Saturday, May 26, 2007

Florida, 1864

Dates: 5-20 February, 1864


Union: Brigadier General Truman Seymour, commanding Federal forces in Florida.

Confederate: Brigadier General Joseph Finnegan, commanding Confederate forces in Florida.

Prelude: This is not a widely read part of Civil War history. As a matter of fact, except for Fort Pickens, near Pensacola, and some islands such as the Dry Tortugas and the Keys, Florida did not figure too much in Union plans for overall victory. However, supplies and troops have flowed north. It became important to halt that flow, as well as giving support to Unionists living in Florida.

The plan agrees upon was to take Jacksonville and set up a base there. From there they would advance west, possibly as far as Pensacola.

5 February, 1864: Seymour and 6000 troops depart Port Royal, SC on troop transports.

7 February, 1864: The Federal flotilla, supported by gunboats commanded by Rear Admiral John Dahlgren, reaches Jacksonville. The city is occupied immediately.

Seymour decided to send out cavalry in order to check out the area and see how the Confederates have set up their defenses.

8 February, 1864: Colonel Guy Henry leads a detachment of cavalry west from Jacksonville to Baldwin, where they engage local Confederate troops in a major skirmish.

10 February, 1864: Following the engagement at Baldwin, the Federals cross the St Mary’s River and pressed on towards Lake City.

11 February, 1864: While approaching Lake City, Henry runs into a force of 600 Confederates. Despite outnumbering the defenders, Henry orders a withdrawal to Barber’s Crossing, on the St Mary’s River.

Now that the Federal invasion was in earnest, a defensive force of 4600 infantry, 600 cavalry and 12 cannon were assembled and placed under Finnegan’s command. He decided to march east and attempt to drive out Seymour from Jacksonville.

At the same time, a proclamation was released by the Federals announcing that Florida was now Federal territory. It does not go down too well with the locals.

13 February, 1864: Seymour marches his army west towards the Suwanee River in order to reinforce Henry and to take out some bridges. Finnegan has his forces dig in near the town of Olustree.

At the same time, a small Union cavalry force raided Gainesville, southwest of Jacksonville.

20 February, 1864: Battle of Olustree: Seymour had received orders not to leave Barber’s Crossing, but decided to push on ahead with 5500 troops. Marching 18 miles from the crossing, the Confederates spot the three Federal columns and proceeded to attack. Seymour immediately ordered his forced into Line of Battle formation. Fierce fighting erupted as close as 250 yards. As the Federals were forming up their lines, the 7th NH, recently reinforced with recruits and draftees, broke and ran. This led to a general panic among the Union soldiers, with a few exceptions.

As the Federals were fleeing, Finnegan orders all of his troops at attack. Time was needed for the Federals to gat away. Two regiments, the 8th United States Colored Troops and the 54th MA, both African-American units, kept up a high volume of fire and risking certain death if captured. The Confederate had standing orders to enslave captured Black troops and execute the White officers commanding them. Knowing this, both units bought time for Seymour.

At dusk, Seymour orders his forces back to Barber’s Crossing.

The 8th USCT lost 300 of the 500 troops that they had at the start of the day. The 54th MA, already having been decimated at the Battle of Battery Wagner, Charleston, SC in July of 1863, further secured its honor with the blood of its members. This hammered at the prevailing attitude that Blacks would not make good soldiers, proving it wrong with each volley those two regiments sent.

Seymour would be reassigned to command a brigade in the Army of the Potomac. He was captured at the Battle of the Wilderness. Following a prisoner exchange in August, 1864, he serve in the Siege of Petersburg, VA and the Appomattox Campaign. He remained in the US Army until 1876 and moved to Florence, Italy, where he died in 1891.

Finnegan would be reassigned to the Army of Northern Virginia and given command of the Florida Brigade. He was soon ordered back to Florida. After the war, he was a state legislator and was in the cotton trade for a while. He died in 1885.

The main result of all this was that while the flow of supplies to the Confederate Army was curtailed, most of Florida would remain Confederate territory until the end of the war.

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