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This action-packed painting is of the Battle of Olustee, which took place during the Civil War on February 20, 1864. The action occurred in a pine forest near present-day Lake City, between Jacksonville and Tallahassee. The picture depicts the famous infantry regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, which the 1989 movie "Glory" spotlighted. Photo credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
Survivors of the Battle of Olustee gather on October 23, 1912 for the dedication of a monument. The wood in front of the veterans appears to be from the preparation of the monument. Photo credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Battle of Olustee

A DEADLY FLYWEIGHT — Although Florida’s biggest Civil War battle, Olustee proved small by that conflict’s standards. “Pound for pound,” though, Olustee packed quite a punch. Olustee attains national prominence if you consider three things: how long the engagement lasted, how many soldiers fought, and how many men lost their lives. When weighing these variable, according to some writers, Olustee stands as the bloodiest of all Civil War battles. Other researchers report that Olustee ranks as the third deadliest engagement for the Union when taking these factors into account.

At Olustee, the North lost almost twice as many soldiers as the South. Here are the numbers: Eleven thousand combatants participated in the engagement, with the Federals losing 1,861 (203 killed, 1,152 wounded, and 506 missing), and the Confederates losing 943 (93 killed, 847 wounded, and 6 missing).

Bullets flew like a storm at Olustee. The lines sagged back & forth, buffeted as with hurricane winds. Letters & diaries from veterans show that Olustee was easily comparable to the worst fighting in Virginia. According to a Tallahassee newspaper at the time, a wounded Union soldier said that his regiment went into the fight with 37 officers, but came out with only three alive & unhurt. Crowed the newspaper, the Southerners did some splendid shooting that day.

Prior to the battle, the Northern troops had marched from Jacksonville in order to cross the state and capture Tallahassee, the state capital. After Olustee, the Federals beat a hasty retreat, leaving all of their dead & many of their wounded. Also abandoned were enough small arms & ammo to supply a small army. The Union soldiers fled back to Jacksonville, which they occupied for the rest of the war. There was no other major attempt to seize Florida.

Following the end of the Battle of Olustee, roaming bands of Southern troops may have murdered many of the injured African Americans that were left on the battlefield. After other engagements, similar accusations had been made involving African American soldiers. In 1863, the Confederate Congress had proclaimed that ex-slaves caught fighting against the South would be executed. The Confederacy never formally did this, though. One reason could’ve been that President Lincoln threatened to kill Southern prisoners in retaliation.

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