Battle of Olustee - Conflict & Date:
The Battle of Olustee was fought February 20, 1864, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).
Armies & Commanders
Battle of Olustee - Background:
Thwarted in his efforts to reduce Charleston, SC in 1863, including defeats at Fort Wagner, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commander of the Union Department of the South, turned his eye towards to Jacksonville, FL. Planning an expedition to the area, he intended to extend Union control over northeastern Florida and prevent supplies from the region reaching Confederate forces elsewhere. Submitting his plans to the Union leadership in Washington, they were approved as the Lincoln Administration hoped to restore a loyal government to Florida before the election that November. Embarking around 6,000 men, Gillmore entrusted operational control of the expedition to Brigadier General Truman Seymour, a veteran of major battles such as Gaines' Mill, Second Manassas, and Antietam.
Steaming south, Union forces landed and occupied Jacksonville on February 7. The next day, Gillmore and Seymour's troops began advancing west and occupied Ten Mile Run. Over the next week, Union forces raided as far as Lake City while officials arrived in Jacksonville to start the process of forming a new government. During this time, the two Union commanders began arguing over the scope of Union operations. While Gillmore pressed for the occupation of Lake City and a possible advance to the Suwannee River to destroy the railroad bridge there, Seymour reported that neither was advisable and that Unionist sentiment in the region was minimal. As a result, Gillmore directed Seymour to concentrate his forced west of the city at Baldwin. Meeting on the 14th, he further directed his subordinate to fortify Jacksonville, Baldwin, and Barber's Plantation.
Battle of Olustee - The Confederate Response:
Appointing Seymour as commander of the District of Florida, Gillmore departed for his headquarters at Hilton Head, SC on February 15 and directed that no advance into the interior be made without his permission. Opposing the Union efforts was Brigadier General Joseph Finegan who led the District of East Florida. An Irish immigrant and an enlisted veteran of the prewar US Army, he possessed around 1,500 men with which to defend the region. Unable to directly oppose Seymour in the days after the landings, Finegan's men skirmished with Union forces where possible. In an effort to counter the Union threat, he requested reinforcements from General P.G.T. Beauregard who commanded the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Responding to his subordinate's needs, Beauregard sent contingents south led by Brigadier General Alfred Colquitt and Colonel George Harrison. These additional troops swelled Finegan's force to around 5,000 men.
Battle of Olustee - Seymour Advances:
Shortly after Gillmore's departure, Seymour began to view the situation in northeast Florida more favorably and elected to commence a march west to destroy the Suwannee River bridge. Concentrating around 5,500 men at Barber's Plantation, he planned to advance on February 20. Writing to Gillmore, Seymour informed his superior of the plan and commented that "by the time you receive this I shall be in motion." Stunned upon receiving this missive, Gillmore dispatched an aide south with orders for Seymour cancel the campaign. This effort failed as the aide reached Jacksonville after the fighting had ended. Moving out early in the morning on the 20th, Seymour's command was divided into three brigades led by Colonels William Baron, Joseph Hawley, and James Montgomery. Advancing west, Union cavalry led by Colonel Guy V. Henry scouted for and screened the column.
Battle of Olustee - First Shots:
Reaching Sanderson around midday, Union cavalry began skirmishing with their Confederate counterparts west of town. Pushing the enemy back, Henry's men met more intense resistance as they neared Olustee Station. Having been reinforced by Beauregard, Finegan had moved east and occupied a strong position along the Florida Atlantic and Gulf-Central Railroad at Olustee. Fortifying a narrow strip of dry ground with Ocean Pond to the north and swamps to the south, he planned receive the Union advance. As Seymour's main column approached, Finegan hoped to use his cavalry to lure the Union troops into attacking his main line. This failed to occur and instead fighting intensified forward of the fortifications as Hawley's brigade began to deploy (Map).
Battle of Olustee - A Bloody Defeat:
Responding to this development, Finegan ordered Colquitt to advance with several regiments from both his brigade and Harrison's. A veteran of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville who had served under Lieutenant General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, he advanced his troops into the pine forest and engaged the 7th Connecticut, 7th New Hampshire, and 8th US Colored Troops from Hawley's brigade. The commitment of these forces saw the fighting rapidly grow in scope. The Confederates quickly gained an upper hand when confusion over orders between Hawley and the 7th New Hampshire's Colonel Joseph Abbott led to the regiment deploying improperly. Under heavy fire, many of Abbott's men retired in the confusion. With the 7th New Hampshire collapsing, Colquitt focused his efforts on the raw 8th USCT. While the African-American soldiers acquitted themselves well, the pressure compelled them to begin falling back. The situation was made worse by the death of its commanding officer, Colonel Charles Fribley (Map).
Pressing the advantage, Finegan sent additional forces forward under the guidance of Harrison. Uniting, the combined Confederate forces began pushing east. In response, Seymour rushed Barton's brigade forward. Forming on the right of the remnants of Hawley's men the 47th, 48th, and 115th New York opened fire and halted the Confederate advance. As the battle stabilized, both sides inflicted increasingly heavy losses on the other. During the course of the fighting, Confederate forces began to run low on ammunition forcing a slackening of their firing as more was brought forward. In addition, Finegan led his remaining reserves into the fighting and took personal command of the battle. Committing these new forces, he ordered his men to attack (Map).
Overwhelming the Union troops, this effort led Seymour to order a general retreat east. As Hawley and Barton's men began withdrawing, he directed Montgomery's brigade to cover the retreat. This brought the 54th Massachusetts, which had gained fame as one of the first official African-American regiments, and the 35th US Colored Troops forward. Forming, they succeeded in holding back Finegan's men as their compatriots departed. Leaving the area, Seymour returned to Barber's Plantation that night with the 54th Massachusetts, 7th Connecticut, and his cavalry covering the retreat. The withdrawal was aided by a weak pursuit on the part of Finegan's command.
Battle of Olustee - Aftermath:
A bloody engagement given the numbers engaged, the Battle of Olustee saw Seymour sustain 203 killed, 1,152 wounded, and 506 missing while Finegan lost 93 killed, 847 wounded, and 6 missing. Union losses were made worse by Confederate forces killing wounded and captured African-American soldiers after the fighting had concluded. The defeat at Olustee ended the Lincoln Administration's hopes for organizing a new government prior the 1864 election and made several in the North question the value of campaigning in a militarily insignificant state. While the battle had proved a defeat, the campaign was largely successful as the occupation of Jacksonville opened the city to Union trade and deprived the Confederacy of the region's resources. Remaining in Northern hands for the rest of the war, Union forces routinely conducted raids from the city but did not mount major campaigns.