February 20, 1864 (Saturday)
The Federal troops before them were rumored to number as many as 12,000, while their own could hardly muster 4,000. It was only due to the Union troops’ slowness that the Confederates were able to bring together such numbers in Lake City, Florida. Marching out to meet the enemy, the Confederates, under the command of General Joseph Finegan, constructed breastworks near the small village of Olustee, bordering the oddly-named Ocean Pond.
Scouts had reported that the Federals were nearby and advancing, so Finegan dispatched a Georgia regiment to flesh things out. Moving from their defenses around noon, the Georgians marched over two miles to a railroad crossing just short of Olustee. It was there they discovered the Federals.
Confederate Cavalry had already met them and were being driven back. Seeing that it was much more than a single regiment to handle, General Alfred Colquitt, the rare political general with prior military experience from the Mexican War, was ordered to the front with his brigade. Colquitt’s troops were recent arrivals, having been shuttled from the defenses of Charleston by P.G.T. Beauregard in the nick of time.
“I threw forward a party of skirmishers,” wrote Colquitt in his official report, “and hastily formed line of battle under a brisk fire from the enemy’s advance.” His line, consisting entirely of Georgians, was ordered to advance, which, boasted Colquitt, “was gallantly done, the enemy contesting the ground and giving way slowly.”
As he was forming his lines, Colquitt sent a message to Col. George Harrison, commanding the brigade behind him, urging him to hurry. Victory was on the air, it was not yet in his grasp.
This was all well and good, but Colquitt was certain it wouldn’t last and called back to Finegan for more reinforcements. Harrison’s Brigade joined the line, rushing in at the double-quick to fall in on the left.
Colquitt and Harrison’s men drove the Yankees about a quarter of mile, the stubborn foe making the Rebels pay for every foot of blood soaked ground. And here they stood, blasting away at each other, neither side giving way, and each raining iron and death upon their opposing. This continued for an hour. Harrison’s aide-de-camp was killed, and one of his couriers had his horse shot out from under him.
Being outnumbered, and with reinforcements not yet arrived, Colquitt ordered a general advance, led by a small Florida Battalion on his right. The Federals began to give way, slowly at first, but it seemed general enough. “But soon a new line of the enemy appeared,” explained Harrison in his report, “and our advance was checked. His resistance now seemed more stubborn than before for more than twenty minutes, when the enemy sullenly gave back a little, apparently to seek a better position, but still held us at bay. Now the results of the day seemed doubtful.”
Rumors skittered up and down the Rebels lines that several regiments were low on ammunition and that no ordnance train was nearby to replenish their cartridge boxes. Col. Harrison sent word to General Colquitt, but the latter urged all to hold their ground. Both had faith that General Finegan would soon deliver the needed ammunition.
The rumors turned out to be terrifyingly true. Many men stood defenseless for as many as twenty minutes without a single round on their person. All the while, Harrison and others made trip after trip to the railcars carrying ammunition – a distance of a half mile there and back again. Before long (though it must have seemed like an eternity for those without), the entire line was once again firing at will. Now was when the Yankees began to give way.
The requested reinforcements had arrived, though it was only a handful of regiments and a couple pieces of artillery. This, however, was enough. “These re-enforcements,” wrote Harrison, “served to embolden our men and intimidate the enemy, for their retreat now became more hurried and their fire less rapid and effective.”
Smelling blood, General Colquitt ordered Harrison to throw forward two regiments upon the right flank of the enemy. This movement “succeeded admirably, for soon their right was exposed to a cross-fire, which told upon their ranks with fine effect. A general advance of our line now drove the enemy, who retreated, at first sullenly, but now precipitately, before our victorious arms for some miles, when night came on, and by order of General Colquitt we ceased firing and our line halted.”
The Federal forces, commanded in the field by General Truman Seymour, were whipped. The losses were staggering, eventually being tallied to 34% – 203 killed, 1,152 wounded, and 506 missing. Seymour’s command contained three regiments of black troops. Entering the fight, the 35th United States Colored Troops, under Lt. Col. William Reed were mauled by Rebel fire. Reed was “mortally wounded while managing his regiment with conspicuous skill,” wrote Seymour after the battle, “and his major was severely hurt.” The 8th United States Colored Troops faired even worse. Their colonel, Charles W. Fribley, realized that they couldn’t hold back the Rebels, had called for a retreat.
