Are you ready for part two of Florida Time's three-part series on the Civil War? Today, we look at the Battle of Olustee. Have a question about Florida history? Email Eliot Kleinberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In part two of our three-part look at Florida in the Civil War, we are showing how the state played a much larger role than many realize. In fact, the late Civil War historian Shelby Foote told this writer in 1991 that Florida probably was the most under-reported theater of war. This week and next, we’ll visit Florida’s two major battles. There’s none bigger than Olustee.
A Confederate victory, the "skirmish" left 203 Union soldiers and 93 Confederates dead. And it stymied a Federal strategy to bring Florida back into the Union and start a domino effect to end the war.
Each year, thousands of people converge on a state park about an hour's drive west of Jacksonville to watch the reenactment of the moment when Northern and Southern troops breached an expanse of knee-high grass, scrub and pine on Feb. 20, 1864.
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Florida Time archives: Get caught up on the stories you’ve missed
In a cold wind, Union leaders had sailed a fleet of ships down from South Carolina and into the deserted city of Jacksonville, where they disgorged thousands of soldiers. Their aim was to seize Tallahassee.
Florida was considered the most vulnerable of the Confederate states. Claiming it for the Union and setting up a provisional government, they reasoned, just might start the collapse of the already-teetering house of cards that was the Confederacy. It wasn't to be. They got only as far as Olustee.
For four hours, 10,000 men, some 5,000 on each side, stood and shot. And stood and shot. Night found almost 1,860 Federals — nearly two of five — killed, wounded or captured. It was, by percentage of those fighting, the third deadliest Union setback in the war.
The men in blue included black soldiers, some of whom were found lying wounded after the battle by Confederate soldiers, who summarily executed them.
The southerners tallied 1,000 killed, wounded or captured. But they'd sent the Federals scurrying.
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READER REWIND: What's your Florida story? Share it with Eliot by leaving a voicemail at (850) 270-8418.
Far from home, just before the battle, one soldier had scrawled a brief note: "God grant I may be spared to you. If not, grieve as little as you can for your lost husband and take consolation that I died a soldier defending a just cause."
A century later, the Stephens family had 33 diaries and about 600 letters to and from various Stephenses during the war. They were published in 1998 as the Rose Cottage Chronicles.
The day after the 1864 Olustee battle, Winston Stephens wrote his wife, "Never in my life have I seen such a distressing sight: Some men with their legs carried off, others with their brains out and mangled in every conceivable way ..."
He said he never wanted to see another battle. Octavia replied, "God grant that your life may be spared and we united soon in health."
Days later, in what is now the western suburbs of Jacksonville, an ambush made Octavia Stephens a widow at 22. Her brother gave grim details: "... you know not the anguish of my heart when he was shot. We were side by side and tho' I was not looking at him when the fatal ball pierced him I heard it and turned ... That look, the last look was full of love. His lips moved but no word escaped. I see that look now and ever will."
In a span of five days, Octavia lost her husband and her mother and bore a child.
"I have named my baby Winston, the sweet name of that dear lost one, my husband, almost my life. God grant that this son, whom he longed for but was not spared to see, may be like him."
Next week: Natural Bridge
Last week: What side was Florida on in the Civil War?
From a reader: Is one of your books on Florida a compilation of the articles in the Sunday, Herald Tribune so I could buy it and get caught up on the articles I missed?? Or is there another way to get the past articles? Thank you! - Betty, Venice (Thanks for the question Betty. And for anyone else wondering, you can find the Florida Time archive here.)
Eliot Kleinberg is a staff writer for the past three decades at The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, and the author of 10 books about Florida (www.ekfla.com). Florida Time is a product of GateHouse Media and publishes online in their 22 Florida markets. Submit your questions, comments or memories to FloridaTime@Gatehousemedia.com. Include your full name and hometown. Sorry; no personal replies.