The Black Phalanx

African American Soldiers
In the War Of Independence,
The War of 1812, And The Civil War

Joseph T. Wilson

The following section dealing with Olustee begins on page 264 in The Black Phalanx

In the winter of 1863, the troops in the Department of the South lay encamped on the islands in and about Charleston harbor, resting from their endeavors to drive the confederates from their strongholds. The city was five miles away in the distance. Sumter, grim, hoary and in ruins, yet defying the National authority, was silent. General Gillmore was in command of the veteran legions of the 10th Army Corps, aided by a powerful fleet of ironclads and other war vessels. There laid the city of Charleston, for the time having a respite. General Gillmore was giving rest to his troops, before he began again to throw Greek fire into the city and batter the walls of its defences. The shattered ranks of the Phalanx soldiers rested in the midst of thousands of their white comrades-in-arms, to whom they nightly repeated the story of the late terrible struggle. The solemn sentry pacing the ramparts of Fort Wagner night and day, his bayonet glittering in the rays of the sun or in the moonlight seemed to be guarding the sepulchre of Col. Shaw and those who fell beside within the walls of that gory fort and who were buried where they fell. Only those who have lived in such a camp can appreciate the stories of hair- breadth escapes from hand-to-hand fights.

The repose lasted until January, when an important movement took place for the permanent occupation of Florida. The following account, written by the author of this book, was published in " The Journal," of Toledo, O.:

"The twentieth day of February, 1864; was one of the most disastrous to the Federal arms, and to the administration of President Lincoln, in the annals of the war for the union. Through private advice Mr. Lincoln had received information which led him to believe that the people in the State of Florida, a large number of them, at least, were ready and anxious to identify the State with the cause of the Union, and be readily approved of the Federal forces occupying the State, then almost deserted by the rebels. Gen. Gillmore, commanding the Department of the South had a large force before Charleston, S. C., which had been engaged in the capture of Fort Wagner and the bombardment of the city of Charleston, and the reduction of Sumter

"These objects being accomplished, the army having rested several months, Gen. Gillmore asked for leave to undertake such expeditions within his Department as he might think proper. About the middle of December, 1863, the War Department granted him his request, and immediately he began making preparations for an expedition, collecting transports, commissary stores, drilling troops, etc., etc.

"About the 1st of January, 1864, General Gillmore wrote to the General- in-Chief, Halleck, that he was about to occupy the west bank of St. Johns river, with the view (1st) to open on outlet to cotton, lumber, etc., (2d) to destroy one of the enemy's sources of supplies, (3d) to give the negroes opportunity of enlisting in the army, (4th) to inaugurate measures for the speedy restoration of Florida to the Union.

"In accordance with instructions from President Lincoln received through the assistant Adjutant General, Major J. H. Hay, who would accompany the expedition, on the 5th of February the troops began to embark under the immediate command of General Truman Seymour, on board of twenty steamers and eight schooners, consisting of the following regiments, numbering in all six thousand troops, and under convoy of the gunboat Norwich:
" 40th Massachusetts Mounted Infantry, Col. Guy V. Henry.
"7th Connecticut, Col. J. R. Hawley.
"7th New Hampshire, Col. Abbott.
" 47th, 48th and 115th New York, Col. Barton's command.

"The Phalanx regiments were: 8th Pennsylvania, Col. Fribley; 1st North Carolina, Lt.-Col. Reed; 54th Massachusetts, Col. Hallowell; 2d South Carolina, Col. Beecher; 55th Massachusetts, Col. Hartwell, with three batteries of white troops, Hamilton's, Elder's and Langdon's. Excepting the two last named regiments, this force landed at Jacksonville on the 7th of February, and pushed on, following the 40th Massachusetts Mounted Infantry, which captured by a bold dash Camp Finnigan, about seven miles from Jacksonville, with its equipage, eight pieces of artillery, and a number of prisoners. On the 10th, the whole force had reached Baldwin, a railroad station twenty miles west of Jacksonville. There the army encamped, except Col. Henry's force, which continued its advance towards Tallahassee, driving a small force of Gen. Finnegan's command before him. This was at the time all the rebel force in east Florida. On the 18th Gen. Seymour, induced by the successful advance of Col. Henry, lead his troops from Baldwin with ten days' rations in their haversacks, and started for the Suwanee river, about a hundred and thirty miles from Baldwin station, leaving the 2d South Carolina and the 55th Massachusetts Phalanx regiments to follow. After a fatiguing march the column, numbering about six thousand, reached Barbour's Station, on the Florida Central Railroad, twenty miles from Baldwin. Here the command halted and bivouaced, the night of the 19th, in the woods bordering upon a wooded ravine running off towards the river from the railroad track.

