The 8th United States Colored Troops (USCT) at the Battle of Olustee, Florida February 1864

On December 8th, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconciliation, a preliminary step for reconstruction of the South after the Civil War. One of the provisions of the proclamation allowed for a new state government to be formed when 10 per cent of eligible voters in that state took an oath of allegiance to the Unites States. Although the war was not over, the Administration decided to try and bring a Confederate state back into the Union via the proclamation. That state was Florida.

Florida had seceded from the Union on January 10th, 1861, the third state to do so, and had supplied troops for the Confederate Army. But the least populated state in the Confederacy had been mostly a backwater in terms of fighting. U.S. forces had held or captured coastal forts and towns such as Fort Pickens at Pensacola, Fort Marion at St. Augustine, and Fernandina near Jacksonville. While the Navy was occupied with capturing blockade runners along the Florida coast, the Army maintained a limited number of troops in the state, and attempted no significant moves inland, with more important objectives elsewhere.

Brigadier General Truman Seymour

That changed in early 1864. The Lincoln Administration felt that an invasion and capture of at least part of Florida would win the backing of enough Floridians that a Union state government could be formed. Major General Quincy Gillmore, the Department commander for South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, was put in charge of planning the invasion. Besides restoring a Union state government, Gilmore had some military objectives in mind. Florida was a big supplier of food for the Confederate Army, and Gilmore wanted to break those supply lines. He also sought to recruit more African American troops for the Union Army from the state’s enslaved population. The invasion force itself would include African American regiments.

Gillmore assigned field command for the expedition to Brigadier General Truman Seymour. One division from the 10th Corps was shipped south from South Carolina and began landing at Jacksonville to essentially no opposition of February 7th. These troops included one brigade of cavalry, one brigade of artillery, and three infantry brigades. One of these infantry brigades was under command of Colonel Joseph R. Hawley consisted of the 7th Connecticut, 7th New Hampshire, and 8th United States Colored Troops (USCT).

The 8th USCT was organized in Pennsylvania in September 1863 and mustered into service on December 4th. Its commanding officer was Colonel

Col. Joseph R. Hawley, image as General later in the war

Charles Fribley. Regulations at the time allowed only white officers in Black regiments, but in most cases these were combat veterans. Fribley had served in the 84th Pennsylvania Infantry before becoming Colonel of the 8th. The Florida Expedition would be the regiment’s first campaign.

Seymour had about 7000 troops; with 1500 or so used to cover lines of communication and to hold Jacksonville, about 5500 were available for offensive operations. The expedition began on February 8th with Federal cavalry departing Jacksonville leading the way headed west. U.S. forces advanced into the state, meeting some resistance but not being stopped. On February 14th, Gillmore ordered Seymour to concentrate his forces at the town of Baldwin, set up defenses, and wait for his orders regarding additional movements.

But Seymour had other ideas. On February 17th, he wrote to Gillmore that he would resume the westward movement, with the intention of destroying the Atlantic and Gulf Central Railroad as far west as the Suwanee River, west of the town of Lake City. After receiving this communication, Seymour, who was in Hilton Head, South Carolina, sent orders to remain in place, but those orders did not reach Seymour in time to prevent battle.

Map of Olustee Florida Area

At Lake City, the Confederate commander for the region, Colonel Joseph Finegan, had assembled some scattered Florida troops and

Gen. Joseph Finegan CSA

received reinforcements from General P.G.T. Beauregard, head of Confederate coastal defenses in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Beauregard sent a division of Georgia and Florida troops under command of Brigadier General Alfred H. Colquitt, bringing total Rebel forces to about 5000. Finegan set up a line of defenses at Olustee, about 13 miles east of Lake City and waited for the U.S. forces.

Battle of Olustee February 20, 1864

Early in the morning of February 20th, the U.S. troops departed their camps at Barber’s Plantation about 25 miles west of Jacksonville, and marched west along the Atlantic and Gulf Central railroad track and an accompanying dirt road. A brigade of mounted infantry departed first, followed by Hawley’s infantry brigade. The 7th Connecticut took the lead followed by the 7th New Hampshire and 8th USCT. The 7th Connecticut and the mounted troops made first contact with Rebel skirmishers about 15 miles into the march, near Olustee Station. This led to an exchange of artillery fire and the fighting picked up. Finegan sent reinforcements under Colquitt forward from Lake City.

