Florida’s biggest and bloodiest Civil War battle is remembered each President’s Day weekend by thousands of reenactors who come to Osceola National Forest to recreate the Battle of Olustee. The overconfident Union troops suffered a major defeat in the open forest east of Lake City, dashing any hope of returning Florida to the Union before the war’s end.
Setting out from Jacksonville, which had been captured by Union soldiers, General Truman Seymour and his 5,500 men were under orders to disrupt Confederate supply lines, raid equipment, and free slaves. But having faced little opposition in Florida, he disobeyed orders and decided instead to march toward the capital in Tallahassee. His troops marched straight into disaster on February 20, 1864 when they met the Confederate army in an open pine forest sandwiched between a large pond and an impassable swamp.
Word of Seymour’s activities got out, and a confederate expeditionary force was dispatched from Hilton Head to address the threat. Brigadier General Joseph Finnegan was joined by additional troops from Charleston under the command of General Alfred H. Colquitt. With advance knowledge of the Union approach, 5,000 Confederates prepared for battle near Ocean Pond with 16 cannons ready for action and Calvary on both flanks.
Drawn into battle by Confederate skirmishes, the Union troops faced hours of withering fire in an open forest that offered little in the way of natural defense. The battle lines stretched a mile wide.
Thinking they were only facing militia, Seymour and his troops found themselves wedged in a narrow gap of open forest wedged between a swamp and a pond. After holding back much of his force, he fully committed in the afternoon only to face withering cannon fire.
Union forces pushed back and held out until darkness before retreating back to Jacksonville. Had the Confederates pursued them in earnest, the Union troops might have been decimated. Instead, they waited out the remainder of the Civil War in Jacksonville.
In relative terms, the Battle of Olustee was the second most bloody battle in the Civil War. The Confederates suffered 93 dead, 847 wounded and 6 missing. The Union troops, however, suffered 203 dead, 1152 wounded and 506 missing. It was a devastating blow to Union forces.
The dead Confederate soldiers were buried in Oaklawn near Lake City. The Union dead were buried in mass graves. While the Battle of Olustee raised the spirits of the South and kept the Union from taking the State of Florida, it wasn’t enough to change the outcome of the war.
In addition to the reenactment, the Battle of Olustee events on President’s Day weekend also include historic encampments, period music, surgical demonstrations, drills and parades and a variety of arts, crafts and entertainment.
Side Trip: Outside the State Park, The Olustee Depot was a hub of activity for passengers, as well as the bustling timber and agriculture enterprises along the railroad between Jacksonville to Alligator (which would later be renamed Lake City.) This region once produced as much as 20 percent of the world’s turpentine. The depot was abandoned in the 1960s and has more recently been restored. It now serves as the visitor’s center at the entrance to Osceola National Forest. The depot is open Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and admission is free. Click for more info.
Olustee Battle Event Information:
The Battle of Olustee will be commemorated Friday, February 16 to Sunday February 18, with battle reenactments on 3:30 Saturday and Sunday.
5815 Battlefield Trail Road
Olustee, FL 32087
Adults – $10
School-age children – $5
Pre-school age children – FREE
Parking is limited and shuttle services run from the Lake City Airport and Baker County Prison Center. The round trip shuttle is $2 for adults, $1 for students and free for children 5 and younger.
Unless otherwise attributed, photos are copyrighted by Michael Warren. All rights reserved.