Battle of Olustee Reenactment

Battle of Olustee Reenactment

Date Observed: Mid-February
Location: Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park, Florida

The Civil War Battle of Olustee was fought on February 20, 1864, and since 1977 an annual reenactment has taken place in mid-February. The commemoration in north central Florida features reenactors of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, one of the most famous African-American regiments. Popularized in the 1989 movie Glory , the 54th took part in Florida's largest Civil War battle.

Historical Background

At the beginning of the Civil War, many free blacks in the North attempted to serve in the Union forces, but they were not accepted. In fact, a 1792 law prohibited people of color from serving in the military. Some northern officials believed that if African Americans took up arms, they would try to kill slave owners. Others insisted, based on widespread prejudice, that black soldiers were cowardly and did not have the intellect for military service. During the first year of the war, African Americans were only permitted to do manual labor for the army, such as build trenches, unload supplies from wagons, and bury the battle dead.

Nevertheless, African-American men formed companies and regiments so they would be ready if called. By 1862, Union forces had lost a series of battles, and white recruits were hard to find. As a result, the U.S. Congress was forced to take action, repealing the 1792 law and passing the Confiscation Act on July 17, 1862, which freed all slaves who were able to cross into Union lines. Congress also passed the Militia Act, which allowed African Americans to serve in the armed forces, and the War Department created the United States Colored Troops.

In January 1863 Massachusetts Governor John Andrew signed up a voluntary regiment composed primarily of free African Americans, including two sons of the great black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass (see also Frederick Douglass Day). Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a young white man in his twenties and a strong abolitionist, trained the regiment, which became the 54th. In June 1863 the 54th, as it was commonly known, was sent to South Carolina to battle Confederates at Fort Wagner. After that battle, there was no doubt about the bravery of the regiment. Colonel Shaw led 600 soldiers in an assault on the fort. More than 100 soldiers of the 54th were killed, and the remaining troops were compelled to withdraw. Several members of the regiment, some of them former slaves, were awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military award in the U.S.

The 54th eventually captured Fort Wagner and went on to fight with other Union soldiers in Florida. The Union had launched an operation to occupy Jacksonville in order to disrupt transportation links and deprive the Confederacy of food and other supplies. They also hoped to move west to eventually capture the state capital at Tallahassee.

The Confederate strategy was to stage an offense west of Jacksonville at Olustee, Florida, where there was a lake (Ocean Pond) on one side and a treacherous swamp on the other. Five thousand Confederate soldiers, who defended their post against 5,500 Union soldiers and 16 cannons, forced the Union army to retreat. The Olustee battle resulted in 1,861 Union and 946 Confederate casualties.

Creation of the Observance

Since its inception in 1977, the commemoration of the battle at Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park has become the largest annual Civil War reenactment in the southeastern United States. In the beginning, a festival focusing on the battle took place in nearby Lake City, and two years later the reenactment began. Since then, more than 2,000 people participate in the reenactment each year, with some 20,000 to 50,000 spectators in attendance. In 2003 Olustee Battlefield received the prestigious Congressional Black Caucus Veterans' Braintrust Award. General Colin Powell established the award in 1990 to recognize outstanding national and community commitment to black veterans.

Observance

When the observance gets under way, reenactors portraying southern troops create a charge formation, and, opposite them across the field, Union reenactors set up a line of defense. A cannon roars and the Union troops start to fall. The battle continues with officers shouting to their men. As the Union soldiers begin their retreat, they dodge "dead" and "dying" men, depicting the bloody battle and chaos on the Olustee Battlefield in 1864.

During the commemoration weekend, other activities include a parade at Lake City, arts and crafts sales, food booths, Civil War-period music and fashion shows, and artillery demonstrations. Visitors can tour authentic Civil War campsites and Sutler's Row, where merchants sell period items. Volunteers also provide living-history presentations for school groups.

Contacts and Web Sites

Battle of Olustee Home Page, sponsored by the Florida Park Service, the Olustee Battlefield Citizen Support Organization, and the University of Florida

Olustee Battlefield Citizens Support Organization P.O. Box 382 Glen St. Mary, FL 32040

Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park P.O. Box 40 Olustee, FL 32072 386-758-0400; fax: 386-397-4262

Company B, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment P.O. Box 15773 Washington, DC 20003-0773

Company I, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry P.O. Box 12454 Charleston, SC 29422-2454

Further Reading

Adams, Virginia M., ed. On the Altar of Freedom: A Black Soldier's Civil War Letters from the Front . New York: Warner Books, 1991. Blatt, Martin Henry, Thomas J. Brown, and Donald Yacovone, eds. Hope and Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment . Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000. Burchard, Peter. One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990. Cox, Clinton. Undying Glory: The Story of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. New York: Scholastic, 1993. (young adult) Emilio, Luis F. A Brave Black Regiment: The History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865 . 1894. Reprint. Cambridge, MA, and New York: Da Capo Press, 1995. Kashatus, William C. "54th Massachusetts Regiment: A Gallant Rush for Glory." American History , October 2000. Wilson, Joseph T. The Black Phalanx: A History of the Negro Soldiers of the United States in the Wars of 1775-1812, 1861-'65. 1890. Reprint. Manchester, NH: Ayer, 1992.

Battle of Olustee Reenactment

Weekend in mid-February
The Battle of Olustee Reenactment commemorates the largest battle in Florida during the Civil War. A Confederate victory, the Battle of Olustee (also known as the Battle of Ocean Pond) was fought on February 20, 1864, and a reenactment has taken place on a February weekend each year since 1977.
Knowing that Union soldiers were on the way to secure strategic positions in northeast Florida, Confederate troops fortified a highly defensible position about 10 miles west of Lake City. They occupied a narrow, forested area of dry land with an impassable swamp on one side and a lake on the other. When Union soldiers attacked, the Confederates were able to repel them, though both armies suffered staggering casualties. Each side had about 5,000 men in the battle, but Union losses were heaviest, with 203 killed, 1,152 wounded, and 506 missing. Confederate casualties totaled 93 killed, 847 wounded, and 6 missing.
The Battle of Olustee is also known for the participation of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the most famous African-American fighting units in the war and the one represented in the film Glory. However, other black regiments also took part in the Battle of Olustee, including the 8th United States Colored Troops of Pennsylvania and the 35th United States Colored Troops of North Carolina. Noting the participation of black fighting units in the original battle and its reenactment, Blue/Grey Army, Inc., which sponsors the event, emphasizes that the reenactment and festival are not intended to glorify war or the Confederacy. Rather, through these events the organizers hope to honor the memory of the soldiers who participated on both sides during the Civil War, to encourage the study of local history, and to make known the horror of war. The sponsors state that war "is not something we celebrate, but it is something we should remember."
The reenactment has expanded over the years to include a weekend street festival in Lake City. Associated events include a beauty pageant, history displays and lectures, a music festival, an arts and crafts fair, Blue-Grey 5-K and 1 Mile Fun Runs, and a Blue/Grey Square Dance. Saturday morning features the Olustee Civil War Parade, with hundreds of participants in period costumes representing all facets of life during the Civil War. Descendants of the battle also participate. The Battle Reenactment, with about 2,000 reenactors, is the largest annual Civil War reenactment in the Southeast. It takes place at Olustee Battlefield State Park on Sunday afternoon before an audience of as many as 50,000 spectators.
CONTACTS:
Blue-Grey Army, Inc.
P.O. Box 2224
Lake City, FL 32056-2224
386-755-1097
www.olusteefestival.com
Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park
P.O. Box 40
Olustee, FL 32072
386-758-0400
www.floridastateparks.org/olustee
Olustee Battlefield Citizens Support Organization
P. O. Box 382
Glen St. Mary, FL 32040
battleofolustee.org
SOURCES:
AAH-2007, p. 45
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