“A Severe Battle in Florida” - Pennsylvanians at the Battle of Olustee
Updated: Feb 22, 2021
NOTE: This piece features quotations written by battle participants that contain prejudicial language. All such examples are directly quoted, using terms recorded by veterans. As always, sources are provided via footnotes at the bottom of the page.
On February 29, 1864, news reached Pennsylvania’s largest city of an obscure encounter fought 900 miles away, in a state not typically associated with the Civil War.
“A SEVERE BATTLE IN FLORIDA. Defeat of the Union Troops. THEY FALL INTO AN AMBUSCADE,” screamed headlines in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Olustee, the place where General SEYMOUR fought and was beaten, is a station on the Jacksonville and Tallahassee Railroad, forty-eight miles west of Jacksonville,” reported the paper under the subheading, “The Battle-Ground in Florida.” The Inquirer assured its Unionist readership that despite the Federal loss on February 20, “General GILLMORE has sent reinforcements to Jacksonville....The regiments he commands are first-rate material.”
The roots of the campaign that brought about the distant engagement in Florida lay in the days after President Abraham Lincoln visited the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for the dedication of Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Lincoln famously lodged in Adams County on November 18 and 19, 1863, during which time he delivered his Gettysburg Address. Nearly three weeks later, on December 8, he submitted his Annual Address to Congress, and issued a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction.
In the congressional oration, read not by the President in these days before the State of the Union but instead by a proxy, Lincoln hailed the results of the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been released at the beginning of the year. He was proud that it allowed formerly enslaved African Americans to “be received into the armed service of the United States.” Already 100,000 such soldiers “are now in the United States military service,” Lincoln told Congress, including men “who were slaves at the beginning of the rebellion.” The president praised the efforts of U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) for being “as good soldiers as any,” and concluded in evocative terms, “Thus we have the new reckoning. The crisis which threatened to divide the friends of the Union is past.”
Between 1863 and 1865, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania provided a total of 8,612 black soldiers to support Lincoln’s “new reckoning.” Two months after the president penned those words, in February 1864 three regiments of African American troops moved southward along the Atlantic Coast as part of Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour’s newly created District of Florida in Maj. Gen. Quincy Gillmore’s Department of the South. Men who hailed from the Keystone State served in two of these units—the 8th USCT, and the 54th Massachusetts of Fort Wagner and Glory fame. The third black regiment, in which no Pennsylvanians appear to have served, was the 35th USCT.
The principal purpose of sending U.S. troops so far into the Confederacy had much to do with the aforementioned Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. Since “many persons have committed and are now guilty of treason against the United States” for having “participated in the existing rebellion,” the president determined that many figures in the “so-called confederate government” would have to face the possibility of legal punishment. He specified that all “property” would be returned to former Rebels when peace was achieved, “except...slaves,” but chief among his goals was hasty restoration of the divided country.
After assigning his private secretary John Hay a military commission to investigate the prospects of such a theory, Lincoln decided that Florida was fertile political ground. He wished to test the parameters of a speedy Reconstruction in which Confederates could be welcomed back to the Union and slavery could be abolished in all Southern states. Notably, Florida was viewed as a state which might be swayed back to the Federal side, and potentially home to large numbers of loyal Unionists, particularly formerly enslaved men who could join the ranks of the growing USCT.
Additionally, the Sunshine State served as a breadbasket for the deep South (particularly for its plentiful beef cattle and salt reserves), and thus, the capture of supply lines would wreak havoc on the Confederate home front, a reality that Rebel officers understood. In the words of Maj. Gen. Samuel Jones, commander of the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, “If a column of Union troops could penetrate the country westward from Jacksonville, occupy a point in the interior, and break up communication between east, middle, and west Florida....the Southern Confederacy would not only be deprived of a large quantity of the food...but a [strategic point] would be established for any of the inhabitants who might be disposed to attempt the organization of a State acknowledging allegiance to the United States.”
After arriving at Jacksonville, General Seymour maneuvered his U.S. District of Florida toward the capital city of Tallahassee. Outside of Jacksonville, the Pennsylvania-born Capt. Samuel Sherer Elder led Battery B, 1st U.S. Artillery as it accompanied Federal cavalry in a raid behind Rebel lines. The party captured some intelligence, materiel, and at one point, Elder personally demanded the surrender of a Confederate soldier.
“To one who had never seen artillery keep close up with cavalry on a march, the feat of Captain Elder on Monday night would have astonished him beyond measure,” wrote an unidentified observer. “No matter where or how fast the cavalry went, Captain Elder was sure to be up to the spare horses with his artillery. Through ditches, over stumps, turning short corners, walking, trotting, galloping, the artillery never lagged in the rear.”
