Report from Brigadier General
Commanding Officer, U.S. Forces, District of Florida,
Explaining the Defeat at Olustee
HEADQUARTERS DISTRICT OF FLORIDA
Jacksonville, Fla., February 25, 1864
GENERAL: I have the honor to report that on February 20, at 6 a.m.. I left my position on the South Fork of the Saint Mary's (Barber's plantation) with the intention of advancing on Lake City, and, if successful, of destroying the railroad communication between East and West Florida at the Suwannee River, such being the general plan of operations upon which the occupation and control of East Florida had been founded. The command consisted of Col. G. V. Henry's mounted brigade (two squadrons Independent Battalion Massachusetts Cavalry, Major Stevens; the Fortieth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, and Elder's Horse Battery B. First U.S. Artillery, four guns), Col. J. R. Hawley's brigade (Seventh Connecticut, Captain Skinner; Seventh New Hampshire, Col. J. C. Abbott; Eighth U.S. Colored Troops, Col. C. W. Fribley), Col. W. B. Barton's brigade (Forty-seventh New York, Col. H. Moore; Forty-eighth New York, Maj. W. B. Coan; One hundred and fifteenth New York, Col. S. Sammon), and Colonel Montgomery's brigade (Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, Col; E. N. Hallowell; First North Carolina Volunteers, Lieut. Col. W. N. Reed), with Hamilton's Light Battery E. Third U.S. Artillery, six guns, and Langdon's Battery M, First U.S. Artillery, six guns (comprising a section of James' Rhode Island Battery, under Lieutenant Metcalf). The entire force near 5,500 officers and men and sixteen guns.
Accurate information, it was believed, as to the enemy's strength had been obtained, and the excellent character of the troops under my command forbade any doubt as to the propriety of a conflict on equal terms. After a march of 15 miles, and about 3 p.m., Colonel Henry's cavalry came upon the enemy's infantry pickets somewhat to the east of Olustee. A couple of companies from the Seventh Connecticut soon drove them back upon their supports, which opened fire. Captain Elder felt them with his guns, the remainder of the Seventh Connecticut was handsomely deployed forward, and under this display the enemy's position in line of battle was clearly developed. The ground was favorable for the movement of troops, being firm and even, and although covered with pine timber was devoid of underbrush. My intention was to engage the enemy in front with the artillery, supported by a regiment on either flank, while a brigade should be moved to the right so as to fall upon the prolongation of his line. The Seventh New Hampshire was accordingly thrown forward to the right, and the Eighth U.S. Colored Troops to the left, and Hamilton's and Langdon's batteries were brought up alongside of Elder's. The Seventh Connecticut had been energetically and successfully engaged in its work of driving in the enemy's skirmishers; it was now withdrawn from before our infantry. The Seventh New Hampshire, an old regiment, armed in part with the Spencer rifle, had scarcely deployed and felt the enemy's fire before it broke in confusion, and the most strenuous efforts of Colonel Hawley and its own colonel, assisted by Lieutenant-Colonel Hall, of my staff, could not reform or rally it, and this regiment counted as nothing during the remainder of the engagement. The Eighth U. S. Colored Troops formed promptly in position, lead by the gallant young Fribley, but he soon fell, and these men also, losing the stimulus of his command, gave way in disorder. The enemy closed up after these yielding regiments, and brought a close fire upon the artillery, which, nevertheless, was worked by its admirable officers with perfect tenacity and coolness. An unremitting fire was maintained upon the enemy's infantry, with the very best effect. Barton's brigade, close at hand, was now formed on the ground occupied by the Seventh New Hampshire, and the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts had replaced the Eighth U.S. Colored Troops and a rapid fire was opened, the influence of which was soon visible. The left of the enemy's line was forced backward, and in the hope of still effecting my original intention, the First North Carolina was brought up to the right of Barton's brigade by Lieutenant-Colonel Reed in the most brilliant manner. The entire force was now hotly engaged save the cavalry. Colonel Henry watched the flanks and prevented on the left a movement of the enemy's cavalry that threatened trouble. But the disparity in numbers was too great and the defense too obstinate to permit of decisive results. The struggle continued until dusk, and ended with cheers of defiance, and finding it hopeless, under existing circumstances, to advance farther, the troops were withdrawn in perfect order to Sanderson and then to the Saint Mary's, Colonel Henry's cavalry, supported by the Seventh Connecticut, serving as rear guard. From loss of horses alone, I was compelled to leave six guns on the field, and a small portion of the badly wounded were left in the power of the enemy from insufficient means to remove them.
