Friday, February 10, 2012

Olustee #4 - The Fight near Barber's Plantation

1864 Sketch of Barber's Plantation
Harper's Weekly
On February 10, 1864 (148 years ago today), the first serious fighting of the Olustee Campaign broke out as the mounted units heading the Federal column reached the south branch of the St. Mary's River near a place called Barber's Plantation.
Commanded by Colonel Guy V. Henry, the mounted troops leading General Truman Seymour's inland march left Baldwin on the morning of the 10th moving west along the railroad tracks for Sanderson. The total distance between Baldwin and Sanderson is around 18 miles but between the two towns the south prong of the St. Mary's flows northward along a swamp course creating something of a natural barrier.

Moving west, Henry reached Barber's Plantation near present day Macclenny. The First Massachusetts Independent Battalion was leading, followed by Elder's horse artillery and the Fortieth Massachusetts Infantry (Mounted) bringing up the rear. A participant in the march described the route:

...The line of march laid through pine forests which had evidently been cultivated as turpentine and tar orchards, over hard, sandy roads, along which very few habitations could be seen. For miles and miles along the way stately pines were seen towering aloft close on either side of the road, scarified by the settler's axe, dripping the resinous sap from their wounds, and gathering about their lacerated sides the white rosin, which repairs the damages done by human hands. The scenerely was exceedingly monotonous. - Correspondent of the New York Herald, writing from Sanderson on February 12, 1864.

At 11 a.m. the mounted troops reached Barber's plantation, which was about 1/8th of a mile from the south prong of the St. Mary's. A woman there told the soldiers that she had not seen any Confederate soldiers in the vicinity. Whether she knew the truth and was intentionally misleading the Union soldiers or whether she did not know that there were Confederates in the area is not known. Either way, the Northern officers accepted her word.

Men and horses took water at Barber's place and then started down the road through the underbrush and pine trees to the bridge over the river:

1864 Sketch of Fight at South Prong of the St. Mary's
Harper's Weekly
The platoon of four men had just passed a sharp turn in the road, and had approached close to the bridge, without anticipating an attack, when half a dozen reports were heard, and three of the four fell from their saddles, shot by a rebel force ambuscaded in a strong position beyond the stream. The column immediately came to a halt when the presence of the enemy was made known by the explosion of their guns, and the advanced company pushed forward, under Captain Webster, to feel them and ascertain their position. - Correspondent of the New York Herald, writing from Sanderson on February 12, 1864.

The attempt by Webster's men to feel the Confederate position brought an even heavier fire from the other side of the south prong. The Union horsemen deployed on foot and returned the fire and the sounds of heavy shooting echoed for miles around.

The Confederate troops encountered at the bridge near Barber's Plantation were from the Second Florida Cavalry and under the command of Major Robert Harrison. The battalion was 250 men strong and was making its way from north of Jacksonville to Lake City where General Joseph Finegan was assembling an army to oppose the Federal invasion. Learning of the approach of the Union cavalry, Harrison saw an opportunity to fight them at the bridge and put his men in position there.

The Union troops tried to ford the river and flank the Confederates out of their position, but were unable to find a place to do so. They then engaged the Southern soldiers in earnest and the cannon of Elder's battery were wheeled into position on elevated ground east of the bridge. As the artillery opened fire, part of the Federal force moved "down" the river to the south and found a position from where they could enfilade Harrison's men.

The enfilade fire combined with the shelling from Elder's guns convinced Major Harrison that he had done what he could and he ordered his men to withdraw. Union soldiers pushed forward across the bridge in pursuit, but were unable to further engage the Confederates in any meaningful way.

The Federals lost 5 killed or mortally wounded and 7 wounded in the action. A few other men suffered minor wounds in the fight but did not require hospitalization. Losses on the Confederate side are unclear, but Union reports noted at least one man found mortally wounded.

The wounded of both sides were taken back to Barber's house which was appropriated for use as a hospital. The Union horsemen then pushed forward to Sanderson, arriving there at around 4 p.m. to find Confederate supplies stored there either burning or being carried away by local residents for their personal use.

The fight near Barber's Plantation had proved to the Federals that the Confederates were willing to fight and could fight well. It was an indication of what was coming.

I will continue to post on the 148th anniversary of the Olustee Campaign over coming days, so be sure to check back often. You can read more on the Battle of Olustee anytime at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/olustee.

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