The Battle of Olustee, Florida (also known as Ocean Pond) on February 20, 1864 is one of the saddest chapters in the long and horrible American Civil War. The story includes a whole regiment of United States Colored Troops who lost over half their men in the battle.
The 8th USCT, formed mostly from free blacks from Pennsylvania and nearby Maryland and Delaware, were organized in September 1863 at Camp Penn just outside of Philadelphia.
The regiment left camp on January 16, 1864 with minimal training, on two transport ships, the Prometheus and the City of Bath, with their destination Hilton Head, North Carolina. There they joined about six thousand others under the command of General Truman Seymour, and were sent by ship to the Union campaign in northern Florida. They arrived in Jacksonville, Florida on February 7. Their orders were to help the Union army cut off the supplies being sent into the south from Florida and to help recruit free blacks in Florida.
On February 19th the 8th USCT, the 7th Connecticut, and the 7th New Hampshire became part of Hawley’s Brigade, commended by Colonel Hawley of the 7th Connecticut.
Historian William Nutly said of the 8th USCT prior to the Battle of Olustee that they were “a completely new and combative-inexperienced unit which had never even practiced firing their weapons.” Yet on this particular day, 151 year ago today, they were “sent into action with weapons empty, to deploy and load their weapons while under fire, it was remarkable that they stayed where they were for an hour and a half.” Many of the men of the 8th USCT used their weapons as clubs.
The 8th USCT reportedly had twenty-one officers and five hundred forty-four men on the field for the battle that ensued.
The white Union soldiers were getting badly thumped by their Confederate counterparts who were dug in at the site, leaving the Union with no cover. The USCT soldiers were held in reserve until the retreat was sounded for the white Union soldiers. Then the black soldiers were sent in to cover the retreat.
The losses of the 8th USCT for the battle included the death of commanding officer Colonel Charles I. Fribley and Lieutenant Tomas J. Goldsborough, and the wounding of officers Lt. Seth Lewis, Major Loren Burritt, and Lt. George Warrington. Forty-nine of the 8th USCT soldiers were killed, one hundred eighty-eight were wounded, and forty-three were missing in action and presumed dead. Thirty-four ended up prisoners of war and were incarcerated at Andersonville Prison in Georgia. The total casualties for the regiment were three hundred ten, for ninety minutes of fighting. Their casualties amounted to 54.9% of their unit.
The 8th USCT was one of parts of four USCT regiments of over 2,000 soldiers involved in the Battle of Olustee. The other regiments present and deployed included the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, the 35th USCT (also known as the 1st North Carolina) and the 2nd North Carolina. In total, black casualties at the battle included 89 killed, 455 wounded, 24 missing in action, and 94 prisoners of war taken to Andersonville Prison. The black soldiers who were casualties at Olustee total 662 of the approximately 2,000 on the field, and made up almost one-third of the Union’s 1,861 casualties for the battle. Confederate casualties were 93 killed, 847 wounded, and 6 missing and/or captured for a total of 946.
The total casualties for a battle involving about 10,500 total men was 2,807 or 26.7%, the third highest percentage of casualties for any Civil War battle. It was the largest battle of the war in Florida. It was also the second highest percentage of Union casualties of any Civil War battle.
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