Saturday, February 11, 2012

Olustee #5 - Black Confederates and the Skirmish at Lake City

1864 Sketch of Sanderson, Florida
Harper's Weekly
This is part of a continuing series marking the 148th anniversary of the Battle of Olustee, Florida. To read parts 1-4, please click here:

The Union mounted force spearheading Seymour's column in its advance spent the afternoon of February 10, 1864, making a determined "onslaught on the poultry, pigs and cattle about." They also found salt, tents, saddles, horse equipment, rice and tobacco, while noting that the Confederates had destroyed "a lot of pikes, of the John Brown pattern."
Confederate Pikes
Pikes, of course, were suicidal weapons to use during the Civil War and it did not take long for soldiers to realize it. They were used, particularly during the early years of the conflict, to arm militia and sometimes substituted as muskets for drilling. Essentially long sticks with sharp blades on the end, they were more suited for the close combat of earlier ages than attacking an enemy armed with long range artillery and rifled muskets.

At 2 a.m. on February 11th (148 years ago today), the bugles sounded at Sanderson and after a quick breakfast for men and horses the Federals were again in the saddle and "moving out through the dark pine woods by the burning storehouses." Their objective was Lake City.

Waiting for them there, however, was much more than a battalion of dismounted Confederate cavalry. Brigadier General Joseph Finegan, who commanded in the area, had been calling for reinforcements and working to put together an army to oppose Seymour and Gillmore since learning of the Federal landing at Jacksonville. By the afternoon of February 11th, he was ready to fight:

Gen. Joseph Finegan, CSA
...On the 11th instant, they were within 3 miles of Lake City. Here I had hastily collected, principally fromt he District of Middle Florida, a small force of 490 infantry, 110 cavalry, and two pieces of artillery. On the night of the 10th, I placed this force in a favorable position, 2 1/2 miles from Lake City, in the direction of the enemy. At 9.30 the enemy advanced upon us, fighting as infantry, and skirmished heavily with my advance line. Discovering my position and its strength, and probably presuming my force larger than it was, they retreated to Sanderson.... - Gen. Joseph Finegan, CSA, February 26, 1864.

The correspondent of the New York Herald described the Battle of Lake City in similar terms to those used by General Finegan. He placed the time of the fight as 11:30 a.m. instead of 9:30 a.m., but it was common in those days for people to set their watches by the time in their home towns so such variations were pretty common.

The Federals had been told by slaves and citizens along their route that the Confederates were waiting for them at Lake City with a force roughly twice the size of their own. As they approached the town, they found the Southern troops - as Finegan had described - drawn up in a line of battle in a wooded area and waiting for them. Most of theUnion soldiers dismounted and formed into a line of battle of their own and drove Finegan's skirmishers back on his main line. Company B, First Massachusetts Independent Battalion, charged the Confederates on horseback, hoping to pierce their line:

...The brave cavalry boys dashed forward with a Comanche yell and drove the rebels in a splendid style.... Our men discovered a battery in position, said to have been manned by negroes and supported by a strong force of cavalry. - Unidentified Correspondent of the New York Herald, February 21, 1864.

Map of Olustee Campaign by Major G.W. Scott, CSA
Olustee is near the center, Lake City is at left and Sanderson is to the right.
The report of black Confederate soldiers manning a battery at Lake City is often overlooked by those writing about the Olustee Campaign. The reliability of the claim is not clear, but it is known from unit rosters that at least one black soldier did serve in a light artillery unit from Florida. Other black men also commonly accompanied Confederate units in the state, often to do manual labor. It is not unreasonable that these men might well have joined in the fighting from time to time.

As the charging Massachusetts company approached the main Confederate line, a company of Southern cavalry countercharged them, but was driven back with carbine fire. Although the Northern writer claimed that Finegan's main line had been "shaken" by the attack, he admitted that it was never in danger of giving way:

Confederate Hospital in Lake City
...[W]e had no force to follow up the advantage. A regiment of infantry thrown forward at that time would have given us Lake City, and all the stores Finigan had not then removed beyond the Suwannee river.... But our force was too small, and Col. Henry, after he had felt the enemy and ascertained their strength and position, gave orders to withdraw our skirmishers and to fall back. - Unnamed Correspondent of the New York Herald, February 1864.

The Union cavalry retired four miles and camped for the night in the pine woods, somewhere between Lake City and the site where nine days later they would fight Finegan again in the largest Florida engagement of the war: the Battle of Olustee.

Casualties in the skirmish at Lake City had been light for both sides. The correspondent noted that three Federals were wounded and claimed, as usual, much higher losses by the Confederates. While Finegan did not detail his losses in his report of the Olustee Campaign, they were light as well.

I will continue to post daily to commemorate the 148th anniversary of the Battle of Olustee, so check back often. You can read more about the battle anytime at

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