The losses had been heavy, particularly among superior officers. Colonel Fribley, a young man of high promise, had died in the full performance of his duty, nobly encouraging his men to theirs. Lieutenant-Colonel Reed was mortally wounded while managing his regiment with conspicuous skill, and his major (Bogle) was severely hurt. Colonel Moore, of the Forty-seventh, and Colonel Summon, One hundred and fifteenth New York, were both wounded, and Colonel Summon, although badly disabled, remained with his command until it left the field. Captain Vandeveer, of the One hundred and fifteenth New York, an officer justly held in high esteem, lost his life—one of the greatest misfortunes of the day.
A losing battle receives little praise, but officers and men, nevertheless, often display soldierly qualities far beyond those that are brought out by success. The conduct of Colonel Barton's brigade was glorious, and I cannot too highly commend the pertinacity with which it held to its work. Its commander deserves greatly. Colonels Hawley and Montgomery, also commanding brigades, conducted their troops with great personal intelligence and valor. Besides Colonels Moore and Summon should be mentioned Major Coan, Forty-eighth New York; Captain Skinner, Seventh Connecticut, and Colonel Hallowell, Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, as meriting more than usual praise for their excellent conduct. Colonel Henry kept his cavalry in constant activity, watching and neutralizing that of the enemy, and by important and gallant services before and after, as well as during the battle, was eminently useful. I desire to recommend him to you as a highly deserving officer. The artillery, as might have been expected, performed its part with great honor; guns were never better served, or under more trying circumstances. Exposed greatly to sharpshooters this force suffered correspondingly. Captain Hamilton (chief of artillery), badly wounded, refused to quit the field, and with admirable coolness and fortitude continued his duties, and I must place on record here that this officer, well known to us as one of the most deserving and valuable of our service, should, as a mere act of justice, be advanced to a brigadier-generalship. Captains Langdon and Elder also deserve the most decided approbation. Lieutenants Myrick, Third Artillery, and McCrea, First Artillery, severely wounded, exhibited courage and devotion of the highest order. The officers of my staff performed their duties to my unqualified satisfaction. Lieutenant-Colonel Hall, provost-marshal-general of the department, was very efficient, and I am much indebted to him and to Major Eddy, Forty-eighth New York, assistant inspector-general, for constant and valuable aid. Lieutenant Michie, U.S. Engineers, was always ready, always brave, always skillful. My personal aides, Lieut. C. N. Jackson and Lieutenant Bradshaw, were conspicuously active, and both are to be commended for energy and courage. Captain Dana, of the Signal Corps, was of great assistance to me, and to Surgeon Majer, for careful attention to his duties as medical director, on behalf of the wounded, I desire to express especial gratitude. To the reports of subordinate commanders, herewith inclosed, I must necessarily refer for mention of my other gallant officers whose conduct should not be overlooked or forgotten.
The colored troops behaved creditably—the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts and First North Carolina like veterans. It was not in their conduct that can be found the chief cause of failure, but in the unanticipated yielding of a white regiment from which there was every reason to expect noble service, and at a moment when everything depended upon its firmness. The misfortune arose, doubtless, from this regiment having lately been filled with conscripts and substitutes, of a very inferior class. The issue, so finely drawn that the battle was nearly equal to its very close, the enemy's losses as heavy as my own, ground firmly held to the last, the admirable temper of the command all indicate that but for the disparity arising from the causes indicated, this might fairly have been a victory.
Respectfully, General, your obedient servant,
Brigadier-General, U.S. Volunteers, Commanding
Brig. Gen. J. W. TURNER,
Chief of Staff.
Copied from The Official Records of the War of Rebellion.
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