LAKE CITY, Fla. —
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.
This weekend, Lake City, Fla., commemorates the anniversary of the Battle of Olustee with the annual re-enactment at the historic battlefield site, which is about an hour’s drive south of Valdosta.
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.
Throughout the weekend, visitors are welcome to tour the re-enactors’ camps, which are as authentic as possible, using materials similar to the 1860s while forgoing many modern items. Driving into town is like finding oneself in the 1800s but one where cars share traffic with horses and carriages, tourist shorts co-mingle with wool trousers and petticoats, smart phones shoot pictures of cannon fire.
For Valdosta Civil War buffs, the Olustee event is almost as good as it gets. At only about 60 miles away, Olustee is the closest site of a major Civil War battle to Valdosta. Traditionally, too, the number of re-enactors gives a closer idea to what the actual battle of Olustee may have looked like.
The actual Battle of Olustee involved approximately 10,000 troops, the total for both sides. The Olustee re-enactment typically draws nearly 3,000 re-enactors. Some may think this number sounds low given that Gettysburg events often attract 7,000-8,000 re-enactors. The actual Gettysburg battle, however, included approximately 110,000 fighting soldiers in the field. Pickett’s Charge alone involved about 16,000 soldiers. So, with Olustee attracting enough re-enactors to approximate about a third of the actual soldiers, this event gives a more accurate approximation of the battle’s size than many other re-enactments.
Visitors can also leave with a better understanding of the Civil War and a historic battle.
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 anniversary and annual re-enactment of the Battle of Olustee events.
When: Events Friday through Sunday, Feb. 17-19.
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: Call (386) 758-1312; web site www.olusteefestival.com; or visit www. battleofolustee.org for battlefield operations.