Are you planning to attend the next reenactment of the Battle of Olustee? If you have never been to a Civil War event before, or if you have been to one of the smaller Civil War events elsewhere, then you are in for a treat.
The Battle of Olustee is the largest, annual Civil War event in the southeastern United States. Over 1,700 Civil War reenactors (men, women and children) come to the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park every year from all over the United States. Some reenactors even journey from Europe for the event. These reenactors portray military personnel (infantry, artillery, cavalry, medical), members of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, and Civil War era civilians and sutlers. We also host numerous Civil War authors and historical exhibitors throughout the weekend. You can listen to almost continuous presentations under our large (9,000 square feet) tent. Plenty of seating is available.
While a number of the reenactors camp in the modern area, most camp in Civil War style—from tents in all sizes and styles to campaign (no tents and just what they can carry on their backs). The camps are everywhere. Many are strictly military, others are civilian and still others are combined. We encourage you to visit the authentic camps, wander among the campfires, listen to the soldiers and civilians and ask questions. Remember, this is our hobby and we cannot wait to tell you about it. In fact, the hardest part will be to get us to stop talking about it. Reenactors have been known to follow fleeing spectators to their cars, still telling them "what the Civil War was all about" as the spectators frantically rolled up the windows and sped off.
While you should not wander through the modern reenactor camps, you are welcome to visit the authentic Federal (Union) infantry and civilian camps, the combined Federal and Confederate cavalry and artillery camps, and the Confederate infantry and civilian camps.
Although there are far larger events held annually in the United States, Olustee favorably compares with the best in its sutler attendance. Sutlers are Civil War-era merchants. During the Civil War every regiment or brigade had a sutler licensed to follow along and sell "extras" to the men. These extras included food items, such as cans of sweetened condensed milk (a favorite with the men); to clothing, such as civilian-style shirts; to some items hidden away from the eyes of the Provost (military police).
Olustee usually has 40-50 sutlers in attendance and these sutlers must pass inspection for the authenticity of their goods and appearance. In fact, the number of authentic sutlers is a big draw for reenactors wishing to buy another item for their impression, because "if it isn't sold at Olustee, it's probably not sold anywhere." Olustee's sutlers sell everything from rifled-muskets to housewives (sewing kits) to hardtack. A full range of military uniforms and accouterments (leather straps and belts, cartridge boxes, holsters, bootees, etc.) are also offered. Some are inexpensive, but most are expensive due to their adherence to authentic patterns and materials. [Note: I remember at one event when a spectator "fell in love" with an officer's cavalry slouch hat and asked the price. His wife's mouth dropped open and eyes widened when the sutler told them and she quickly convinced her husband that it wasn't a necessity. If you want inexpensive and "farby" (non-authentic) Civil War hats or other clothing, I suggest you shop at South of the Border, Disney or the local Halloween costume store. Speaking of hats, some headgear made by certain highly-regarded sutlers actually sell for a lot more money after years of wear then when they were purchased new. Believe it or not!]
Medical assistance is available at Olustee for reenactors and spectators, and this service is provided by local and state agencies. Such emergency services are available throughout the site by contacting any police officer or reenactor. [There is at least one two-way radio hidden in each camp.] Plus, many of the medical reenactors themselves are doctors, nurses and paramedics. For your information, the main medical tent is located near the front gate.
The event is patrolled by numerous county, state and federal law enforcement agencies. These agencies cooperate with the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park Citizens Support Organization and provide assistance when necessary. [Note: In over 20 years of Olustee reenactments there has never been a reported instance of reenactors stealing from each other. In the only two instances of stolen reenactor rifles, the culprits were "spectators" and both were caught. The Olustee event is held on Federal U.S. Forest Service lands and a crime committed here is a Federal offense.]
Unless you arrive soon after the sun rises, don't expect to find a parking spot near the entrance to the Park. The main gate is even closed to reenactor traffic from 7:00 am, Saturday morning to after 5:00 pm on Sunday. You can park further along State Route 90 in both directions, but mid-morning arrivals can expect to walk a mile or more to reach the park entrance. The best place to park is at the Lake City Airport on the east side of Lake City to the west of Olustee, or at the Baker County Correctional Facility (CCF) to the east of Olustee. Both sites are on State Route 90. There is plenty of parking at these sites and, for only $2 for adults and $1.00 for students (pre-school children are free), a bus will take you to the main gate and deliver you back to your car after you leave the event. [Hint: The trip from the airport to the park entrance is longer and encounters more traffic. If you can park at the Baker CCF, not only will the trip be shorter (it is actually within a short walking distance of 20 or so minutes), but experience has shown that the line waiting for the bus at the end of the day is shorter and moves faster.] PLEASE NOTE: A number of reenactors take part in the Saturday morning parade in Lake City and the buses are used to carry them. As a result, the shuttle service from the parking areas is not available on Saturday until 1:00 pm and continues until 6:00 pm. On Sunday, the shuttle service begins at 9:00 am and continues until 5:00 pm.
