Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Desperate attempt to stop Olustee before it happened, 150 years ago today (February 18, 1864)

Union troops at Olustee reenactment
Photo by Pam Fuqua
150 years ago today on February 18, 1864, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore (US) learned that the Union army in Florida was about to advance without his permission or presence!

Gillmore received by ship on this date a report from his second-in-command Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour (US) indicating that the latter general was about to put the army in motion on a campaign to penetrate Florida as far as the railroad bridge over the Suwannee River (see Olustee disaster nears).

Stunned by this news as he had ordered Seymour to remain on the defensive, Gillmore immediately dispatched a letter to his subordinate questioning his thinking and ordering a halt to his plans:

Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour, USA
Library of Congress
I am just in receipt of your two letters of the 16th and one of the 17th, and am very much surprised at the tone of the latter and the character of your plans as therein stated...You must have forgotten my last instructions, which were for the present to hold Baldwin and the Saint Mary's South Forks, as your outposts to the westward of Jacksonville, and to occupy Palatka, Magnolia, on the Saint John's. - Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore (US) to Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour (US), February 18, 1864.

Even if Seymour could not see the danger of trying to advance all the way to the Suwannee River from the outskirts of Jacksonville, Gillmore was much more perceptive of the disaster that was building:

...Your project distinctly and avowedly ignores these operations and substitutes a plan which not only involves your command in a distant movement, without provisions, far beyond a point from which you once withdrew on account of precisely the same necessity, but presupposes a simultaneous demonstration of "great importance" to you elsewhere, over which you have no control, and which requires the co-operation of the navy. - Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore (US) to Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour (US), February 18, 1864.

Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, USA
Library of Congress
Gillmore went on to point out that Seymour claimed he was launching the movement to prevent Confederates from taking up the railroad east of the Suwannee River, although he (Seymour) had said just six days earlier that it would be better for the Union cause if the tracks were removed.

The commanding general of the campaign also explained that he did not think taking conflict into the heart of Florida would serve his goal to bring the state back into the Union in time for the 1864 election. He used Seymour's own words to remind him that the people of Florida were "heartily tired of the war" and if "kindly treated by us, will soon be ready to return to the Union." A campaign that would cause them great harm clearly would not qualify as kind treatment.

Gillmore also made it clear that the agreement between himself and President Lincoln to return Florida to the Union in time for the Presidential election was the main goal of the campaign:

...First, I desire to bring Florida into the Union under the President's proclamation of December 8, 1863; as accessory to the above, I desire, second, to revive the trade on the Saint John's River; third, to recruit my colored regiments and organize a regiment of Florida white troops; forth, to cut off in part the enemy's supplies drawn from Florida. - Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore (US) to Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour (US), February 18, 1864.

Confederate line advances at Olustee Reenactment
February 16, 2014
This written reminder of Gillmore's priorities leaves no doubt that the entire campaign was a political affair and that the general (and by extension, President Lincoln) hoped to bring Florida back into the Union with as little bloodshed as possible. Seymour's decision to move forward against his orders to the contrary put this objective in serious danger.

The Battle of Olustee was now just two days away. Gillmore's letter would not reach Seymour in time to stop the events that the latter general had put in motion. Brigadier General Truman Seymour was about to march right into the teeth of a waiting Confederate army.

At Olustee Station, meanwhile, the strength of the Confederate Army of Brigadier General Joseph Finegan (CS) was growing. Colquitt's Brigade had begun to arrive on the scene. By the next day the strength of Finegan's force would reach 4,600 infantry, around 600 cavalry and 3 batteries of field artillery (12 cannon). As best as can be determined, Seymour had no idea they were there and ready for him.

I will post more on the 150th anniversary of the Olustee Campaign tomorrow. Read more and watch the new mini-documentary on the Battle of Olustee by visiting www.exploresouthernhistory.com/olustee.

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