The Battle of Olustee took place in the open pine woods between today’s cities of Lake City and Jacksonville on February 20, 1864. A stunning Confederate victory, the engagement was Florida’s largest Civil War battle and dashed Union dreams of conquering the state in time for its electoral votes to count in the 1864 Presidential Election.
The site is preserved through a joint effort of Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park and the Osceola National Forest. Visitors to the park can explore a small museum, walk along the extensive battle lines and see the mass grave where hundreds of Union soldiers were buried. It is on Historic U.S. Highway 90 fifteen miles east of Lake City, Florida.
The events leading to the battle developed in political strategy meetings in the White House of President Abraham Lincoln. Concerned about his chances for reelection, Lincoln and his advisors devised a plan to invade Florida and return that state to the Union in time for the 1864 elections.
Because Florida was lightly defended, it was thought that a military occupation of at least the eastern portions of the state might prove relatively bloodless.
Launched by sea from Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, the invasion came ashore at Jacksonville. Occupying the city, Union troops easily drove away the small Confederate forces in the area and occupied a permanent Confederate camp near the city.
What followed, however, was a fiasco of the first order. Disobeying orders to remain on the defensive, Union Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour marched west the St. Johns River with an army of nearly 5,500 men. Included among his regiments was the famed African American unit, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry.
Seymour’s objectives were Lake City and the railroad bridge over the Suwannee River. His advance took place along the Lake City and Jacksonville Road, a dirt path that roughly paralleled the Florida and Atlantic-Gulf Central Railroad. As the Union army advanced, Confederate cavalry skirmished and fell back ahead of it, drawing the Federals toward the main Southern army that was forming at Olustee.
Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan hoped to fight a defensive battle and had ordered Confederate engineers to supervise the building of a line of earthworks at Olustee Station. The line stretched from Ocean Pond on the north to a large swamp south of the railroad. It was not a particularly strong line, but in a country that offered few natural advantages for defense it would have to do.
Thanks to quick action by Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, Southern troops had flooded south from Savannah and Charleston to join Finegan’s beleaguered command. Beauregard successfully disguised the fact that he was pulling men from his main lines to reinforce Florida and by the time Seymour advanced on February 20, 1864, the Confederates also had an army of around 5,000 men in place and ready for battle.
Finegan’s plan was to draw the advancing Union army to his fortifications at Olustee Station, but a different opportunity presented itself. The Confederate advance forces showed signs of stopping the Federals several miles to the east of Finegan’s earthworks. He sent Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Colquitt forward with additional troops and a sharp battle developed in the open pine woods with the Confederates quickly achieving tactical advantage.
Colquitt showed great tactical skill by overlapping both flanks of the developing Union line. A double envelopment was a rare thing in actual combat bu the Confederates achieved one quickly at Olustee and maintained it throughout the battle. As Seymore sent more of his regiments forward in a piecemeal fashion, Colquitt poured in more Confederate infantry and artillery.
Finegan recognized the advantage that Colquitt had achieved and moved his entire army forward. The Confederates engaged in a fierce stand-up firefight in open pine woods along a line of battle that stretched over one mile. At one point the main Southern line of battle ran out of ammunition but the soldiers held their position under galling Union fire until more could be brought forward.
The Union lines began to crumble and the battle turned into a rout. Seymour threw forward the 54th Massachusetts Infantry in a desperate attempt to save his army. The African American soldiers fought hard but the Confederate advance could not be stopped. The Union army retreated rapidly, falling back up the railroad in a retreat to safety. Wounded soldiers were saved by members of the 54th and other black regiments who loaded them aboard train cars that they pushed away from the battlefield by hand because no locomotives were available.
Seymour’s army sustained roughly 40% casualties at Olustee. It was the greatest loss in percent of total force suffered by a Union army during the entire Civil War. He left the Confederates in complete command of the battlefield where the bodies of hundreds of men, both killed and wounded, littered the scene.
More than 200 Union soldiers were killed in the fighting and buried in a mass grave on the battlefield. The Federals also lost 1,152 wounded and 506 missing. Most of the missing were taken as prisoners of war. Many of them wound up at Camp Sumter, the Confederate prison camp at today’s Andersonville National Historic Site.
Confederate losses were about half those of the Union army. Finegan’s command lost 93 killed, 847 wounded and 3 missing or captured.
The massive number of wounded from the Battle of Olustee stretched Confederate medical resources to the breaking point. Injured soldiers were spread out to hospitals across Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Many died of their wounds and were buried in local cemeteries across the region. The generals of each side also protested that some of their wounded had been murdered in the late stages of the battle by soldiers of the opposite side.
The massive Confederate victory at Olustee ended the first major Union attempt to penetrate the interior of Florida. Subsequent attempts ended at the Battle of Marianna on September 27, 1864, and the Battle of Natural Bridge on March 6, 1865. Florida’s electoral votes remained lost to Lincoln in the 1864 election, despite the price paid in blood to obtain them.
Olustee Battlefield State Park is at 5890 Battlefield Trail Road, Sanderson, Florida. See the map at the bottom of this page for directions. The park is open daily throughout the year and the interpretive center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Florida recently unveiled plans to build a new Visitor Center and museum at the park.
To learn more about the Battle of Olustee and see video from the annual reenactment, please enjoy our mini-documentary: