A Brief History
On February 20, 1864, the Union and Confederate armies fought the Battle of Olustee, the largest land battle of the American Civil War (1861-1865) in Florida. Although the tide of the war had turned in favor of the Union by February of 1864, this particular battle was won by the Confederate forces, more or less ending the ground war in Florida.
Union General Truman Seymour had landed near Jacksonville and was supposed to stay put, acting as a blocking force to prevent Confederate food and other supplies from moving through the area. Encouraged by little resistance to the minor raids he mounted, Seymour got bigger ideas. As often happens, this officer thought he knew better than his superiors and decided to take his 5500 Union troops on a march to Tallahassee with the mistaken impression that Confederate forces were merely some rag tag militia types. He was wrong! The Confederate Army brass got wind of General Seymour’s movements and sent a force of their own from Charleston, South Carolina to intercept the Union force. The Confederate force of 5000 men was commanded by General Alfred H. Colquitt.
Near Ocean Pond in Olustee the Confederates confronted the Union force and a fierce battle erupted, one that cost both sides dearly. The Northern (Union) force suffered the worst of it, with over 200 killed and another 950 or so wounded. Plus, the Union suffered another 500+ men captured or missing. The Confederate force suffered 93 killed, 847 wounded, but only 6 men captured or missing. More importantly, the force under General Seymour was forced to turn back and march to Jacksonville, a greatly depleted and dispirited force. Seymour’s command spent the rest of the Civil War in Jacksonville, not daring to repeat the blunder of February 1864.
Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the Confederate victory, as it was he, at his headquarters in Charleston, that determined the likely destination of Seymour’s force would be Florida, so Beauregard amassed his own detachment to send to Florida to deal with the likely Union threat. Events proved Beauregard correct, underscoring both the importance of intelligence information about the enemy and the importance of careful analysis of that intelligence and concocting an appropriate plan in response.
Seymour’s troops merrily marched along thinking they had little in the way of resistance on their way to Tallahassee when they came up against entrenched Confederate forces. By this stage of the American Civil War both sides had learned that Napoleonic tactics of troops advancing against other troops in line was suicide, and the use of trenches and rifle pits became commonplace. One bright spot in the battle for the Union units was the successful repulsing of a Confederate attack upon the Union rear elements by African American US Army soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment and the 35th United States Colored Troops. Despite the victory, Confederate leaders were criticized for not successfully destroying the Union rear or pursuing Seymour’s retreating shambles of a force.
The battle is commemorated by the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park, a park within the Osceola National Forest. Civil War historic reenactors annually remember the battle by replaying the events. The American Civil War was the costliest war in American history, leaving over 200,000 battlefield deaths and more than an additional 400,000 dead of disease, accidents, and death while prisoners. At least 50,000 civilians died, and perhaps 80,000 slaves also died during the war. Total deaths are estimated between 600,000+ and as many as 1,000,000. Perhaps a similar number or more were wounded. Despite these terrible sacrifices, there are many Americans today that glorify this horrible waste of American lives. What do you think?
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you previously heard of this Civil War battle? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Ahlgren, Greg. Olustee: America’s Unfinished Civil War Battle. Canterbury House Pub, 2018.
Broadwater, Robert. The Battle of Olustee 1864: The Final Union Attempt to Seize Florida. McFarland & Company, 2006.
The featured image in this article, a Kurz and Alison lithograph print of the Battle of Olustee, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1925, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.