"It is now nineteen years ago, and I write from memory of a night long to be remembered. Around many a Grand Army Campfire in the last fifteen years this bivouac has been made the topic of an evening's talk. It was attended with no particular hardship. The weather was such as is met with in these latitudes, not cold, not hot, and though a thick vapory cloud hid the full round moon from early eventide until the last regiment filed into the woods, yet there was a halo of light that brightened the white, sandy earth and gave to the moss-laden limbs of the huge pines which stood sentry-like on the roadside the appearance of a New England grove on a frosty night, with a shelled road leading through it.

"It was well in the night when the two Phalanx regiments filed out of the road into the woods, bringing up the rear of the army, and took shelter under the trees from the falling dew. Amid the appalling stillness that reigned throughout the encampment, except the tramp of feet and an occasional whickering of a battery horse, no sound broke the deep silence. Commands were given in an undertone and whispered along the long lines of weary troops that lay among the trees and the underbrush of the pine forest. Each soldier lay with his musket beside him, ready to spring to his feet and in line for battle, for none knew the moment the enemy, like a tiger, would pounce upon them. It was a night of intense anxiety, shrouded in mystery as to what to-morrow would bring. The white and black soldier in one common bed lag in battle panoply, dreaming their common dreams of home and loved ones.

"Here lay the heroic 54th picturing to themselves the memorable nights of July 17 and 18, their bivouac on the beach and their capture of Fort Wagner and the terrible fate of their comrades. They were all veteran troops save the 8th Pennsylvania, which upon many hard fought fields had covered themselves with gallant honor in defense of their country's cause, from Malvern Hill to Morris Island.

"It was in the gray of the next morning that Gen. Seymour's order aroused the command. The men partook of a hastily prepared cup of coffee and meat and hard-tack from their haversacks. At sunrise the troops took up the line of march, following the railroad for Lake City. Col. Henry with the 40th Massachusetts Mounted Infantry and Major Stevens' independent battalion of Massachusetts cavalry, led the column. About half-past one o'clock they reached a point where the country road crossed the railroad, about two miles east of Olustee, and six miles west of Sanderson, a station through which the troops passed about half-past eleven o'clock. As the head of the column reached the crossing the rebel pickets fired and fell back upon a line of skirmishers, pursued by Col. Henry's command. The enemy's main force was supposed to be some miles distant from this place, consequently General Seymour had not taken the precaution to protect his flanks, though marching through an enemy's country. Consequently he found his troops flanked on either side.

"Col. Henry drove the skirmisher back upon their main forces, which were strongly posted between two swamps. The position was admirably chosen; their right rested upon a low, slight earthwork, protected by rifle-pits, their center was defended by an impassable swamp, and their left was a cavalry force drawn up on a small elevation behind the shelter of a grove of pines. Their camp way intersected by the railroad, on which was placed a battery capable of operating against the center and left of the advancing column, while a rifle gun, mounted on a railroad flat, pointed down the road in front.

"Gen. Seymour, in order to attack this strongly fortified position, had necessarily to place his troops between the two swamps, one in his front, the other in the rear. The Federal cavalry, following up the skirmishers had attacked the rebel right and were driven back, but were met by the 7th New Hampshire, 7th Connecticut, a regiment of the black Phalanx ( 8th Pennsylvania), and Elder's battery of four and Hamilton's of six pieces. This force was hurled against the rebel right with such impetuosity that the batteries were within one hundred yards of the rebel line of battle before they knew it. However they took position, and supported by the Phalanx regiment, opened a vigorous fire upon the earthworks. The Phalanx regiment advanced within twenty or thirty yards of the enemy's rifle-pits, and poured a volley of minie balls into the very faces of those who did not fly on their approach.

"The 7th Connecticut and the 7th New Hampshire, the latter with their seven-shooters, Spencer repeaters, Col. Hawley, commanding, had taken a stand further to the right of the battery, and were hotly engaging the rebels. The Phalanx regiment (8th), after dealing out two rounds from its advanced position, finding the enemy's force in the center preparing to charge upon them, fell back under cover of Hamilton's battery, which was firing vigorously and effectively into the rebel column. The 7th Connecticut and New Hampshire about this time ran short of ammunition, and Col. Hawley, finding the rebels outnumbered his force three to one, was about ordering Col. Abbott to fall back and out of the concentrated fire of the enemy pouring upon his men, when he observed the rebels coming in for a down upon his column.

