The loud booming of cannon fire ripped through the north Florida pine forest fifteen miles east of Lake City as startled cavalry horses whinnied. Repeated rifle fire rang through the trees as more than 10,000 soldiers confronted each other on February 20, 1864, near Ocean Pond.
The Battle of Olustee was the largest conflict of the American Civil War fought on Florida soil.
Each side began with about 5,000 troops. When the three hour battle was over, 1,861 Union soldiers and 946 Confederate soldiers were dead.
“It is significant because it comes at a time when the United States is attempting to swing Southern states back into the Union,” says Sean Adams, associate professor of history at the University of Florida.
“There was an attempt, for example, to reconstruct Louisiana in 1863. The notion is that you’re also, then, going to swing Florida into the Union.”
Three new U.S. Colored Troop Regiments bravely fought as Union soldiers at the Battle of Olustee, some even before they had an opportunity to complete their training.
“This is after the Emancipation Proclamation had made it possible for African American soldiers to serve,” says Adams. “So the combination of those factors, the presence of black soldiers, but also the idea of reconstructing Florida creates the impetus for this campaign to secure Florida.”
The Union lost this battle, but won the war 14 months later.
Florida was the third state to secede from the Union, in January 1861, behind only South Carolina and Mississippi.
“Florida was very significant to the Confederate war effort in that it supplied beef, it supplied salt,” says Adams. “It was an area where supplies could come in. The United States sets up a blockade of Confederate coasts, but of course Florida has a massive coast, so there’s no way that those Union ships are going to be able to keep all activity away from Florida.”
The Olustee Battlefield Historic Site is Florida’s first State Park, established in 1909. Since 1977, an annual reenactment of the Battle of Olustee has been staged at the park.
“Typically we plan for about 2,000 reenactors,” says Gary Dickinson, president of the Olustee Battlefield Citizen Support Organization. The CSO is the not-for-profit group that presents the reenactment. “We have 21 cannons, those are full-size artillery pieces. We’ll have between 50 and 75 mounted cavalry units.”
Authentic Union and Confederate camps are part of the reenactment weekend. Food vendors are on hand, along with informational displays, and people selling Civil War era costumes and other memorabilia. Period music is presented along with a variety of public programs addressing various Civil War topics.
Joel Fears is a long-time participant in the Battle of Olustee annual reenactment weekend. Fears says he had graduated from college and was nearly “an old man” when he first discovered that African Americans were not just slaves, but actually fought and died in the Civil War. He wants to share this information with the public.
“I’m representing James Henry Gooding. He was one of the people who fought here. He wrote dispatches to the New Bedford Mercury newspaper, and he also was writing the story of this battle,” says Fears. Gooding was wounded and captured at the Battle of Olustee, and died from his injuries.
Brevard County resident Mitch Morgan would not miss the Battle of Olustee reenactment weekend. Participating in the annual event has special meaning for him.
“My great-great-grandfather died on the battlefield here,” says Morgan. “I’ve been out here for about 18 years now, and for the first 10 years or so, I didn’t know that, until I got interested in my genealogy and family history. I always got one of those feelings here, that there was something more to this than just being in Florida’s biggest battle. I’m a native Floridian, but something else was going on.”
Through his genealogical research, Morgan discovered that his great-great-grandfather’s unit was the first on the field at the Battle of Olustee, and that his relative was killed.
“I don’t know where he’s buried. Possibly right where we’re standing, because they’re buried all over the area here. So it’s real personal for me, now even more so, because I have an ancestor here.”
Dr. Ben Brotemarkle is executive director of the Florida Historical Society and host of the radio program “Florida Frontiers,” broadcast locally on 90.7 WMFE Thursday evenings at 6:30 and Sunday afternoons at 4:00, and on 89.5 WFIT Sunday mornings at 7:00. The show can be heard online at myfloridahistory.org.