150 Years Later: The Battle of Olustee

Do Civil War re-enactments illuminate and educate — or just give adults an excuse to play dress-up?


FLORIDA CIVIL WAR QUICK FACTS:

1860 population: 140,424 (equal to current population of Indian River County). Number of slaves: 61,475 (45 percent). “Non-indian” residents south of Sebastian: 85

Votes for Abraham Lincoln in 1860: 0 (he wasn’t on ballot)

Secession: Jan. 11, 1861 (third, behind South Carolina and Mississippi). Federal troops surrendered Pensacola Navy Yard the next day.

Military: 15,000 Floridians served, accounting for more than a tenth of state population, the largest percentage of any Confederate state. One in three died.

Governor: John Milton. In his last message to the state Legislature, he said: “Death would be preferable to reunion.” Fatally shot himself April 1, 1865 at his home in Marianna.

South Florida in the Civil War: A timeline

Jan. 10, 1861: Florida secedes.

April 15, 1861: Confederate sympathizers remove lighting mechanism at Jupiter lighthouse.

April 19, 1861: Abraham Lincoln orders blockade of the Confederate coastline; nearly half is Florida.

Feb. 20, 1864: Confederates prevail at Battle of Olustee, west of Jacksonville.

March 6, 1865: Confederates win Battle of Natural Bridge, south of Tallahassee, making it only state capital east of the Mississippi not to fall during the war.

May 10, 1865: Union troops enter and occupy Tallahassee.

June 28, 1866: Jupiter lighthouse relighted.

LEARN MORE:

Read more Palm Beach Post Civil War stories on www.historicpalmbeach.com

Florida Civil War Heritage Trail: www.flheritage.com/preservation/trails/civilwar/index.cfm/

“This Day in Florida History: Civil War, 1861-1865,” Florida Historical Society:

https://myfloridahistory.org/library/flahistory/civilwar/

Official magazine of Olustee Reenactment: http://issuu.com/lcadv/docs/olustee_magazine_web

THE BATTLE OF OLUSTEE

On Feb. 20, 1864, about 5,000 Union troops, marching to seize Tallahassee, confronted the same number of rebels in the largest Civil War battle on Florida soil. The “skirmish” left 203 Union troops and 93 Confederates dead. The Confederate victory stymied a Federal strategy to bring Florida back into the Union — and, it was hoped, start a domino effect that would crumble the Confederacy and end the war.

Private Jimmy Shirley, 7th Florida Volunteer Infantry, Company B, staggers back, a series of bullets ripping into his chest.

He slumps and falls on his face, dead. His wispy gray whiskers tangle in the tall grasses of this Civil War battlefield.

But no blood oozes from the fabric of his butternut gray Confederate uniform. Hogs do not root at his corpse. No widow weeps. No orphan cries for his daddy.

Moments later, he stands up and salutes.

This isn’t real. It’s dress-up. It’s part of an annual weekend festival for re-enactors, and an education of sorts. Here, near the former settlement of Olustee, 150 years ago, was the largest, most important Civil War battle on Florida soil, involving 10,000 troops.

A Confederate victory, the “skirmish” left 203 Union soldiers and 93 Confederates dead. And it stymied a Federal strategy to bring Florida back into the Union and start a domino effect to end the war.

Each year, this re-enactment honors the fallen. But some consider it a pathetic romanticizing of lost causes and a whitewash of America’s disgrace.

It reveals wounds still open and raw.

It is a ribbon to the past, a warning for today, and an argument that will never, ever be resolved.

***

Shirley, a Palm Springs newspaper ad salesman, joined 1,970 others two weekends ago at this state park and former battlefield, an hour’s drive west of Jacksonville. They came to mark the passage of 150 years since Northern and Southern troops breached this expanse of knee-high grass, scrub and pine on Feb. 20, 1864.

More than 23,000 people watched the skirmish and walked the tents and interacted with people who were “in character.” They munched on barbecue and funnel cake, and braved portable toilets.

The re-enactors dressed in period blue and gray. As in the real battle, they faced each other in lines.

And insanely, calmly, raised rifles and shot each other.

This time, it was just a lot of noise from blanks, and blasts from expensive replica cannons at corners of the battlefield, and clouds of smoke, and palm saplings flying into the air amid remote-control activated pyrotechnics, and the acrid smell of cordite.

But to what end?

Says Sgt. Mitch Morgan, 3rd Florida Infantry, Company B, a third-generation Floridian: “We come up here to honor our ancestors and keep this hallowed ground what it should be: sacred ground. This is one of the few places where you can fight on the actual battlefield where it occurred.”