"Here they come like tigers; the Federal column wavers a little; it staggers and breaks, falling back in considerable disorder! Col. Hawley now ordered Col. Fribley to take his Phalanx Regiment the 8th, to the right of the battery and check the advancing rebel force. No time was to be lost, the enemy's sharpshooters had already silenced two of Hamilton's guns, dead and dying men and horses lay in a heap about them, while at the remaining four guns a few brave artillerists were loading and fixing their pieces, retarding the enemy in his onward movement.

"Deficient in artillery, they had not been able to check the Federal cavalry in its dash, but the concentrated fire from right to center demoralized, and sent them galloping over the field wildly. Col. Fribley gave the order by the right flank, double quick ! and the next moment the 8th Phalanx swept away to the extreme right in support of the 7th New Hampshire and the 7th Connecticut. The low, direct aim of the enemy in the ride-pits, his Indian sharp-shooters up in the trees, had ere now so thinned the ranks of Col. Hawley's command that his line was gone, and the 8th Phalanx met the remnant of his brigade as it was going to the rear in complete disorder. The rebels ceased firing and halted as the Phalanx took position between them and their fleeing comrades. They halted not perforce, but apparently for deliberation, when with one fell swoop in the next moment they swept the field in their front.

"The Phalanx did not, however, quit the field in a panic-stricken manner but fell hastily back to the battery, only to find two of the guns silent and their brave workers and horses nearly all of them dead upon the field. With a courage undaunted, surpassed by no veteran troops on any battle- field, the Phalanx attempted to save the silent guns. In this effort Col. Fribley was killed, in the torrent of rebel bullets which fell upon the regiment. It held the two guns, despite two desperate charges made by the enemy to capture them, but the stubbornness of the Phalanx was no match for the ponderous weight of their enemy's column, their sharpshooters and artillery mowing down ranks of their comrades at every volley. A grander spectacle was never witnessed than that which this regiment gave of gallant courage. They left their guns only when their line officers and three hundred and fifty of their valiant soldiers were dead upon the field, the work of an hour and a half. The battery lost forty of its horses and four of its brave men. The Phalanx saved the colors of the battery with its own. Col. Barton's brigade, the 47th, 48th and 115th New York, during the fight on the right hand held the enemy in the front and center at bay, covering Elder's battery, and nobly did they do their duty, bravely maintaining the reputation they had won before Charleston, but like the other troops, the contest was too unequal. The rebels outnumbered them five to one, and they likewise gave way, leaving about a fourth of their number upon the field, dead and wounded.

" Col. Montgomery's brigade, comprising two Phalanx regiments, 54th Massachusetts and 1st North Carolina, which had been held in reserve about a mile down the road, now came up at double-quick. They were under heavy marching orders, with ten day's rations in their knapsacks, besides their cartridge boxes they carried ten rounds in their overcoat pockets. The road was sandy, and the men often found their feet beneath the sand, but with their wonted alacrity they speed on up the road, the 54th leading in almost a locked running step, followed closely by the 1st North Carolina. As they reached the road intersected by the railroad they halted in the rear of what remained of Hamilton's battery, loading a parting shot. The band of the 54th took position on the side of the road, and while the regiments were unstringing knapsacks as coolly as if about to bivouac, the music of the band burst out on the sulphureous air, amid the roar of artillery, the rattle of musketry and the shouts of commands, mingling its soul-stirring strains with the deafening yells of the charging columns, right, left, and from the rebel center. Thus on the very edge of the battle, nay, in the battle, the Phalanx band poured out in heroic measures 'The Star Spangled Banner.' Its thrilling notes, souring above the battles' gales, aroused to new life and renewed energy the panting, routed troops, flying in broken and disordered ranks from the field. Many of them halted, the New York troops particularly, and gathered at the battery again, pouring a deadly volley into the enemy's works and ranks. The 54th had but a moment to prepare for the task. General Seymour rode up and appealed to the Phalanx to check the enemy and save the army from complete and total annihilation. Col. Montgomery gave Col. Hallowell the order 'Forward,' pointing to the left, and away went the 54th Phalanx regiment through the woods, down into the swamp, wading up to their knees--in places where the water reached their hips; yet on they went till they reached terra firms. Soon the regiment stood in line of battle, ready to meet the enemy's advancing cavalry, emerging from the extreme left.

