Friday, February 28, 2014

Union troops arrive off St. Marks, 149 years ago today (February 28, 1865)

Apalachee Bay off the mouth of the St. Marks River
The U.S transport steamers Honduras, Magnolia and Alliance arrived off the mouth of the St. Marks River 149 years ago today on February 28, 1865. The Battle of Natural Bridge was now just six days away.

On board the vessels were the main bodies of the 2nd and 99th U.S. Colored Troops and Companies C, D and E of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry. The men of the 99th were packed aboard the Magnolia, while the companies from the 2nd USCT filled the decks of the Honduras. The Alliance carried the men of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry along with Brigadier General John Newton and his headquarters staff.

Another view of Apalachee Bay
According to General Newton, the steamers took up a position thirteen miles from shore near the buoy marking the channel into the Ochlockonee River. A dense fog shrouded the ships from the view of Confederate sentries on shore.

The flotilla of Union warships ordered to the mouth of the St. Marks by Admiral C.K. Stribling were expected to assemble with the three transports the next morning.

On shore, the Confederates could not see the Federal ships off the coast and still had no idea that they were there.

Earthworks of Fort Ward at St. Marks, Florida
The largest body of Southern troops in the immediate vicinity was Campbell's Siege Artillery, a company raised at Bainbridge, Georgia. It manned the heavy artillery emplaced at Fort Ward, the name given to the old Spanish fort of San Marcos de Apalache by the Confederates when they reoccupied the site at the confluence of the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers and threw up earthworks as a defense against Union attack.

Tied up alongside the fort was the gunboat CSS Spray, a small high pressure steamer that had been converted from civilian to military use by the C.S. Navy. It carried a crew of Confederate sailors and marines.

Powder Magazine of Fort Ward
Originally an open battery, the rear of the fort had been enclosed the previous winter following the Battle of Marianna. Fought on September 27, 1864, that engagement in the Florida Panhandle had awakened authorities in Tallahassee to the exposed situation of the capital city. In response, they began an aggressive effort to fortify the southern approaches to the city. A rear wall was built at Fort Ward to strengthen it against land attack. At the same time, breastworks were thrown up at Newport, several miles up the St. Marks River to guard the wooden bridge at that point.

Earthworks of Fort Houstoun in Tallahassee
At Tallahassee itself, a semi-circular line of redoubts (square forts) and breastworks was thrown up around the southern side of the city. One of these forts, the well-preserved Fort Houstoun, can still be seen today at Old Fort Park.

General Newton would convene a conference of key U.S. officers the next day to deliberate a plan of action for dealing with these lightly manned defenses. Heavy banks of fog, meanwhile, prevented the Confederates from learning of the danger lurking just offshore.

I will post more tomorrow. To learn more and to view the new mini-documentary on the Battle of Natural Bridge, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

To learn more about this weekend's planned reenactment, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbreenactment.



Thursday, February 27, 2014

Natural Bridge Expedition sails for St. Marks, 149 years ago today (February 27, 1865)

149 years ago today, the Union troops en route to the Battle of Natural Bridge left Cedar Key to continue their long journey to St. Marks.

Harbor at Cedar Key, Florida
The main body of Brigadier General John Newton's force had arrived at Cedar Key two days earlier aboard the transport steamers Magnolia and Honduras. There they were joined by Major Edmund Weeks of the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry and most of the men from his garrison.

Cedar Key in 1865 was garrisoned by troops from the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry and 2nd U.S. Colored Troops (USCT). The former regiment had been raised in Florida and was made up of Southern Unionists, Confederate deserters and others. The latter regiment was mustered into the service in Washington, D.C., and most of its men came from the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. Some had been born into slavery, while others were free African Americans.



Men of the 99th USCT
Major Weeks had been an officer in the U.S. Navy who resigned his commission to accept rank in the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry. He had been instrumental in raising the regiment and was well known to most of the volunteers who filled its ranks.

Companies C, D and E of the Second Florida U.S. Cavalry and Companies E, G and H of the Second U.S. Colored Troops boarded the transports at Cedar Key, where enough troops were left behind to defend the coastal post.

