Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Digging in at Olustee, 150 years ago today (February 19, 1864)

Olustee Station in Olustee, Florida
When he reached the Confederate army at Olustee, Lt. M.B. Grant of the C.S. Engineer's Office, found that Brig. Gen. Finegan had put his troops into position at the most advantageous position possible for defense:

Having been ordered to report to General Finegan, I left Savannah on February 15 and arrived at Olustee Station on the evening of the 17th, where I found our army encamped on a line extending from Ocean Pond, on the left, to a large cypress pond, on the right...General Finegan had selected this position as the only one which furnished in itself any natural advantages for defense, and upon a thorough reconnaissance of the country on the following day I became satisfied that the selection was a good one.... - Lt. M.B. Grant, CS, to Col. D.B. Harris , CS, April 27, 1864.


Typical terrain between Lake City and the South Prong
Grant examined the entire region between Lake City and the South Prong of the St. Mary's, where the Union army was concentrated, and found it to be "exceedingly low and flat, with but few streams." His assessment is still true today, as the vast extent of the Osceola National Forest is characterized by flat pinelands, lakes and prairies.

Ocean Pond, however, provided a solid anchor for the left flank of the Confederate line:

Ocean Pond
...The left of the line as laid out rested upon Ocean Pond, a sheet of water some four miles long by 2 to 2 1/2 miles wide, this furnishing a secure protection on the left. In front of this line and to the left of the railroad, an open pond, averaging 250 yards in width, extended to within 300 yards of Ocean Pond. This ground was entirely impracticable, adding greatly to the strength of this portion of the line. - Lt. M.B. Grant, CS, to Col.D.B. Harris, CS, April 27, 1864.

The right flank of Finegan's line, according to Grant, rested on a "large pond which continued some 2 miles on the right." From the railroad south to that pond, the line was fronted by a "thick bay, impassible except within 200 yards on the right of the railroad." For those not familiar with the term "bay" as used in the Deep South, Grant was referring to a wet swamp. He noted that it lay 400 yards in advance of the Confederate line and served to limit the approaches by which an infantry force could get anywhere near the Southern troops.

Historic road and railroad at Olustee, Florida
When the lieutenant arrived at Olustee, he found that only two fortifications had been constructed along the Confederate line, both near the railroad and road. The Confederates had no entrenching tools, so the construction of these two redoubts had required immense labor. Thrown up by Bonaud's Battalion (Twenty-eighth Georgia/Second Florida Battalion), which had arrived on the scene from the artillery batteries far to the west along the Apalachicola River, the works featured a 6-foot wide parapet made of logs and covered with earth.

At Grant's request, General Finegan ordered the impressment of slaves from plantations to the west around Lake City, along with tools for use in building fortifications along the entire line:

Olustee Station
On the 19th instant, I commenced work upon this line with a detail of soldiers. This force was necessarily small and inadequate, owing to the want of tools, having at that time only one dozen axes and two dozen spades. - Lt. M.B. Grant, CS, to Col. D.B. Harris, CS, April 27, 1864.

The Confederate engineer would not have time to complete his line of defenses. Even as the soldiers and slaves were sweating to dig in and clear fields of fire, the Union army was preparing to move. Despite orders that he stay on the defensive, Union Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour decided to advance.

The Battle of Olustee would take place the next day. As Grant noted it in his report, it came "most unexpectedly."

Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Olustee and I will post throughout the day. To learn more anytime and to watch the new mini-documentary on the battle, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/olustee.

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