Excerpt from the Reminiscences of
William Frederick Penniman


William Frederick Penniman served in the 4th Georgia Cavalry during the Civil War. He wrote the 'Reminiscences' of his service about 1901, and covered the period 1861 to 1867. The original [Number 2747] is in the Southern Historical Collection of the Manuscripts Department, University of North Carolina Library, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It is made available to us by John Thrush, a member of the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park Citizens Support Organization.

[Webmaster's note: Penniman's 'Reminiscences,' as delivered to me, identify him as holding the rank of Captain. However, Mr. O.J. Hickox (hickox@haloisp.net), who spent over a decade researching Clinch's 4th Georgia Cavalry, states that Penniman never held officer rank and was probably a private during the Battle of Olustee. Hickox further states that Penniman was later assigned as a hospital orderly and was paroled as such at the end of the war. Apparently, the rank of 'Captain' was an honorary title for this Civil War veteran. The title may have been assumed by Mr. Penniman or bestowed upon him by friends and neighbors. This often happened, especially as the veterans became much older. Our thanks to Mr. Hickox for setting us straight.]

William Frederick Penniman was the son of a New York merchant who moved his family to a plantation near Jeffersonton, in Camden county, Georgia. William was a student in medical college in New York City in 1861 when, after some thought, he decided to return to Georgia and join the Confederate forces. Not receiving any reply to his letters requesting a medical position in the 26th Georgia Infantry then forming, William left to join the Florida infantry. Sickness overtook him enroute to the Florida Division and kept him bedridden for three months. He then joined the 4th Georgia Cavalry whose activities were chiefly at Nassau, Camden and Gylnn counties, guarding the coast and making raids on the enemy. He also saw some action in other parts of Georgia—near Atlanta, Thomasville—and touched Florida and Alabama. The 'Reminiscences,' written about 1901 for his children, contain descriptions of living conditions and social relations, both civilian and military, as well as personal anecdotes. As Penniman's family was prominant in the North, he was known by many of the Northern officers with whom he came into contact., and his account gives insight into social relations between men of opposing forces. Penniman's stepgrandmother was Julia Ohnson Fisher. She and his grandfather were escorted back to their home in the north by the captain whose troops bombarded and ransacked the Penniman home in Georgia.

[Webmaster's note: This excerpt only covers the period just before, during and immediately after the Battle of Olustee. However, Penniman's entire reminiscences are fascinating reading. One incident early on describes an incident in town when Penniman was almost killed as he was trying to join the 4th Georgia, as some "over the river men" thought he was a northern spy. Attacked by several man, one with a knife, Penniman defended himself with his fists and only suffered slashes to his clothing. Fortunately, for Penniman, other men quickly came to his rescue. Penniman makes the point that later on many of these same "over the river men" avoided military service or danger.

A number of Penniman's 'reminiscences' are at odds with other eye witness accounts of the battle and even with official reports. These include his assessment of the effects of the Confederate railroad gun, his protrayal of the actions of the U.S. Colored Troops and even the length of the battle. However, his questions concerning the actions of the Confederate Cavalry after the battle were also asked by the Confederate commanders and resulted in an investigation into Colonel Smith's actions.

Any errors in grammar or spelling within the following text are copied exactly as they are in the copy I have.]

William Penniman writes...

It was some months prior to this, and prior to us being transferred to the front near Atlanta, that news circulated in camp to effect that General Mayrour was fitting out an expedition from Port Royal via Jacksonville, which latter place was also occupied by the Yankees, the intent being to traverse northern Florida and particularly the capture of Lake City, a strategic point controlling the Florida peninsular.

It was further reported that the invading amy under his command consisted of about thirty thousand troops,"largely negroes".

The news had not more than reached us before orders arrived for the movement of the entire regiment, minus all camp equipage, and by forced march to head off the raid.

In giving my recollection of the battle following, known as that of Olustee or Ocean Pond, I would say that of all those fought during the war, I know of none presenting more peculiar features than this one, or one of more intensity, yet the historians but rarely refer to it and then in only a passing word or two.

