February 19, 1864 (Friday)
President Lincoln had come up with the idea that if ten percent of a rebellious state’s population would again turn loyal to the Union, they could form a state government and begin the process of reconstruction. It was small, but it was a start. States such as Arkansas and Louisiana had already begun, and Florida was seen, like North Carolina, to be fertile ground for such wranglings.
Earlier in the month, the President sent his personal secretary, John Hay to northern Florida with the hope of collecting enough loyal bodies to lay the groundwork. Hay was accompanied by General Quincy Gillmore, who we last left in September, outside the fortifications of Charleston, South Carolina. Gillmore helmed the Department of the South, which included both Charleston and Florida.
In addition to Hay and Gillmore, a division of infantry, 5,500-strong, was dispatched from South Carlina, landing in Jacksonville on Florida’s eastern shore. They were commanded by General Truman Seymour, a West Point graduate from the storied Class of ’46 who was familiar with Florida, having fought in the Seminole Wars. Seymour was ordered by Gillmore to advance upon the town of Baldwin, about twenty miles west, “and, if possible, beyond.” He was warned that the Confederates were known to have a “small force of infantry and a battery between Jacksonville and Baldwin.”
Leaving Hilton Head, South Carlina on the 4th, they arrived in Jacksonville on the 7th, capturing over 100 prisoners and eight pieces of artillery. By the 11th, Seymour’s Division had arrived in Baldwin, but was hesitant to move farther inland. The Union sentiment that all thought would abound was simply missing. There had been talk of him advancing to Lake City, forty miles farther west, but at this point, he demurred, hearing that it was heavily defended.
“I am convinced that a movement upon Lake City is not, in the present condition of transportation, admissible,” reported Seymour to Gillmore, “and indeed that what has been said of the desire of Florida to come back now is a delusion.” He advised that his division be recalled and that only Jacksonville be held.
General Gillmore agreed that an advance upon Lake City was a bad idea, but wanted him to hold Baldwin while advancing to Sanderson, about halfway to Lake City. He even sent him the 54th Massachusetts to help.
The next day, the 12th, Seymour was in Sanderson destroying all the public property he could lay his hands upon. He had sent forward a brigade, which made it to within seven miles of Lake City, but was leery on doing more. That same day, General Gillmore, still in Jacksonville, received word of Confederate cavalry that might be playing for Seymour’s right flank. He ordered him to stop whatever it was that he was doing and concentrate at Baldwin.
Seymour, however, disagreed. He had heard nothing of any such force, and believed that if he retired from Sanderson, all would be lost and they would never again be able to advance. This was fine by Gillmore, who merely wanted to fortify Baldwin and leave it at that. And then communication between the two stopped. Gillmore naturally thought that Seymour would return to Baldwin, which he did – though only for a few days.
“I shall move on to-day,” wrote Seymour on the 16th. He planned on a five-day expedition from Baldwin to Lake City. The troops were to have cooked rations in the haversacks, and sixty rounds in the cartridge boxes. On the 17th, he wrote to Gillmore, telling him what he was about to do and requesting that a naval demonstration be made in the Savannah River. “I look upon this [demonstration] as of great importance,” wrote Seymour. He even boasted that by the time Gillmore received the letter, his column would be in motion.
In reply, coming the next day, Gillmore was stunned. There was no way at all he could orchestrate a naval demonstration in such little time. And that so much of what Seymour planned relied upon it was utterly absurd. “You must have forgotten my last instructions,” scolded Gillmore, “which were for the present to hold Baldwin….” He reminded Seymour that it was he who had decided that a movement upon Lake City was a bad idea.
Completely in the dark about what to do now, Gillmore restated his general philosophy on Florida, perhaps hoping that Seymour would see the light and call off the advance, which was already underway. The first priority was to bring Florida back into the fold with the aforementioned ten percent. Second, was to revive the trade along the St. John’s river. Third was to recruit freed slaves for the Union Army. And fourth was to cut off Confederate supply lines. He admitted that a raid to cut the railroad at Lake City would be useful if successful, but that at this time, he had no plans for that portion of the state.
Seymour’s march west did not go unnoticed. Confederate General Joseph Finegan, commanding in Lake City, had believed that the Federals were about to attack him over a week prior. If Seymour had advanced upon Lake City then, he would have found the Rebel ill-prepared. Since that time, however, General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding at Charleston, had sent a veteran brigade under Alfred Colquitt to bolster his numbers.
General Finegan reported on this date that ten Union regiments, with at least one mounted, were in his front. Beauregard seemed to disbelieve it. “Enemy’s forces should on no account be exaggerated,” he wrote in reply. “His [the enemy’s] regiments average 600 at most, composed largely of newly drafted men and recruits; not a match for one-half of our men.”
Again believing he was about to be attacked, Finegan ordered his engineers “to impress the required negroes and to collect such tools as might be procured from the surrounding plantations” to build defenses along the railroad ten miles east of Lake City, near Ocean Pond.
The line of works was impressive on paper, taking in the natural swells in the land, the lake, and the railroad. It would force the enemy to advance across an open field to reach the defenses. The only problem was that they would take time to finish, and time was running short. Come the next morning, it was clear that a Federal attack would be upon them. Fortunately, they had been reinforced by a brigade of veterans. This, Finegan trusted, would mean more than any escarpment or embrasure.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 35, Part 1, p111-112, 280-286, 293, 325, 338-339, 482-483, 620; Encyclopedia of the American Civil War by David S. Heidler – used for biographical information. [↩]