OPPENHEIMERS AT OLUSTEE
This piece was written and kindly donated by Hector Allen, Oppenheim Town Historian. This article came about from a trip to Florida (1989) he made and on his return home stopped at the battlefield. Here is his introduction:
".......The former caretaker told us (H. Allen & his wife) some very interesting tales about the entire campaign of Olustee, replete with political overtones, racial animosities and military blunders....I picked up a copy of Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A narrative, Vol. II Foote devotes seven whole pages to the ill-starred Olustee campaign! This material forms the basis for the report you are now reading.
When we arrived back home (Oppenheim), I called Mr. Lewis Decker, Fulton County Historian. He had, in his personal collection, the regimental history of the 115th which is entitled The Iron Hearted Regiment: Being An Account of the Battles, Marches and Gallant Deeds Performed by the 115th Regiment New York Volunteers. This was an excellent source, although it differs in a few respects from Foote's narrative.
Here, then, is the story of the campaign to conquer Northern Florida which ended in disaster at Olustee: In January, 1864 President Abraham Lincoln issued a "Proclamation of Amnesty & Reconstruction." The gist of this document was that if 10% of the citizens of a state then in rebellion would sign an oath of allegiance to the Union, that state could form a new government, elect Congressmen and Senators and participate in national politics once again. This was a pretty clover move for "old Abe," since he wasn't doing well at that time in the arena of public opinion. The war had gone on formerly three years, and the Confederacy still was not conquered.
.....The nearest Federal Troops available to begin the campaign were those surrounding Charleston, South Carolina under the command of Gen. Quincy Gillmore. This was an easy 200 mile trip by sea to Jacksonville. Gillmore's men, including the 115th New York, had been engaged in a fruitless attempt to take the city of Charleston for several months, and when the command came from President Lincoln himself, the General was ready. Interestingly enough, the orders came in the form of a personal letter from Lincoln to Gen. Gillmore, delivered by one of the President's personal secretaries, John Hay. Hay, 25 years old at the time, had just been made a Major. He had a brand-new uniform, and carried boxes of the new "oaths of allegiance" for the repentant citizens of Florida to sign.
This is what transpired next, according to the account in the Iron Hearted Regiment: The 115th drew six days rations on February 4th, 1864 and the next day embarked on 35 vessels for the State of Florida. (There were 9 infantry regiments, plus support units, artillery and cavalry also along). On February 7th the flotilla entered the Saint Johns River and headed for Jacksonville, which they captured the same day at a cost of only three men lost in the entire division. On the 8th they marched 10 miles inland and captured the confederate "Camp Finnegan", which was named after the rebel commander, Brigadier Gen. Joseph Finegan. A large number of prisoners and nine field artillery guns were captured, along with many small arms and other equipment.
During this advance, the 115th and the rest of the Division were moving due West along the "Florida, Atlantic and Gulf Central Railroad". There were no locomotives, since the rebels had taken them all further West. Gen. Gillmore had the foresight to bring one small locomotive along, but it soon broke down and was of no use. Even so, the advance made good progress.
On the 9th of February the 115th entered the village of Baldwin, where a railroad running from the Northeast to Southwest intersects the Florida, Atlantic and Gulf Central. This was seen as a strategic position, but the Confederates were driven out without much of a fight. Additional cannons, small arms and prisoners were taken. At this point, I suppose the men of the 115th were getting pretty confident; they had been in Florida for just three days, marched inland about 25 miles, captured a number of prisoners and weapons and suffered very few casualties. This was remarkable speed for a Union army unit in the Civil War, but it would all change, and soon.
The next day, February 10th, the 115th had to ford the St. Marys River. The rebels contested the crossing and our boys lost 4 killed and 16 wounded. However, the advance continued and on the following day, February 11th, the village of Sanderson was taken without opposition. The rebels burned their supplies as they withdrew. It then began to rain, and since the 115th had left most of their gear, including tents, back at Jacksonville, they were miserably wet. Blankets do not really keep the rain off, and according to the account, the men also had to contend with cold weather.
Sanderson is within 8 miles of Olustee, but orders came to march back East on the railroad line to the village of Barber to wait for the reinforcements. General Gillmore had been getting reports that the confederate forces were concentrating at Lake City, about 10 miles West of Olustee. These reports were to be confirmed in just a few days.
On the 14th of February the 115th was sent North, up the railroad line that crossed the Florida, Atlantic and Gulf Central to forage for supplies and to destroy that line so possible Confederate forces in Georgia could not use it to attack the rear and flank of the division. This was done, but only after a difficult night march, in the rain, of about 25 miles. Many of the artillery and cavalry horses that went along on this side-show were worn out and several died.