By riding all day and half the night, the second night galloping we were pushed through to the little railroad station of Olustee, some twenty five or thirty miles east of Lake City, and went into camp to await results.

We had started with three days cooked rations of combread and a bit of bacon, and being without wagons, not a cooking utensil in the whole command. The rations were consumed and the lean country offered a poor opportunity for foraging, but from some source corn in the shuck was obtained for our horses and a small amount of unbolted corn meal was divided among the troops. We had neither salt or meat, but necessity discovered to us a means of cooking what we did have, for in shucking the corn we could carefully set aside the best of the shucks, then mixing the meal with water, would place the batter inside the shucks, tie them up and thrust them in the hot ashes to bake. When they were withdrawn the "bread" so baked was the facaimile of an ear of corn, having assumed all the impressions of the former occupant of the shuck, and to the eye was an alluring appetizer to half starved men, but the absence of any salt made it a most uninviting temptation to ones taste.

The following day train load after train load of infantry began to arrive, which proved to be largely Colquitt's Georgia Brigade, who were veteran soldiers just from Virginia, where there experience had been bought upon many bloody battle fields, whilst this was to prove our very first experience.

I could not help but notice that the entire brigade seemed to be composed of mere youths, the majority doubtless being under twenty one years of age, certainly under twenty five. They seemed to be such a "devil may care" set as a whole, that to me they were a curiosity, realizing as I did the renown they had already earned as a fighting brigade.

This brigade with the First Georgia Regulars, some Florida Cavalry and our own, as nearly as I recall, made up the defendant army, together with a battery or two, all told some six thousand men vs. thirty thousand.

The night after their arrival the woods resounded with the music from one or two bands playing the regular airs of the day, having a wonderfully inspiring effect in the open pine barren encampment.

The following day I met for the first time, -arton Stephens and your cousin Davis Bryant, and accepted an invitation from Capt. S. to dine with him the following day. He was shot on outpost duty that night, a few hours after I met him, and instantly killed.

The next morning an advance of the enemy was reported, and all was life and stir among our troops. During the night previous some scamp stole my horses bridle, and there being no other way to manage, I succeeded in getting a piece of plow line and rigged up a temporary rope bridle bit, headstall and reins, all of the same material, and rode my wild fiery horse throughout the battle following with that only to control him.

I here make claim that Col. Smith of the Second Florida Cavalry and myself jointly drew the first shot of the battle of Olustee.

In some way, forgotten now, I found myself accompanying him quite a distance in front of our cavalry vindette lines, in a reconnaisence. We fastened our horses in a pine sapling thicket close by the railway, which here had an embankment of some five or six feet, and mounted the roadbed. He was looking through his glasses in one direction and I happened to be looking in a different one, and thought I saw troops moving some ten to twelve hundred yards off in a bay gall. Calling his attention to the spot, he looked through his glasses and exclaimed, "Its the Yankees sure enough and they seem to be niggers."

We waited looking a them advancing rapidly for probably ten minutes, when happening to look in another direction again I distinctly saw quite a body in heavy skirmish order advancing within three to four hundred yards of us. I called to Col. S. to get down from the railroad quick or we would draw their fire. The words were scarce out of my mouth before we received quite a volley, one shot piercing the sid of Col. S's horse, from which the blood was freely flowing, but we mounted and got back to cavalry front before his horse succumbed. It was but a few minutes before the enemy were up to and pressing our front.

In the drill grounds of previous days it had always been a hard matter to make the boys keep proper alignment, but in the skirmish which at once began, they excelled in any drill attempt ever made previously. We were just scared enough to do what we were told to do and the best we knew how.

The battle field was a plain open pine barren, no earthworks or any protective spots, the land as level as a billiard table.

Our whole regiment, in fact the Second Florida also, moved like clock work, failling back in esohalm movement, tolling the Yankees directly back to where Colquitts brigade lay in the wire grass, until when within a few hundred yards of them, we at the trot quickly moved by the flank, leaving the two armies opposite each other.

