Monday, February 20, 2012

The Battle of Olustee, Part Four - Lincoln's Florida Disaster

President Abraham Lincoln
This is the final part of today's commemoration of the 148th anniversary of the Battle of Olustee. To read the previous parts first, please follow these links: Part One: The Fight Begins, Part Two: The Battle Intensifies and Part Three: Victory in the Pine Woods.

As the Union army crumbled before a slightly smaller Confederate force at the Battle of Olustee, President Abraham Lincoln's dream of returning Florida to the Union in time for the 1864 election crumbled with it.

While the topic has been debated for years, the documentation leaves little room for doubt that the Union disaster at Olustee was the result of political scheming ahead of what was then expected to be a close election. Lincoln himself had instigated the campaign by writing to General Quincy A. Gillmore to "suggest" a movement on Florida in time to "restore the allegiance" of the state before the November election. He then gave a military commission (as a major) to one of his own  aides and sent him to South Carolina to convey verbal instructions and suggestions to the general.

Major John Hay
All of this maneuvering took place outside the chain of command in the U.S. Army. The Secretary of War did not know. The Commanding General of the U.S. Army did not know.

Gillmore met with Major John Hay, who was actually much more than just an aide to the President, he was Lincoln's private secretary. Immediately after the initial meeting between the two, the Olustee Campaign was launched. It met with disaster in the pine woods at Olustee because General Seymour disobeyed orders and advanced without permission, but it was instigated in the White House. The blood that was shed on both sides can only be described as the result of political opportunism.

And blood was definitely shed at Olustee. Union casualties were reported as more than 200 killed, 1,152 wounded and 506 missing, most of whom were captured. Confederate losses were 93 killed, 847 wounded and 6 missing.

In short, more than 2,000 men were killed or maimed in battle because Abraham Lincoln wanted Florida returned to the Union in time to secure its electoral votes in the 1864 General Election. Based on the number of men involved, it was the bloodiest defeat handed to the Union army during the entire War Between the States.

Finegan Monument at Olustee Battlefield
Lieutenant M.B. Grant, a Confederate military engineer, was on hand at Olustee and his observation of the conditions under which the battle was found is very insightful:

...The infantry fire during the whole engagement was continuous, and on our side very effective. The artillery fire on both sides, judging from the marks upon the trees, was entirely too high, and did comparatively little damage. Our men sheltered themselves behind the trees, as was evident from the number who were wounded in the arms and hands, thus gaining considerable advantage over the enemy, who used the trees to a less extent. - Lt. M.B. Grant, CSA, April 27, 1864



Union Mass Grave Monument at Olustee Battlefield
Lieutenant Grant walked the battlefield after the fighting was over and made a startling observation regarding the Union dead and wounded:

...As usual with the enemy, they posted their negro regiments on their left and in front, where they were slain by the hundreds, and upon retiring left their dead and wounded negroes uncared for, carrying off only the whites, which accounts for the fact that upon the first part of the battle-field nearly all the dead found were negroes. - Lt. M.B. Grant, CSA, April 27, 1864

The Union retreat was ragged and exhausting. The men had marched more than 15 miles, fought a battle and then were ordered to make another march of that length back. The Confederate cavalry was ordered to pursue them, but halted after encountering resistance at a swamp not far east of the battlefield. The rest of the Union retreat was carried out without resistance.  

I will post more on the results of the Olustee Campaign tomorrow. You can read more about the battle anytime at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/olustee. I will also continue posting about the aftermath over coming days at http://civilwarflorida.blogspot.com.


1 comment:

Savez said...

Politics. Hmm. I've enjoyed your posts today. Glad I found this site. I read somewhere that the 54th. Mass. counted off by twos while in line of battle under fire. Very hardcore if true. Its sad how the wounded were left on the field the way they were.
--Savez