February 20, 1864: Battle of Olustee

Although the Union had made substantial progress in the War in 1863, few northerners doubted that the Confederacy was still full of fight.  This belief received support in the Union defeat in the battle of Olustee, Florida.

Florida was the most lightly populated state of the Confederacy, only 140,000 people.  Throughout the War Florida was a side show, with the Union forces content to occupy the major ports of Jacksonville, Key West, Pensacola and Cedar Key, while the Confederates controlled the interior and smuggled needed supplies for the Confederacy through the minor ports that dotted the Florida peninsula.

In February 1864 Union Brigadier General Truman Seymour landed a force of about 5,000 troops at Jacksonville to stage raids in north east and north central Florida to collect supplies, recruit black troops and cut off Confederate supply lines from Florida to Georgia.  He was under orders not to proceed into the interior of the state.  Lieutenant General P.G.T. Beauregard, in command of the Confederate coastal forces in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida decided to counter this move by reinforcing Confederate Brigadier General Joseph Finnegan in Florida to bring his troop strength up to 5,000 men.

Ignoring his instructions Seymour led out his 5500 men for a drive across northern Florida with the seizure of the state capital of Tallahassee as a possible objective.  Finnegan, massing his forces blocked the Union move by entrenching at Olustee station, 48 miles west of Jacksonville.

At 2:30 PM on February 20, Finnegan sent out a brigade to attempt to lure the Federals into an attack on his entrenchments.  The Federals did not oblige and Finnegan marched his entire force out from the entrenchments to fight.  The battle went on for the remainder of the afternoon with the Union line giving way.  Finnegan did not order a pursuit, with the 54th Massachusetts of Fort Wagner fame and the 35th United States Colored Troops repulsing the last attack on the retreating Federals.  Union casualties were 1861 to 946 Confederate.  The heavy Union losses caused a number of Northern lawmakers to wonder whether it was worthwhile to put any further military effort into a state that had little significance for the War as a whole.  Florida remained a relatively quiet sector of the Civil War for the remainder of the conflict with only minor raids and skirmishes.

Here is an excerpt of the report from Brigadier General Joseph Finnegan on the battle:

On the 20th instant, the enemy advanced in three columns, since ascertained to have been
twelve regiments of infantry (nine of white troops and three of black), estimated at 8,000, and
some artillery (number of guns unknown), and 1,400 cavalry. At 12 m., the enemy were within 3
miles of my position. I ordered the cavalry, under Col. C. Smith, Second Florida Cavalry,
supported by the Sixty-fourth Georgia, Colonel Evans commanding, and two companies of the
Thirty-second Georgia, to advance and skirmish with the enemy and draw them to our works.
The remaining force was placed under arms and prepared for action. Apprehending that the
enemy was too cautious to approach our works, I ordered Brigadier-General Colquitt,
commanding First Brigade, to advance with three of his regiments and a section of Gamble’s
artillery, and assume command of the entire force then ordered to front and feel the enemy by
skirmishing, and if he was not in too heavy force to press him heavily. I had previously
instructed Colonel Smith, commanding cavalry, to fall back as our infantry advanced and
protect their flanks. This movement was predicated on the information that the enemy had only
three regiments of infantry, with some cavalry and artillery. Perceiving that in this movement the
force under Brigadier-General Colquitt’s command might become too heavily engaged to
withdraw without a large supporting force, and intending that if the enemy should prove to be in
not too great strength to engage them, I ordered in quick succession, within the space of an
hour, the whole command to advance to the front as a supporting force, and myself went upon
the field. These re-enforcements were pushed rapidly forward, and, as I anticipated, reached
the field at the moment when the line was most heavily pressed, and at a time when their
presence gave confidence to our men and discouragement to the enemy.

I directed Lieutenant-Colonel Hopkins, commanding First Florida Battalion, and Major Bonaud,
commanding Bonaud’s battalion, to fall into line on the left in the direction of the enemy’s
heaviest firing. After I had ordered these re-enforcements, and they were some distance on the
way to the front, and while I was myself on the way to the front, I received from Brigadier-
General Colquitt, commanding in the front, a request for the re-enforcements which had
already been ordered.

The engagement became general very soon after its commencement. The enemy were found
in heavy force, their infantry draw up in three supporting lines, their artillery in position, cavalry
on their flanks and rear. I ordered Brigadier-General Colquitt to press them with vigor, which
he did with much judgment and gallantry. They contested the ground stubbornly, and the battle
lasted for four and a half hours. At the end of this time, the enemy’s lines having been broken
and reformed several times, and two fine Napoleon and three 10-pounder Parrott guns and
one set of colors captured from them, they gave way entirely, and were closely pressed for 3
miles until night-fall. I directed Brigadier-General Colquitt to continue the pursuit, intending to
occupy Sanderson that night; but in deference to his suggestion of the fatigue of the troops, the
absence of rations, and the disadvantages of the pursuit in the dark, and in consequence of a
report from an advanced cavalry picket that the enemy had halted for the night and taken a
position (which was subsequently ascertained to be incorrect, I withdrew the order. During the
continuance of the battle, also after the enemy had given way, I sent repeated orders to
Colonel Smith, commanding cavalry, to press the enemy on his flanks and to continue in the
pursuit. But through some misapprehension these orders failed to be executed by him, and
only two small companies on the left, and these but for a short distance, followed the enemy.

The enemy retreated that night, hastily and in some confusion, to Sanderson, leaving a large
number of their killed and wounded in our possession on the field. Their loss in killed, both
officers and men, was large. Four hundred and eighteen of their wounded were removed by us
from the field, and 400, or near that number, of their killed were buried by us; also nearly 200
prisoners were captured; several officers of high rank were killed and others severely
wounded. Their loss cannot be less than 2,000 or 2,500 men, 5 superior guns, 1 set of colors
captured, and 1,600 stand of arms; also 130,000 rounds of cartridges (damaged by having
been thrown into water)….

Published in: on February 20, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on February 20, 1864: Battle of Olustee  
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