On the 17th of February, the 115th arrived again at Barbers on the main rail line. They rested for three days while General Gillmore went back to Jacksonville to expedite the movement of food and other supplies. Gillmore left his second-in-command, Brigadier General Truman Seymour, in charge. Seymour, a 40-year old Vermonter who had graduated from West Point, had a lot of previous military service. He had been at Ft. Sumter in April of 1861 when that post was attacked by the rebels to inaugurate the Civil War. General Seymour was ambitious and aggressive, and he was apparently not satisfied with this role and accomplishments thus far during the war.
General Gillmore had left instructions that Seymour must stay on the defensive. However, reports came in that the Confederates were starting to remove the rails from the Florida, Atlantic and Gulf Central line. Without rails, future moves West toward the rebel State Capital at Tallahassee when Gillmore returned with supplies and reinforcements would be difficult. Accordingly, General Seymour disobeyed his orders and began moving his forces West down the rail line.
On February 20th, the 115th began marching toward Olustee, 18 miles away. They would arrive about noon, not knowing that the rebels were determined to make a stand there. (Olustee today is just a wide spot in the road, with a gas station and a few houses. The railroad still runs through there, but I didnt see a depot or much of anything else. It is about two miles West of the battlefield site).
The other units that General Seymour set in motion that day were the 47th N.Y. Infantry, the 48th N.Y. Infantry, 7th New Hampshire Infantry, 1st North Carolina Colored Regiment, 7th Connecticut Infantry, 8th U.S. Colored Infantry, 54th Mass. Colored Regiment (the most famous Black Regiment in the Union army), the 40th Mass. Mounted Infantry, Batteries B & C, U.S. Artillery, and the 3rd Rhode Island Artillery, Battery C. He also had some cavalry units. The total was about 5,500 men.
On the Confederate side were eight Georgia Infantry Regiments, the 1st, the 6th, 19th, 23rd, 27th, 28th, 32nd and 64th, two Florida Infantry Regiments, the 1st and 6th, the 2nd Florida Cavalry Regiment, the 4th Georgia Cavalry, two other cavalry units and three small artillery units. (In all, Foote says the rebels had only 4 cannons against our 16). The total number was equal to ours, about 5,500 men.
The Confederates had been on the site for two or three days. They had sufficient time to dig in and/or put up log barricades, which they did. Their selection of a battleground was also good, despite the fact that their General was a former lumberman and had no formal military training. North of the battlefield was a large, swampy area known as "Ocean Pond", which kept our forces from flanking movements on that side. The rebel cavalry was positioned to keep us from trying any flanking movements to the South side of the field. The former caretaker, who has studied this battle for several years, maintained that the Union cavalry did not do much during the three to four hours of the battle, preferring to let the infantry carry the fight. This might have been a decisive mistake, and if true, does not reflect very well on Gen. Seymours conduct of the battle.
The first unit to engage the enemy was the 7th N. H. Infantry, who were armed with the new, 7-shot Spencer rifles. As soon as it was apparent that the rebel forces could not be easily driven from their positions, the rest of the army moved up into position, line-abreast and facing a nearly identical line of the enemy. The 115th was on the far right end (North) of the Union line.
According to my sources, the battle that ensued was one of the worst of the war, considering the relatively small numbers of men involved. The total area of the battlefield was approximately 100 acres, and on this ground for three to four hours about 10,000 men fired at each other at ranges rarely exceeding 100 yards. The large caliber bullets (standard ammunition in the Union army was a .58 caliber round) could do terrific damage to human flesh at that range, and the addition of cannister rounds fired by the cannons must have made that particular field a veritable hell.
One initial mistake made by our forces was to place the artillery too close to the Confederate line. They were soon put out of action by small arms fire, and some were captured. This nullified a strong advantage that Union forces often had, that of superior artillery fire.
After over three hours of continual combat, the first Union unit to break was the 7th N.H. Infantry, the first unit that was engaged. I guess their new Spencer rifles did not do them much good that day. Following this, the 8th U.S. Colored Regiment broke as their Colonel was killed. Despite heroic work by other units, notably the 54th Mass. Colored Infantry and our own 115th (both of these regiments united in a vain attempt to re-capture some of our lost artillery guns), the Union line was in considerable disarray. Sometime in late afternoon or early evening came the order to withdraw. (There is a discrepancy in the accounts of Shelby Foote and the author of the 115th Regimental history, 1st Lt. James H. Clark. Foote says the battle began at noon and ended at 4:00 PM, while Clark said it began at 3:00 PM and ended at dark). At any rate, the battle was over and lost, and our boys had to retreat. Many units, included the 115th, had expended all of their ammunition.
The 115th regimental history praises both the 8th U.S. Colored Regiment and the 54th Mass. Colored Infantry for gallantry. The former caretaker at Olustee told me that the rebel forces were looking to destroy our colored regiments, ostensibly for some alleged incidents that took place earlier in South Carolina. I am not sure about this, but there is a book being written about the entire Olustee campaign, and perhaps that will shed some light on this matter. At any rate, the rebels failed if that was their goal and our Black regiments got away with the rest of our army.
