Monday, February 17, 2014

Olustee disaster nears, 150 years ago today (February 17, 1864)

Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour, USA
Harper's Weekly
With the Battle of Olustee now just three days away, Brigadier General Truman Seymour (US) issued a report to his commanding officer 150 years ago today that continues to reverberate to this day.
When Seymour's commander, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore (US), had left Florida following the Skirmish at Lake City (see Skirmish at Lake City), he had left clear instructions for his second-in-command to fortify his existing positions and remain on the defensive. On February 17, 1864, however, Seymour sent a stunning dispatch to Gillmore:

...The excessive and unexpected delays experienced with the locomomotive, which will not be ready for two days yet, if at all, have compelled me to remain where my command could be fed; not enough supplies could be accumulated to permit me to execute my intentions of now moving to Suwannee River. But I know propose to go without supplies, even if compelled to retrace my steps to procure supplies.... - Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour (US) to Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore (US), February 17, 1864.

Railroad along which Seymour would advance
The news would come as a total shock to Gillmore, who had no idea that Seymour was considering an advance of the Union army in Florida and, in fact, had strictly prohibited it in written orders.

Equally surprising to General Gillmore was his subordinate's explanation that the forward movement would be launched to prevent Confederate troops from "carrying away any portion of the track" from the railroad near the Suwannee River. To prevent Confederate forces in the region from receiving reinforcements by way of Savannah, Seymour recommended that Gillmore order an immediate attack in the vicinity of the Georgia city:

Cannon overlooking the Savannah River in Georgia
...That a force may not be brought from Savannah, Ga., to interfere with my movements, it is desirable that a display be made in the Savannah River, and I therefore urge that upon the reception of this such naval forces, transports, sailing vessels, &c., as can be so devoted may rendezvous near Pulaski, and that the iron-clads in Wassaw push up with as much activity as they can exert. I look upon this as of great importance, and shall rely upon it as a demonstration in my favor. - Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour (US) to Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore (US), February 17, 1864.

Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour, USA
Library of Congress
Considering that Seymour's dispatch had to be carried to Gillmore's headquarters on Hilton Head Island by ship, there was no way it would arrive there in time for the latter general to stop the planned forward movement. Even had the U.S. Navy been willing to launch an attack on the Savannah River, Seymour's notice that he expected to move in two days allowed absolutely no time for planning an organizing such a movement. 

In short, Seymour was taking a tremendous gamble by waiting until his commanding officer was out of the area and then launching a forward movement of the entire army. He must have believed he would march to the Suwannee and complete the conquest of East Florida before he could be stopped by orders to the contrary. If he succeeded, he would be a hero to President Lincoln. Based on his reports, he simply did not visualize the possibility that he might suffer a major defeat.

Suwannee River Bridge
The target identified by the Union general was the railroad bridge over the Suwannee River at the town of Columbus. Now a ghost town, Columbus was an important port and business community located within today's Suwannee River State Park. The bridge was a vital link on the railroad that ran from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. If it could be taken, the Union army would control the entire eastern length of the line.

Confederate fort at the Suwannee River Bridge
The Confederates had fortified the bridge with two strong earthen redoubts. One of these can still be seen at Suwannee River State Park and was well-designed and strong. If defended by artillery and even a small infantry force, the two forts would be a tough nut for Seymour to crack. 

Based on his reports, Seymour had no idea that Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan (CS) was building a strong army at Olustee Station 15 miles east of Lake City. The Confederates were digging in and preparing for battle as reinforcements poured daily into their camp. They would assure that Seymour got nowhere near the Suwannee River. 

On the same day that Seymour unveiled his plans to Gillmore, Confederate forces at Olustee reported to General P.G.T. Beauregard that all was "quiet in Florida."

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

Thursday will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle.

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