In February 1864, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commander of the Union's Department of the South at Hilton Head, South Carolina, ordered an expedition into Florida to secure Union enclaves, sever Confederate supply routes (especially for beef and salt), and recruit black soldiers. Brigadier General Truman Seymour, in command of the expedition, landed troops at Jacksonville, in an area already seized by the Union in March 1862. Seymour's forces then made several raids into northeast and north-central Florida.
During these raids he met little resistance, seized several Confederate camps, captured small bands of troops and artillery pieces, liberated slaves, etc. However, Seymour was under orders from Gillmore not to advance deep into the state.
Seymour's preparations at Hilton Head had concerned the Confederate command in the key port city of Charleston, South Carolina. General P. G. T. Beauregard, correctly guessing Seymour's objective was Florida, felt these Union actions posed enough of a threat for him to detach reinforcements under Georgian Alfred H. Colquitt to bolster Florida's defenses and stop Seymour.
|Survivors of the Battle of Olustee at the monument dedication on October 23, 1912.|
|The monument as it stands today (July 13, 2014): this and other markers on the property are extremely well preserved.|
Colquitt arrived in time to reinforce Florida troops under the command of Brigadier General Joseph Finnegan. As Colquitt's troops began arriving, Seymour, without Gillmore's knowledge, began a new drive across north Florida with the capture of Tallahassee as a possible objective.
Following the Florida, Atlantic and Gulf Central Railroad, Seymour led his 5,500 men in the direction of Lake City. At approximately 2:30 in the afternoon of February 20, the Union force approached General Finnegan's 5,000 Confederates entrenched near Olustee Station. Finnegan sent out an infantry brigade to meet Seymour's advance units and lure them into the Confederate entrenchments, but this plan went awry.
The opposing forces met at Ocean Pond and the battle began. Seymour made the mistake of assuming that he was once again facing Florida militia units that he had previously routed with ease and committed his troops piecemeal into the battle. Finnegan and Seymour both reinforced their engaged units during the afternoon and the battle took place in open pine woods. The Union forces attacked but were savagely repulsed by withering barrages of rifle and cannon fire.
The battle raged throughout the afternoon until, as Finnegan committed the last of his reserves, the Union line broke and began to retreat. Finnegan did not exploit the retreat, allowing most of the fleeing Union forces to reach Jacksonville. However, the Confederates did make a final attempt to engage the rear element of Seymour's forces just before nightfall, but they were repulsed by elements of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the 35th United States Colored Troops, both composed of African-American soldiers. The Confederate cavalry commander received criticism for failing to pursue the retreating Union forces.
Union casualties were 203 killed, 1,152 wounded, and 506 missing, a total of 1,861 men—about 34 percent. Confederate losses were lower: 93 killed, 847 wounded, and 6 missing, a total of 946 casualties in all—but still about 19 percent. Union forces also lost six artillery pieces and 39 horses that were captured. The ratio of Union casualties to the number of troops involved made this the second bloodiest battle of the War for the Union, with 265 casualties per 1,000 troops.
Soldiers on both sides were veterans of the great battles in the eastern and western theaters of war, but many of them remarked in letters and diaries that they had never experienced such terrible fighting. The Confederate dead were buried at Oaklawn Cemetery in nearby Lake City.
The Union losses caused Northern authorities to question the necessity of further Union involvement in the militarily insignificant state of Florida. In the South, the battle was seen as a spirit-raising rout. One Georgia newspaper referred to Union forces as walking "forty miles over the most barren land of the South, frightening the salamanders and the gophers, and getting a terrible thrashing..."
My wife and I have stopped here several times however never knew there was a small museum/visitor center on the property and were surprised to see it open on a Sunday morning. There were several displays and a video room running a tape loop about the battle. No attendant was on sight and there was a small cash box based on the honor system that was stuffed with money so I chucked a few bucks in.
The property is actually larger than it looks from Route 90 and there are several areas to walk to other than just the monument.
The above text is largely taken from several Wikipedia articles regarding the site and the battle and all credit goes to those anonymous authors.