James C. Haynes of Co. E, 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry
State Archives of Florida, Memory Collection
The steamer Alliance had joined the Union transports while they waited at Cedar Key for Major Weeks and some of his men to return from a raid up the railroad that connected the island city with Fernandina on the Atlantic Coast. General Newton transferred his headquarters staff over to the Alliance, freeing up room on Honduras aboard which he had traveled up from Key West.

The three steamers, likely escorted by U.S. Navy warships, left Cedar Key on the afternoon of February 27, 1865 - 149 years ago today - and headed west along the coast for the mouth of the St. Marks River. A large flotilla of warships had been ordered to assemble there ahead of the coming attack.

I will post more on the Natural Bridge Expedition tomorrow. Be sure to read more and see the new mini-documentary on the Battle of Natural Bridge by visiting www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

The annual reenactment of the battle will take place this weekend. For more information, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbreenactment.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Natural Bridge Reenactment is this weekend (March 1-2, 2014)

Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park
The 149th anniversary of the Battle of Natural Bridge will be commemorated this weekend at Natural Bridge Historic State Park south of Tallahassee.

Events will take place both Saturday and Sunday, with the main reenactment set for 2:30 p.m. (Eastern) on Sunday, March 2nd.

To view the full schedule of events for the weekend, please visit http://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbreenactment.html.

The actual battle was fought on March 6, 1865, and was the last significant Confederate victory of the War Between the States (or Civil War). Its significance comes from the fact that it prevented the capture of Tallahassee, preserving the city's status as the only Southern capital east of the Mississippi not taken by Union troops during the war. It also saved the infrastructure of a vast area of North Florida and South Georgia from destruction.

To learn more about the Battle of Natural Bridge and to view the new mini-documentary on its history, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Natural Bridge flotilla reaches Cedar Key, 149 years ago today (February 25, 1865)

Waterfront at Cedar Key, Florida
The transport steamers carrying the Union troops bound for the Battle of Natural Bridge reached Cedar Key 149 years ago tonight on February 25, 1865.

Brigadier General John Newton, commanding the U.S.force, hoped to quickly board additional troops from the Union post at Key West, but was disappointed to find that Major Edmund Weeks and a number of his men were out on a raid. A courier was sent to call them back to their post, leaving Newton with no option but to sit and wait.

Island Hotel in Cedar Key stood in 1865.
Cedar Key had been a major Florida port facility when the war began and was connected by railroad with Fernandina on the Atlantic Coast. Confederate troops had garrisoned it in 1861, but from 1862-1865 it was almost exclusively in Federal hands. Please click here to learn more about the historic island city.

In his main report on the Battle of Natural Bridge, the Union general noted that upon arriving at Cedar Key he determined that "no chance to cut off or intercept the enemy's force in the South Peninsula appeared to offer itself." He was speaking of the Confederate troops that had attacked Fort Myers four days earlier (See The Battle of Fort Myers).

Cedar Key was connected to Fernandina by early railroad.
The inclusion of this statement in the general's report appears to have been an attempt to somewhat cover the truth regarding his intentions. He and Admiral C.K. Stribling of the U.S. Navy had already agreed to launch their invasion of Confederate Florida at St. Marks and both military officers and newspaper reporters wrote at the time that the actual objective of the expedition was Thomasville, Georgia.

The Confederates had briefly operated a prison camp for thousands of Union prisoners of war in Thomasville and Newton hoped to free them. He had no way of knowing that the camp had already been evacuated and the prisoners returned to other facilities.

Newton would wait in Cedar Key for two days to include the troops with Major Weeks and his force. Ships of the U.S. Navy, meanwhile began to assemble off the mouth of the St. Marks River for the coming attack. The Confederates thus far did not know that a major movement was afoot.

To learn more about Natural Bridge and to see the new mini-documentary on the battle, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

The annual reenactment of the battle is set for this weekend (March 1-2). For a schedule of events, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbreenactment.

New mini-documentary on Battle of Natural Bridge is now online

Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park
My new mini-documentary on the Battle of Natural Bridge is now online.