“Colonel Fribley,” remembered an officer in the 8th, “now ordered the regiment to fall back slowly, which we did, firing as we retired, being unable to withstand so disastrous a fire. The order had just reached me on the extreme right when the colonel fell mortally wounded. The command now devolved on Major Burritt, who soon received two wounds and retired from the field, the regiment at this time engaging the enemy with steadiness, and holding the ground for some time near Hamilton’s battery, which we were trying to save. We here lost 3 color-sergeants and 5 of the color guard while attempting to save one gun, but we were driven back, leaving the gun and, as I afterward learned, the color beside it during the excitement.”
As the 8th retired, the remaining black regiment, the famed 54th Massachusetts, moved in to replace them. The 54th opened upon the Rebels as rapid fire. “The left of the enemy’s line,” continued Seymour, “was forced backward, and in the hope of still effecting my original intention, the First North Carolina (35th United States Colored Troops) was brought up to the right….” Here is where their colonel died and with him Seymour’s claim for victory.
General Seymour had nothing but praise for his black regiments. “The colored troops behaved creditably,” he wrote, “the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts and the First North Carolina like veterans. It was not in their conduct that can be found the chief cause of failure, but in the unanticipated yielding of a white regiment form which there was every reason to expect noble service, and at the moment when everything depended upon its firmness.” He blamed the white regiment’s failure upon “conscripts and substitutes, of a very inferior class.”
The Federals left behind their killed, many wounded, and hundreds more who had been captured by the Rebels. The white prisoners were treated well, swapping stories of the battle with their captors. “The Yankee prisoners say they had no idea of meeting with such a force here,” wrote Private James Jordan of the 27th Georgia the day after the battle. “They said they did not expect to meet nothing but cavalry here.”
The black prisoners, however, might have been treated much worse. Private Jordan continued: “The negroes were badly cut up and killed. Our men killed some of them after they had fell in our hands wounded.” A 2nd Lt. in a Georgia regiment nonchalantly wrote home that “at least two hundred negroes and Yankees lay dead on the field.” He made sure to differentiate between the two.
William Frederick Penniman of the 4th Georgia Cavalry, observed the field of battle, and remembered it in a 1901 missive, where he picked up shortly after the Federal retreat:
A young officer was standing in the road in front of me and I asked him, “What is the meaning of all this firing I hear going on?” His reply to me was, “Shooting niggers Sir. I have tried to make the boys desist but I can’t control them”. I made some answer in effect that it seemed horrible to kill the wounded devils, and he again answered, “That’s so Sir, but one young fellow over yonder told me the niggers killed his brother after being wounded, at Fort Billow [Pillow?], and he was twenty three years old, that he had already killed nineteen and needed only four more to make the matter even, so I told him to go ahead and finish the job”. I rode on but the firing continued.
The next morning I had occasion to go over the battlefield again quite early, before the burial squads began their work, when the results of the shooting of the previous night became quite apparent. Negroes, and plenty of them, whom I had seen lying all over the field wounded, and as far as I could see, many of them moving around from place to place, now without a motion, all were dead. If a negro had a shot in the shin another was sure to be in the head.
A very few prisoners were taken, and but a few at the prison pen. One ugly big black buck was interrogated as to how it happened that he had come back to fight his old master, and upon his giving some very insolent reply, his interrogator drew back his musket, and with the butt gave him a blow that killed him instantly. A very few of the wounded were placed on the surgeons operating table- their legs fairly flew off, but whether they were at all seriously wounded I have always had my doubt.
Sources: Official Records, Series 1, vol. 35, Part 1, p289, 312, 315, 340, 344, 349-350; Reminiscences of the Battle of Olustee by Lawrence Jackson; Excerpt from the Reminiscences of Captain William Penniman; Letter by 2nd Lt. Hugh Barclay, 23rd Georgia — 25 February 1864; Letter by Pvt. James Jordan, 27th Georgia — 21 February 1864.