. However the mounted attackers overtook some of the late movers and secured about 70 prisoners. The losses were 5 killed for the Union and 2 killed for the Confederate forces. A total of about 30 wounded soldiers from both sides were left to the care of the Federal medical staff. The column moved on to Sanderson where they established camp.
Following the ambush at St. Mary’s River the Confederate forces withdrew to consolidate at Olustee Station. Here Finegan used his cavalry to retard the Federal probes while he constructed earthworks that were bordered on one side by a swamp and the other by Ocean Pond. While he waited for reinforcements there a cloud of uncertainty fell over the Union command. The unexpected tenacity of the Confederate defenders in the area began to raise doubts in the mind of BG Seymour. Writing to Gillmore on the 11th BG Seymour announced that;
“I am convinced that the movement upon Lake City is not …admissible.”
He also recommended that his forces withdraw from their advanced positions and fall back to Jacksonville and Palatka. Gillmore thought the idea of withdraw a good idea and responded to Seymour
“Don’t risk a repulse in advancing on Lake City”
However he ordered Seymour to fall back only as far as Baldwin. Seymour moved back and called back the Henry’s cavalry advance as well. Once in Baldwin he started to regain some confidence. In a reply to Gillmore he stated that “this is the place to fortify”. The two men met in Jacksonville on the 14th to discuss the situation and it was determined, at least in Gillmore’s mind,
“…that no advance would be made…”
Gillmore detailed CPT Reese of the engineers to Seymour to help lay out the planned defenses “capable of resisting a coup de main” at Jacksonville, Baldwin, Palatka, and the crossing of the St. Mary’s River. Gillmore then departed for South Carolina. While Seymour was meeting with Gillmore a small operation departed for Gainesville to attack the Florida Railroad depot and Confederate Quartermaster operations there. CPT G. E. Marshall leading details from Companies C, G, and H of the 40th Massachusetts Mounted Infantry arrived in Gainesville on the morning of the 14th. They found“immense stores of cotton, of turpentine and rosin, sugar, tobacco, and supplies of all kinds…”The supplies were broken open and the captured rations were distributed among the local population “who were suffering for want of them.” The brief occupation of Gainesville was interrupted that evening by the appearance of two companies of the 2nd Florida Cavalry. The Union troopers erected a barricade of cotton bales and awaited an attack. The Confederate leaders seemed to have some misgivings about challenging the barricaded streets and eventually called for volunteers. According one participant (PVT Lawrence Jackson) about two dozen men stepped forward to follow LT Samuel Reddick into town. The attack was short lived. The men charged down Liberty Street as two platoons and made it to the barricade where some “of the horses jumped on the bales.” They were greeted by the rapid fire of the Union Spencer’s and quickly fell back when the attack was not supported by the remainder of the Confederate troops. They left behind one man killed. Jackson felt that “the outcome was anything but creditable to the officers in command of the Confederate forces.” The next morning the Confederate troopers found the Union cavalrymen gone.
On the 17th Seymour sent a dispatch announcing a move to the Suwannee River to destroy the railroad bridge there to a shocked and confused Gillmore, who responded;
“You have forgotten my last instructions... Your project distinctly and avowedly ignores these operations and substitutes a plan which not only involves your command in a distant movement without provisions, far beyond a point from which you once withdrew on account of precisely the same necessity, but presupposes a simultaneous demonstration of “great importance” to you elsewhere over which you have no control and which requires the co-operation of the navy.”
But the harsh reminder of the agreed upon course of action would not arrive in time. Seymour had his command on the move westward without waiting for authorization.
