Olustee Reminiscences

February 14-17, 2002

by Mary Fears

Photograph: Courtesy of Doug Dillard

Imagine for three mornings being awakened at 6:00 AM to the sounds of Confederate bugles and drums, and within an hour hearing the sounds of thousands of marching feet passing in front of your tent and seeing the awesome sight of several regiments of Confederate soldiers in all their colorful gray regalia with rifles pointed upwards, haversacks and swords swinging by their sides. Later in the day, ladies are seen in an array of long bouffant dresses in a rainbow of colors, held out with hooped skirts, heads covered with veiled-feathered-flowered-tiny hats, umbrellas, gloves and purses, strolling about gracefully or entering sutler tents to purchase jewelry, other accessories or perhaps another outfit. The question, "Why are you dressed like that?" directed to a man, may receive the reply: "I'm dressed as a country gentleman," or "a Confederate or Union military officer" or "an undertaker."

A person browsing in any one of the scores of sutler tents, which are exact replicas of the Civil War era, can find on display for purchase, every item used during the Civil War. There were copies of the Yankee New Testament Bible, The Confederate New Testament Bible, also every item which both the Union soldiers in blue and the Confederate soldiers in gray used to wear, from their boots and hats to their mess kits and fighting pieces.

At the 26th Reenactment of the Battle of Olustee, the entire Civil War U.S. population was represented, including the Central Florida Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS) and the reenactors of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers (Colored) . The First North Carolina Colored Infantry and the Eight U.S. Colored Troops participated, representing "people of color" who lived at the time of the Civil War. The three regiments named fought bravely and courageously during the Battle of Olustee.

Students and adults from Shiloh Baptist Church and the AAHGS were reenactors dressed in slave attire and as "free people of color." Television and newspaper reporters gave extensive coverage to their participation and the informative display on the "Secret Symbols sewn into Quilt Blocks." K.O. Mitchell, Joel V. Fears and Mary J. Fears informed audiences throughout the weekend of the true facts about the participation of the three black regiments and three women of color who served in the Civil War. Three persons costumed as the subject of stories told by Mrs. Fears were: Mrs. Sarah Rone as Elizabeth Keckley, Ms. Ernestine Johnson as Harriet Tubman, and student Sameasha Johnson as Susie King Taylor. Kevin, a student from Shiloh, proudly expressed to the audience who the group represented.

The climax of the weekend for all the visitors was the sight of 2,500 reenactors of Confederate and Union troops on the battle grounds shooting at each others in the same area where the Battle of Olustee took place on February 20, 1864.

To experience a weekend at Olustee as a reenactor dressed in slave attire, imparting information to folks from all over the country, facts that they did not know about Afro-Americans in the Civil War, was an experience that I shall never forget. Our presence was welcomed by the planners of the program, especially Mr. Eric Hague and Mrs. Martha Nelson. So often we heard, "I am so happy to see you here. Be sure to come back next year," and "Your program was very enjoyable. I learned much that I did not know."

It is my fervent hope that parents, pastors and youth leaders of churches would become very active in helping youth to learn African American history by providing the opportunity for many to attend next year's reenactment. It is truly worth the effort to help people learn African American history.

Mrs. Fears and members of the Central Chapter of the AAHGS plan to continue as a part of the Battle of Olustee Reenactment. She is in continuous contact with ministers and church youth groups urging attendance.

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