In making this flank movement, not understanding the nature of the swamp called Ocean Pond, the larger part of our regiment went too far in and the horses sank to their bellies in the soft morass, causing us to lose a large number during the fight.

For simultaneously with the disaster, the right wing of the advancing troops being somewhat in advance of its center, raised a whoop and yell and went for the boys.

By this time the fun had commenced in earnest. The very atmosphere breathed of aprrot shells and bullets, but orders were given to a regiment, the Sixth Georgia I think, to move to the left and make a counter charge, which was instantly done, saving our whole command from capture, and from the work they accomplished in this counter charge, as I saw its results after the fight was over, must have almost annihilated the 7th Conn.

As I sat on my horse I had a full fair view of the whole field, and noticed particularly a long gun mounted on a platform car, pushed down on the railroad track by an engine, that enfiladed the ranks of the enemy, doing terrible damage to them.

In front were two Yankee bateries, being served rapidly and pouring shot into our boys, when with a characteristic yell and quicker done than I can here describe it, those little seventeen to twenty year old bloodhounds made a dash for the two batteries, shot down both gunners and horses, capturing the guns.

We had noticed that whilst the flankers were white troops the whole center seemed to be negroes, with a regiment of white cavalry in their rear. Not so much as a support as to keep the poor beggars up to their work and in line. Do as they would, the nigger couldn't stand the fire, and small wonder too, for it was terrific, so they would huddle then to twenty behind each of the few scattering pine trees.

Word was passed down the line to cross the firing, that is, those at the right instead of firing at the enemy directly fronting, would fire at the negroes opposite the left of each command those at the left reversing; the result being that the negroes simply lay in piles around the bases of the pine trees.

The fight did not last much over sixty minutes, when the whole invading army was in the wildest retreat towards Jacksonville.

Then it was that the cavalry should have done their part, but where was it? All but a company or so of the Fourth Georgia had its horses in the Ocean Pond morass bogged, whilst no one seemed to know what had become of that of the Second Florida, it being stated only that they were off some where a flankers.

At this moment I was ordered to go around the head of the swamp and pick up a body of forty or fifty cavalry who had been sent their as flankers, tell them the enemy were in full retreat and hasten in.

This I did quickly, but my hours being somewhat blown from the double race, I let him move along slowly towards our outer line, thinking to push on again and catch up.

It was now nearing the dusk in the P.M. and as I rode slowly over the field, it was niggers dead, niggers wounded in all directions, some severely, other not so much so, groans and prayers from the heard in all directions.

I passed on down the road and upon arriving first at our picket line and then the vidette, I made inquiry for the direction the cavalry had taken, when with many jeers at the absence of any display of cavalry in following up the work cut out for them, I was told a squad or two have gone down the road, ride on you'll surely catch up with them. These fighting infantry men had but a poor opinion of cavalry and often not without apparent reason.

I followed the road for perhaps a mile, passing sometime great piles of knapsacks, gum blankets, haversacks and other material stacked by the Yankees to lighten them for fighting trim.

I did not stop to trouble any at that time but continued my way, becoming fretted and nervous at neither hearing or seeing anything of either friend or foe, when just as I turned an angle in the road, which skirted a cypress pond, I was not with a distinct challenge, Halt there; and to my astonishment I had ridden right up to what appeared to be a battle line.

I could see numerous fires apparently in line, though being quite startled, I did not pause to investigate, but spurred my horse quickly to one side of the road to get out of range of any one who might be disposed to shoot, when as I did so, in the gleaming I saw an object on the ground in the palmatto bushes and heard a groan at the same time.

I immediately approached and dismounted, finding a young Yankee cavalryman, not exceeding seventeen or eighteen years of age, with his limbs held to the ground by his dead horse laying across them.

I had much difficulty in extricating him, and found that he was shot through the calves of both legs, the mine ball having pushed through the body of his horse killing it.

I noticed that the animal had on it a fine W.R. bridle, saddle, etc. and though I was able to secure the bridle which I so much needed, I had not the strength to get the saddle and it appeared to me too that 'time' was just then a consideration, for I was uneasy at my proximity to the chap that helped to, and those lights that I had seen.

