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NFCC History Professor Jay Welch speaks on the Battle of Olustee

While it’s true that Florida, during the Civil War, was a critical source of beef, salt and other necessities for the Confederate Army, that’s not the whole story — Florida’s human commitment to the war was considerable. Even though it was the least populous state in the Confederacy, it sent the highest proportion of its population to the Civil War and lost the highest proportion of its population to the same.

Jay Welch, a history professor at North Florida Community College was a guest speaker at the Monticello Kiwanis Club recently.  He spoke about the February 20, 1864 Battle of Olustee, laying out the events that led up to the biggest Civil War battle in Florida.

During the Civil War era, Florida’s population was concentrated in an east-west band of northern, mostly agricultural counties from Jacksonville to Pensacola.  An east-west railroad line ran through this band of counties, following a 5,000-year-old Indian trail (today’s Hwy. 90).  However, there were no north-south rail lines connecting Florida to the rest of the Confederacy, so goods and cattle were shipped along the railroads to what is now the Suwannee River State Park and from there, they were driven north.  In fact, the term “Florida cracker” originated from the sound of cattle drivers’ whips cracking constantly as they herded cattle to their destination and many cattle were shipped through this area. It became known as the “beef basket of the Confederacy.”  Disrupting this Confederate supply line would be a tactical boon for the Union.

Another factor leading up to the battle was Florida’s electoral votes.  At the time, February of 1864, the war had been dragging on for nearly four years and the prospect of President Lincoln’s re-election looked dim.  The burning of Atlanta would not happen for several more months, close to the end of 1864.  Until then, the Union needed every electoral vote it could get.  Just the previous December, Lincoln’s amnesty proclamation had announced reconstruction plans for the South, so if Florida could be captured and brought back into the Union, a reconstructed, Union-loyal state government would guarantee those electoral votes and soldiers for the Union’s Colored Regiments could be recruited from among Florida’s ex-slave and free black population.

Thus, both tactical considerations and political gain played into Major General Quincy Gillmore ordering an expedition into Florida, led by Brigadier General Truman Seymour.   Also on the Union side was the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first official African-American military units, under the command of Colonel Edward Hallowell.

On the Confederate side, Florida troop leader Brigadier General Joseph Finegan had been raising red flags about possible Union incursions among Confederate leaders and General P.G.T. Beauregard was also suspicious of Union troop movements in Hilton Head, S.C., suspecting that they were headed for Florida.  As a result, he sent in reinforcements from Georgia, led by General Alfred Colquitt.

Seymour’s Union troops landed in Jacksonville, meeting little or no resistance at first.

On the Confederate side, Finegan’s Florida troops were scouting the area west of Jacksonville and Colquitt’s Georgia troops began arriving.

Seymour was under orders from Gillmore not to make a deep advance into Florida until Union reinforcements arrived.  However, since Seymour had not met with any significant resistance, he believed a westward march across Florida, possibly even capturing Tallahassee, would be a cakewalk.  Against orders, he set out west toward Lake City, not realizing how bad it was until too late.  The two armies (5,500 Union and 5,000 Confederate soldiers) collided at Ocean Pond, near Olustee in Baker County, about 50 miles west of Jacksonville.

The result was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, by the percentage of casualties.  On the Union side, 203 were killed, 1,152 were wounded and 506 captured or missing.  On the Confederate side, 93 were killed, 847 wounded and 6 were captured or missing.  The battle raged for hours until the Union was forced to retreat back to Jacksonville.  As Seymour’s men retreated, the 54th Massachusetts Division fought rear guard, later rescuing a trainload of wounded Union soldiers in the aftermath.        

After Olustee, “Florida became a tough nut to crack for the Union,” said Professor Welch.

Nevertheless, though the battle was won, the war was lost.

In the years after the Civil War, Alfred Colquitt was elected governor of Georgia in 1876 and six years later, he went on to serve in the U.S. Senate until his death in Washington, D.C. in 1894.  Joseph Finegan briefly served as a State Senator for Florida, and remained in Florida until his death in 1885.  Truman Seymour somehow escaped censure for disobeying orders and continued his military career.  Eventually, he retired, moved to Europe and became a prolific watercolor artist until his death in Florence, Italy, in 1891.          

Now, the Olustee Battle Historic State Park, east of Lake City, hosts an annual reenactment of the famous battle during the month of February, bringing history to life with as much authentic detail as possible.  Each year, the event draws thousands of spectators to the area, including hundreds of school children, to see what might be described as a live-action documentary.

For more information on the annual reenactment, visit the website http://www.battleofolustee.org/.

-Lynette Norris

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