It is just over 10 minutes long and explores the history of the 1865 battle for Tallahassee that was the last significant Confederate victory of the War Between the States (or Civil War).

You can view it for free at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

Ten minutes long, the video is titled "The Battle of Natural Bridge: Last Significant Confederate Victory of the Civil War." It explores the history of the Natural Bridge Expedition from its departure from Key West to the devastating defeat suffered by Union forces south of Tallahassee on March 6, 1865.

Fought along the banks of the St. Marks River, the battle saved Tallahassee's status as the only Confederate capital east of the Mississippi River not taken by Union forces and preserved the infrastructure of a vast area of North Florida and South Georgia.

Be sure to check out the new mini-documentary and learn more about the battle at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.






Sunday, February 23, 2014

Newton leaves for Natural Bridge, 149 years ago today (February 23, 1865)

Brig. Gen. John Newton, USA
Union General John Newton left Key West 149 years ago today to command the expedition that would culminate eleven days later at the Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida, the last significant Confederate victory of the War Between the States (or Civil War).

The expedition had begun on the previous day when the 99th U.S. Colored Troops left Key West on board the steamer Magnolia. Companies A, B and K of the 2nd U.S. Colored Troops followed 149 years ago today on board the steamer Honduras, along with General Newton and his staff. Their immediate destination was Punta Rassa near Fort Myers, but Newton had already reached agreement with Admiral C.K. Stribling for a movement on St. Marks, Tallahassee and Thomasville, Georgia (see First Day of the Natural Bridge Expedition).

Brigadier General John Newton was a well-regarded Union commander when he set off on the Natural Bridge Expedition. A Virginia native and the son of a U.S. Congressman, he had attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He graduated second in the Class of 1842, finishing ahead of future Union generals William S. Rosecrans, John Pope, Abner Doubleday and George Sykes, as well as Confederate generals Mansfield Lovell, G.W. Smith, A.P. Stewart, Martin L. Smith, D.H. Hill, R.H. Anderson, Lafayette McLaws, Early Van Dorn and James Longstreet.

Fredericksburg, Virginia
Before the war he had taught engineering at West Point and served as the Chief Engineer of the Utah Expedition. When Virginia left the Union, Newton gave his loyalties to the Union and helped design and construct the massive chain of defenses built to protect Washington, D.C.

As a combat officer, General Newton led a brigade during the Peninsula campaign. He fought at South Mountain and Antietam and led a division of the VI Corps at Fredericksburg. He was one of the Union generals who visited President Abraham Lincoln after the defeat at Fredericksburg to express a lack of confidence in the leadership of Army commander Major General Ambrose E. Burnside. He was promoted to Major General, but lost that rank and was reduced back to Brigadier General after his involvement in the Burnside episode became public.

Wounded at Salem Church during the Chancellorsville Campaign, Newton replaced Major General John Reynolds in command of I Corps after the latter officer was killed in the opening hours of the Battle of Gettysburg. His Corps was instrumental in rolling back Pickett's Charge on the final day of that battle.

Sent to the Army of the Cumberland ahead of General William Tecumseh Sherman's Atlanta Campaign, he served throughout that campaign and was credited with possibly saving Sherman's entire army at the Battle of Peachtree Creek.

Waud sketch of Key West in 1863.
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
After the fall of Atlanta, General Newton was sent to Key West. He knew from his involvement with Sherman that thousands of Union prisoners of war were supposedly held at Thomasville, Georgia, and this played a part in his decision to launch the Natural Bridge Expedition.

As he left Key West with the troops from the 2nd and 99th U.S. Colored Troops, Newton appears to have seriously underestimated his opponents in Florida. He took no field artillery with him from Key West, nor did he arrange to transport horses for use by officers or mounted scouts. He seemed to feel that the Confederates in North Florida would not be able to assemble enough men to oppose his movements. He would learn otherwise.

I will post more on the Natural Bridge Expedition tomorrow. You can learn more anytime at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex or by reading my book - The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida - which is available on the right side of this page.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

First Day of the Natural Bridge Expedition, 149 years ago today (February 22, 1865)

Key West Lighthouse
Photo by Lauren Pitone
On February 22, 1865 - 149 years ago today - Union troops at Key West began boarding transport steamers for the expedition that would end with their devastating defeat at the Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida.

