Although Florida contained less than two percent of the Confederacy’s population, by 1864 evolving circumstances made the state sufficiently important to justify a Union invasion.
First, after the fall of Vicksburg the previous summer federal gunboat patrols on the Mississippi River often prevented Texas beef from reaching hungry Rebel armies on the left bank. Florida cattle became a prime substitute for Texas beeves. Second, the lightly defended state was a promising area to recruit emancipated slaves into the Union army. Third, an occupying federal army would give Lincoln justification to readmit the state into the Union on terms almost assuring him of Florida’s delegate and electoral votes in the 1864 presidential nominating convention and subsequent general election. A December 1863 Lincoln proclamation authorized former Confederate states to be readmitted into the Union once a mere ten percent of their 1860 voters signed a new allegiance oath. In response a small contingent of Union-loyal Floridians invited Lincoln’s private secretary, John Hay, to become the state’s Congressional representative should it gain readmission.
On February 7, 1864 a 6,500-man federal army under General Truman Seymour occupied Jacksonville after arriving in transport ships. Although two-thirds were white soldiers from the northeast about one-third were blacks including the Hollywood-famed 54th Massachusetts, as well as a regiment of former North Carolina slaves, and the 8th United States Colored Troop (USCT) regiment from Pennsylvania. To oppose them the Confederate commander in east Florida, General James Finegan, had only about 1,500 troops. Prompt movement would likely have enabled Seymour to secure a portion of the state comprising more than ten percent of its population, control much of the 165-mile railroad from Jacksonville to the state capital of Tallahassee, and cut-off cattle supplies to Rebel armies further north.
Instead, during the first ten days Seymour launched a series of raids to destroy provender and other government-owned supplies at various depots within sixty miles of Jacksonville. Although most of the forays were isolated successes the raids also gave General Finegan time to draw reinforcements from Georgia. By the time the two armies met in battle their numbers were about equal at 5,500, since some of Seymour’s soldiers were required to garrison outposts captured on the raids.
Believing Floridians ready to rejoin the Union, General Seymour began a march westward along the Jacksonville-Tallahassee railroad on February 17th intending to destroy the bridge over the Suwanee River because he believed it would prevent the enemy from promptly getting reinforcements. On the morning of the 20th his leading mounted troops met scattered resistance until confronting heavy fire two miles short of Olustee Station about fifty miles west of Jacksonville around two o’clock in the afternoon.
Armed with Spencer repeaters the 7th Connecticut infantry regiment advanced to aid the Yankee troopers. Initially their superior rifles devastated an opposing Georgia regiment, killing all of their field officers. However, due to a logistics failure the Connecticut soldiers could not promptly replace their soon exhausted ammunition and had to withdraw. As the 7th New Hampshire and the 8th USCT regiments replaced them, a pattern of Union errors began to emerge. Evidenced by their modest casualties, the mounted troopers were only lightly engaged and General Seymour added infantry units in a piecemeal fashion that insured each would be outnumbered if they could not hold their ground until reinforcements came up.
In contrast, the Confederate field commander General Alfred Colquitt rapidly deployed new units forwarded by General Finegan from Olustee Station. He organized the perimeter in a slight concave shape that enabled shooters to focus a concentric fire on the hapless Yankees. The 7th New Hampshire quickly disintegrated partly because some of the members had been issued defective rifles and partly because of a confusing deployment order. The 8th USCT regiment stood longer but mostly only to absorb Rebel bullets. The recently formed regiment did not have enough target practice to reply effectively.
After the 7th New Hampshire and 8th USCT regiments were driven from the field or collapsing, the unprotected federal artillery began rapidly falling prey to Confederate small arms fire. Arriving to save them, a brigade of three New York regiments advanced to positions where they too became victims of convergent Rebel fire. Soon thereafter the 7th Connecticut rejoined the fight after replenishing the cartridges required for their repeaters. When it appeared that the New Yorkers and 7th Connecticut could take no more, black soldiers of the 1st North Carolina and 54th Massachusetts entered the battle. Both advanced to the front, but the Carolina ex-slaves were more vulnerable near the center of the enemy’s convergent fire whereas the 54th Massachusetts was on the left (south) end.
Although its concave firing line was generally a Confederate advantage, it also had a weakness. Given the equal size of the respective armies, the geometry resulted in fewer Confederate soldiers per unit length on the perimeter thereby inviting a Yankee counter-attack to focus superior numbers on a potential breakthrough point. The flaw was amplified during a thirty-minute period of inactivity when the Rebels had depleted their ammunition. One brigade commander helped relieve the shortage by sending his own staff members to Olustee Station with orders to return with replenishments themselves.
Around six o’clock in the evening General Seymour’s army began a mostly well-ordered retreat, but not before suffering about 1,900 casualties as compared to only 950 Confederates. At 34% of the troops employed, the casualty rate at Olustee was one of the highest endured by a Union army during the war. The comparative rates at better-known battles such as Stones River, Chickamauga, and Gettysburg, were 31%, 27%, and 25%, respectively. Less than 10% of federal Olustee casualties were among the mounted and artillery units, while over 90% were infantry. Like the composition of the army, about two-thirds of casualties were whites and one-third blacks.
Rebel infantry pursued the retreating federals for a few miles but halted after nightfall. Although criticized for failing to continue the chase, Colonel Caraway Smith who commanded the Confederate cavalry brigade claimed a nighttime pursuit by mounted troopers would have been more confusing than effective. Nonetheless, the Rebels captured five of the Union army’s sixteen cannon. The road back toward Jacksonville was strewn with Yankee guns, knapsacks, and blankets.
General Seymour reported that 158 black soldiers were missing as compared to 346 whites. Missing soldiers of a defeated army are normally captured because they are often too wounded to join a retreat. Several reports indicate that black combatants remaining on the field were murdered. There are even accounts that slaves accompanying the Rebel army participated in the slaughter. However, when questioned by an investigating Congressional Committee, General Seymour’s chief of staff testified that he did not believe there were any outrages and stated that white and black captives were treated equally. Nonetheless, given similar complaints at other battles later in the year such as Fort Pillow and Poison Springs, it seems likely that about 25 – 50 captured black soldiers were killed. Some Confederate soldiers considered ex-slaves in Union army uniforms to be one step short of participating in a slave insurrection.
Ultimately the Union invasion accomplished little. It failed to disrupt the flow of cattle and other supplies from Florida to Confederate armies further north. Fewer than a hundred ex-slaves joined the Union army. (In point of fact, by the end of the war more white Floridians fought for the Union than did blacks.) Politically the campaign failed to wrest Florida from the Confederacy. Near the end of the war Union forces landing from the Gulf of Mexico were defeated in an attempt to take Tallahassee from the opposite direction. The town was the only Confederate state capital east of the Mississippi River to avoid capture.
The Northern press blamed Olustee on President Lincoln’s political ambitions. The New York World wrote, “[N]o military purpose took an army into Florida…as…it would..no more…put down the rebellion than would the occupation…of Coney Island.” The influential New York Herald concluded, “[T]he Florida expedition was undertaken to bring the state back into the Union so that Mr. Lincoln might have three more delegates…in the nominating convention and Mr. Hay might go to Congress.”
If you would like to read other interesting Civil War stories you may want to get one of my books: