On February 20, 1864, the Battle of Olustee (also known as the Battle of Ocean Pond) was fought in Baker County, Florida. It was the largest battle of the Civil War fought in Florida and involved more than 10,000 soldiers, including three regiments of US Colored Troops. When the five-hour fight was over, Confederate forces claimed victory, and Union soldiers retreated to Jacksonville, where some remained until the war ended 14 months later.
In late 1863, during President Abraham Lincoln’s campaign for a second term in office, Lincoln issued the Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. With several Confederate states under Federal control and needing to reorganize their governments, the President hoped the Proclamation would unify a country at war. It allowed states with at least 10% of eligible voters willing to pledge allegiance to the United States to rejoin the Union.
To secure enough loyalty oaths in Florida and form a government in time to send delegates to the 1864 party convention, Gen. Quincy Gilmore, commander of the Union Department of the South, dispatched Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour to Jacksonville. He hoped a Union incursion could cut Confederate supply lines, disrupt rail service, and recruit additional Black soldiers for the Union Army.
Seymour and his troops landed at Jacksonville on February 7th and secured the town. From there, they sent raiders inland, facing little resistance. On February 20th, 5,500 Union forces advanced toward Lake City, assuming they would only face small Florida militias. Instead, they encountered Confederate Brig. Gen. Joseph Finnegan’s 5,000 forces entrenched in open pine woods near Olustee railroad station. Finnegan had chosen an area with strong natural defenses, including Ocean Pond to the north, an impassable swamp to the south, with a narrow dry passage in between.
Advancing with Union troops were three regiments of Black soldiers – the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the 35th US Colored Troops, and the 8th US Colored Troops. Fighting broke out, and the intense battle raged for five hours until the Union line finally broke. Union soldiers retreated. There were some 1,800 Union casualties and 946 Confederate casualties. In proportion to the number of soldiers fighting, it was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.
Among those wounded was Corp. James H. Gooding from the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Gooding, an educated freedman, enlisted on February 14, 1863, just days after the recruiting office opened in his hometown. He had written an eloquent letter to President Abraham Lincoln in September 1863, denouncing that Black soldiers received $10 per month from which $3 was automatically deducted for clothing, while white soldiers received $13 per month with no clothing allowance withdrawn.
Gooding’s comrades thought his wound fatal and sent word of his death home. In reality, Gooding was wounded and taken captive. He was sent to Andersonville, where he died in July 1864 – one month after Congress passed a law granting equal pay to Black soldiers.
As a result of the Battle of Olustee, Confederate troops remained in control of Florida’s interior for the rest of the war, and Union troops were sent scampering back in Jacksonville. If you would like to learn more about the Battle of Olustee, search Fold3 today!