Feb.18, 9PM - The few campfires that still flicker are silhouetting the good sized canvas tent town that has suddenly appeared overnight here, just east of Olustee, Florida. I walk down the road from the darkened tents that is only occasionally marked by the bobbing lanterns carried by couples and small groups going to and from the sutlers row. A few of the sutlers are still open gathering in what late night shoppers they can. And here among the larger sutler tents I can hear the noise, music and merriment that carries over from the period Ball that is in full swing. Ladies adorned in their finest evening gowns allow the men in their finery to lead them around in dances guided by 2 bands. Each group plays its shift playing the music of the night for the joyous revelers. Later, as the temperatures drop, the crowd of dancers will slowly steal away to rest for another day. For another day of fierce fighting will come tomorrow.
This is the 30th annual reenactment of the Battle of Olustee. In this very area, during the Civil War, the Union forces were repulsed while attempting to raid inland Florida. The reenactment here is one of the Sunshine States' largest and draws a great crowd of spectators. More than 2000 reenactors came from the many Confederate reenacting groups that make up the Dept. of the Gulf and Hardy's Brigade. Union groups present included the 107th Ohio, 47th New York, 7th Ohio, 25th Ohio, and the 3rd Maine combined under the command of Maj. Tom Criscuolo. Included are 13 Rebel and 6 Union artillery pieces. Just under 50 cavalry dress for Blue side to make the reenactment more true. Additionally besides the troops, a sizable civilian camp was set up separately.
-The following history lesson is taken from literature made available by the park-
The Union campaign that climaxed in the Battle of Olustee (or Ocean Pond) began in February 1864 when troops commanded by General Truman A. Seymour began an offensive in Florida. Their immediate objective was a fourth occupation of Jacksonville. The Union force could then disrupt transportation links and deprive the Confederacy of food supplies from Central Florida. It could also capture cotton, turpentine, and timber stores, gain black recruits for the Northern army, and induce Union sympathizers in east Florida to organize a loyal state government.
Confederate forces noticed the movement of Federal troops and began preparations for an offensive. The defense of Florida was placed in the hands of General Joseph Finegan and Brigadier General Alfred Colquitt. Once it was apparent the Union forces were moving westward in Florida, General Finegan began searching for the Confederate army's best defensive position. Finegan found that position in Olustee, with a lake called Ocean Pond on his left, a nearly impassable swamp on his right, and only a narrow passage between. He called for troops to help defend Florida.
On February 20, the Union force of nearly 5,500 men marched westward from near Macclenny. By this time, the Confederate forces almost equaled the opposing Army in number. Skirmishers were sent out early that day to drive the Union forces to Olustee. They made contact that afternoon. The battle ensued as troops engaged in a forest of virgin pines, free of underbrush, fortified with constructed earthworks. The battle raged until dark when the Union forces began a hasty retreat, having suffered a stinging defeat. Battle casualties amounted to 1,861 Union and 964 Confederate soldiers.
Union forces remained in Jacksonville until the end of the war and occupied several coastal towns and various places along the St. Johns River. They carried out frequent operations against Confederate forces defending east Florida, but did not venture out in significant force again.
In 1897 the Florida Division of the Union Daughters of the Confederacy began raising funds for a monument at the battle site, and in 1899 the Florida Legislature established a commission to oversee construction of the monument which was finally completed in 1912. The battle site was acquired by the State of Florida in 1909, becoming Florida's first State Park. The Olustee Battlefield Historic Site is cooperatively managed by the Florida Park Service and the U.S.D.A. Forest Service. For more information about the battle visit battleofolustee.org