Sunday, February 14, 2010

Olustee: February 20, 1864

From Civil War Battles and Battlefields

I have driven past the battlefield of Olustee a number of times on my way to or from my mom's place in Florida, usually in a hurry to get there or get home. We had a few extra days on our last visit. Despite intermittent rain showers, my wife and set out on the short loop trail of the battlefield.

A small battle by any measure, Olustee, fought on February 20, 1864, stands out for several reasons. Though only about 5000 troops were engaged on each side, Federal forces suffered losses of almost 40% . Rebel reinforcements arrived by rail to turn the tide of battle. And according to one battlefield interpretive marker, General Alfred H. Colquitt mounted a heavy cannon on a flatcar. It's steady, deliberate fire wreaked havoc on the Federal infantry.

Finally, as the Federal line disintegrated, Brigadier General Truman Seymour commited a reserve brigade under Colonel James Montgomery including the 54th Massachusetts regiment. The 54th fought a desperate rearguard action and prevented a total rout of Federal forces from the field. Some of these men, as well as other soldiers of the USCT wounded or captured at Olustee, suffered grim fates at the hands of Confederate soldiers in the aftermath of battle.

The state park contains a small museum and self-guided loop trail. The terrain is devoid of any elevation and the entire battle area is covered in tall pine woods carpeted with palmettos. Signage along the trail details the course of the battle. It seems the lopsided results of this fight may be laid squarely at the feet of the Federal commander. Seymour committed his troops piecemeal, and also lost most of his artillery early in the fight.

While the battle derailed Federal efforts in Florida, it's overall impact on the course of the war was negligible. Nevertheless, like so many minor engagements, it provides unique stories of courage, folly, and sacrifice, and has earned a place in our collective memory.