The U.S. artillery deployed in position very close to the Rebels, and took heavy casualties in both men and horses. The 7th Connecticut held its own until the reinforced Confederate line and the need to replenish ammunition compelled it to withdraw. The 7th New Hampshire, deployed on the right (north) of the artillery, was ordered forward in place of the Connecticut troops. Although the 7th New Hampshire itself was a veteran regiment, a large number of the men present for duty were new recruits. The regiment was soon driven back under intense fire.

The 8th USCT, on the left of the artillery, was then ordered forward immediately, before the men could drop their knapsacks. After a half mile run, the men of the 8th attempted to form in line of battle under concentrated heavy fire, a difficult maneuver made even more difficult owing to the regiment’s very limited training. With his men taking heavy casualties, Fribley ordered them to slowly retreat, firing as they pulled back. Within 20 minutes or so, Fribley was killed. The regiment’s Major Loren Burritt was seriously wounded, and Captain Romanzo Bailey assumed command. Falling back through the artillery, the 8th attempted to hold and support the guns while reinforcements in the form of Colonel William B. Barton’s three regiment brigade of New Yorkers moved into position on the north. Finegan sent additional Confederate units into action that engaged both Barton and the 8th as it tried to hold the artillery. After about an hour and a half of intense fighting, with ammunition running out, Bailey ordered his men to withdraw.

Battle of Olustee, Florida, February 26, 1864 by Kurz & Allison

After about four hours of fighting, Barton’s New Yorkers slowly were pushed back, and Seymour deployed his rear guard, a two regiment brigade under Colonel James Montgomery. These were additional African American regiments, including the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 1st North Carolina Volunteers (Colored), who would soon be redesignated as the 35th USCT. On the other side, Finegan committed his last reserves, and as night approached, the U.S. forces withdrew from the field and headed back to Jacksonville. Confederate pursuit was minimal, and the Battle of Olustee, or Ocean Pond (named after a nearby lake) ended as a Rebel victory.

Captain Bailey filed this after action report on the 8th USCT at the Battle of Olustee:

Hdqrs. Eighth Regiment U. S. Colored Troops,
February 24, 1864.

Sir: I have the honor to submit the following report of the part taken in the late battle of Olustee, Fla., on the 20th instant, by the Eighth Regiment U. S. Colored Troops, Col. Charles W. Fribley commanding:

After leaving the railroad along which we had been advancing until within about 1,000 yards of the enemy. Colonel Fribley received orders to “put his regiment in,” when we were ordered to change direction to the left, moving now in double-quick time by the right flank on a line nearly parallel with the railroad and about 300 yards to its right. We were soon under fire of the enemy, when our line of battle was formed under a terrific fire of musketry at short range, we apparently being opposed by the entire left wing of the enemy, who very soon poured in a deadly fire on our left flank, which was unprotected wholly. Colonel Fribley now ordered the regiment to fall back slowly, which we did, firing as we retired, being unable to withstand so disastrous a fire. The order had just reached me on the extreme right when the colonel fell mortally wounded. The command now devolved on Major Burritt, who soon received two wounds and retired from the field, the regiment at this time engaging the enemy with steadiness, and holding the ground for some time near Hamilton’s battery, which we were trying to save. We here lost 3 color-sergeants and 6 of the color guard while attempting to save one gun, but we were driven back, leaving the gun and, as I afterward learned, the color beside it during the excitement.

I now learned that I was in command of the regiment, and seeing that a regiment at least of the enemy was moving down the railroad to again attack our left, and knowing that our ammunition was exhausted, I took the responsibility to withdraw the regiment from the field, moving by the right flank, slowly and in good order, passing in the rear of the Fifty-fourth Regiment Colored Troops (Massachusetts), where we remained until the retreat commenced, when we with the Seventh New Hampshire Regiment guarded the wagon train into Barber’s.

The regiment went into the engagement with 21 officers and 544 men. Our losses were as follows: Officers killed, 1; wounded and missing, 1; wounded, 8; total, 10. Enlisted men killed, 65; wounded and missing, 4; missing, 15; wounded,204; total, 333. Total killed, wounded, and missing, 343.

Having taken command of the regiment at a late period of the engagement I cannot give as accurate a report as I might under other circumstances, but the above is, I believe, a true report of everything that came to my notice during the battle, and in conclusion permit me to say that both officers and men did their duty to the extent of their ability.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Captain, Comdg. Eighth Regiment U. S. Colored Troops.

