Thursday, February 13, 2014

Finegan advances to Olustee, 150 years ago today (February 13, 1864)

Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, USA
In one of the most inexplicable decisions of the Olustee Campaign, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore (US) announced plans 150 years ago today to leave Florida and return to Hilton Head Island.

Why he decided to leave the field of operations as a Confederate army was clearly gathering at Lake City under Brigadier General Joseph Finegan is impossible to explain. It would become the greatest single mistake of generalship of the entire campaign and would lead to disaster for the Union forces at the Battle of Olustee.

As he announced this decision in a report to Major General H.W. Halleck, the General-in-Chief of the Union armies, Gillmore also began to downplay the significance of his military operations in Florida. African American recruits had not flooded into his lines and there had been no great rising of Floridians interested in returning the state to the Union in the time for the 1864 elections.

Barber's Plantation, one of the locations fortified by the Federals
In his dispatch to Halleck on February 13, Gillmore wrote that his activities in Florida "promise to be of no great magnitude." He told the commanding general that he had decided to go on the defensive:

...I intend to construct small works, capable of resisting a coup de main, at Jacksonville, Baldwin, Palatka, and perhaps one or two other important points, so strong that 200 or 300 men will be sufficient at each point. Twenty-five hundred men, in addition to the two regiments that have been permanently stationed in this State (one at Saint Augustine and one at Fernandina), ought to be ample in Florida. - Maj. Gen. Quincy Gillmore (US) to Maj. Gen. H.W. Halleck (US), February 13, 1864.

Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan, CSA
Gillmore also told Halleck that the artillery he had captured in the skirmish at Camp Finegan (See Skirmish at Camp Finegan) on the --th would be sufficient to arm the new fortifications he planned to erect. Brigadier General Truman Seymour would be left in command in Florida during his absence.

Brigadier General Joseph Finegan (CS), meanwhile, was assembling an army at Lake City that was spoiling for a fight. Many of his men were Floridians and their home state had been invaded, their families and property threatened and the future of their state hung in the balance. They had held firm in the face of a much larger Union force at Lake City on the 11th and were ready to fight again.

As Gillmore prepared to leave Florida for the comforts of Hilton Head Island, Finegan pushed his army forward from Lake City:

...I used every possible effort to gather re-enforcements, and on the 13th, moved to Ocean Pond, on Olustee, 13 miles from Lake City, and occupied the only strong position between Lake City and Barber's. Here I had field-works thrown up, and...with a force less than 2,000 strong, awaited the enemy's advance. - Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan (CS) to Brig. Gen. Thomas Jordan (CS), February 26, 1864

Olustee, Florida
The point selected by Finegan for his new base of operations was today's community of Olustee. His left flank rested on Ocean Pond, his center on the railroad and road connecting Sanderson, Baldwin and Jacksonville with Lake City. His right flank rested on a wide swampy area. Olustee Creek flowed along part of his front, giving additional security to his lines.

As the Confederates moved into position at Olustee Station, they built two redoubts to protect the main road and railroad. Their available two cannon were placed in these. Work then began on an extended line of redoubts and breastworks stretching along the entire front.

Railroad at Olustee, Florida
With a solid rail connection from his position back to Lake City and from there on to Madison, Monticello, Tallahassee and Quincy, Finegan had a solid transportation network that would allow him to bring up reinforcements, artillery and supplies from the rear with considerable speed. He also had access to telegraph lines that gave him rapid communication not only with Tallahassee, but with General P.G.T. Beauregard in Charleston.

He spread his cavalry to the east up the railroad to observe the activities of the Union army and warn him of any advance or attempt to flank him from his position.

The tactical situation was changing, but Gillmore and Seymour seem not to have realized it. As they went onto the defensive, they did not range cavalry west beyond Sanderson to observe Confederate activities. As a result they had no idea that Finegan had advanced to Olustee and was beginning to entrench.

In fact, their only significant activity on the 13th was the launching of a small raid down from Sanderson to Gainesville.

On the morning of February 13, 1864 - 150 years ago today - a small force of mounted infantrymen from the Fortieth Massachusetts Infantry rode out to try to capture a train of rail cars at Gainesville.

Headed by Captain George Marshall, the raiding party included around 50 men from Companies C, G and H of the Fortieth. Their objective, according to Major General Quincy A. Gillmore (US), was to "capture a train of cars."

Gainesville was a growing community astride the railroad leading from Fernandina to Cedar Keys and it appears that Gillmore hoped to improve his own transportation capabilities by carrying out a small raid on the community.

The raiders would reach Gainesville on the next day.

I will post more on the Olustee Campaign tomorrow. Be sure to read more on the Battle of Olustee and watch the new mini-documentary on the battle at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/olustee.


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