The end of the first days march brought the Federal advance to the St Mary’s River. At Barber’s Station the troops were ordered to cook several days of rations and prepare for the hard march ahead. On the morning of the 20th the infantry advanced up the Lake City Road and the railroad preceded by COL Henry’s cavalry. The march stopped briefly in Sanderson and then continued westward in the afternoon. About three miles west of town the Union troopers ran into the Confederate cavalry pickets and began a lively skirmish that continued on for several miles. The skirmishing grew in intensity until BG Joseph Finegan ordered the deployment of the 64th Georgia and two companies of the 32nd Georgia to assists his thin line of cavalry. With the appearance of infantry to his front Seymour deployed the 7th Connecticut and Elder’s Horse Artillery (Battery B 1st US Artillery) to help push back the stubborn Confederate line. As both sides added troops to the fight a general engagement resulted.
The growing number of forces at this line east of the Confederate entrenchments stabilized the fight and Finegan realized that his hope of a fight at his prepared defense was not going to be forthcoming. In anticipation of a call for reinforcements Finegan ordered more of Colquitt’s Georgians (6th, 19th, and 28th and the remaining companies of the 32nd) out of the works to reinforce the advanced position. The Union forces likewise began to deploy for battle in the flat open terrain. Trailing the 7th Connecticut was the remainder of COL J. R. Hawley’s Brigade (7th New Hampshire and the 8th Regiment USCT) which Seymour ordered to each side of Elder’s battery as the 7th Connecticut cleared the field. In an attempt to bring the 7th New Hampshire into position only 250 yards from the Confederate line COL Hawley issued a confusing set of orders that left the regiment badly scrambled under intense fire. Coming in on the right of a Union battery Hawley ordered the regiment “By company into line” which was promptly obeyed. He then had the order relayed down the line to deploy on the fifth company. As the regiment reacted to the order Hawley realized a mistake had been made and tried to correct it. In quick fashion he changed the order to “on the eighth company” and again realizing his error to “on the tenth company”. The result was complete disorder. The several minutes under fire waiting for the correct orders resulted in “a faltering on the part of some of the men and finally in almost a complete break.” The regiment dissolved. Hawley would later claim that the regiment pulled itself back together and rendered good service but BG Seymour wrote that “this regiment counted as nothing during the remainder of the engagement.” The 7th for all intents and purposes was out of the fight.
The departure of the 7th New Hampshire allowed the Confederate line to concentrate its fire on the 8th USCT who had formed on the other side of the battery. The poorly trained men of the 8th took an incredible pounding, suffering 310 casualties (of about 550 present) before finally falling back. The retreat of the 8th presented COL Colquitt with the opportunity to seize the initiative. The Confederate commander ordered an advance on the sole remaining enemy units on the field, the Union artillery. The unsupported gunners began to feel the brunt of the Confederate fire but they continued to resist the advance “with perfect tenacity and coolness” until COL Barton’s Brigade of New Yorkers rushed to the scene.
The infusion of fresh troops momentarily reversed the tide of battle. The Confederate attack was stalled and in some places actually pushed back. Again reserves from the original Confederate line pushed the fight the other way. Another Confederate advance captured several Union artillery pieces. The battle fell into a bloody stalemate until the attackers began to run low on ammunition and it appeared that they would have to concede the hard earned ground. At the critical moment BG Finegan arrived with the last available Confederate troops (1st Florida Battalion and Bonaud’s Battalion) and a resupply of ammunition. When the reenergized Confederate attack threatened to overwhelm the Union line near dusk Seymour called for a retreat.
The final uncommitted Union brigade was called forward. COL James Montgomery’s 54th Massachusetts and 35th USCT (1st North Carolina) left their duty protecting the supply train and assumed a blocking position to cover the retreat of the main body. The successful but costly delaying action allowed the retreat of the badly mauled brigades of Barton and Hawley. A Confederate pursuit never materialized and the Union column returned to Barber’s Station and by the 22nd all the way to Jacksonville. The Federal losses at Olustee were enormous for the number of troops involved. Nearly 40% of the Union force was counted as casualties (203k, 1,152w, and 506m) while the Confederates suffered about half that total. In a decidedly brief statement on the outcome of the battle sent by Seymour on the night of the 20th he called the result “a devilish hard rub.” The plan for the grand Union strategy was foiled and they remained content to use Jacksonville for a base of operations for the remainder of the war.
Order of battle