Battle of Olustee; Meridian Campaign; CSS H. L. Hunley Sinks USS Housatonic: February 1864

150 Years Ago in the Civil War

Maj. Gen. William T. ShermanAlthough the larger armies remained in Winter Camp, the action did pick up a bit in February 1864 after a quiet January.

On February 3rd, Major General William T. Sherman and a 20,000 man force marched out of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Sherman’s objective was the railroad center at Meridian, Mississippi, 150 miles to the east. Brigadier General William Sooy Smith and his 7,000 cavalrymen departed from Memphis, and Sherman’s plan was to link up the two forces at Meridian. Sherman marched through Jackson and reached  Meridian on the 14th. Resistance had been mostly cavalry skirmishes and attacks. Sherman’s men destroyed railroads, bridges, locomotives, rolling stock, and supply depots along the way, and continued the destruction in Meridian.

To the north, Smith’s cavalry was doing the same thing as it headed for the rendezvous with Sherman. But Smith faced more resistance in his area from the cavalry of General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his progress was slow. On February 22nd, Forrest attacked Smith at Okolona, Mississippi, defeating him and ending and chance of a linkup with Sherman. With his work complete, Sherman pulled out of Meridian and headed back to Vicksburg on February 20th.

On February 7th, a division of Union troops under Brigadier General Truman Seymour dispatched from South Carolina arrived at Jacksonville, Florida. Many of these troops were veterans of the attack on Fort Wagner back in July of 1863, including the 54th Massachusetts Infantry.  Florida was an important source of  food for the Confederacy, and one of Seymour’s objectives was to cut off supply lines.  Other objectives were to recruit Black troops and to try to help establish a loyal state government.

Seymour marched west with 5500 troops. On the afternoon of the 20th, the Federals encountered General Joseph Finegan’s 5000 Georgia and Florida Confederates at Olustee Station on the Florida, Atlantic, and Gulf Central Railroad, about 10 miles from Lake City, Florida. What began as skirmishing developed into an intense battle as more troops were committed to the fight. Late in the afternoon, the Federal lines were broken and the Union troops retreated, with the veteran 54th Massachusetts and the untested 35th United States Colored Troops (originally the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers) covering the retreat and fighting a successful rear guard action, stopping the Confederate pursuit. Most of the retreating Federals reached Jacksonville.

Battle of Olustee

The Battle of Olustee, or Ocean Pond as it is also known, was the largest Civil War battle fought in Florida. Casualties were high, with the Union side suffering nearly 1900 total casualties, including 203 killed. Confederate losses included 93 killed and 946 total casualties.

CSS H.L. HunleyIn Charleston, South Carolina, a revolutionary new war ship quietly headed out into Charleston Harbor on the evening of February 17th.The vessel, named the CSS H.L. Hunley, was a submarine powered by a hand cranked propeller and armed with a torpedo mounted on a spar.  The Hunley closed in on its target, the Union Navy sloop of war U.S.S. Housatonic, and struck the side of the ship with the spar, leaving the torpedo stuck in the side of the Housatonic. As Hunley backed away, a rope attached to the torpedo detonated the explosive device, sending the Housatonic to the bottom, with a loss of five.

This was the first time that a submarine had sunk a ship in combat. But the Hunley also was sunk in the explosion, killing the entire crew.

At the end of the month, President Abraham Lincoln approved an act of Congress that revived the rank of Lieutenant General in the army, a rank last held by George Washington. The man Lincoln and Congress had in mind for this rank was Ulysses S. Grant, and he would be recommended for promotion almost immediately as the calendar turned to March.

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