Confederate Victory in Florida Turns Ugly

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.

Litho of the battle (not really accurate).
Litho of the battle (not really accurate).

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.

Map of the battle
Map of the battle

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.

Here's an unmarked map to help you out.
Here’s an unmarked map to help you out.

“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.”

feb20battle

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.

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11 thoughts on “Confederate Victory in Florida Turns Ugly

  1. Had not before heard this story. Horrifying & sickening what happened to the wounded black soldiers.

  2. The recollection in 1901 of Penniman must be completely discredited.

    Fort Pillow occurred April 12, 1864, while Olustee occurred February 20, 1864- ie before Ft Pillow.

    Therefore no one could have have taken revenge for a brother shot at Ft Pillow in mind – it hadn’t happened yet. This is an example of the circumstantial evidence and bootsrapping used to revise historical perception to condemn Southerners.

    Just as Penniman was perforce falsely reporting, so too, must all the other statements be questioned. Given the tenor of the Anti-Confederate bias of subsequent history writers, none can be trusted.

    Similarly the public perception of Ft. Pillow itself is another example of this revisionism, often improperly misused to discredit Gen. Forrest.

    Gen Claiburne was so right when he wrote, “Every man should endeavor to understand the meaning of subjugation before it is too late… It means the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy; that our youth will be trained by Northern schoolteachers; will learn from Northern school books their version of the war; will be impressed by the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors, and our maimed veterans as fit objects for derision… It is said slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny, slavery is not all our enemies are fighting for. It is merely the pretense to establish sectional superiority and a more centralized form of government, and to deprive us of our rights and liberties.”

    — Maj. General Patrick R. Cleburne, CSA, January 1864, writing on what would happen if the Confederacy were to be defeated.

    Applying contemporary standards of behavior and analysis of motives to the actions of prior generations is a dangerous practice. Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman would all be war criminals by the standards of Nuremburg and the International Court of Justice today.

      1. Also, one of the CS accounts was written a month or so after the battle. But I assume that’s just Yankee trickery, right.

        You’re going to hate my well-documented account of Ft. Pillow where I use only contemporary accounts. Might want to consider finding yourself another blog that supports whatever flimsy thread of fantasy that you cling to.

      2. Eric, thanks for reading my post, but the report didn’t say which “Ft Pillow” – so here again, the natural assumption is suspect, which proves my point- you can not take these things at face value.

        But, in fact, Eric, the May 10, 1862 Battle of Ft. Pillow was, I believe, a naval engagement as part of the ongoing war for control of the Mississippi river. So, unless you have better proof of hand-to-hand combat with USCT troops, and what unit this man’s brother could have been with, I stick by my first analysis. Just to lighten up a bit, Eric my friend, let me say, “nice try, yourself”.

        Let’s face it: this was a second-hand remark, recalled some 35 years later. What sort of evidence is that? It is hearsay used to prove the truth of the statement made. We do not allow this as evidence- and it shouldn’t be cited in an article trying so desperately to prove that the Confederates were engaged in improper behavior – again, improper by today’s standards, and neglecting to account for the provocations and standards of the time.

        Even today’s military standards include reference to the legitimate targeting of escaping combatants, as in the Highway of Death in the Iraq War. It is the Andersonville Syndrome all over again. Blame the South First, when Elmira, Camp Douglas, Point Lookout, etc, were so much worse.

        When a writer has a clear motive and bias in showing Southerners as “the bad guys”, then all pretense of objectivity is lost. When the headline of a contemporary article is along the lines of “Florida battle turns ugly” – it is a tip-off that the writer will present matters in a revisionist light unfavorable to the defenders of Florida.

        What about the accusation of the Federals’ cynical use of the USCT, many of whom were poorly trained contrabands, as cannon fodder; and the order to remain as rear-guard, when that is universally acknowledged as the most vulnerable and fatal position, and not allowed to retreat or surrender?

        The Battle of Olustee, being at its 150th Anniversary, has received considerable publicity and scrutiny lately. I welcome further discussion about this battle which was important to Florida and the men involved, if not so much to the overall conflict.

        1. Fort something (the person who originally transcribed the account wasn’t sure what the word after “Fort” was) was mentioned by Penniman as something he heard. But he also vividly described something he saw. Even if he was mistaken about what someone said 35 years before, how likely is it that he would just fabricate such a story? Is there evidence that Penniman was a pathological liar? If so, then we can cast his account into question.

          Even if his was the only account, we might be able to dismiss it, but his was not the only one. There’s a Confederate account written a month or so after the battle in which the author tells his family that black prisoners were killed.

          This isn’t about slavery or about or misunderstanding of race relations. It’s about the killing of prisoners of war, which was admitted to by the comrades of those who did the killing. If you’ve got some evidence to specifically prove this wrong, please present it.

          1. Eric, The issue of Prisoners of War is appropriate to consider. But, there is a big “but”. Were there actually prisoners, or were there retreating or un-surrendered forces? Did General Seymour surrender his troops?

            As I said, the Highway of Death in Iraq shows, even today, the acceptance in military circles of the legitimate targeting of retreating troops. No one denies that killing anyone unnecessarily is a sad part of war – but it happens. If done deliberately, sometimes the guilty are discovered and punished, sometimes not. There is always an element of officers not being able to control their men. Need I mention Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea?

            Penniman’s statement must be discounted in its entirety- he is impeached and he can not be rehabilitated.

            If you’d allow me to read your “well-documented account”, perhaps we can continue. But, if you persist in calling my position a “flimsy flight of fantasy”, then I will know you are not going to be rational.

            When you resort to such inchoate authority followed by name-calling, you have just lost the argument. You have even lost the intellectual integrity to even submit an argument before an objective public. And more than that, you reveal a depth of Confederophobia which taints even others who would try to step in on your behalf. An objective judge will not countenance fallacies and personal attacks as legitimate rhetorical techniques.

            As a professor of logic once said: Be civil or be silent.

  3. David, according to the accounts given by the Confederates, these were prisoners of war.

    You seem to imply that I have some invented disease of “Confederaphobia.” You’ve clearly not been around very long. I take the North to task every bit as much as I take the South to task.

    You can read the account of Fort Pillow when it posts – on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Pillow. Maybe you don’t really understand how this blog works – I write about what happened 150 years ago to the day.

    I made no personal attacks (such as saying you suffer from a made up intellectual disease). I called into question what you deem to be historical.

    It’s clear you have some sort of agenda apart from actually learning about history. Maybe you’d feel more at home on a site that has a similar agenda.

    Thank you.

    1. Eric, Excuse me, but I consider “Might want to consider finding yourself another blog that supports whatever flimsy thread of fantasy that you cling to.” as a personal attack. Your refusal to give sources speaks for itself. I call Confederophobia when I see it.

      1. And I call a flimsy thread of fantasy when I see it.

        If by my “refusal to give sources” you mean the article I wrote about Fort Pillow ’64, again, you are going to have to wait until the 150th anniversary. It does speak for itself – it means that it’s not yet the 150th anniversary. That will be on April 12th. That’s how this blog works. Are you having trouble understanding this?

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