During the previous night news had reached their commander, Brigadier General John Newton, that the Union outpost at Fort Myers was under attack from the Special Battalion of Florida Cavalry (often called the "Cow Cavalry"). The transport steamer Alliance, which had arrived late in the night, also brought a report that Captain J.J. Dickison of the 2nd Florida Cavalry (CS) had turned back a raid from Cedar Key by the 2nd Florida Cavalry (US) at the Battle of Station Four.

Admiral C.K. Stribling, U.S. Navy
After conferring with Admiral C.K. Stribling, General Newton began boarding troops to go to the relief of Fort Myers 149 years ago today:

...The kindless of Admiral Stribling having placed at our disposal the steamer Magnolia, the Ninety-ninth U.S. Colored Infantry, Lieutenant-Colonel Pearsall, was embarked, destined for Punta Rassa. In the meantime the steamer Honduras arrived from Punta Rassa, whither it had gone on the receipt of the news of the rebel attack (to protect our depot there), and communicated the intelligence of the retreat of the enemy from Fort Myers. - Brig. Gen. John Newton (US) to Lt. Col. C.T. Christensen (US), March 19, 1865. 

Despite the arrival of news that Fort Myers was safe, Newton decided to continue his movement. The Magnolia steamed out of the harbor at Key West while the steamer Honduras was ordered to prepare to transport additional troops - including the general himself - on the following day

Brig. Gen. John Newton, USA
...In the meantime, after consultation with the admiral, the following general plan was adopted: The troops to be landed at Tampa or Cedar Keys, in order to cut off the force of the enemy sent to the Lower Peninsula, or else to proceed to the neighborhood of Saint Mark's for a raid or sudden expedition, in which the co-operation of the navy was promised. - Brig. Gen. John Newton (US) to Lt. Col. C.T. Christensen (US), March 19, 1865.

General Newton's report of how the Natural Bridge Expedition began was a bit less than truthful. In fact, he had already decided to strike at St. Marks in a bold attempt to capture not only the capital city of Tallahassee, but the Georgia city of Thomasville as well:

...General Newton showed me an open letter from the Admiral, addressed to several commanding officers of the fleet, stating that General Newton had planned an expedition having in view the capture of St. Marks, and also for the relief of the Union prisoners camped at Thomasville, a few miles distant from St. Marks.... - Thomas Chatfield (U.S. Navy).

The New York Times who wrote on March 23, 1865, that the expedition had been launched to secure the "release of some 3,000 Union prisoners at Thomasville, near the southern boundary of Georgia."
Civil War prison site in Thomasville, Georgia
This statement by Thomas Chatfield, a U.S. Navy officer serving in the Gulf at the time, was confirmed by a correspondent for

There had in fact been a prisoner of war camp at Thomasville. Built by the Confederates when Sherman's March to the Sea threatened existing prisons at Andersonville and Millen, the camp had been used only for a brief time. Once Sherman's threat had passed by, the Thomasville prisoners were returned to Andersonville. General Newton, however, had no way of knowing that the men he sought to free were no longer at Thomasville. Click here to learn more about the Thomasville Civil War Prison.

Magnolia marked the beginning of the Natural Bridge Expedition. I will continue to post on this movement over the next two weeks.
Soldiers believed to be from the 99th USCT
The departure from Key West of the first companies of the 99th U.S. Colored Troops aboard the steamer

To read more on the Battle of Natural Bridge, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex or consider my book on the battle, The Battle of Natural Bridge. It is available on the right side of this page.


Friday, February 21, 2014

Battle of Fort Myers, 149 years ago this week (February 20, 1865)

Blockhouse at Fort Myers
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
On February 21, 1865 (149 years ago today), Union Captain James Doyle reported the results of the little known Battle of Fort Myers in Southwest Florida.

