Saturday, February 20, 2010

Abraham Lincoln and Olustee (Part 1 of 2)

As I mentioned yesterday, today is the 146th anniversary of the Battle of Olustee, Florida. Since we talked about the battle itself in yesterday's post, today I thought it might be interesting to look at President Abraham Lincoln's direct involvement in the disaster.

It has always been accepted from the Southern point of view that Olustee was the direct result of political maneuvering by President Lincoln. He was facing a difficult reelection test in 1864 and Southerners have long believed that the Olustee Campaign resulted from an effort by Lincoln to secure a political advantage by returning at least the eastern part of Florida to the Union in time for the state to play a part in the coming elections.

In their 1957 La Florida, once used as a text for Florida high school students, for example, writers Leeila S. Copeland and J.E. Dovell wrote:

The Northern press was hostile to this plan and accused Lincoln of trying to secure delegates for the next national convention.

In essence, the allegation in Florida has always been that Lincoln was willing to trade blood for votes in hopes of assuring his own reelection.

Some recent historians have questioned this traditional view (William Nulty in Confederate Florida: The Road to Olustee, for example). So what are the facts? A review of the surviving documentation is quite convincing.

On January 13, 1864, Lincoln wrote to Major General Quincy A. Gillmore at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, proposing that the general take part in an effort to restore a government loyal to the Union in Florida:

...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 int he 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....

The "Mr. Hay" mentioned in Lincoln's private letter to Gilmore was John Hay, one of the President's two secretaries. Especially interesting about Lincoln's dispatch of Hay with this letter to Gillmore is the fact that he did not notify the War Department of the plan. When Gilmore notified the department that he was launching an expedition into Florida, the news took his superior officers by surprise.

On January 22nd, Major General H.W. Halleck, Commander in Chief of the Union Army, notified Gillmore that he had been informed by the Secretary of War that the matter was entirely left to his (Gillmore's) discretion. Hallack went on to note that he as he had not been informed of the object of the expedition, it was impossible for him to judge whether it had advantages or was practical.

Adding more curiosity to the entire affair is that Major Hay later claimed in Volume 8 of Abraham Lincoln, A History that he co-wrote with the President's other secretary, John George Nicolay, that the idea for the campaign was Gillmore's:

...He...resolved upon an expedition into Florida to take possession of such portions of the Eastern and Northern sections of the state as could be easily held by small garrisons.

Why Hay would make this claim is a mystery, as he was the courier from President Lincoln who carried the "suggestion" for a campaign into Florida along with verbal instructions directly from the President to the general.

I will continue this discussion in the next post. You can always learn more about the Battle of Olustee by visiting

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