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

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