Friday, February 14, 2014

First Skirmish at Gainesville, 150 years ago today (February 14, 1864)

First Skirmish of Gainesville Marker
A force of Union soldiers exchanged lead Valentines with the "Swamp Fox of the Confederacy" 150 years ago today in the streets of Gainesville, Florida.

The First Skirmish of Gainesville, so named to distinguish it from the larger Battle of Gainesville fought six months later, took place on February 14, 1864. It was a little known side affair of the Olustee Campaign.

The detachment of 50 or so Union soldiers were from Companies C, G and H of the Fortieth Massachusetts Infantry (Mounted). Commanded by Captain George Marshall, they had been sent by Major General Quincy A. Gillmore (US) to "capture a train of cars" at Gainesville.

Gainesville in the Civil War era
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory Collection
A stop on the railroad that linked Fernandina with Cedar Key, Gainesville was then a growing town surrounded by an important farming district. Cotton, timber, naval stores and other commodities were shipped out from its rail platform and General Gillmore hoped the raid would capture a string of rail cars thought to be on the tracks there.

The Federals had ridden south from Sanderson the previous morning on a lightning raid.  Reaching Gainesville on the morning of Valentine's Day, they captured what General Truman Seymour described a few days later as "immense stores of cotton, of turpentine and rosin, sugar, tobacco, and supplies of all kinds," but no train cars:

Captain J.J. Dickison, CSA
Second Florida Cavalry
In accordance with instructions given to Captain Marshall, no private property was destroyed or molested. The public subsistence stores were distributed among the inhabitants, who were suffering for want of them. Probably $1,000,000 worth of property fell into our hands, but it could not be removed and it was not considered advisable to destroy it. - Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour, US, to Gen. J.W. Turner, US, February 17, 1864.

Without the train cars, the Federals couldn't make off with their haul. Despite Seymour's claim that "no private property was destroyed or molested," much of the material temporarily seized at Gainesville was most assuredly private property.

As the men of the Fortieth Massachusetts were going about their work of collecting all the supplies they could find, they learned that the famed "Swamp Fox of the Confederacy" was on his way. Captain J.J. Dickison of the Second Florida Cavalry had earned the nickname for his often remarkable movements against Union forces in Florida.

Site of the First Skirmish of Gainesville
Learning from a liberated slave that a small force of Confederate cavalry under Dickison was approaching, the Federals collected a labor force of 100 slaves and put them to work hauling bales of cotton from a warehouse and dragging it into the street at today's intersection of Main Street and University Avenue. There 15 bales were arranged to form a makeshift fortification directly in the "crossroads" or intersection.

Attacking with audacity, the men of the Second Florida Cavalry charged the Union barricade. According to one Northern account, the Confederates came storming forward on horseback. Captain Marshall ordered his men to hold their fire until Dickison and his men had arrived within point blank range, then opened a withering fire on them with Spencer rifles.

Skirmish site with Confederate Monument in foreground
Some of the Confederates managed to leap their horses over the cotton bales, but the firepower of the Spencers was too much for them and Dickison ordered a retreat. Most of his men were armed with single shot weapons and in a battle of near equal numbers could not match the volleys of fire directed at them by the Federals with their Spencer repeating rifles, which could chamber and fire as many as 20 rounds a minute.

The First Skirmish of Gainesville ended quickly when Dickison realized he could not overwhelm the Union barricades. Northern newspapers hailed it as a significant victory claiming that as many as 40 Confederates were killed and wounded, but the claims were fictitious. Few casualties were suffered on either side.

Another view of the First Skirmish Site in Gainesville, Florida
The Federals remained in Gainesville for a few more days, apparently hoping that at rain might come up with the desperately needed cars, but such hopes met with disappointment. They withdrew back to the main Union army on the 18th, taking with them 36 liberated slaves.

The site of the First Skirmish of Gainesville can be seen today by viewing the intersection of University Avenue and Main Street in the historic city. A marker detailing the history of the encounter stands nearby on the grounds of City Hall.

I will post more on the Olustee Campaign tomorrow. Be sure to learn more about the Battle of Olustee and watch the new mini-documentary on the battle at

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