Lieut. E. L. Moore,
Acting Assistant Adjutant General.

The casualty figures for the 8th USCT were later revised to 50 killed, 187 wounded, and 73 missing for a total of 310, out of about 575 that were present for duty. The 50 killed were the most of any Union regiment engaged and the 310 total casualties were second only to the 47th New York (313) of Barton’s Brigade. According to witnesses from both sides, some of the wounded Black troops who were unable to retire from the field were killed by Confederates rather than taken prisoner. There were nearly 1900 U.S. casualties out of a force of about 5500. General Finegan reported his Confederate losses as “93 killed and 841 wounded, a large proportion very slightly”.

Much of the blame for this debacle fell on General Seymour. General Gilmore wrote at the end of the war:

General Seymour was never intrusted, and it never was my intention to intrust him with the execution of any general plan in Florida. I confided to him the objects I had in view in occupying East Florida, and the salient features of the plan by which I proposed to secure those objects. But he was never authorized to advance beyond the South Fork of the Saint Mary’s River in my absence. On the contrary, he had plain and explicit instructions with regard to what was expected and required of him, and the ill-judged advance beyond the South Fork of the Saint Mary’s River was in direct disregard of those instructions, and the disastrous battle of Olustee its legitimate fruit.

Lieutenant Oliver W. Norton was an officer in Company K of the 8th USCT. He had previously served in the 83rd Pennsylvania Infantry, and had fought in every major battle in the Eastern Theatre since the Peninsula Campaign. In some letters home, he wrote a blunt assessment of the Battle of Olustee:

An aide came dashing through the woods to us and the order was ” double quick, march!” We turned into the woods and ran in the direction of the firing for half a mile, when the head of the column reached our batteries. The presiding genius, General Seymour, said: “Put your regiment in, Colonel Fribley,” and left …

Colonel Fribley was killed soon after his order to fall back, and Major Burritt had both legs broken. We were without a commander, and every officer was doing his best to do something, he knew not what exactly. There was no leader. Seymour might better have been in his grave than there…

Lt. Oliver W. Norton, 8th USCT

I shall give you more particularly my own ideas of the performance of our own men. I want to be true and I cannot endorse all that has been said of them. First, I think no battle was ever more wretchedly fought. I was going to say planned, but there was no plan. No new regiment ever went into their first fight in more unfavorable circumstances. Second, no braver men ever faced an enemy. To have made these men fight well, I would have halted them out of range of the firing, formed my line, unslung knapsacks, got my cartridge boxes ready, and loaded. Then I would have moved it up to the support of a regiment already engaged. I would have had them lie down and let the balls and shells whistle over them till they got a little used to it. Then I would have moved them to the front, told them to get as close to the ground as they could and go in.

Just the other thing was done. We were double-quicked for half a mile, came under fire by the flank, formed line with empty pieces under fire, and, before the men had loaded, many of them were shot down…

Our regiment has been drilled too much for dress parade. and too little for the field. They can march well, but they cannot shoot rapidly or with effect. Some of them can, but the greater part cannot. Colonel Fribley had applied time and again for permission to practice his regiment in target firing, and been always refused…

It is no use for me to express my feelings in regard to the matter. If there is a second lieutenant in our regiment who couldn’t plan and execute a better battle, I would vote to dismiss him for incompetency.

In late March, General Seymour was transferred to the Army of the Potomac’s 6th Corps in Virginia. In August, the 8th USCT also was sent to Virginia. The regiment saw action in the Richmond—Petersburg theatre, as well as the Appomattox Campaign.

The Battle of Olustee was the largest battle of the war in Florida. Although some African American troops were recruited into the U.S. Army, the other goals of the campaign were not reached; the state remained in the Confederacy and food supply lines were not cut. After Olustee, raids and other small actions continued in the state, but there were no more large scale operations as U.S. efforts focused on more strategically important locations for the remainder of the war.


A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion by Frederick H. Dyer

Army Letters 1861-1865 by Oliver W. Norton

“The Battle of Olustee, or Ocean Pond, Florida” by Samuel Jones. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume IV, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel.

Generals in Blue: The Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner

“Comments on General Jones’ Paper [The Battle of Olustee, Florida, or Ocean Pond, Florida].” In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume IV, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel.

Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XXXV, Part 1

Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1861-1865 by William F. Fox

The Staff Ride Handbook for the Battle of Olustee, Florida, 20 February 1864 by Michael G. Anderson

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