This month, it’s Olustee and Lake City, Fla.’s turn. For the past few years, from Manassas to Gettysburg, Civil War battlefields and surrounding cities have reaped increased attendance for the sesquicentennial reenactments and commemorations of these battles.
During a mid-February weekend, Olustee will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the only major Civil War battle in Florida, the closest of the war’s major conflicts to Valdosta.
Lake City and Columbia County, Fla., have hosted a reenactment and festival centered on the Olustee battle for nearly 40 years. Typically, in recent years, the Olustee Battle Festival & Annual Reenactment attracts an average of 60,000 people to this North Florida region. For the 150th anniversary, Harvey Campbell, Columbia County, Fla., Tourist Development Council executive director, expects the event to experience approximately a 50 percent increase from past festivals. Organizers expect nearly 100,000 visitors for the three-day Olustee event.
The re-enactment takes place on the actual battlefield. This is rare because the park services are allowing fewer events on many Civil War battlefields. Organizers traditionally erect bleachers for spectators along the battlefield, giving views of the action which are similar to how people might watch a football game. With thousands of people in the bleachers, they cheer for their side, the North or the South.
To transport the crowds, buses are available. There are demonstrations and camp-life from the Civil War era. There are impersonators posing as Civil War figures, such as Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, who were not present at Olustee but make for a more exceptional experience.
All to commemorate “the only significant battle in Florida,” Campbell says. A battle that lasted a short time but took a blistering toll.
By the afternoon of Feb. 20, 1864, a Confederate force of approximately 5,000 men and several cannon drew 5,500 Union soldiers with 16 cannons to the forest floor of virgin pines in Olustee, Fla.
The Confederate line was centered by infantry flanked by cavalry on each side. By evening, the Rebs had won the day. The Yankees retreated.
The Battle of Olustee was a short but deadly skirmish that left casualties of 1,861 Union soldiers and 946 Confederate soldiers. These were by no means the highest casualties of a Civil War battle, but given the number of troops involved, it was proportionately one of the war’s bloodiest encounters.
Following the fall of Vicksburg, Florida proved invaluable in providing resources to the Confederate states and rebel troops. Florida provided the majority of beef, leather, fish and other foods and materials.
Union troops wanted to sever and choke this supply line. Initiated in February 1864, Union Gen. Truman A. Seymour left Hilton Head, S.C., with the objective of occupying Jacksonville, Fla., disrupting supply lines and accomplishing other endeavors. Stationed in Jacksonville, Union scouts and raiders moved westward through Florida with little opposition.
Opposition brewed as the Confederacy planned the defense of Florida. Confederate Brigadier Generals Joseph Finegan and Alfred Colquitt were charged with halting the Union’s westward expansion in Florida.
They sought a site suited for this objective. Finegan found Olustee. He liked a narrow passage with Ocean Pond, a lake, on its left and a mired swamp on its right. Finegan called for Confederate support in defending Florida at this site. Colquitt answered with troops from Savannah.
As the Union force moved westward and the Confederate numbers were close enough for battle, Finegan sent small bands of soldiers to harry the Yankees and draw them to the waiting Confederate army at Olustee.
The battle was so quickly joined that neither side had time to build defensive earthworks as fighting raged in the open forest. These factors led to casualties of approximately 40 percent of the Union troops and 20 percent of the Confederate force, or nearly a third of the entire number of troops on the field.
The 150th anniversary and annual re-enactment of the Battle of Olustee events.
When: Events Friday through Sunday, Feb. 14-16.
Where: Olustee Battlefield Historic Site, U.S. 90, 15 miles east of Lake City, Fla. There is a miniature battle, scheduled 3:30 p.m. Saturday, while the main re-enactment is 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
More information: Visit olusteefestival.com