“Captain Elder is widely known as one of the most successful and dashing officers we have in the artillery service,” the eyewitness reported in reverence for the Pennsylvania cannoneer. “General Seymour evidently knew his men when he selected officers for his raiding party.”
On February 20, 1864, as Seymour’s 5,500 soldiers approached Lake City, about 60 miles west of Jacksonville, a similarly sized Confederate force known as the District of East Florida commanded by Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan halted the Federal advance. Amid a Civil War landscape unlike most—complete with palm trees, swamps, and marshy wetlands—the dueling parties sparred alongside a railroad junction known as Olustee.
Elder’s guns fired some of the first shots of the engagement. In the hours that followed, the Keystone State’s captain proved his mettle time and again. He was “gallant” at Olustee, wrote a comrade, for which he “received a commission as brevet major”—and subsequently a full major, then lieutenant colonel, for “gallant and meritorious service” elsewhere—said an obituary following his death at Fort Monroe, Virginia, in 1885.
Elsewhere on the Olustee battlefield, Luis Emilio, regimental historian of the heavily Pennsylvania-influenced 54th Massachusetts in Col. James Montgomery’s brigade, observed that during the heaviest fighting, “many of the men...sent the loads home without using the ramrods” while Confederate “shells were fired too high, passing over into the trees.” Union artillery fired a “heavy gun on the railroad car” nearby, “which dominated all other battle sounds,” said Emilio. In defeat, Federal troops suffered 1,861 casualties, inflicted 946 on the enemy, and withdrew from the battlefield at nightfall, thereby leaving the region in Rebel hands.
Throughout the day, Pennsylvanians paid a heavy toll in the Battle of Olustee (later called the Battle of Ocean Pond by Confederate veterans), most of whom served as officers and enlisted men in African American units on the fighting ground.
In the 54th Massachusetts, casualties included at least 22 Pennsylvania enlistees who hailed from West Chester, Unionville, Philadelphia, Oxford, Altoona, Mercersburg, Allegheny City, Reading, Carlisle, Cresson, and unspecified municipalities in the counties of Franklin and York. Two were killed (Lewis Green and John Miller), 18 were wounded (including two accidental self-inflicted injuries), and two were captured (George Morris, who was exchanged 13 months later, and William Christy, who died in prison). These “colored soldiers, of the Fifty-fourth at least, possessed other than passive courage,” wrote Emilio, who added that at one point, “our regiment stood alone.”
Col. Joseph Hawley’s brigade included the 8th USCT, positioned “on a slight elevation, sheltered by pines, and guarded by cavalry...,” wrote Pennsylvania State Historian Samuel Bates. “The Eighth, though scarcely a month from camp [Camp William Penn in Philadelphia], and with hardly any skill in handling a musket, boldly advanced in face of a withering fire from the enemy’s strong and well chosen lines.” Artillery support “thundered in the rear, adding to the terrors, and in some instances to the dangers of its position,” wrote Bates; “but still it stood firm.”
“For three-quarters of an hour, the action raged with unabated fury, these raw troops maintaining their ground without the least shelter, with a courage worthy of veterans,” Bates attested. “Several color-bearers were shot-down, and many officers fell; but it preserved an unflinching front” until “General Seymour ordered the regiment to retire,” which it did “in good order, the men firing heavily as they went.”
Although Bates did not specify which of the men were Pennsylvanians, altogether the 8th USCT suffered substantial losses, including two officers and 49 men killed; nine officers and 180 men wounded; and 63 officers and men missing or captured, “all of whom, it was subsequently ascertained, were wounded and left on the field,” wrote Bates. Grievously, many of those abandoned on the battleground did not make it out alive, facing harsh treatment and execution by Confederate captors.
In a brutal example of the violent racism exhibited by innumerable Rebels when they opposed black U.S. soldiers, William Penniman of the 4th Georgia Cavalry—whose father was a New Yorker—wrote about a demonstration of brutality toward such men that February 20, perhaps including Pennsylvanians. At the beginning of the engagement, Penniman claimed to have “jointly drew the first shot of the battle of Olustee” when he noticed “the Yankees” were coming, and “sure enough and they seem to be niggers.” After hours of fighting in which (in Penniman’s words) “the nigger couldn’t stand the fire...for it was terrific,” the USCT withdrew from the scene. “It was now nearing the dusk in the P.M.,” the Georgian recalled, “and as I rode slowly over the field, it was niggers dead, niggers wounded in all directions, some severely, other[s] not so much so, groans and prayers [could] be heard in all directions.”