But he adds, “I always say those in blue didn’t want to die any more than the boys in gray did. I don’t try to glorify the North or the South. I just say that war in general is hell.”

Perhaps that is the story that should be told at Olustee, and everywhere else we remember the Civil War.

Not who was right or wrong, or why we fought, but that a country which prides itself on working out its internal problems, no matter how onerous, did it every time in its history. Except this time.

This time, the machine of war mowed down an entire generation of young men, and leveled great cities and their civilian populations.

Some will not, cannot let it go.

Robert Tucker, of nearby Lake Butler, has come every year since 1986 to man a tent for Sons of Confederate Veterans. His Georgia ancestor fell at this place. Poking a finger into a reporter’s shoulder for emphasis, he insists, “I ain’t clinging to a lost cause. Not me. Never.”

Adrian Cox McCabe, of Lake City, whose ancestors fought for the South on this soil, says, “It’s something that could have easily been settled. They could have just sat down. Get your pigheadedness out. Get over your pride. And get over your differences. And talk about it.

“This is definitely a lot of wasted American lives.”

***

When most people think about the Civil War, they don’t think about Florida. But it was more strategic than it is often given credit. The Union saw it as a path to ending the war. In a cold wind in February 1864, Union leaders sailed a fleet of ships down from South Carolina and into the deserted city of Jacksonville, where they disgorged thousands of soldiers.

Their aim was to seize Tallahassee.

Florida, sparsely settled and riddled with Union loyalists, was considered the most vulnerable of the Confederate states.

Claiming it for the Union and setting up a provisional government, they reasoned, just might start the collapse of the already-teetering house of cards that was the Confederacy.

It wasn’t to be. They got only as far as Olustee.

For four hours, ten thousand men, some 5,000 on each side, stood and shot. And stood and shot.

Night found some 1,860 Federals – nearly two of five — killed, wounded or captured. It was, by percentage of those fighting, the third deadliest Union setback in the war.

The men in blue included black soldiers, some of which were found lying wounded after the battle by Confederate soldiers, who summarily executed them.

The southerners tallied 1,000 killed, wounded or captured. But they’d sent the Federals scurrying.

Another battle, in March 1865 at Natural Bridge, near Tallahassee, also would fail, and Tallahassee would be the only Confederate capital east of the Mississippi River not to fall in war.

It didn’t matter. After winning Olustee, the Confederacy would hang on only another 14 months.

***

Here at Olustee, 150 years later, the long shadows of early morning fall across the lines of men, the stocks of their rifles against the ground and their hands grasping the ends of muzzles. Some lean staffs at their shoulders, displaying regimental and battle flags that billow in the light breeze. Their breath is visible in the cold February air. At the edges, officers sit astride horses that prance impatiently and nod their heads and snort.

A bugle calls the morning muster. The 11th North Carolina Regimental Band plays “Hail Columbia” and “God Save the South.” A cannon fires a single shot that echoes through the trees, dripping with moss.

“We are struck by your love for us,” intones Chaplain Alan Farley, a Virginia missionary who’s preached at re-enactments for decades, including more than 20 visits to Olustee. “By the love these men had 150 years ago to give their lives. Be with us today. Our actions will bring honor to those who laid their life’s blood on this field.”

An officer shouts, “Company. File left!” And the units turn and march out of the parade ground to their respective camps to brace for the day’s battle.

All weekend, re-enactors sleep in their tents in bitter cold, wearing for days on end the ill-fitting, scratchy, hot woolen uniforms exactly like those worn in the war.

Only 1,900 re-enactors took part this year, down from the expected 2,500. Some had been waylaid by a stretch of wicked and un-Southern winter weather.

Re-enactment is serious business, and there is no one lower than a “farb.” That’s someone who dresses not in genuine garb but in a replica made of unnatural modern fibers. A farb sits bravely at the campfire by day, but slips out at night for a comfortable bed, hot shower, and free continental breakfast at a chain hotel in nearby Lake City.

Then there’s the woman in a full hoop skirt, pulling on a very modern cigarette. And another, a cellphone pasted to her ear, mashing her colorful cotton period bonnet.

In the Confederate and Union camps, re-enactors pose for group portraits, smooth their uniforms, check and double check their rifles. Troops, led by fife and drum units, march in order past modern cars and tourists.

