On December 8th, 1863, with a forward eye to reconciliation and the reconstruction of loyal state governments, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation offering amnesty to the citizens of states still actively in rebellion upon the swearing of an oath of allegiance. With the ultimate intention of readmitting state governments loyal to the Union cause, the proclamation provided for the re-establishment of state governments upon 10% of a rebelling state's voting population taking the pledge. With a voting population of approximately 15,000, the state of Florida, and it's seemingly attainable 10%, was viewed as a prime choice for such an endeavor.
For Major General Quincy Gillmore, commanding the Department of the South, Lincoln's proclamation must have appeared as a ray of light in an otherwise dismal gloom. More than seven months of active operations against Charleston had yielded nothing for the beleaguered commander other than a few scrubby barrier islands, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars in spent munitions, damaged equipment and a butcher's bill of nearly 2,000 men dead, wounded and depleted from illness. Lincoln's proclamation came as an opportunity to put a shine on an otherwise failed campaign. Corresponding directly with the president in January, 1864, the groundwork was laid for an invasion of the Sunshine State using the forces then stagnating outside Charleston Harbor.
By February, 1864, Gillmore's ambition resulted in a strategic movement of nearly 6,000 troops from coastal South Carolina to eastern Florida. Occupying Jacksonville on February 7th, the expedition, under the command of Brigadier General Truman Seymour, pushed inland toward the heart of the Rebel state, with the goal to "inaugurate measures for the speedy restoration of Florida to her allegiance, in accordance with instructions which I had received from the President..."
Matching this deployment, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard ordered his own movement of troops from Charleston, sending a brigade of Georgians, under the command of Brigadier General Alfred Colquitt, from their position defending the city, south to Florida by way of Savannah. With Florida's fighting men all but gone in support of the Confederate field armies in Virginia and Tennessee, Beauregard's reinforcements were necessary to mount any effective defense against Gillmore's invading column. Battle between the two commanders, long delayed by months of siege, would soon be met in the scrubby timberland of the Sunshine State.
The Florida Expedition, as seen in a March, 1864 print in Harper's Weekly.
Watching the embarkation of this Florida Expedition from their camp on Folly Island, South Carolina, the 75th Ohio Volunteer Infantry would appear to be missing out on the show. Despite not having a ticket for the trip south, however, the Buckeyes would actually end up firing the first shots in support of Gillmore's Florida Expedition, receiving their own marching orders to attack the peripheral defenses of Charleston in an attempt to dissuade further reinforcement from that sector.
Departing for "parts unknown" the regiment left camp on Folly Island on the evening of February 7th, 1864, to demonstrate against the southern defenses of Charleston, by way of John's Island. For four days, the Buckeyes skirmished heavily with Confederates positioned in the entrenchments on the island, throwing the city's defenders into a panic.
Although gaining no ground against the city itself, the operation yielded surprising success at a minimal cost. With frantic urgency, Beauregard wired for the recall of his Florida-bound column, resulting in the return of General Alfred Colquitt's Georgians and forcing their redeployment to the Buckeye's front. While Colquett's Georgia brigade would eventually reembark trains for Florida, upon the withdrawal of the Buckeyes, they were more than a week delayed in their arrival.
Recalling the expedition in a letter home, Lt. Oscar Ladley, Co. G, 75th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, provides the narrative for the first combat action of the regiment since the fighting at Gettysburg the previous summer.
Lt. Oscar Ladley, Co. G, 75th Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Folly Island S.C.
Dear Mother & Sisters
I wrote you last week previous to starting on an expedition to parts unknown.
Well we left here on Sunday night on board transports for "Kiawah Island" which is just across the inlet. We then marched all night and halted at day light. We were not allowed to build any fires, as the orders were previous to starting that rations of hard bread, cooked meat was all that could be taken. We took no coffee, so had no especial need of fires except to warm by. We lay all day very quiet until after dark when the orders were to advance. Our Regt. were in advance of the column. We marched very fast captured several of their pickets at the South West end of "Kiawah". We then waded an inlet which was waist deep and very cold. We were then on "Seabrook" Island. We advanced about five miles and threw out skirmishers.
It was then beginning to get light and we found ourselves near a large plantation house with a large sugar mill and Negro quarters scattered around, this was on "St. James Island" and there being a bridge there we crossed over by the flank. Previous to this we had been marching in column by company. Well we had not more than got over, when bang, bang, went a hundred or so of muskets right amongst us. Gen. Ames was riding at head of the Regt. He immediately ordered Col. Harris to send out a company of skirmishers. Capt. Morey started with his and had not got deployed before Ames says send another, and had not more than started until he orders another.
By this time the shots were coming faster and thicker, and Ames says send them all out double quick! And the rebels set up their peculiar yell to scare us, as they said afterwards they had done with the dutch that came there once before, but our fellows gave a long and loud cheer and charged right over their rifle pits, and the rebs started and we after them. We followed them about four miles until we were completely exhausted and we halted for a short rest. We captured ten nice horses, and several rebels and a few minor articles. Capt. Morey, with Co. G & B got four horses of the ten.
In the afternoon we advanced and went under their artillery fire for some time. In the evening we fell back to the plantation house. The next day we advanced again and had another "bout" with the enemy and the next the same, and the next. Thursday night we set fire to the building and the bridge and withdrew, marching all night and fording the inlet again, arriving in camp Friday afternoon about 4 P.M. All very tired and hungry, and if I remember right a little sleepy.
The Regt. has seven wounded but none killed. This time we have been very lucky in not having more hurt. Heretofore our loss has been seventy-five to one hundred and fifty. The object of the expedition was to attract the attention of the enemy and to keep reinforcements from moving against Gen. Gillmore who has gone to Florida. John Ginn was along and came off safely as did all that you know. The orderly Sergeant of Co. G was struck by a spent ball in the stomach and knocked over. He was some what stunned but recovered by night. Dinner is ready and I am hungry so I will close for the present.
Dinner is over and I will resume. As usual the German population played the Devil. They acted as usual and every one knows what that is. Our Regt. has an excellent name down on this island and still better since this little fight.
When the Brigade first came here Gen. Terry reviewed it, and of course they looked rather hard just out of the Gettysburg campaign and off Transports. He remarked that they wanted soldiers down here, they didn't want ragamuffins. Gen. Ames heard it & remarked at the same time pointing towards Ft. Sumpter that he could take that pile of bricks with them. The men all like him very much.
Well I will close,
Ladley , O. D. (1864). Letter and letter fragment, 1864 February, Oscar D. Ladley to Mother and Sisters [Catherine, Mary, and Alice Ladley]