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

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