The Battle of Olustee: “The day is lost; you must go in and save the Corps.”

Sanderson, FL:  This has been a tough article for me to write because of the reasons in which it came to be.  In this tale from the trail, I try to walk through life and death under the hot Florida sun, both today and in 1864.  My reasons for going to Florida, and doing it on 40 minutes notice where extremely personal.  I had no chance to plan and was not even sure of the final destination until I had been on the road for 44 hours.  The weather threw me a number of curve balls and I was pushed to the limits of my endurance but 48 hours after I had left Kansas, I had arrived at my destination in Estero, Florida.  But we will talk about that in the paragraphs to come.  For now, let’s talk about the historical narrative of the Battle of Olustee; Florida’s most significant land battle of the US Civil War. 

The Union Army had established a number of enclaves along the Florida coast, to include the most significant one in Jacksonville in 1862.  For the most part, however, they had wisely decided to stay out of the interior of the State, for a number of tactical reasons.  This would change in the Winter of 1864.  History is divided on why the campaign was launched, but it really falls into two camps.  The first camp will tell you that President Lincoln was led to believe that the interior of northern Florida was ripe with pro-Union sentiment.  Though unlikely, this could be true.  After all, every State in the Confederacy, with the one exception of South Carolina, had provided at least one regiment of pro-Union white Soldiers.  Regions of States, such as eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina had provided thousands.  Western Virginia, even became its own state, loyal to the Federal cause.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that even Alabama supplied at least one regiment of Federal Cavalry.  So, this fact, and Lincoln with his eye on reelection may be why the operation was launched, but I don’t necessarily buy it.  The military reason for the offensive was to deprive the Confederate forces farther north of the food and salt resources of Florida.  Though in theory this makes sense, I am not convinced this is the reason for the campaign simply because, the Union Commander, Brigadier General Truman Seymour’s boss, Major General Quincy Gillmore, had left orders not to go on the offensive in the Florida interior.  I believe that Seymour’s military reputation was severely tarnished after his assault on Fort Wagner and he was looking for a military victory to rehabilitate his name.  In South Carolina, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard had correctly ascertained Seymour’s plans and dispatched a Confederate Irish immigrant by the name Brigadier General Joseph Finnegan and the experienced and hard charging Georgia Brigade under Brigadier General Alfred Colquitt to make sure that Seymour would not gain redemption in Florida, at least.  

In late 1863 and very early 1864, the Federal troops in Jacksonville received new crops of draftees in the case of the white regiments and brand-new volunteers in the case of the USCT’s, to include the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry.  Members of the 7th New Hampshire Infantry were also ordered, just prior to the campaign to turn in their battle tested Spencer repeating rifles and were in turn issued battle worn and often inoperable Springfield rifled muskets.  So poorly was the equipment, that many of the muskets failed to fire when combat began on that February afternoon.  To summarize the battle, the Confederate forces under Finnegan and Colquitt had their issues, but largely were able to exercise their will over the poorly led Federal troops.  The one bright spot on the battlefield for the Federals was indeed the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, who did not arrive on the battlefield until late in the fight and did a masterful job of covering the Federal retreat back to Jacksonville.  That said, the 54th again would distinguish itself for the evacuation of the Federal wounded from the Olustee field of battle.  There are reports that they filled a train car with wounded and hauled the railroad car back to Jacksonville by hand to ensure as many Federal wounded were able to escape Confederate capture as possible.  After the battle, Union forces would not again enter the interior of Florida during the war.

A few weeks ago, my aunt called me and let me know that she had cancer.  My aunt is my father’s sister and ever since he has passed, 16 years ago, I had sort of been his proxy with her.  I did not mind this, as she surely did love and miss her brother.  As we talked again, she told me that her cancer was terminal.  She has small cell lung cancer and liver cancer.  She is now too weak to take chemotherapy.  As these reports came in and kept getting darker, I felt myself being pulled on a trip I had not planned and truthfully did not want to make.   When my cousin contacted me and let me know that my aunt was asking for her mother and wanted to go to hospice, I could no longer sit by in Kansas.  Both of my parents died so fast and unexpectedly that there was no opportunity to say goodbye.  Now, my father’s sister was in hospice and I had to go.  I may be in between positions right now, money may be a little tight, but I was sitting at lunch talking with Household 6 and I could no longer just sit on the sidelines.  My first thought was to take my daughter Rooster, because she is a better assistant driver than Moose.  Moose also has a restricted license while Rooster has a full license and I didn’t have time to research how that would play out driving out of state.  But alas, Rooster, though in High School, is taking college courses and had college finals this week and could not go, so Moose was my copilot.  I went to his high school, pulled him from his class and told him he had 40 minutes to get home and pack, we were leaving immediately.  If you haven’t noticed, in The Traveler household, a lot of life happens behind the dashboard.  The road trip is the perfect opportunity to coach, guide and mentor your kids and really find out where they are in life; and we did have ample opportunity for that.  Unfortunately, heavy rains blanketed the Midwest and Southeast, significantly adding time to the trip; causing me to worry that we would not get to Florida in time.  The weather was so unfavorable, that I had to scrap plans of overnighting just south of Memphis, in Mississippi, instead, opting for Trumann, Arkansas. 

