Monday, February 20, 2012

The Battle of Olustee, Part One: The Fight Begins

Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park
The Union army moved out from its position at Barber's Plantation on the South Prong of the St. Mary's River before sunrise on the morning of February 20, 1864, 148 years ago today.

Union General Truman Seymour was acting against orders and by this time knew that Confederate General Joseph Finegan was waiting somewhere near Lake City with 4,000-5,000 men. He advanced anyway and by the time the day was over suffered the bloodiest defeat for a Union army during the entire war, based on the number of men involved.

Gen. Joseph Finegan, CSA
The advancing Federal army was slightly larger than the Confederate army waiting for it. While Finegan's total command included 5,200 men and twelve pieces of field artillery, Seymour's column advanced with 5,500 men and sixteen guns.

Whether Finegan expected an engagement on the 20th is not clear. It would take an exhausting march of over 23 miles for his infantry to reach Lake City, well beyond the 15 miles considered the standard daily march for infantry. He most likely planned to approach the Confederate army on the 20th and then engage it in battle on the 21st. It did not work out that way.

Keeping his mounted force moving at a slow rate just ahead of his infantry and artillery, Seymour followed the railroad through Sanderson and on in the direction of Lake City. It took nine hours for his force to advance from Barber's Plantation to the proximity of Ocean Pond at Olustee, a distance of more than 15 miles.

Gen. Alfred H. Colquitt, CSA
Finegan was much better informed than his Union counterpart. He had cavalry pickets far up the railroad and by mid-morning he knew that the Federal army was on the march. The brigades of Brigadier General Alfred H. Colquitt and Colonel George P. Harrison were ordered into the incomplete fortifications at Olustee.

At 12 noon, learning that the Federals had passed Sanderson, Finegan ordered Colonel Harrison to send forward the Sixty-fourth Georgia along with Companies H & G of the Thirty-second Georgia to take a position at the first crossing of the railroad by the Lake City road east of Camp Beauregard at Olustee.Their orders were to lightly engage and then draw the enemy back to the fortified line.

As this line was being formed, Finegan ordered Colonel Carraway Smith and his small cavalry brigade to move forward and find the enemy:

...I accordingly moved out with all the cavalry force then available, which consisted of 250 men of the Fourth Georgia Cavalry (Colonel Clinch commanding) and 202 men of the Second Florida Cavalry (Lieutenant-Colonel McCormick commanding). I discovered the enemy about 4 miles distant from our encampment, occupying in force the second crossing of the railroad from Olustee. - Col. Carraway Smith, Second Florida Cavalry (CS), February 24, 1864.

Colquitt Monument at Olustee Battlefield
The time was now roughly 3 p.m. and Seymour's army had marched for nine hours. Colonel Duncan Clinch (C.S.) was ordered send forward skirmishers to engage the enemy. He quickly did so, dismounting a company of men and pushing them forward through the open pine woods. General Seymour did not have his cavalry operating ahead of his main column and had no idea that Confederate troops were forming directly in his front until Clinch's skirmishers opened fire. The Battle of Olustee was underway.

The Confederate skirmishers drove the advance of Seymour's column back slightly with a determined attack:

...[T]hey were met by a much larger force of from the enemy, which compelled them to retire to their horses. This they did in good order. The enemy then moved forward with his whole force, skirmishing on our rear, which we resisted with our rear guard, keeping him in check, while the cavalry retired in line and in perfect order. This skirmishing was kept up until we reached the first crossing of the railroad from Olustee. - Col. Carraway Smith, Second Florida Cavalry (C.S.), February 24, 1864.

Please click here to continue to: The Battle of Olustee, Part Two - The Battle Intensifies.

I will continue to post on the today's 148th anniversary of the Battle of Olustee throughout the day, so be sure to check back often. If you would like to read more in between posts, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/olustee.

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