A Seminole War fort adapted for use by the Union army during the War Between the States (or Civil War), Fort Myers gave birth to the modern city of the same name. Now one of the fastest growing communities in the nation with a ten year growth rate of almost 30%, Fort Myers was then a lonely outpost in a barely populated region of Florida.

Originally named Fort Harvie, the U.S. Army post was renamed Fort Myers in 1850 for Colonel Abraham Myers. It was occupied until 1858 when Chief Billy Bowlegs and his followers were brought there at the end of the Third Seminole War to begin the journey to what is now Oklahoma.

The post was reoccupied five years later in 1863 by Union troops who used it as a base for raids against cattle herds in South Florida. On February 20, 1864, however, Confederate forces from Florida's famed "Cow Cavalry" tried to bring those raids to an end:

...I have the honor to report that a large force of the enemy's cavalry, estimated at about 400, with one piece of artillery (12-pounder) appeared before our works yesterday. They captured our pickets on the Fort Thompson road, consisting of a corporal and three men. We discovered the enemy approaching a few minutes after 12 m. The men were instantly under arms and posted. - Captain James Doyle, 110 NY Infantry (US) to Captain E.B. Tracy (US), February 21, 1865.

Sketch of Fort Myers (notice blockhouse in lower right)
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
The attack might well have succeeded had not the chivalry of the Confederate commander gotten the better of him. The Southern troops had taken the Federals by surprise and likely would have surged directly into the fort, but Major William Footman halted his men in order to send in a flag of truce and demand a surrender in order to avoid needless bloodshed.

A soldier in the major's command noted that the Confederate plan was working like clockwork and success was imminent, "but judge my disappointment when Footman sent in a flag of truce and demanded a surrender." Other Confederate officers tried to dissuade Major Footman from carrying out this chivalrous act, but he persisted.

Capt. John F. Bartholf, USA
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
The Union soldiers in Fort Myers were equally shocked when the Special Battalion of Florida Cavalry halted just outside their works:

...A flag of truce was seen approaching, and halted at a distance of 500 yards from the fort. I immediately sent Captain Bartholf to meet the flag. He returned with a written communication from the rebel commander, demanding the surrender of the post, giving me twenty minutes to decide. - Captain James Doyle, 110 NY Infantry (US) to Captain E.B. Tracy (US), February 21, 1865.

Captain Doyle, the commanding officer of Fort Myers, did not need 20 minutes to decide. After taking five minutes to get his men into position for defense, he sent back a note refusing Major Footman's demand. Using a truce to prepare military forces for action was considered less than chivalrous and a violation of the "rules of war" in those days, but Doyle never the lest readied his men for battle.

Fort Myers in 1991, by Robert M. Overton
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
At 1:10 p.m., the Confederates opened fire on the fort with their 12-pounder from a range of about 1,400 yards. The Union cannon responded. Captain Doyle sent a skirmish line of dismounted men from the Second Florida U.S. Cavalry (Southern troops fighting for the Union) outside the fort to take up positions in the trees and brush between his defenses and the Confederate line of battle. These soldiers maintained a constant fire on the Southern forces, who formed a dismounted line behind their cannon and around the flanks of the fort.

The Confederates fired about 20 shells into Fort Myers, doing no real damage, as the standoff continued until dark.  The Union soldiers slept on their arms that night, but when the sun rose on the morning of February 21, 1865 (149 years ago today) the Confederates were gone.

Other than scattering the Federal cattle herd and capturing eleven horses, the Confederate attack achieved little. Realizing that he could not take the fort now that its garrison was alarmed and ready, Footman ordered his men to withdraw during the night.

While the Battle of Fort Myers was loud, casualties were very light.  The fort remained in communication with Union headquarters in Key West by steamboat throughout the affair and after Footman's truce, was never really threatened.

While a small affair as such things went, the attack on Fort Myers would lead in part to the last significant Confederate victory of the war, the Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida.

I will post more about that tomorrow.




Thursday, February 20, 2014

150th Anniversary of the Battle of Olustee, Florida (February 20, 1864)

Battle of Olustee Reenactment
Today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Olustee, Florida's largest engagement of the War Between the States (or Civil War).