I could not leave the young fellow, to so hoosted him as best I could into my saddle, and started back for our lines.

Just as I reached it, Col. John L. Harris and quite a squad rode up (Col. C. having been severely wounded in the early part of the battle) when I reported my discovery to him, at which he ordered my to let my prisoner lay on the ground until an ambulance could reach him, and then to go with a squad and develope my 'find.'

It was not a pleasant proposition, but fifteen or twenty of us rode carefully back over the road I had come, until we reached the angle in the road near the cypress pond already mentioned, each man carrying his carbine with his thumb on the hammer, expecting another halt, and possibly a volley.

In a moment the 'halt' was heard, and before we had determined what answer to make or what to do, I noticed a big white sheet, apparently fastened to a tree, waving in the starlight, so shouted "friends", and received in reply "Advance friends." We did so, finding quite a large hospital camp, with one hundred or more sick and wounded, several wagons of medical stores, etc., all of which we at once took charge of.

I preceeded the prisoner escort towards our lines, for two reasons, one being that I wanted to pick up my boy and see him solely to the field hospital, the other that I wanted to investigate the stacks of knapsacks I had seen, before the infantry struck them, as I full well knew there would be nothing left for me after they had once laid hands on them.

I soon found the place, and felt that I had developed a treasure mine indeed. It was not so dark but that I could see that several which I opened, had a full supply of nice clean new underwear, being articles that I was wofully short of.

I soon made a greedy selection of all I could manage to pack away in two of them. I found two nice new gum blankets also, and slinging the whole over the back of my horse made my way towards the line again. Whether they had belonged to some 'nigger' or not I never knew, but they were clean, and I was destitute.

I also had two haversacks, filled with pork and hardtack, with quite a quantity of so called coffee, and mixed with sugar.

A great feast a few of us had that night, in fact for several days following, for in our traversing the line of retreat the next day, we picked up any amount of this class of provisions.

On reaching our lines, I found my little prisoner had been moved, so I began to work my way back to our camp of the night before, which I later found, with most of our boys already there, and our few wounded.

In passing over the field, and the road ran centering through it, my attention was first attracted to the bodies of the yankees, invariably stripped, shoes first and clothing next. Their white bodies looked ghastly enough, but I particularly notice that firing seemed to be going on in every direction, until the reports sounded almost frequent enough to resemble the work of skirmishers.

A young officer was standing in the road in front of me and I asked him, "What is the meaning of all this firing I hear going on." His reply to me was, "Shooting niggers Sir. I have tried to make the boys desist but I can't control them." I made some answer in effect that it seemed horrible to kill the wounded devils, and he again answered, "That's so Sir, but one young fellow over yonder told me the niggers killed his brother after being wounded, at Fort Pillow, and he was twenty three years old, that he had already killed nineteen and needed only four more to make the matter even, so I told him to go ahead and finis the job." I rode on but the firing continued.

The next morning I had occasion to go over the battle field again quite early, before the burial squads began their work, when the results of the shooting of the previous night became quite apparent. Negroes, and plenty of them, whom I had seen lying all over the field wounded, and as far as I could see, many of them moving around from palace to place, now without a motion, all were dead. If a negro had a shot in the shin another was sure to be in the head.

A very few prisoners were taken, and but a few at the prison pen. One ugly big black buck was interrogated as to how it happened that he had come back to fight his old master, and upon his giving some very insolent reply, his interragater drew back his musket, and with the butt gave him a blow that killed him instantly. A very few of the wounded were placed on the surgeons operating table—their legs fairly flew off, but whether they were at all seriously wounded I have always had my doubt.

No further demonstrations being made by Seymours Army, Col Quitts brigade returned to Virginia, and we were left on duty for a time, picketing around Jacksonville and the St. Johns river.

I was placed temporarily in charge of the field hospital at Waldo, with a few sick and wounded patients then convealescing, and had an extremely easy billet for next month or two.

Other Letters from Olustee
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