VIP parking near the gate, on the north side of the railroad tracks, is restricted to the members of the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park Citizens Support Organization working at the event and local and state dignitaries. Parking passes are required – if you do not have one, please do not block traffic in an attempt to talk your way pass the really big law enforcement officers.
Handicapped parking is available across the street from the main gate. You must have a handicapped parking pass issued by one of the 50 states or a doctor's note. Florida State Troopers control the handicapped parking area and have total control over who parks there. Don't argue with them and don't try to fool them.
There are many daily scheduled activities for your enjoyment and the following paragraphs will provide some advice on how to make the best use of your time. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for school-age children. Preschool children are admitted for free.
Friday is the day when thousands of students invade the site with their teachers and parents to learn more about the Civil War. There are medical, cavalry, artillery and infantry demonstrations. Some students are here just to roam, talk to the reenactors and absorb history. Others have definite history assignments they are working on, everything from books to audio and photographic projects. If you wish your child to attend, ask your school to contact the Florida Park Service at (386) 397-2733, visit https://www.floridastateparks.org/park/Olustee-Battlefield, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Many home-schoolers bring their children to Olustee to absorb this period of our history "in the flesh."
Unless you must witness the scripted reenactment of the Battle of Olustee, Saturday is the best day for spectators. Not only do you have most of the day to visit the authentic camps and sutler area, but the full-scale Saturday battle is not until 3:30 pm (or 2 hours later than on Sunday). In addition, the crowds will be smaller than on Sunday. And after the battle, why rush to wait in the lines at the bus pickup points when you can take your time ambling through the camps watching the reenactors rest up and clean their weapons after fighting and dying.
After the battle is also a good time to pick up that item you saw at the sutlers that you didn't want to carry with you all day, and to obtain some refreshments. Stay longer and watch the reenactors cook their evening meals - everything from bacon and hardtack at some camps to full sit-down dinners at others - and preform everyday chores.
After dinner, many of the reenactors will be putting on their dress uniforms and gowns for the Reenactor's Ball later that evening. The Ball is not open to the spectators and you will have left the event site long before it begins. Other reenactors will spend the evening campfire visiting, telling tales of other events, discussing the Civil War and just visiting with friends. The "sense of community" is strong among reenactors and many of us don't see each other except for these events, as our homes are distant from one another. But friendships are strong and campfire visits are the best time to meet with comrades: when officers and enlisted men, from ditch diggers to bank presidents and even, of all things, entomologists, share the warmth of the fire and a drink from a canteen (or other liquid containers).
Plan to arrive early on Sunday, as the main event - the scripted reenactment of the Battle of Olustee, is at 1:30 pm. If you want to see any of the camps or spend time at the sutler area you need to arrive early as you should really head toward the battle area about 12:30 at the latest. Arrive after this time and the best seats—there are only eight sets of bleachers—will be taken. Why not pack a picnic lunch and use the time waiting to enjoy it with your family. An authentic band will play Civil War music to entertain you while you wait. [Hint: Since this is a Federal defeat, most of the action takes place on the Union side (east side) of the field. Find a seat on the ground there.]
Even before the troops begin to assemble for the battle, many of them will take down their tents and pack their belongings. We all have a long drive home—especially those from the northern states—and after the battle we will be scattering to the four winds. If you do not arrive early on Sunday then you should visit the camps before the battle. After the battle, when the troops are breaking camp, is the best time to visit the sutlers who usually stay until Monday. And when you have finished there, the bus lines will be much shorter for the ride back to your car.
Oops! I forgot something. On Sunday many people can't arrive early because they go to church. Well, at the Battle of Olustee you can arrive early and still attend church. The Federal and Confederate camps each host authentic, non-denominational, church services with real ministers who are also reenactors. Religion was an essential part of life in the 19th century and most Civil War soldiers and their families felt very strongly about their faith. Many of the armies experienced extensive religious revivals, particularly those of the Confederacy from 1863 on, when the tide of war turned against the Confederacy.
The American Civil War was an important watershed in our nation's history. And while it was not enjoyable for the men and women who did the dying and the mourning, we do hope you have a good time at our reenactment of one of the smaller battles of that war. Enjoy your visit, experience the "rattle of musketry," and have a safe trip home.
We had nothing on which to begin life over again, but we were young and strong, and began it cheerily enough. We are prosperous now, . . . little grandchildren cluster about us and listen with interest to grandpapa's and grandmamma's tales of the days when they "fought and bled and died together." They can't understand how such nice people as the Yankees and ourselves ever could have fought each other. "It doesn't seem reasonable," says Nellie . . . who is engaged to a gentleman from Boston, where we sent her to cultivate her musical talents, but where she applied herself to other matters, ". . .it doesn't seem reasonable, grandmamma, when you could just as easily have settled it all comfortably without any fighting. How glad I am I wasn't living then! How thankful I am that 'Old Glory' floats alike over North and South, now!"
And so am I, my darling, so am I!
| Milicent Duncan Norman
from A Virginia Girl in the Civil War, 1861-1865
Myrta Lockett Avary, ed.
New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1903
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." - Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865
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