Fought in the open pine woods just east of the small town of Olustee, the battle ended with the devastating defeat of the Union army of Brigadier General Truman Seymour. In fighting that began around mid-afternoon, his command suffered losses of 201 killed, 1,152 wounded and 506 missing.

The slightly smaller but victorious Confederate army, commanded by Brigadier Generals Joseph Finegan and Alfred H. Colquitt, lost far fewer men than did the Federals. Finegan reported casualties of 93 killed, 847 wounded and 6 missing.

The Battle of Olustee (also called the Battle of Ocean Pond) was the result of a political scheme hatched in the White House of President Abraham Lincoln (see Was Olustee really fought in the name of politics?). The dream of returning Florida to the Union in time for the November elections died beneath the pines of the Olustee battlefield.

To read the story of the Battle of Olustee, please follow these links:



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.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Desperate attempt to stop Olustee before it happened, 150 years ago today (February 18, 1864)

Union troops at Olustee reenactment
Photo by Pam Fuqua
150 years ago today on February 18, 1864, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore (US) learned that the Union army in Florida was about to advance without his permission or presence!

Gillmore received by ship on this date a report from his second-in-command Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour (US) indicating that the latter general was about to put the army in motion on a campaign to penetrate Florida as far as the railroad bridge over the Suwannee River (see Olustee disaster nears).

Stunned by this news as he had ordered Seymour to remain on the defensive, Gillmore immediately dispatched a letter to his subordinate questioning his thinking and ordering a halt to his plans:

Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour, USA
Library of Congress
I am just in receipt of your two letters of the 16th and one of the 17th, and am very much surprised at the tone of the latter and the character of your plans as therein stated...You must have forgotten my last instructions, which were for the present to hold Baldwin and the Saint Mary's South Forks, as your outposts to the westward of Jacksonville, and to occupy Palatka, Magnolia, on the Saint John's. - Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore (US) to Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour (US), February 18, 1864.

Even if Seymour could not see the danger of trying to advance all the way to the Suwannee River from the outskirts of Jacksonville, Gillmore was much more perceptive of the disaster that was building:

...Your project distinctly and avowedly ignores these operations and substitutes a plan which not only involves your command in a distant movement, without provisions, far beyond a point from which you once withdrew on account of precisely the same necessity, but presupposes a simultaneous demonstration of "great importance" to you elsewhere, over which you have no control, and which requires the co-operation of the navy. - Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore (US) to Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour (US), February 18, 1864.


Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, USA
Library of Congress
Gillmore went on to point out that Seymour claimed he was launching the movement to prevent Confederates from taking up the railroad east of the Suwannee River, although he (Seymour) had said just six days earlier that it would be better for the Union cause if the tracks were removed.

The commanding general of the campaign also explained that he did not think taking conflict into the heart of Florida would serve his goal to bring the state back into the Union in time for the 1864 election. He used Seymour's own words to remind him that the people of Florida were "heartily tired of the war" and if "kindly treated by us, will soon be ready to return to the Union." A campaign that would cause them great harm clearly would not qualify as kind treatment.

Gillmore also made it clear that the agreement between himself and President Lincoln to return Florida to the Union in time for the Presidential election was the main goal of the campaign:

...First, I desire to bring Florida into the Union under the President's proclamation of December 8, 1863; as accessory to the above, I desire, second, to revive the trade on the Saint John's River; third, to recruit my colored regiments and organize a regiment of Florida white troops; forth, to cut off in part the enemy's supplies drawn from Florida. - Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore (US) to Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour (US), February 18, 1864.


Confederate line advances at Olustee Reenactment
February 16, 2014
This written reminder of Gillmore's priorities leaves no doubt that the entire campaign was a political affair and that the general (and by extension, President Lincoln) hoped to bring Florida back into the Union with as little bloodshed as possible. Seymour's decision to move forward against his orders to the contrary put this objective in serious danger.

The Battle of Olustee was now just two days away. Gillmore's letter would not reach Seymour in time to stop the events that the latter general had put in motion. Brigadier General Truman Seymour was about to march right into the teeth of a waiting Confederate army.