In Georgia, we lost additional time because my tire light indicator came on and, on our car, that dang thing never lies.  So, I found myself in front of Michael, the Manager at the local Goodyear garage in McDonough, Georgia; in need of a couple of new front tires.  Now that the car had a new set of shoes, we were able to make it to Valdosta, Georgia for the night.  Where my son would see his first naked woman.  I have to be honest; we were not prepared for what was seen when we entered the hotel lobby; for what has been seen cannot be unseen.  Some people don’t understand that see through gowns are really see through and they don’t need to be in the hotel lobby.  But now we just refer to the incident as “The Georgia Peach” and somehow, I feel we are all a little bit diminished by experiencing it.  I guess I will just sum it up by stating “you see the strangest things at an interstate hotel.”  By lunch time the next day, we had arrived at our destination where I met my sister, also part of Team Traveler.  My sister Beth, is my copy editor and proofs everything I write before you read it.  We had the opportunity to spend the afternoon with my aunt.  My cousin tells me that she perked up considerably with our visit and is now, at the time of this being written, is still fighting.  I like my aunt, she’s a tough bird!  As a post edit, since the time of writing, she passed peacefully a couple of weeks ago.  She fought as long as she could.

After spending the afternoon with my aunt, we crossed the “Alligator Alley” to Florida’s eastern coast and spent the evening and next day with my sister and brother in law.  I will tell you that Monday’s in May at Delray Beach in Florida are wonderful.  The beaches and water are warm, public parking is plentiful and we were able to spend a nice day with lunch at Boston’s, on the beach; for Tuesday we would be heading north again for Olustee and home.

We arrived at the Olustee State Historical Park around lunch time and there were two things that immediately came to my attention.  The first is that we were in a National Forest, Osceola National Forest to be exact, and there was a plethora of outdoor activity opportunities that were just waiting to be taken advantage of.  I spoke with a local resident, and he said that there was even great fishing within a couple of miles.  The other thing I noticed, is that on Route 90, which leads you to the battlefield, you pass about 6 prisons or correctional facilities; or you pass one large one with 6 campuses.  I don’t know, but I am confident of one thing.  I drove by “Florida Man’s” house.  Also, a point of legitimate security, if you visit, don’t pick up a hitch hiker.  It may be “Florida Man” himself.  The battlefield takes about an hour and a half to two hours to tour and trail walk.  I honestly feel that the State of Florida missed a significant opportunity with the museum.  Though the video was good, the television had a very small screen and the displays were well, small too.  I think there is opportunity for a much more robust interpretive center not only dedicated to the battle, but the entire Civil War experience in Florida.  The coastal raids by Federal Marines and Naval forces, the Battle of Olustee, Agriculture and the African American experience.  Florida’s Civil War history is much more robust than given credit for.  When I began walking the battlefield, for some reason, I instinctively slouched over and tried to adjust my ALICE pack straps a couple of times.  Moose kind of looked at me strangely and then it occurred to me, that I mentally was out in the swamps of Verona Loop Training Area of Camp Lejeune, NC because the pine forest and topography was so similar.  I could still feel the “war belt” harness cutting into my neck as I walked the trail of the 7th New Hampshire and 7th Connecticut.  When Moose and I walked the position of the Georgia Brigade, you could almost hear that quiet forest come alive and that rebel yell.  Then the trail got quiet for me as I reflected on why I had come to Florida in the first place.  For me it was literally “Life and Death under the Florida Sun.”  I could see the signs of battle, I could feel the uniform against my body and the weight of the pack and rifle again, but I also felt the burden of impending loss from my aunt, one of the few members of my father’s family I actually knew.   

The Battle of Olustee Marque as you enter the State Historic Site.
Moose doing valuable service as my assistant driver. In the Traveler House, the assistant driver has many real responsibilities.
Mock up of a member of the 7th New Hampshire or one of the other Northeastern Infantryman at Olustee. It is not a member of the 7th Connecticut as they had Spencer Repeating Rifles.
Mock up of a Georgia Brigade Soldier.
Confederate National Flag on display.
Ah the pines of the southeast! The approach to the State Historic Site.
Diorama of the fight at Olustee.
It can’t be a Civil War site without the split rail fence.
Monument to the Confederate troops under General Finnegan built by the Daughters of Confederate Veterans.
Confederate National Flag lofting over the site in the lazy Spring afternoon.
May is “Love Bug” month. Be advised that traveling in Florida with a black car in May can result in a messy car.
The pine forests of the Southeast bring back many memories of Camp Lejeune.
The reenactor area.
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2 thoughts on “The Battle of Olustee: “The day is lost; you must go in and save the Corps.”

  1. Thank you for taking the time for this write up given the circumstances Rich! My condolences to you and your family!

    I wholeheartedly agree that Florida’s Civil War history is fairly overlooked compared to other areas. I have a family friend in N Florida who’s property was once a Confederate supple depot where scores of hogs and other supplies started their journey north and westward (would love to relic hunt this place)!

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    1. Thanks Chris. I really feel that The State of Florida could easily turn Olustee into a Floridian Civil War Historic Center. There would be no better place to do it in the State and the site is not that far from 75 & 95 so it would be a nice tourist stop or augment to a trip.

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