On February 20, 1864, a Union army of 5,500 men achieved the dubious distinction of suffering the greatest defeat of the Civil War.
Based on the percentage of force killed, wounded or captured, the 40% casualties suffered by the Union command of Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour at the Battle of Olustee, Florida was the greatest loss sustained by any Union army in a major battle.
Making the severe loss even worse was the fact that the Battle of Olustee was fought against orders in a campaign launched to achieve a political, not military, objective. That objective was the he reelection of President Abraham Lincoln.
By the winter of 1863-1864, the war had been underway for nearly three brutal years. There was considerable opposition to the war effort in the North and concern was growing that Lincoln might be defeated in the 1864 Presidential elections by a candidate that would seek a negotiated peace with the Confederacy.
In a series of little known meetings at the White House, a plan grew to help Lincoln's reelection chances. If a Union army could conquer lightly defended Florida quickly, that state might be readmitted to the Union in time for Lincoln to claim its electoral votes.
With this in mind, Lincoln set Union forces off on an invasion that would lead to their greatest defeat (statistically) of the war. Commissioning his aide John Hay as a major, he sent him to join the staff of Major General Quincy A. Gillmore. Hay was supplied with the legal blanks he needed to organize a loyal government in Florida and prepare for the readmission of the state to the Union. The President outlined his plan in a letter to General Gillmore dated January 13, 1864:
I understand an effort is being made by some worthy gentlemen to reconstruct a loyal State government in Florida. Florida is in your department, and it is not unlikely that you may be there in person. I have given Mr. Hay a commission of major and sent him to you with some blank books and other blanks to aid in the reconstruction. He will explain as to the manner of using the blanks, and also my general views on the subject. It is desirable for all to co-operate; but if irreconcilable differences of opinion shall arise, you are master. I wish the thing done in the most speedy way possible, so that when done it will be within the range of the late proclamation on the subject. The detail labor, of course, will have to be done by others, but I shall be greatly obliged if you will give it such general supervision as you can find convenient with your more strictly military duties. (OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part One).
Such strong suggestions from the President of the United States were hard to ignore and on January 31, 1864, General Gillmore announced his plans for an invasion of East Florida. In a report to Major General H.W. Halleck, the commander in chief of the Union Army, he explained that he hoped the invasion would achieve four primary goals:
- The opening of an outlet for the export of Florida's cotton, turpentine, sugar, timber and other products.
- The elimination of Florida as a source of foodstuffs and other supplies for the Confederate armies.
- The recruitment of soldiers from the state's African American population.
- "To inaugurate measures for the speedy restoration of Florida to her allegiance, in accordance with instructions which I have received from the President by the hands of Maj. John Hay, assistant adjutant-general."
Our series on the Battle of Olustee will continue. To learn more about the battle before our next post, please visit our new Battle of Olustee site at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/olustee.