According to Penniman—who before the Civil War was a medical school student in New York City—when asked why there was still shooting “going on in every direction,” a Rebel trooper responded to his inquiring officer, “Shooting niggers Sir. I have tried to make the boys desist but I can’t control them.” Penniman remembered that one man “had already killed nineteen and needed only four more to make matters even” after “niggers killed his” 23-year-old brother at Fort Pillow, “so I told him to go ahead and finish the job.”
The 8th USCT’s deaths included the regiment’s white commander, Col. Charles Fribley, a Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, native. “Fribley was...one of the best and bravest young men who fell in the war in which Olustee was so disastrous a battle to the Union cause...,” reported Now and Then, a periodical published in the fallen colonel’s hometown of Muncy, 14 years after his death. “Charles sleeps on the ill-fated field on which he fell, his grave unmarked and unknown, but decorated perhaps every month of the year with wild flowers.”
“His name and rank, and place of death—‘Col. Charles W. Fribley, 8 U. S. C. T., killed at Olustee, Feb’y 20th 1864’—is inscribed in enduring letters on the handsome soldiers’ monument in our beautiful Muncy Cemetery,” Now and Then detailed. “Charles will always be fondly remembered by his generation, as he was manly, honorable and intelligent. He was ambitious, and would no doubt have won many laurels had he lived until the close of the war.” Finally, according to the paper, “The principal fort in the strong line of fortifications around Jacksonville during the war was named ‘Fort Fribley’ in tribute to his worth and bravery.”
Another white Pennsylvanian who served as an officer in the 8th USCT was Company A’s German-born Capt. George Wagner, who also previously served in the the 20th and 88th Pennsylvania, having commanded a company in the latter at the Battle of Gettysburg. Throughout the war, he was wounded a total of four times, including once at Olustee, an affliction “from which he suffered more or less until the end of his life,” according to a comrade, George Graham. Owing to the fact that “Wagner saw real service,” Graham added in a speech in 1904, “he was brevetted colonel of United States Volunteers for ‘gallant conduct at the battle of Olustee, Florida, and for meritorious services during the war.’”
“Olustee was a bloody check to the Union cause in Florida...,” wrote historian William Watson Davis in 1913. “This expedition to Florida had failed in both its political and military objects.” Nevertheless, U.S. forces, including many from Pennsylvania, held great pride in the fortitude they exhibited upon that field. For no units was this truer than black troops who struggled that bloody February day—and perhaps no man appreciated this reasoning greater than President Lincoln, who plotted the campaign in the weeks following his 1863 visit to Gettysburg.
“There have been men who have proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson & Olustee to their masters to conciliate the South,” Lincoln wrote in August 1864. “I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing....[N]o human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done. Freedom has given us the control of 200,000 able bodied men, born & raised on southern soil. It will give us more yet.”
 Samuel Jones, “The Battle of Olustee, or Ocean Pond, Florida,” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel (New York: The Century Co., 1884, 1888), vol. 4, 76.
 “The Campaign in Florida,” in The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, with Documents, Narratives, Illustrative Incidents, Poetry, Etc., edited by Frank Moore (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1865), vol. 8, 396, 397.
 “The Campaign in Florida,” in Rebellion Record, vol. 8, 397.
 “The Campaign in Florida,” in Rebellion Record, vol. 8, 397.
 “DEATH OF A MEMBER OF THE GUN FOUNDRY BOARD,” The Bulletin of the American Iron and Steel Association (Philadelphia, PA), April 8, 1885, vol. 19, 92; Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, From Its Organization, September 29, 1789, to March 2, 1903 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1903), vol. 1, 400.
 Luis F. Emilio, History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865 (Boston: The Boston Book Company, 1894), 167.
 Emilio, History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment, 166, 167, 344, 345, 346, 347, 350, 354, 356, 357, 367, 369, 370, 373, 374, 379, 380, 384.
 Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, vol. 5, part 2, 966.
 Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, vol. 5, part 2, 966.
 “Excerpt from the Reminiscences of William Frederick Penniman,” c. 1901, transcribed by Thomas R. Fasulo, Battle of Olustee, http://battleofolustee.org/letters/penniman.htm. Also see David J. Coles, “‘Shooting Niggers Sir’: Confederate Mistreatment of Union Black Soldiers at the Battle of Olustee,” in Black Flag Over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War, edited by Gregory J.W. Urwin (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), 74.
 “Excerpt from the Reminiscences of William Frederick Penniman.”
 “Our Lamented Colonel Fribley,” Now and Then, February 1878, 1.
 George S. Graham, Sept. 8, 1904, in Proceedings of the Grand Holy Royal Arch Chapter of Pennsylvania and Masonic Jurisdiction Thereunto Belonging for the Year Ending December 27, 1904 Being Its One Hundred and Ninth Year (Philadelphia: MacCalla & Company, 1905), 37-39.