"'Hold your fire!' the order ran down the line. Indeed, it was trying. The cavalry had halted but the enemy, in their rifle-pits in the center of their line, poured volley after volley into the ranks of the Phalanx, which it stood like a wall of granite, holding at bay the rebel cavalry hanging on the edge of it pine grove. The 1st Phalanx regiment entered the field in front, charged the rebels in the centre of the line, driving them into their rifle- pits, and then for half an hour the carnage became frightful. They had followed the rebels into the very jaws of death, and now Col. Reid found his regiment in the enemy's eufilading fire, and they swept his line. Men fell like snowflakes. Driven by this terrific fire they fell back. The 54th had taken ground to the right, lending whatever of assistance they could to their retiring comrades, who were about on a line with them, for although retreating, it was in the most cool and deliberate manner, and the two regiments began a firing at will against which the rebels, though outnumbering them, could not face. Thus they held them till long after sunset, and firing ceased.

"The slaughter was terrible; the Phalanx lost almost 800 men, the white troops about 600. It was Braddock's defeat after the lapse of a century."

The rout was complete; the army was not only defeated but beaten and demoralized. The enemy had succeeded in drawing it into a trap for the purpose of annihilating it. Seymour had advanced, contrary to the orders given him by General Gillmore, from Baldwin's Station, where he was instructed to intrench and await orders. Whether or not he sought to retrieve the misfortunes that had attended him in South Carolina, in assaulting the enemy's works, is a question which need not be discussed here. It is only necessary to show the miserable mismanagement of the advance into the enemy's country. The troops were marched into an ambuscade, where they were slaughtered by the enemy at will. Even after finding his troops ambuscaded, and within two hundred yards of the confederate fortifications, General Seymour did not attempt to fall back and form a line of battle, though he had sufficient artillery, but rushed brigade after brigade up to the enemy's us, only to be mowed down by the withering storm of shot. Each brigade in turn went in as spirited as any troops ever entered a fight, but stampeded out of it maimed, mangled and routed. At sunset the road, foot-paths and woods leading back to Saunders' Station, was full of brave soldiers hastening from the massacre of their comrades, in their endeavor to escape capture. At about nine o'clock that night, what remained of the left column, Colonel Montgomery's brigade, consisting of the 54th and 35th Phalanx Regiments, and a battery arrived at the Station, and reported the confederates hot pursuit. Instantly the shattered, scattered troops to the roads leading to Barber's, ten miles away with no one to command. Each man took his own route for Barber's leaving behind whatever would encumber him,--arms, ammunition, knapsacks and cartridge boxes; many the latter containing forty rounds of cartridges. It was long past midnight when Barber's was reached, and full day before the frightened mob arrived at the Station. At sunrise of the morning of the 21st. the scene presented at Barber's was sickening and sad. The wounded lay everywhere upon the ground, huddled around the embers of fagot fires, groaning and uttering cries of distress. The surgeons were busy relieving, as best they could, the more dangerously wounded. The foot-sore and hungry soldiers sought out their bleeding and injured comrades and placed them upon railroad flats, standing upon the tracks, and when these were loaded, ropes and strong vines were and fastened to the flats. Putting themselves the place of a locomotive, --several of which stood upon track at Jacksonville,--the mangled and mutilated forms of about three hundred soldiers were dragged forward mile after mile. Just in the rear, the confederates kept up a fire of musketry, as though to hasten on the stampede. It was well into the night when the train Baldwin's, where it was thought the routed force occupy the extensive work encircling the station, they did not stop; their race was continued to Jacksonville. At Baldwin's an agent of the Christian Commission gave the wounded each two crackers, without water. This over with, the train started for Jacksonville, ten miles further. The camp of Colonel Beecher's command, 2nd Phalanx Regiment, was reached, and here coffee was furnished. At daylight the train reached Jacksonville, the wounded were carried to the churches and cared for. The battle and the retreat had destroyed every vestige of distinction based upon color. The troops during the battle had fought together and during the stampede had endured its horrors together.

The news of the battle and defeat reached Beaufort the night of the 23rd of February. It was so surprising that it was doubted, but when a boat load of wounded men arrived, all doubts were dispelled.

Colonel T. W. Higginson, who was at Beaufort at the time with his regiment (1st S. C.), thus notes the reception of the news in his diary, which we quote with a few comments from his admirable book, "Army Life in a Black Regiment":


"'Not a bit of it! This morning the General has ridden up radiant, has seen General Gillmore, who has decided not to order us to Florida at all, nor withdraw any of this garrison. Moreover, he says that all which is intended in Florida is done--that there will be no advance to Tallahassee and General Seymour will establish a camp of instruction in Jacksonville. Well, if that is all, it is a lucky escape.'