James Erin Premane, from Bradenton, mostly re-enacts with Confederates but for this weekend was the Union parade marshal.

“We try to be as dignified and realistic as we can. It was a sad day. (People today) tend to forget the (Civil) War entirely. It’s been pushed aside. People don’t realize how close this country was to disaster. People say it was a piece of cake. But it wasn’t. It was four years of people dying.”

Rick Mayfield, a parent chaperone with a dozen Scouts and six adults from Broward County’s Troop 309, isn’t so sure his kids get it.

“They’re sitting there thinking, ‘This is easy.’ No. War is ugly and awful and hurtful.”

The kids likely would feel different had they seen the re-enactment of the field surgery.

Adrian Cox McCabe, whose day job is as a sonogram technician, wears the long dress and bonnet of a brave female field nurse.

She leads a performance in which soldiers are stretched on makeshift tables as “surgeons” cut off limbs and arterial blood – actually baby shampoo, food coloring, and water flavoring liquid — squirts onto spectators’ T-shirts, drawing rounds of “ewwww.” And then they toss the fake amputated limbs in a pile.

One man screams in agony. Another runs up, the right side of his face wrapped in bloody bandages, and shouts, “I’m missing an ear, doc!”

Rising above it all: the sick burning smell of wounds being cauterized.

“It’s in my blood,” McCabe says later, with no trace of irony, as she gestures with palms soaked in fake dark red gore.

McCabe wants to show that, in 1864, field doctors didn’t understand that you don’t introduce dirt and germs inside a wound.

That they didn’t have X-rays, so they sent long metal probes to gouge around until they hit something hard, bullet or shrapnel or bone, and then dug around blindly with a tweezer.

That they cut with glorified steak knives and hacksaws, and sometimes had the luxury of chloroform or ether, but most times settled for introducing a slug of whiskey or a wooden dowel with which they instructed the poor wounded to just bite down, my man; bite down hard.

There’s another image she wants to shatter: women in flowing dresses, escorted by chivalrous gentlemen.

“These women had to step up,” she says. “They had to take over. They had to do the farming.”

***

“Frederick Douglass,” actually John Anderson, of Tallahassee, also wants to show how it was. He wears his hair parted and poufed in the style of the legendary former slave and abolitionist, and is here to emphasize the indecency of slavery.

“Their conditions were horrible and brutal and inhumane and barbaric. But … slavery did not exist because southerners hated blacks. Slavery existed because the federal government allowed it. And they benefited from it.”

When all that southern cotton was exported to Europe, he says, it traveled on “northern vessels built in northern shipyards manned by northern seamen. The whole country’s involved. You can’t excuse anybody, and you can’t apologize for anybody. The whole country just had to sort it all out. And it took a civil war to do it.”

Luther Johnson, from Chicago, wears the uniform of the legendary 54th Massachusetts, the all-black unit featured in the film “Glory.”

“From the African American perspective, the Civil War was for us the first civil rights movement,” he says, biting off a corner of a pizza slice.

“We don’t know at what point slavery would have ended,” he says. But he says the image of the black man as a subhuman brute took a major hit when whites saw blacks fighting smartly and bravely alongside them.

By midafternoon, at the field where the 1864 battle took place, and where the re-enactors soon will appear, spectators are filling bleachers.

Sitting cross-legged in front of spectators, near the rope line separating the battlefield, are Robert Jones and Aviva Mucha of Palm Beach Central High School. Clad in matching purple T-shirts, they are among 25 Palm Beach County students who are here as part of a weekend state convention of student governments in nearby Lake City.

“Student government,” says Aviva, “has taught that when you have problems, you don’t solve them by killing, cutting, shooting each other.”

By now, the re-enactors are lined up, in the trees on either side and back of the field. Somewhere among them is Palm Springs’ Jimmy Shirley.

Shirley wears the “straw hat” of the 7th Florida, one brim pinned up. His year-round wiry white beard often draws stares, but not at a Civil War re-enactment.

The 1972 graduate of Pahokee High fell into re-enacting after he and his wife and business partner Betty Thomas, publisher of “The Condo News,” visited the Yesteryear Village collection of historic homes at the South Florida Fairgrounds. His first event: an unofficial re-enactment at John Prince Park near Lake Worth.

Ask about the lessons here, and he pauses a long time before answering.

“A lot of kids (say) ‘I want to join the Army. I want to join the Marines. My daddy was a Marine.’ They were inspired. They had some romantic notions about how it is.

“Then they get into war. And find out it’s not romantic at all.”



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