“Headquarters, District of Florida, Department of the South,
Jacksonville, FLA., March 10, 1864.
General Orders No. 13.
The brigadier-general commanding recurs with great satisfaction to the conduct of his troops in their late battle, and desires to convey to them in the most public manner his full appreciation of their courage on that well-contested field. Against superior numbers holding a position by themselves, you were all but successful. For four hours you stood face to face with the enemy; and when the battle ended, and it ceased only with night, you sent him cheers of defiance. In your repulse there was perhaps misfortune, but neither disaster nor disgrace; and every officer and soldier may remember with just pride that he fought at Olustee.” By order of, Brigadier-General [Truman] Seymour”
As described above by Brigadier-General Truman Seymour, commanding the Northern forces at Olustee, also known as the battle at Ocean Pond at the South, his troops fought admirably though overpowered by more numerous Southern forces. Olustee is about 40 miles west of Jacksonville, Florida.
From occupied Jacksonville, Gen. Seymour was leading a well-equipped force of 5500 men, which included New York, New Hampshire and Connecticut regiments, plus the Eighth US Colored Infantry, Fifty-fourth Massachusetts colored regiment, and nearly three batteries of artillery.
It is noteworthy that the force included the Second South Carolina of infamous Kansas Jayhawker Col. James Montgomery, who just returned from occupied Key West after conscripting 120 black men into his regiment.
The black regiments were sent by Gen. David Hunter at occupied Hilton Head, who ordered the commanders “to carry the Proclamation of Freedom to the enslaved; to call all loyal men into the service of the United States; to occupy as much of Florida as possible; and to neglect no means consistent with the usages of civilized warfare to weaken, harass, and annoy those who are in rebellion against the United States.”
The Northern forces outnumbered the opposing 5000 Southern troops of Florida and Georgia – including four guns of Savannah’s Chatham Artillery. The Florida troops were commanded by Brigadier-General Joseph Finegan; the Georgia troops by Brigadier-General Alfred Colquitt.
By 1:30PM Seymour’s force was advancing in three columns against the entrenched Confederates, and soon a tremendous fire was being poured into the front rank of the Seventh Connecticut Regiment on the right, which broke and ran to the rear. On the left, the same fire was directed at the Eighth US Colored Infantry which also broke and swept rearward – “the head of the Northern army had been simply battered in.”
A brigade of New York troops then moved forward through those running to the rear, only to be engulfed in the sustained and well-directed fire of the Georgians and Floridians. After the Northern field artillery had opened its initial barrage, it became ineffective as gunners were picked off and many horses were shot.
On the Southern side, the Sixth and Thirty-second Georgia regiments stood firm under fire for nearly twenty minutes awaiting more ammunition, then joined the steady advance of the Confederate line pushing the Northerners into retreat. By 5PM and daylight waning in the pine woods, the bluecoats were in full retreat toward Jacksonville after losing 1,861 killed, wounded and missing in the battle; the Confederates loss was 946 total.
Col. J.R. Hawley of the Seventh Connecticut reported “the black men stood to be killed or wounded – losing more than 300 out of 500.” It is unlikely that any cheers of defiance were heard from those hurriedly retreating.
Regarding the latter, the history of black troops fighting the North’s war effort is most perplexing.
Noted abolitionist Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, commanding the First South Carolina Regiment of black troops at Olustee, earlier wrote:
“[Northern] white officers and soldiers were generally opposed to the experiment, and filled the ears of the Negroes with the same tales which had been told by their masters – that the Yankees really meant to sell them to Cuba, and the like. The mildest threats were that they would be made to work without pay (which turned out to be the case), and that they would be put in the front rank in every battle. Nobody could assume them that they and their families would be freed by the Government, if they fought for it, since no such policy had been adopted.”
But it is clear that the primary purpose of the Florida expedition was to destroy both the agricultural and livestock production of that State and thus deprive Southern armies of needed food. This was in part accomplished by capturing the Africans working interior plantations, with an additional benefit of enlisting, or if that failed, conscripting those workers into colored regiments as laborers or workers. Observing black troops in blue was thought to encourage black workers to more readily abandon their crops and white families they grew up with.
This strategy was not new as Virginia’s Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, issued his emancipation proclamation in November 1775 to Africans who would repair to His Majesty’s banners.
Lincoln’s War Department issued instructions to Gen. Rufus Saxton on August 25, 1862 for the same purpose as Dunmore in 1775 – to deprive his enemy of agricultural workers, obtain laborers and possibly soldiers. The 1862 message included “The population of African descent that cultivate the lands and perform the labor of the rebels constitute a large share of their military strength, and enable the white masters to fill the rebel armies, and wage a cruel and murderous war against the Northern States.” This was a military decision, not a moral one.
The ultimate irony is that African slaves certainly knew who forced their ancestors to endure the infamous Middle Passage to America. It was England, and later New England — the transatlantic slave trade operated by the fathers and grandfathers of their new abolitionist friends. How could the African now trust the descendants of those who carried them in chains from slavery in Africa to slavery in America?