Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Skirmish at Lake City, 150 years ago today (February 11, 1864)

Lake City, Florida
Confederate forces achieved their first success of the Olustee Campaign 150 years ago today on the outskirts of Lake City, Florida.

Following the railroad tracks west from Sanderson on the morning of February 11, 1864, the Union mounted forces under Colonel Guy V. Henry crossed over the later Olustee Battlefield and arrived outside Lake City. The principal Federal units on the ground were the Independent Battalion of Massachusetts Cavalry, the Fortieth Massachusetts Infantry (Mounted) and Elder's horse battery from the First U.S. Artillery.
Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan, CSA

News of the Union landing and advance, however, had electrified points up and down the railroad. Telegraph lines connected Lake City with Madison, Monticello, Tallahassee, Quincy and even Marianna. Even as the Federals had pushed forward from Jacksonville, Confederate troops had begun boarding trains for the ride east to Lake City.

Most of these men came from the District of Middle Florida and by the evening of February 10th they were pouring into Lake City where Brigadier General Joseph Finegan was assembling his force. In a rare reversal of circumstance, the Confederate forces had the advantage of rail transportation and better communication lines during the Olustee Campaign and the advantage first began to show as Henry's Federals neared Lake City:

..Here I had hastily collected, principally from the District of Middle Florida, a small force of 490 infantry, 110 cavalry and two pieces of artillery. On the night of the 10th, I placed this force in a favorable position 2 1/2 miles from Lake City, in the direction of the enemy. - Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan (CS) to Brig. Gen. Thomas Jordan (CS), February 26, 1864.

Henry's Union force advanced via the railroad.
The site that Finegan selected to position his force is near Watertown Lake on the east side of Lake City. The site of his battle line is now bisected by the railroad and Northeast Washington Street just east of the city limits. Watertown Lake, on his left or north flank, eliminated the possibility of his line being easily flanked in that direction. On his right or south flank, ponds and wetland areas feeding into Alligator Lake eliminated the chance he could be outflanked in that direction. If his men held against the larger Union force, then the enemy would not get into Lake City.

Digging in and placing his two cannon in position to receive the Federals, Finegan advanced part of his force as skirmishers to oppose the Union troops as they approached his main line:

Col. Guy V. Henry, USA
Men of the Century, 1896.
...At 9.30 the enemy advanced upon us with a force estimated to be 1,400 mounted infantry and five pieces of artillery. Here they opened upon us, fighting as infantry, and skirmished heavily with my advance line. Discovering my position and its strength, and probably presuming my force larger than it was, they retreated to Sanderson, thence to Barber's, on the east bank of the Saint Mary's, where they constructed fieldworks and concentrated their whole force.... - Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan (CS) to Brig. Gen. Thomas Jordan (CS), February 26, 1864.

According to the report of Brigadier General Truman Seymour (US), the skirmish at Lake City lasted about 60 minutes (Finegan said several hours):

...Pursuing vigorously toward Lake City a strong force of the enemy was found in position, with which an hour's severe skirmishing was had, but infantry coming to the attack of Colonel Henry, he withdrew and encamped a few miles distant. - Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour (US) to Brig. Gen. J.W. Turner (US), February 17, 1864.

Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, CSA
National Archives
Finegan reported that the skirmishing was severe until the Federals came within view of his main line and artillery, at which point they withdrew.

How quickly communications were passing between Confederate commanders is evidenced by a dispatch sent from Charleston by General P.G.T. Beauregard to the War Department in Richmond. Reporting a demonstration near Savannah that he believed was a diversion for the Florida movements, Beauregard noted that, "General Finegan reports enemy advancing on Lake City from Baldwin." The Confederate report was dated on the same day as the skirmish at Lake City.

Meanwhile, even as Finegan was turning back Henry's force at Lake City, the troops of Colquitt's Brigade were making their way south from Charleston to Florida. They had been ordered to board trains as soon as as Beauregard became convinced that the main Union target was Florida. Their ability to move almost the entire distance by rail would allow them to reach Olustee in time for the coming battle.

Lake City, Florida
By February 12th, Beauregard was able to report that Finegan had beaten the Federals at Lake City and that he was impressed with the latter general's abilities:

General Finegan's success yesterday was very creditable, enemy's force being much superior to his own. His re-enforcements had not yet reached him owing to delays on road. Losses not yet reported. - Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard (CS) to Gen. S. Cooper (CS), February 12, 1864.

Finegan's performance at Lake City was to be repeated on a larger scale 9 days later at the Battle of Olustee. It also allowed the continued use of the town as a staging point for that battle and prevented the capture of the military supplies there.

Finally, the Confederate victory at Lake City started the turning of the tide of the Olustee Campaign. Under capable command, outnumbered Southern troops had stood their ground and turned back a larger force. From February 11th forward, Finegan would begin to seize the initiative. Olustee was yet to be fought, but the defeat of Lincoln's attempt to return Florida to the Union had begun.

I will post more tomorrow!  To learn more about the Battle of Olustee and to see the new mini-documentary on the battle, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/olustee.

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