Although the Battle of Olustee (or Ocean Pond, as it was known at the time) is today long forgotten by most people and little considered by those who do know about it, the official website of the battlefield (www.battleofolustee.org) says, “In proportion to the number of troops involved, it was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.” It almost became the site of my family’s own Waterloo.
The battle was the culmination of a move by Union troops from Hilton Head, S.C., to capture Jacksonville and then move inland, depriving the Confederacy of supplies of cotton, food, timber, and turpentine. Secondary motives were to recruit black soldiers from among the slaves that might be freed and to convince Unionist Floridians in the northern part of the state to form a separate government.
Finegan chose as his battlefield a place called Ocean Pond (today known as Olustee). He anchored the left end of his defensive line on the pond and his right end on an impenetrable swamp. He positioned his infantrymen in the narrow passage of dry land between these two points and supported the ends with cavalry.
The Union forces made first contact with Confederate skirmishers on the afternoon of the 20th, and the Southerners lured the Union troops into the preferred battlefield. It was covered with pine trees, but there was no underbrush and the Confederates had prepared no earthworks. The resulting battle raged until dark, when the Unionists retreated, leaving behind 1,861 dead. The Confederates lost about half that many (946).
The Confederate victory at Olustee allowed the interior of Florida to remain in Confederate hands for the rest of the war.
Several years ago, having read something about this little-known battlefield but wanting to know more, I decided that it also might be an educational stopover for my four daughters during one of our trips to visit their grandparents in South Florida. We got off of I-75 onto I-10 near Lake City and headed east toward Jacksonville. At that time, there had been no development along that route, and I was concerned about running out of gas or having car trouble in such a desolate place. And when you’re in unfamiliar territory, travel seems to take much longer than it really does.
About 15 miles east of Lake City, 50 miles west of Jacksonville, we found the exit for U.S. 90 and then traveled about 5 1/2 miles south to the battlefield. The only things we passed on the way were swamps, a prison (a desolate, swampy place is ideal for a prison, but don’t pick up hitchhikers!), and dismal-looking pine barrens. The entrance to the battlefield was nondescript and the battlefield itself was visually unimpressive. We drove up to a tiny, pine tree-surrounded building that seemed about the size of a POD or a shipping container. That was the welcome center and the museum.
Seeing a few monuments and cannons behind the building, we exited the car to stretch our legs and begin our educational tour. And what an education we got!
Gray clouds of mosquitoes attacked us as soon as we opened the car doors and followed us from exhibit to exhibit while being joined by reinforcements every step of the way. The girls got their exercise running and slapping and complaining. Even I, as focused as I was on gaining as much knowledge about this battlefield as I could, finally gave up trying to stay in one spot long enough to read anything. I was too busy retreating from mosquitoes. We found temporary refuge inside the tiny museum, but we could look at the few items housed there only so many times, then we had to dash to the car and hope that not too many of the enemy slipped inside with us.
The time we spent at Olustee was the shortest of all of the many visits our family has made to numerous Civil War battlefields. Granted, we were at Olustee in the summertime, whereas the actual battle occurred in February, but I still wonder how the soldiers of both sides stood it. Did they bathe in citronella before the battle? I also wonder how many of the 2,800 or so casualties in that battle were the result of mosquito bites! Maybe the mosquitoes, not Southern troops, were the reason the north-central part of the state remained in Confederate hands!