The retreat at night was very difficult, but fortunately the rebels did not actively pursue our people. Even so, the wounded had a very hard time, and many did not survive. There are some very moving, personal accounts of the hardships after the defeat in the 115th Regimental history.
Within a few days our boys were back at Jacksonville. They were not sure of how many rebels had been engaged against them, and so were not certain what would happen next. (It turned out that the numbers were fairly even, but the 115th regimental history insists that there were 16,000 Confederates in the fight against them). This must have made our boys a bit nervous in the first few days after the battle.
For about two months the Union forces garrisoned Jacksonville and a few other places. No further advances down the rail line to the West were undertaken. Major John Hay, who would achieve a great deal of fame later as an American diplomat, did not get very many Floridians to sign his oaths of allegiance.
By April several units were withdrawn from Northern Florida for service elsewhere. Two major Union drives were being planned, one pitting Gen. Grant against Gen. Lee near Richmond and the other sending Gen. Sherman against Atlanta, so it made no sense to keep forces idle in Florida. The 115th was sent to the James River area, East of Richmond to join the forces of Gen. Benjamin Butler. Thus ended the participation of the 115th New York Volunteer Infantry in the Olustee campaign.
According to my sources, most of the "Oppenheimers" served in Co. E of the 115th. There were 16 of them, and here are their names:
Isaac Coloney 4th Corporal
Peter J. Keck 7th Corporal
James Bolster (died at Beaufort, where Olustee wounded were taken)
H. J. Cool (died at Fortress Monroe)
Samuel Clemens (died at Ft. Johnson, VA)
Augustus Canfield (wounded at Olustee)
William H.H. Keck
James N. Matauny (wounded at Olustee)
Wm. Montaney (died in Virginia)
Levi Phillip (wounded at Olustee)
John A. Smith
Peter Van Loon (died at Ft. Fisher)
John N. Ward
Geo. W. Buel (wounded, died a prisoner)
And from Co. K: Normal W. Cool
Colonel Simeon Sammons, commander of the 115th Regiment, reported after the battle that 304 men from his unit were killed, wounded or missing. The Colonel himself was seriously wounded in the foot. I dont know what the total strength of the regiment was prior to the battle, but a Union army regiment at full strength rarely went over 900 men, and most regiments were well below that number by 1864. It is likely that our 115th suffered close to 50% casualties in this battle. There would be a lot of sadness in Fulton County homes that Spring.
Visiting the battlefield today does not really give you a feeling for the struggle that took place there 125 years ago. There are lots of palmetto and other trees and underbrush, and you cant really see very far. The terrain is very flat, and looks as though it would be very wet in rainy weather. The railroad line still runs past the Southern edge of the battlefield, straight as a string as far as the eye can see. The battle only comes alive when you begin to read the accounts by and about the men who fought there then you come to appreciate it a little more. I will probably go back to visit again, perhaps the next time my wife and I go to Florida. It is easy to find, just take I-10 due West from Jacksonville for about 45 miles until you see an exit marked "Olustee". About two miles West of the exit, and close to a new Florida State Prison site, will be the Olustee battlefield. Do not go on Monday or Tuesday, as they are closed. The small museum wasnt even open the second time we stopped, I think on Thursday. They do have a nicely marked and cleared trail that takes visitors around the perimeter of the Union and Confederate lines. You can stand right in the very stop where the 115th N.Y. Volunteers fought and died for their cause. One more thing: You dont have to worry about crowds! The hour or so we spent there was spent alone, except for the company of the former caretaker who we luckily happened to meet.
I suppose a word or two should be said about responsibility. Who was to blame for this Union disaster? Was it President Lincoln, who sent the army in search of voters? Was it General Gillmore, who left his army to expedite the movement of supplies when he could as easily have sent a junior officer on the same mission? Or was it General Seymour, who disobeyed orders and advanced into what was essentially a trap? For my part, they all come in for a share of the blame, but I think that General Seymour carries the heaviest burden of guilt. Not only did he disobey orders, but he also did not handle his troops effectively once they were engaged, preferring to attempt to break through the rebel line with sheer firepower, a tactic that did not work. He did not effectively use his cavalry, and he allowed the artillery to set up too close to the enemy, mistakes that a West Pointer should not have made. Perhaps he was one of the many officers in this particular war who sought personal glory rather than the well-being of his troops? I am not sure. The 115th Regimental history treats him kindly, and does not criticize him much, but this was written by one man. It would be great to be able to talk to a veteran of this engagement to get the soldiers view, but I guess that the last veteran died many years ago."
Linda Kreisher generously typed this piece. She is researching the FONDA family starting with Douw Jellise b.1640 appx. and the Marlette family starting with Gedeon b. 1624. Most of her research has been centered around New Jersey and New York, especially Albany, Fultonville, Fonda, Herkimer & Montgomery Counties and the Mohawk Valley.
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Copyright ©1999, Hector Allen
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Last updated Tuesday, 13-May-2008 13:37:19 PDT