Wednesday, February 22, 2012

After Olustee - False Claims, Incorrect Estimates and Union disaster

Union Mass Grave Memorial at Olustee Battlefield
The Battle of Olustee ended late in the afternoon of February 20, 1864, 148 years ago this week.

Darkness fell on a bloody field that stretched for almost two miles along the roads and railroad east of what is now the town of Olustee. The Federals retreated from the battlefield exhausted and badly bloodied, while the Confederates at well had sustained significant casualties. Men roamed the battlefield helping the wounded as they could and collecting weapons and supplies.

Route of the Retreat (Olustee is at far left)
The Confederate cavalry pursued the retreating Federals only a short distance, coming to a halt at a swampy area about one mile east of where the final lines had stood (just east of today's state correctional facility). The Confederate cavalry officers believed the Union troops were preparing to make a stand in the tree cover of the swamp and with darkness descending, brought their pursuit to a stop. They would later face investigation for ineffectiveness by order of General P.G.T. Beauregard.

The Union army, meanwhile, did not stop for the night but continued its retreat. Pushing on to Sanderson and from there back across the South Prong of the Little St. Mary's to Barber's Plantation and Baldwin, General Seymour was taking no chances that Finegan, Colquitt and Harrison would close in and destroy his army the next day. By sunrise the next morning, his men had marched well over 30 miles in 24 hours, had fought a bloody battle and were so exhausted they could barely move. 

Giving his men only the briefest rest, General Seymour retreated even from Baldwin on February 22, 1864, 148 years ago today:

Gen. Truman Seymour, USA
...And so greatly superior in force is the enemy that the position at Barber's against him would be entirely insecure, as the left flank could be readily turned to that an action would have been with our backs on the Saint Mary's. This post is accordingly evacuated. The same objections apply to Baldwin with equal strength. Everything was removed from that place, and Colonel Henry was directed to remain as a rear guard, and he has doughtless fallen back to-night to McGirt's Creek. The Infantry is behind Six-Mile Creek, on the King's road, and the Cedar Creek, on the Lake City road. How long it will remain there depends upon the movement of the enemy.... - Gen. Truman Seymour, USA, February 22, 1864.

As Seymour's report to his commander, General Quincy A. Gillmore showed, he had by then convinced himself that he had opposed an army much longer than his own at Olustee. So bad was the defeat inflicted on him that he and other officers became convinced that they had been fought by a Confederate force of more than 10,000 men. The Confederates were convinced, meanwhile, that they had defeated a Union army of more than 10,000 men. In truth, both armies were approximately the same size, although the Federals had a slight edge in men and a larger edge in artillery.

General Gillmore, who knew now that his Florida Campaign had been defeated, put things in proper perspective after the war:

Union Wounded were treated at Lake City's Improvised Hospital
...We now know since the close of the war that there was no "disparity in numbers," and we knew at the time that the "results" were a "decisive" defeat upon the field of battle and the frustration - as well by loss of men as by loss of prestige - of a well and carefully digested plan of campaign. General Finegan, who was in command of the enemy's forces, told two members of my staff (Capt. D.S. Leslie, One hundred and fourth U.S. Colored Troops, and Capt. Henry Seton, Fifty-fourth New York) that he had only about 5,000 at that battle. General Seymour had 5,500 men. Our losses were 1,800 men in killed, wounded and missing, 39 horses, and 6 pieces of artillery. Indeed, our forces appear to have been surprised into fighting, or attempting to fight, an offensive battle, in which the component parts of the command were beaten in detail. The enemy did not fight behind intrenchments or any kind of defenses. - Gen. Q.A. Gillmore, USA, November 1, 1865.

Gen. Joseph Finegan, CSA
Gillmore's last comment about intrenchments was sparked by a claim immediately after the battle that the Confederates had fought from behind fortifications. In fact, the battle was fought in the open pine woods and neither side made use of breastworks.

Sadly for the more than 1,800 Union soldiers killed, wounded or captured in the battle,  General Gillmore's orders to General Seymour to halt his unauthorized advance were delayed in reaching Florida by stormy weather in the Atlantic and by the time the orders reached Jacksonville, Olustee was over.

The Confederates remained on the battlefield caring for the wounded, burying the dead and collecting the 1,600 stand of small arms left on the ground by the retreating Federals. Then on the 22nd, Finegan and his army began to move forward.  Having repaired the damage inflicted on the railroad by Seymour's retreating troops, he pushed to Sanderson by the night of the 22nd and then crossed the South Prong of the St. Mary's to Barber's Plantation. He then advanced to Baldwin and eventually to McGirt's Creek between Baldwin and Jacksonville.

You can learn more about the Battle of Olustee anytime at


Terry Sirmans said...

I don't remember that Union monument (the cross). When was that erected and by whom?

Dale Cox said...

Terry, It went up a few years ago and is in the cemetery adjoining the state park. It is a replica (in stone) of a wooden cross erected when the Union soldiers were buried back in 1864. As I understand it, no one is sure of the exact site of the mass grave, but the monument approximates the traditional location.


Randall K. Garvin said...

According to Luis F. Emilio, a member of the 54th Massachusetts, in his book "A Brave Black Regiment", pg. 179, the Union dead were disinterred and reburied at Beaufort , SC in 1867 or 1868.

Dale Cox said...

Randall, Thank you for the note. I'm familiar with the mention of reburials by Emilio. The problem, however, is that no records of actual reburials can be found. Further complicating the issue, a Boston newspaper reported in 1868 that the Union dead from Olustee would be relocated to Savannah. Again, I have been unable to find documentation so far that verifies the plans were ever carried out. Its a topic I continue to research and hopefully one day I will be able to clear it up.