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Florida's one-sided Civil War battlefield

Florida's biggest Civil War battle was fought at Olustee, a settlement between Lake City and Jacksonville. The battlefield, which became Florida's first state park a century ago, is sacred ground. You just wouldn't know this by the looks of the place.

The battle was fought on Feb. 20, 1864. Union Gen. Truman Seymour led a force of 5,500 soldiers, including three black regiments, inland from Jacksonville. Confederate Gen. James Finegan knew Seymour was coming and assembled a force of nearly equal size to meet his. Finegan's troops, mainly Georgians, turned the Yankees back after a four-hour battle fought at close range.

Seymour lost more than 1,800 men killed, wounded and captured; the rebels more than 900. Although these numbers were small compared to casualties at places like Antietam and Gettysburg, Seymour had lost nearly a third of his force. Dozens of his wounded and captured died at Andersonville prison in Georgia.

I grew up and worked in Florida before moving to New Hampshire in 1978. For years I have been researching a book about my adopted state's Civil War experience. Whenever possible, I walk in the footsteps of the soldiers I write about. Because the 7th New Hampshire Infantry regiment fought at Olustee, I visited the battlefield in early March.

The Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park is on U.S. Route 90. You turn north off the highway and drive across the railroad tracks and into the park. In a small building there, you can see a film about the battle. Behind the building are a large obelisk and two stone monuments erected during the first half of the 20th century.

To a transplanted Northerner, the words on the monuments were the first shock. They were written during a time when many Southerners embraced the lost cause. On one facade of the obelisk a Confederate flag was engraved. I figured that in the spirit of postwar reunion, Old Glory would be carved on the other side, but in fact all the engraved flags were Confederate.

Then I read the inscription: "To the men who fought and triumphed here in defense of their homes and firesides, this monument is erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in commemoration of their devotion to liberty and state sovereignty."

Liberty? Hmmmm. Liberty for all? Hardly. And state sovereignty? This was at issue in the war, but leading secessionists used the idea mainly to preserve slavery and break up the union. Hadn't the Union victory settled the constitutional line between state and national sovereignty? Hadn't thousands of Northern soldiers sacrificed their lives for the idea that Southern views on state sovereignty were treasonous?

As for the battlefield, it didn't look as it did in 1864. Then, it was mainly open ground with a few pines. Now, as part of the Osceola National Forest, it is thickly planted. On the marked trail through the field, the plaques with battle information are weather-worn and hard to read. Many of them face the wrong direction.

The Olustee battlefield should be restored to its 1864 appearance. The interpretation of the battle should be updated and enhanced, as it has been on the park's terrific website. With both state and federal jurisdiction, the bureaucratic hurdles to such change might be high, but with the 150th anniversary of the battle nearly two years away, now is the time to start.

A new interpretation of the battle should seek to answer several questions. Two come to mind: How did black and white Union soldiers regard each other as they fought side by side? After the battle, how extensive was the Confederate soldiers' killing of wounded black soldiers?

When Seymour's force retreated, it left most of its dead and wounded. Following the custom for both armies, the rebels stripped the Union dead and buried them in shallow graves on the field. Two years later, an army detachment was sent to Olustee to find the Union graves. Roving wild pigs had dug up many of them, and bleached bones littered the field. The soldiers gathered two wagon-loads of bones and buried them in a mass grave. Either vandals or the weather long ago erased any trace of this burial spot.

Thus somewhere near the Olustee battlefield is a truly hallowed place. It contains the mingled dust of black soldiers and white who lost a battle together. Like the Southern defenders at Olustee, these soldiers, whoever and wherever they are, deserve a far fuller and more fitting remembrance than the battlefield now provides.

Mike Pride has co-authored five books, including "My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross and the Fifth New Hampshire" and, most recently, "Abraham Lincoln in New Hampshire." After many years as a writer and editor for Florida newspapers, he was editor of the Concord (N.H.) Monitor for 25 years.

Florida's one-sided Civil War battlefield 04/01/12 [Last modified: Sunday, April 1, 2012 4:30am]
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