LAKE CITY – Fifteen miles east of Lake City, Florida, is Olustee, a small town bordering the Osceola National Forest. Usually it is a serene and quiet spot in a rural setting, but once a year on Presidents Day weekend in February, the stirring sounds of bugles and drums mix with the sharp sound of rifle fire and cannons booming. Thousands of reenactors and spectators assemble in the park to experience history and witness the recreated battle.
For the past 44 years, Olustee State Park has been home to a living history event that honors those who fought in the largest and bloodiest Civil War battle in Florida. Olustee State Park, is the state's first park and was dedicated in 1912. The annual event is one of the few reenactment events that is actually carried out on the same ground where the original took place. In the Battle of Olustee, over 10,000 soldiers fought, and in some cases died, 155 years ago.
On Feb. 20, 1864, Union forces marching across the state ran into an equal army of Confederates at the location of the present park. Florida had escaped much of the fighting that had decimated the country. The Union had launched several raids along the coast and had even captured Jacksonville and Key West, but they didn't control the interior.
Union General Truman Seymore landed troops at Jacksonville, aiming to disrupt the Confederate supply line. Florida produced much of the beef and salt supply, which was exported north to the Confederate army. Meeting little resistance, he proceeded toward Tallahassee, which was still under Confederate control. Against orders from his commander, Seymore planned to cut across the state to Tallahassee and cut off the supplies leaving Florida. Assuming he would face only partisans and local militia, Seymore and his 5,500 troops followed the Florida, Atlantic and Gulf Central rail line west toward Lake City.
But it was not just militia the Union would be facing. Confederate General Joseph Finnegan had assembled an opposing force of battle-seasoned Florida troops, supplemented by additional troops from Georgia. At Olustee Station, east of Lake City, the Union forces ran into Finnegan’s 5,400 men. Seymour made the mistake of assuming he was facing Florida militia units like he had previously routed with ease and committed his troops piecemeal into the battle. Fighting raged all afternoon. Twice the Confederates almost ran out of ammunition. The Union forces attacked, but were repulsed by barrages of rifle and cannon fire. Then, just as Finnegan committed the last of his reserves, the Union line broke and began to retreat. Finnegan did not exploit the retreat, allowing most of the fleeing Union forces to reach Jacksonville.
Union casualties were 203 killed, 1,152 wounded and 506 missing, a total of 1,861 men, which was about 34 percent of the Union forces. Confederate losses were lower, with 93 killed, 847 wounded and 6 missing, a total of 946 casualties in all, which was about 19 percent.
The ratio of Union casualties to the number of troops involved made this the second bloodiest battle of the war for the Union, with 265 casualties per 1,000 troops. It also ended Union attempts to take the state and cut the supply lines. At the end of the war, Tallahassee was the only Confederate capitol that had not been captured. Although the battle is relatively unknown to the general public, it was a defining moment in the history of Florida.
This park where so much violence and bloodshed happened on that single day in 1864 now rests peacefully among the pine forest of North Florida, except for that one weekend in February.
The event is much more than a portrayal of a battle. Reenactors portray not only soldiers of both sides, but civilians as well, educating the public as they walk through the campsites. Some reenactors provide music or medical scenarios, female reenactors teach about the woman's role both in the war and home life. The park service also provides lectures, often taught by reenactors, on many aspects of the Civil War and life in the 1860s, including an actor portraying Frederic Douglas to give the viewpoint and experiences of African Americans, both free and slave.
Lake City also marks the event with a two-day festival with artists, vendors and entertainers beginning Friday afternoon and continuing through Saturday with the addition of a parade by the reenactors at 10:30 a.m. The town also sponsors a battle skirmish and naval reenactment of a battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac, at Lake Desoto in downtown Lake City. Although there was no naval engagement at the battle of Olustee, this is meant to portray the first engagement between two ironclad ships.
When Saturday evening comes and the spectators are gone, the camps at the park become a true step back in time. Reenactors relax in camp around a fire or go to a ball with a full orchestra. The only light is candlelight giving the night a warm glow, with the odor of smoke drifting from the campfires.
Then on Sunday, the Battle of Olustee is re-enacted on the same hallowed ground soldiers fought for over 150 years earlier. Long lines dressed in blue and gray meet in conflict, firing volleys and cannons before an audience of over 1,000 spectators. When the battle ends, all the reenactors assemble in long lines before the audience, no longer in conflict but mingled together, reunited as one nation, as a solitary bugle blows taps to honor those who died here so long ago.
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