Saturday, February 18, 2012

Olustee #12 - An Attempt to Stop the Battle of Olustee

Headquarters on Hilton Head Island
Major General Quincy A. Gillmore was at his headquarters on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina 148 years ago today (February 18, 1864) when he received Brigadier General Truman Seymour's letter informing him of plans for the Union army to advance to Lake City and then the Suwannee River.

The news came as a complete surprise to Gillmore, who had ordered his subordinate to remain on the defensive along the railroad between Baldwin and Jacksonville:

...On the 18th, I was greatly surprised at receiving a letter from General Seymour, dated the 17th, stating that he intended to advance without supplies in order to destroy the railroad near the Suwannee River, 100 miles from Jacksonville. I at once dispatched General Turner (my chief of staff) to Jacksonville to stop the movement. - Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, USA, March 7, 1864.

Gen. Q.A. Gillmore, USA
The two generals were now engaged in a dispute that had the potential to either make them both heroes or to destroy both of their careers. It had never been Gillmore's plan to engage his army in a pitched battle with the Confederates unless he was present and commanding in person. Seymour, on the other hand, seems to have been determined to do so, preferably without his commanding officer.

The curious situation raises the obvious question: Was Truman Seymour a glory hunter or did decide to act against his direct orders for other reasons?  There is no way of knowing the answer. He clearly held no great regard for Gillmore, while the latter officer seemed more shocked than anything at his subordinate's decision to act independently.

Gen. Truman Seymour, USA
The one thing that can be said is that Seymour clearly timed his plan to match with Gillmore's absence from the scene. He knew that any message from him to his commander had to travel first to Jacksonville and then from there up the Atlantic coast by ship to Hilton Head Island. It was winter time and storms were frequent along the coast. It could take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours just to pass a message from one point to the other.

How much Seymour knew of the strength of the Confederate army gathering at Olustee is not known. There is no evidence that he sent cavalry forward to feel Finegan's position in the days before the battle or that he had any real intelligence at all on the whereabouts and size of the Southern commander's force.

In short, Seymour was about to advance against direct orders and to engage a Confederate force about which he knew virtually nothing. He was short of supplies and apparently planned to "live off the land" to achieve his goal of taking Lake City and disrupting Southern railroad traffic at the Suwannee River bridge.

Gen. Joseph Finegan, CSA
While the two Union generals battled, the Confederates moved with an extraordinary degree of cooperation to push troops into Florida. Trains moving both east from Tallahassee and Quincy and south from Charleston and Savannah came loaded with soldiers, horses, artillery and ammunition. The trains from Middle Florida could run all the way to Camp Beauregard at Olustee where General Finegan had entrenched and was waiting to see what the Federals would do. The railroad coming south from Georgia and South Carolina had not been extended all the way to the east-west railroad yet and the soldiers had to de-train and march for around 26 miles before they could board other cars to continue their journey on to Olustee.

The ranks of Finegan's army rapidly swelled in the days before the Battle of Olustee:

Gen. Alfred H. Colquitt, CSA
...In this time my command was increased by the arrival of re-enforcements, and I organized the command as follows: The Sixth, Nineteenth, Twenty-third, Twenty-seventh and Twenty-eighth Georgia Regiments Infantry and the Sixth Florida Battalion Infantry, as the First Brigade, under the command of Brigadier-General Colquitt with the Chatham Artillery (four guns) attached. The Thirty-second Georgia Volunteers, First Georgia Regulars, Sixty-fourth Georgia Volunteers, First Florida Battalion, and Bonaud's battalion, as the Second Brigade, under command of Col. George P. Harrison, Thirty-second Georgia Volunteers, with Guerard's light battery attached, the Florida Light Artillery being held in reserve. I assigned Col. R.B. Thomas, C.S. Army, to duty as chief of artillery, and organized the cavalry into a brigade, under the command of Col. Caraway Smith, Second Florida Cavalry, my whole effective force being as follows: Infantry, 4,600; cavalry, less than 600; artillery, 3 batteries - twelve guns. - Gen. Joseph Finegan, CSA, February 26, 1864.

The Battle of Olustee was now less than 48 hours away.

I will continue to post on the Olustee Campaign over the coming days, so be sure to check back daily for the latest. On Monday, the 148th anniversary of the battle, I will post throughout the day on the events of the battle itself. To learn more anytime, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/olustee.

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