At Olustee Station, meanwhile, the strength of the Confederate Army of Brigadier General Joseph Finegan (CS) was growing. Colquitt's Brigade had begun to arrive on the scene. By the next day the strength of Finegan's force would reach 4,600 infantry, around 600 cavalry and 3 batteries of field artillery (12 cannon). As best as can be determined, Seymour had no idea they were there and ready for him.

I will post more on the 150th anniversary of the Olustee Campaign tomorrow. Read more and watch the new mini-documentary on the Battle of Olustee by visiting www.exploresouthernhistory.com/olustee.

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.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Colquitt's Brigade moves south, 150 years ago today (February 15, 1864)


Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Colquitt, CSA
Library of Congress
The decision that would win the Battle of Olustee for the Confederates began to show results 150 years ago today.

As the Union army dug in at Barber's (near Macclenny) and Baldwin following the decision of its general to go on the defensive, General P.G.T. Beauregard (CS) ordered the full strength of Colquitt's Brigade to resume its movement for Florida. A series of orders from Charleston on February 14-15, 1864, led to the resumption of the strong brigade's southward journey from that city to Florida. The brigade's progress was halted at Savannah after Union forces made a demonstration there.

A Princeton graduate who served as a major in the Mexican-American War, Alfred H. Colquitt was 39-years old at the time of the Olustee Campaign. A former U.S. Congressman, he had actively supported Georgia's secession from the Union before being elected colonel of the Sixth Georgia Infantry in May 1861. The Sixth was among the regiments that Georgia sent north to Virginia.

Under Colquitt, it served in the Seven Days Battles outside of Richmond, particularly at the Battle of Seven Pines where General Joseph E. Johnston was badly wounded and forced to relinquish command to General Robert E. Lee.

Colquitt Monument at Olustee
Promoted to the rank of brigadier general on September 1, 1862, Colquitt served in the Corps of General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. His brigade fought at Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, taking part in Jackson's devastating attack on the Union right flank in the latter engagement. It was at Chancellorsville that Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded after going ahead of his lines in the growing darkness to scout the Union position. Colquitt hesitated under the same situation and received some criticism for not acting more aggressively, although doing so under the exact same situation cost the Army of Northern Virginia the services of its famous Stonewall.

Colquitt's Grave in Macon, Georgia
By the end of the Chancellorsville Campaign, Colquitt's Brigade had suffered such heavy losses in killed and wounded that it was sent south to North Carolina and then South Carolina to recover and replenish its ranks. At the time it was ordered south to join Brigadier General Joseph Finegan's growing Confederate Army at Lake City and Olustee, the brigade included the Sixth, Nineteenth, Twenty-third, Twenty-Seventh and Twenty-eighth Georgia Infantry Regiments, the Sixth Florida Infantry Battalion, the Chatham Artillery from Savannah and the Leon Light Artillery from Florida.

Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor
Courtesy of Roger Moore
At 3:30 p.m. on the afternoon of the 14th, General Beauregard had ordered Major General J.F. Gilmer at Savannah  to "send Colquitt's brigade to General Finegan at Lake City soon as possible by the shortest route." On the 15th - 150 years ago today - Beauregard's staff ordered the last of Colquitt's men released from their garrison duty at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor so they could rejoin their command as it continued south to Georgia.

On the same day, Beauregard updated authorities in Richmond on the situation in Florida:

...General Finegan reports enemy fortifying at Baldwin. Am sending him all re-enforcements I can spare to dislodge him. I may have to call for one brigade from North Carolina to aid him - only if absolutely necessary. - Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard (CS) to Gen. Samuel Cooper (CS), February 15, 1864.

As Colquitt's Brigade continued its movement south on February 14, 1864, it traveled by train along the railroad leading from Savannah to Albany, Georgia. The movement would continue by rail to a point as close as possible to the railroad linking Tallahassee with Lake City. From that point the men would march overland to the second railroad where they would board trains for Lake City and Olustee.

To learn more about the Battle of Olustee and to watch the new mini-documentary on the battle, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/olustee.


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 www.exploresouthernhistory.com/olustee.