Friday, January 31, 2014

Olustee objectives explained 150 years ago today (January 31)

Maj. Gen. Q.A. Gillmore (US)
Library of Congress
150 years ago today, Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore (US) outlined his objectives for the Olustee campaign.

The general's dispatch of January 31, 1864, came in response to a unhappy communique sent from Union General-in-Chief H.W. Halleck one week earlier. Halleck had been bypassed by President Abraham Lincoln when confidential orders were sent instructing Gillmore to invade Florida and he was not pleased by the breach in protocol:

...As the object of the expedition has not been explained, it is impossible to judge here of its advantages or practicability. If it is expected to give an outlet for cotton, or open a favorable field for the enlistment of colored troops, the advantages may be sufficient to justify the expense in money and troops. But simply as military operations, I attach very little importance to such expeditions. If successful they merely absorb our troops in garrisons to occupy the places, but have little or no influence upon the progress of the war. - Maj. Gen. H.W. Halleck (US) to Maj. Gen. Q.A. Gillmore (US), January 22, 1864.

Maj. Gen. H.W. Halleck (US)
Library of Congress
Halleck's warning to Gillmore that he should tread carefully was stark but warranted far more consideration than the commander of the Department of the South gave it. Instead of seeking additional advice from his general-in-chief, Gillmore responded with an ambitious list of objectives for his campaign:

...First. To procure an outlet for cotton, lumber, timber, turpentine, and the other products of that State. Second. To cut off one of the enemy's sources of commissary supplies. He now draws largely upon the herds of Florida for his beef, and is making preparations to take up a portion of the Fernandina and Saint Mark's Railroad for the purpose of connecting the road from Jacksonville to Tallahassee with Thomasville, on the Savannah, Albany and Gulf Railroad, and perhaps with Albany, on the Southwestern Railroad. Third. To obtain recruits for my colored regiments. Fourth. To inaugurate measures for the speedy restoration of Florida to her allegiance in accordance with instructions which I have received from the President by the hands of Maj. John Hay, assistant adjutant-general. - Maj. Gen. Q.A. Gillmore (US) to Maj. Gen. H.W. Halleck (US), January 31, 1864.

The last line made clear to Halleck that Gillmore was operating under direct orders from the President to secure the return of Florida to the Union. He was going forward with the campaign.

Pine woods of Olustee Battlefield
Gillmore also informed Halleck that the area between the Suwannee and the St. Johns River included the "richest portions" of Florida. This was beyond a stretch of the truth.  Much of the region between the two rivers then included vast tracts of pine trees.

The real wealth of Florida in 1864 was concentrated west of the Suwannee in a plantation district that included Madison, Jefferson, Leon, Gadsden and Jackson Counties. The proposed invasion of the region between the St. Johns and the Suwannee, however, would touch none of these.

General Gillmore told the Union commander-in-chief virtually nothing else about his plans.

I will post on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Olustee throughout February, so please check back often for more at

In the meantime, read more on the battle at

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Olustee Campaign began to take shape 150 years ago today (January 15)

Monument at Olustee, Florida
150 years ago today on January 15, 1864, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore (USA) began to prepare his plans for the invasion of Confederate Florida that would lead to the Battle of Olustee.

On this date, Gillmore wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that he "had in contemplation the occupation of Florida, on the west bank of the Saint John's River, at a very early day." He had notified his superiors in the War Department on the previous day that he was planning a movement to "establish small depots" on the St. Johns in anticipation of an "advance west at an early date."

Gillmore's sudden announcement of his plans for a movement against Florida had been precipitated by a note sent to him two days earlier on January 13 by President Abraham Lincoln:

I understand an effort is being made by some worthy gentlemen to reconstruct a loyal State government in Florida. Florida is in your department, and it is not unlikely that you may be there in person. I have given Mr. Hay a commission of major and sent him to you with some blank books and other blanks to aid in the reconstruction. He will explain as to the manner of using the blanks, and also my general views on the subject. It is desirable for all to co-operate; but if irreconcilable differences of opinion should arise, you are master. - Abraham Lincoln to Maj. Gen. Q.A. Gillmore, USA, January 13, 1864.

Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln made clear to his general that "I wish the thing done in the most speedy way possible, so that when done it will be within the range of the late proclamation on the subject."

That proclamation, he did not elaborate, would have allowed Florida - or part of Florida - to rejoin the Union in time for him to claim its electoral votes in the coming Presidential Election.

The "Mr. Hay" mentioned in the letter was John Hay, a key aide and private secretary of the President. His appointment to the rank of major over many deserving officers who had served in combat clearly demonstrates the political nature of Lincoln's instructions. So too does the fact that he communicated directly with General Gillmore instead of going through the chain of command at the War Department. Major General H.W. Halleck, the General-in-Chief of the Union armies, was bypassed, as was Secretary of War Stanton and others.

Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Secretary Stanton did not learn of the planned campaign, in fact, until he received the dispatch sent by General Gillmore from his headquarters at Folly Island, South Carolina, 150 years ago today:

...I take occasion to inform you that I have in contemplation the occupation of Florida, on the west bank of the Saint John's River, at a very early day, and I want these new regiments [i.e. new regiments of black troops then being formed] to garrison the post from which I draw the troops for the expedition. Moreover, I am obliged to mount some of my best infantry, as my entire cavalry force is less than 300 effective men. - Maj. Gen. Q.A. Gillmore, USA, to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, USA, January 15, 1864.

The announcement from Gillmore that he anticipated an invasion came as a surprise to the halls of power at the War Department in Washington, where the major planning of the Union war effort took place. The details of behind the scenes discussions between Lincoln, Stanton and Halleck are unknown, but it is clear that the Secretary of War and General-in-Chief did not interfere in the plans formulated by the President, his private secretary and General Gillmore.

Gillmore's after the fact notification of his plans to Secretary Stanton on January 15, 1864, put the expedition that would become known as the Olustee Campaign firmly into motion.

To learn more about Olustee, please visit

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Was Olustee really fought in the name of politics?

Abraham Lincoln
It has become fashionable in recent years for writers to dispute the old tradition that the Battle of Olustee was fought by Federal troops to achieve a political goal for Abraham Lincoln.

The more the revisionists try to stamp out the tradition, however, the stronger it seems to grow.

The story as told in Florida for nearly 150 years is that President Lincoln ordered the 1864 invasion of East Florida as a political gamble. Facing a growing peace movement in the North, he hoped to "reconstruct" at least the eastern half of Florida and have it readmitted to the Union in time to receive its Electoral College votes in the 1864 election.

Since most historians today write sociological history instead of narrative history, they often ignore inconvenient facts so that their writings present their viewpoints in clean and uncluttered ways. History, however, is neither clean nor uncluttered and it usually includes inconvenient truths.

For those who seek to elevate Abraham Lincoln to almost mythical status and who are willing to see the Northern war effort as heroic and above reproach, Olustee presents some very inconvenient facts.

The entire campaign came about, for example, because President Lincoln wrote to Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore and "suggested" a movement in Florida in time to "restore the allegiance" of the state before the 1864 elections. Some have claimed that the letter merely contained a suggestion, but from a mid-level general's perspective, a "suggestion" from the President would have carried great power.

Major John Hay
In addition, Lincoln commissioned his private secretary John Hay to the rank of major in the Union army so he could participate in the Olustee campaign. Can anyone imagine a modern President appointing one of his political gurus to elevated rank in the army and sending him to help direct an important military campaign?

Hay carried "private" instructions to Gillmore directly from the mouth of Lincoln, instructions that the president did not want to commit to paper.  Why not?  What were they?  They entire truth may never be known.

What is known is that Hay also carried blank legal forms and voter registration books on his "military" mission. These were intended to facilitate the return of part of Florida to the Union as quickly as possible.

This political maneuvering took place outside the chain of command of the War Department and U.S. Army. Lincoln did not communicate his wishes to General Gillmore through the Secretary of War and Commanding General of the Army. Instead, he did so through a political aide that he appointed to elevated military rank over men who had been fighting and bleeding for three years.

Cannon at Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park
In response to the President's "suggestion," the general immediately launched an invasion of Florida, captured Jacksonville and advanced as far as Lake City before establishing a front closer to the coast. Despite later claims that the campaign was launched to cut off the flow of cattle from Florida to the Confederate armies, the position established for the army by Gillmore in no way achieved that goal.

It is true that his subordinate field commander, General Truman A. Seymour, ordered the fatal advance that ended on the battlefield of Olustee despite orders that he hold his position. The fault for this movement rests squarely on Seymour's shoulders, but had Lincoln not desired to obtain Florida's electoral votes and initiated a scheme to get them, Seymour would have been nowhere near Olustee on February 20, 1864.

Exclusive of losses leading up to and following the battle, the failed attempt by the Lincoln Administration to conquer Florida's electoral votes ended with 293 men dead, 1,999 wounded and 512 missing in action. There was plenty of blood to cover the hands of everyone involved in initiating the campaign.

To learn more about Olustee, please visit

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Union war criminal would lead brigade at Battle of Olustee

Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park
February 20 of this year will mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Olustee, Florida. In commemoration of the battle, I will post quite a bit over the next couple of months about Olustee and some of its participants. Be sure to check back often here at Civil War Florida..

One of the Union commanders at Olustee, Col. James Montgomery, had been accused of war crimes by prominent officers from both sides. Even with this knowledge, Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore (US) placed him in command of a brigade made up of the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry and the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers as he prepared for the invasion of Florida that would lead to the Battle of Olustee.

