Olustee Station, Florida
February 20, 1864
The Battle of Olustee
From an 1894 lithograph by Kurz & Allison
Smoke still lingered under the pine topped canopy as the shift for blame began. Disobeying Major General Quincy Gillmore's orders to hold a position closer to Jacksonville, Brigadier General Truman Seymour pressed the Florida Expedition west toward Lake City, Fl. on the morning of February 20th, 1864, with little mind to the growing Confederate resistance to his front. By 2:30 in the afternoon his leading regiments were engaged in a general contest with a determined Confederate defense. So unprepared were the advancing Federals that one regiment broke and ran having not fired a shot. Another, only months into their service, lacked the proper training to effectively fire their weapons and were shot down with little answer, leaving their colors on the field as they withdrew in confusion. Despite stubborn resistance by individual units, the largely untested soldiers of the Florida Expedition were simply outfought by the overwhelmingly seasoned force of veterans opposing them.
A failure across all levels, the Florida Expedition, some 5,500 strong, was pounced upon by 5,000 Confederates under overall command of Brigadier General Joseph Finegan of Florida, supported by Brigadier General Alfred Colquitt, lately arrived from Charleston, defeating three Federal brigades in detail. By evening, Gillmore's ambitions for the Florida Campaign were set in reverse, his invading column trudging the 40 miles back to the safety afforded by the gunboats anchored in the St. John's River at Jacksonville. In their wake lay 1,861 dead, wounded and captured, along with five pieces of artillery and more than 1,600 small arms left to the enemy. The defeat was total and devastating.
The news of the defeat at Olustee traveled quickly, and by the morning of February 22nd, 1864, the rumors had reached the camp of the 75th Ohio Volunteer Infantry on Folly Island, S.C. With word of the Florida Expedition's repulse came orders to reinforce the crippled expedition against what seemed like an inevitable assault by the victorious Confederate forces then amassing in Florida. For the veteran Buckeyes, the severity of the emergency was made clear when they were instructed to leave behind all unnecessary baggage. Knapsacks would be slung and the dreaded "shelter-half" would be all the allotted tentage. By February 24th, they were bivouacked on the western outskirts of Jacksonville, digging in and maintaining a vigilant watch against the expected attack.
Water Street, Jacksonville, Florida - Spring, 1864
Broken windows, ransacked warehouses and the charred remains of civilian dwellings were all that remained of the once thriving city.
Florida's largest city before the war, Jacksonville was little more than a burned out husk when the Buckeyes arrived on February 24th. A front line city since the first Federal gunboats crossed the bar into the St. John's River in March of 1862, Jacksonville had been torched twice (once by Southern partisans and once by Federal soldiers) and occupied four times by invading Federal forces in the proceeding two years. With citizens scattered and commerce at a standstill, the handful of remaining local residents clung to a meager existence among the ruins.
Immediately following the defeat at Olustee, the city became the point of convergence for 12,000 Federal soldiers, frantically engaged in construction of defensive works. By April, eight artillery positions connected by a perimeter of earthworks and rifle pits stretched around three sides of Jacksonville, with the river guarded by a picket of gunboats. Less a civilian city than an armed camp, the defenses of Jacksonville mounted upwards of 18 heavy siege guns at the height of the emergency.
Opposite the Federal lines, some 14 miles to the west, Confederate forces under General P.G.T. Beauregard gathered, approximately 8,000 strong, having further reinforced Florida from Charleston and Savannah. Beauregard's engineers, well seasoned in the craft of building defensive works in the vicinity of Charleston Harbor, set to building their own line of defense, just east of Baldwin, Fl., constructing a defensive line that Federal officers would later describe as "solidly constructed and beautifully finished." The space between Fortress Jacksonville and Camp Milton, as the Southern position was christened, had become a no-man's land, occupied only by increasingly nervous patrols and the occasional deserter.
The defenses of Jacksonville, as they appeared by April, 1864.
Writing home to family in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Lt. Oscar Ladley, Co. G, 75th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, reports the situation of the Buckeyes from their new post at Jacksonville, Florida.
Dear Mother & Sisters,
March 14th 1864
Having nothing particular to occupy myself with this afternoon I thought I could not do better than to write you a few lines. I received a letter from you last week which I have answered. You stated that you had not heard from me for a good long time. I have written every week and some time oftener. I wrote one from Folly Island the night we left, another aboard the "Sentinel," the vessel that brought us here and one since that. I sent $20 in one to you, $10 in the one I sent to Mary, five for her & five for Ally. I have forgotten whether I said any thing about it or not.
We still "stand to arms" every morning one hour before day in anticipation of an attack from the "Johneys" a name the "rebs" go by. We have fortified this place and think we can hold it, but I think the enemy have a larger force than we have, though they are much dissatisfied if deserters are to be believed, and they are very plenty. There is not a day passes but some come in to our lines, they all tell about the same story.
Oranges are quite plenty here, but they are the sour kind. Sweet ones are not ripe this time of year, they ripen in the summer or fall. This is a most beautiful place, every street has fine shade trees from one end to the other generally live oak. The streets are laid off regular and the buildings are generally good.
We were ordered here without tents or baggage & we have been here three weeks without a change of clothing and you can imagine that we are not a very handsome set of fellows, with raged clothes & complexion of a copper colored negro.
We gather no more shells as we are inland, but I want to send you what I have. I have done up the half of a "cockle" shell and a small "conch" and a few smaller kinds for different persons in Young Springs and amongst them Mr. Lawrence, they are very few, but it is the best I can do as my valise does not hold more than I want it to.
Well I must close.
Jacksonville's front line, 1864. The outer line of rifle pits extend just beyond the abatis obstructing the road at the center of the image above.
Ladley , O. D. (1864). Letter, 1864 March 14, Oscar D. Ladley to Mother and Sisters [Catherine, Mary, and Alice Ladley].