The following is the latest from the front. I hope that you enjoy the report. My mind is a little frozen over after four days in the field but it does let you know what happened. Report From the Front Lines at the Battle of Olustee, Florida by Fritz Kirsch
Once more I headed my photography wagon north from Tampa Bay and headed to the battle site outside Lake City, Florida. The site where the conflict took place has the name, Battle of Olustee by Southerners, and Battle of Ocean Pond by the Union. The reenactment takes place on the actual battle site, some fifteen miles from the city.
By February of 1864. Lincoln thought that Florida was ready to return to the Union fold. He was looking for votes for his own reelection as well. He sent John Hay, his personal secretary, south to St. Augustine to check on the political climate. What he heard was encouraging. The coast line was pretty much in Federal control. Florida looked ripe to drop totally from the
This was a marvelous speculation if one had tunnel vision. On the other side of the St. John’s River which separated Florida plantation life from what city life there was in Florida, Sessionist sympathies were as strong as ever. The rebel spirit was held together by such detached Confederate commanders as Captain J.J. Dickison, whose ghost like partisan rangers managed to appear almost mystically in several places at the same time to strike at their Northern foe.
General Gilmore, Union commander of the Department of the South, ordered General Truman A. Seymour to lead troops from Jacksonville across the top of the state to Lake City, then on to the Suwannee River and capture any stores of provisions held by the Confederates, or herds of cattle destined for rebel troops fighting to the north. Troops under his command were recently filled with conscripted soldiers like those from the 7th New Hampshire, 7th Connecticut, and Black troops from the now famous 54th Massachusetts, plus the Eighth U.S. Colored Infantry. Union forces were approximately 5,500 strong.
Federal troops under Seymour left Jacksonville, basically following the railroad line. Advanced cavalry patrols ran into Confederate scouting parties who knew of the Union’s advance. How do you disguise an army moving through undeveloped Florida real estate?
Confederate state commander, General Joseph Finegan looked wherever he could to find troops to meet the Yankees. Soldiers home on leave, or recuperating from wounds were pressed into action, along with a great many Georgia soldiers, principally the 64th and the 32nd Georgia. These defenders were scoured from the southwestern portion of their state. Col. Colquitt, of Lumpkin, Georgia was the man responsible for really preparing the Confederate troops for the upcoming battle.
Trenches were dug outside the Lake City limits. But the best laid plans of battle oft times go astray. The opening contact between the cavalry scouts began to develop into the real action that was to take place. Eventually approximately 4,500 Confederate soldiers were brought into battle.
At first the rebels found themselves without sufficient ammunition to hold the Union back. They had a good position however. The Union was basically spread out between a lake known as Ocean Pond and a swamp. Without the bullets to put up a wall of lead, position only worked for so long. In desperation, the Confederates went into an ancient maneuver to form a double rank square, known as the “Hollow Square”. It was a last ditch attempt to stave off annihilation.
Union artillery lobbed shells into the square to take out one corner of the suicidal defense. All appeared lost for the Southern boys, when wagons of ammunition appeared miraculously up from supply stores held in Lake City. The men filled their cartridge boxes quickly and moved forward.
The raw Union recruits were startled to see the enemy they assumed would be ready to surrender suddenly spring to life. New Hampshire boys decided it was time to skidaddle. Black troops fresh from parade ground maneuvers were ordered into positions men usually formed only as practice drill. These steps returned some semblance of order to what looked like could have turned into a Federal route. The Black soldiers covered the retreat of the white soldiers, and the long withdrawal back to Jacksonville began.
The Confederate cavalry, for the most part, was too exhausted to pursue the boys in blue, but they remained in control of the contested grounds. Florida remained in Confederate control until the bitter end of the war in April of 1865.
Each February, as close to the actual date of 20th, February, the reenactment goes back to those battle lines to refresh our memory of that conflict. The weather there is as volatile as only Florida weather can be when winter ends and spring begins. Reenactors must pack for everything from below freezing conditions to subtropical heat and torrential rains, or a mixture of both.
This year was no exception. I arrived with my photographic “What’s it” wagon Thursday afternoon. My apprentice, Doug Tittle, and I had our camp established in an hour’s time as other sutlers still had hours of preparation to unload boxes of uniforms, rifles, and paraphernalia. The Battle of Olustee attracts reenactors from all over the country to this Civil War supply depot. On hand were seventy-three purveyors of goods and services.
I was informed that I had my usual spot of the past eighteen years. The sutler organizer jokingly informed me that papers had arrived for my homesteader’s rights to that spot. Thursday and Friday were dead as a doornail. We basked in Florida’s warm sunshine with little to do but twiddle our thumbs. Reenactors trickled in, but there was no crowd of soldiers crawling the mall.
Friday night all that changed. carload after carload crawled down the dusty roads to authentic camps and modern camping. A growing concept also saw an up springing of “A” tents and giant wall tents. That was the appearance of period civilian encampments. This helped hold down the size of military camps by keeping family and fathers together. Perhaps the Civil War Reenactor widows are finding this as their solution to lonely weekends.
Politics have kept the Battle of Olustee at the center of reenactment
politics for years and years. Some reenactors have refused to attend this event due to the contentious situations that rumored to have flourished between various factions. Whatever had transpired in the past is now a dead issue. Soldiers who dropped by my wagon had no complaints about being held in reserve or hidden in the trees never to be seen. One soldier told me he had brought just one cartridge box full for the two days of fighting, only to find the tins empty during Saturday’s skirmishing.
General Jesse, commander of the Department of the Gulf, pointed out, “If you search for politics in any event, you can find it. If you come to enjoy, you’ll have a great time.” This was the pervading philosophy held by all the reenactors who appeared before my lens at this event. I previously committed writing this report, and made it my business to canvass at least two hunkered participants.
There were some solemn moments as reenactors who were gone from our midst were remembered by firing their ashes over the field, or memorialized by a planting of a tree in their honor. Several sutlers mentioned that they were retiring from sutlering due to age and various ailments. Still, the strength of the Confederate soldiers who marched to colors in the mornings appeared as huge as ever. And when the battle lines were drawn in the afternoon, whether galvanized or not, the Federal forces were there to meet them. The troop numbers overall were estimated to be between fifteen hundred and seventeen
hundred, but those were no more believable than any other figures of troop strength given in any other battle report.
The true miracle of the event was the weather. For once the sun shone
brightly for the total five days that sutlers and soldiers were on hand to commemorate the history of the conflict. The final day temperature dropped twenty degrees to the high fifties, to give absolutely perfect sunshine and blue skies for a physically comfortable conclusion to the 24th annual reenactment of the Battle of Olustee.