"We little dreamed that on that very day the march toward Olustee was beginning. The battle took place next day, and I add one mon extract to show how the news reached Beaufort.

"'February 23, 1864.

"'There was a sound of revelry by night at a ball in Beaufort last night, in a new large building beautifully decorated. All the collected flags of the garrison hung round and over us, as if the stars and stripes were devised for an ornament alone. The array of uniforms was such, that a civilian became a distinguished object, much more a lady. All would have gone according to the proverbial marriage bell, I suppose, had there not been a slight palpable shadow over all of us from hearing vague stories of a lost battle in Florida, and from the thought that perhaps the very ambulances in which we rode to the ball were ours only until the wounded or the dead might tenant them.

"General Gillmore only came, I supposed, to put a good face upon the matter. He sent away soon, and General Saxton went; then came a rumor that the Cosmopolitan had actually arrived with wounded, but still the dance went on. There was nothing unfeeling about it--one gets used to things,--when suddenly, in the midst of the 'Lancers,' there came a perfect hush, the music ceasing, a few surgeons went hastily to and fro, as if conscience stricken (I should think they might have been),--and then there 'waved a mighty shadow in,' as in Uhland's 'Black Knight,' and as we all stood wondering we were aware of General Saxton who strode hastily down the hall, his pale face very resolute, and looking almost sick with anxiety. He had just been on board the steamer; there were two hundred and fifty wounded men just arrived, and the ball must end. Not that there was anything for us to do, but the revel was mis-timed, and must be ended; it was wicked to be dancing with such a scene of suffering near by.

"'Of course the ball was instantly broken up, though with some murmurings and some longings of appetite, on the part of some, toward the wasted supper.

"'Later, I went on board the boat. Among the long lines of wounded, black and white intermingled, there was the wonderful quiet which usually prevails on such occasions. Not a sob nor a groan, except from those undergoing removal. It is not self-control, but chiefly the shock to the system produced by severe wounds, especially gunshot wounds, and which usually keeps the patient stiller at first than at any later time.

"'A company from my regiment waited on the wharf, in their accustomed dusky silence, and I longed to ask them what they thought of our Florida disappointment now? In view of what they saw, did they still wish we had been there? I confess that in presence of all that human suffering, I could not wish it. But I would not have suggested any such thought to them.

"'I found our kind-hearted ladies, Mrs. Chamberlin and Mrs. Dewhurst, on board the steamer, but there was nothing f r them to do, and we walked back to camp in the radiant moonlight; Mrs. Chamberlin more than ever strengthened in her blushing woman's philosophy, 'I don't care who wins the laurels, provided we don't !'


"'But for a few trivial cases of varioloid, we should certainly have been in that disastrous fight. We mere confidently expected for several days at Jacksonville, and the commanding general told Hallowell that we, being the oldest colored regiment, would have the right of the line. This was certainly to miss danger and glory very closely.'"

From the Forward to The Black Phalanx, Da Capo Editon - 1994 (ISBN 0-306-80550-2)

"A 1967 critical bibliography of Civil War Books described The Black Phalanx as a 'significant work by a former Negro soldier; full of official dispatches and lengthy essays; uneven and poorly documented, but valuable for a discussion of anti-Negro prejudice in the army.' A year later, in the introduction to the Arno Press edition, the late great Sara Dunlap Jackson, writing from the heart of the National Archives, declared that the book 'stands out as a monument to the memory of the author who, without academic training, accomplished so much. For students and scholars of American Negro history,' she maintained, 'this volume remains an indispensable storehouse of information.' Careful rereading of Joseph Wilson's history persuades me that the Jackson judgment is far and away more valid and just.
"This book, originally published by the well known American Publishing Company in 1887, is a spirited account of the roles African Americans played as soldiers of the Republic during the Great Rebellion. Wilson gives the American Revolution one chapter, with equal room for the War of 1812; his primary attention is fixed on the American Civil War--his war. His comrades in the Grand Army of the Republic (G. A. R.) selected him for the task at an 1882 reunion. They could hardly have made a better choice. Here was a veteran of their war, an authentic soldier who had served in two Union regiments, the Second Louisiana Native Guards and the famous 54thMassachusetts Infantry; he had been mustered out of the 54th with a medical discharge after a battlefield wound. Verily, he had seen the elephant."

- by Dudley Taylor Cornish

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