Col. Robert Gould Shaw
54th Massachusetts Infantry
The allegations swirling around Montgomery included most notoriously the burning of Darien, Georgia, on June 11, 1863. The town was occupied only by women, children and the elderly when he bombarded it and then ordered it put to the torch.

Col. Robert Gould Shaw (US) objected to the act when men from his regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, were ordered to assist. Montgomery responded by telling him that Southerners must be "swept away by the hand of God, like the Jews of old."  Shaw wrote to family members that the "dirty piece of business," as he called it, "makes me very much ashamed of myself."  Please click here to read more about the burning of Darien.

The destruction of Darien, even when not a Confederate soldier was in sight, was not an anomaly in Montgomery's career. His entire life, in fact, had been one of violence.

Col. James Montgomery
2nd South Carolina USCT
Born in Ohio in 1814, he moved with his wife Clarinda to Missouri in 1852 and then Kansas in 1854. There he became part of the so-called "free state" movement. 

Contrary to modern assumptions, the "free soil" or "free state" movement in Kansas did not just call for the abolition of slavery. Many of its leaders were fighting to make Kansas a state "free" of any person of color. Their goal, in  other words, was for Kansas to be a "whites only" state.

An associate of the infamous murderer John Brown, Montgomery led a group of guerrilla raiders during the "Bleeding Kansas" episodes that preceded the War Between the States (or Civil War). He led numerous raids against both pro-slavery Kansans and residents living across the line in Missouri. These raids were characterized by violence, looting, murder and the burning of homes and farms.  In 1860 he served as a delegate to the Republican Convention in Chicago that nominated Abraham Lincoln as the party's nominee for President.

Also in 1860, he organized a party of guerrillas from Kansas who went as far east as Pennsylvania in a planned mission to free John Brown from captivity after his attack on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). A blizzard halted their plan until it was too late.

By July 1861, Montgomery was the colonel of the 3rd Kansas Volunteers. The Union regiment became part of the 10th Kansas Infantry the following year. The 10th is remembered as the regiment of radical firebrand Jim Lane and was involved in the 1861 Sacking of Osceola, Missouri, in which nearly 800 homes and buildings were burned to the ground and 10 pro-Confederate residents were coldly executed.

In one of his Missouri raids, according to the New York Herald, one of the captains in Montgomery's regiment cut off the ear of a pro-Southern man. Montgomery said he regretted in the incident because instead of merely losing his ear, "the traitor ought to have been shot."

Ruins at Darien, Georgia
In January 1863, Col. Montgomery was authorized to raise a regiment of black troops in the Department of the South. He traveled to Key West where he enlisted a core of 130 men. From there they traveled to Beaufort, South Carolina, where he continued to enlist liberated or runaway slaves into the regiment, which became the 2nd South Carolina U.S. Colored Troops.

On June 1, 1863, he led his regiment up the Combahee River in South Carolina. Numerous private homes were burned, many of them occupied by women and children.

On June 11, 1863, he ordered the Burning of Darien, an action that led to complaints to superiors by Col. Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Although Shaw was killed in the disastrous attack on Battery Wagner near Charleston just 25 days later, his letters make it clear that he considered Montgomery to be a war criminal.

Shaw's complaints about Montgomery's actions to his commanders in the Union army were followed on July 4, 1863, by a letter to Brig. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore (US) from Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard (CS).  In that letter, Beauregard branded the actions of troops led by Montgomery as war crimes:

Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard
...Ravaging and burning private property are acts of licentiousness unauthorized by the laws of war and the belligerent who wages war in that manner must regarded as carrying on war like a furious barbarian.

Beauregard demanded to know of Gillmore whether "the acts which resulted in the burning of the defenseless villages of Darien and Bluffton and the ravages on the Combahee are regarded by you as legitimate measures of war which you will feel authorized to resort to hereafter."

Gillmore's response was to place Montgomery in command of a brigade in the Union invasion of eastern Florida that was intended to wrest control of part of the state away from the Confederacy in time for it to be readmitted to the Union so its electoral delegates could vote for Lincoln in the 1864 Presidential Election.

At the Battle of Olustee, Montgomery's troops from the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers and 54th Massachusetts Infantry fought bravely. The 54th, in particular, was credited with covering the disastrous retreat of the Union army from the battlefield. The two regiments lost 296 men killed, wounded or missing.

The controversial colonel resigned his commission in September 1864 and returned to Kansas where he commanded the 6th Kansas State Militia until the end of the war. He died in Kansas on December 6, 1871, from natural causes. A Georgia newspaper described him as "diabolical" in its notice of his death, accusing him of atrocities.

To learn more about the burning of Darien, please visit:

To learn more about the Battle of Olustee, please visit: