Monday, Feb. 29, 1864.
Dear Sister L.:
You will probably see accounts of the battle of Olustee, or Ocean Pond, in the papers…
Well, the morning of Saturday, the 20th, found us at Barber’s Ford on the St. Mary’s river ready to March and loaded down with ten days’ rations… We started marching in three columns, artillery in the road, flanked by the infantry on either side. After marching twelve miles we halted near a few desolate houses called Sanders and while resting heard a few musket shots in advance. We supposed our cavalry had met a few of the enemy’s pockets. Their force was supposed to be at Lake City, twelve miles distant, so we moved on up the railroad. The skirmishing increased as we marched, but we paid little attention to it. Pretty soon the boom or a gun startled us a little, but not much, as we knew our flying artillery was ahead, but they boomer again and again and it began to look like a brush. 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.
Military men say it takes veteran troops to maneuver under fire, but our regiment with knapsacks on and unloaded pieces, after a run of half a mile, formed a line under the most destructive fire I ever knew. We were not more than two hundred yards from the enemy, concealed in pits and behind trees, and what did the regiment do? At first they were stunned, bewildered, and knew not what to do. They curled to the ground, and as men fell around them they seemed terribly scared, but gradually they recovered their senses and commenced firing. And here was the great trouble – they could not use their arms to advantage. We have had very little practice in firing, and, though they could stand and be killed, they could not kill a concealed enemy enough to satisfy my feelings.
After seeing his men murdered as long as flesh and blood could endure it, Colonel Fribley ordered the regiment to fall back slowly, firing as they went… Color bearer after color bearer was shot down and the colors seized by another….
Company K went into the fight with fifty-five enlisted men and two officers. It came out with twenty-three men and one officer. Of these but two men were not marked. That speaks volumes for the bravery….
Excerpts from a letter from Oliver W. Norton to his sister, February 29, 1864.
(Source: The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It; Brooks D. Simpson, Editor, 2013, pages 723-727)
Battle of Olustee
Hailed as the only major battle fought in Florida during the Civil War, this fight was part of an attempted Union maneuver on the state capital and Confederate supply lines. Union General Truman Seymour and his superiors also hoped to “rescue” Federal supporters and recruit African American soldiers during his campaign.
On February 20, 1864, the Union troops ran into Confederate General Joseph Finegan and his soldiers, waiting in trenches near Ocean Pond or Olustee. When the Union troops attacked, they were driven back with heavy losses. Just when the Confederates had pushed in their final reserves, the Union units broke and retreated.
The battle had over 10,000 soldiers on or near the field and engaged in the fight, and losses numbered approximately 1,861 for the Union and 961 for the Confederates. In the end, the losses made Union authorities reconsider the importance of Florida in the entire scene of the war and decide it wasn’t worth those losses.
Several units of African American soldiers fought for the Union at the Battle of Olustee. Sources vary on the treatment of prisoners. Oliver Norton believed the captured African American soldiers were treated honorably, but other sources suggest the Confederates killed the wounded and all black soldiers from this battle.
The Eighth United States Colored Infantry Regiment was comprised of enlisted African American soldiers and white officers. Formed and enlisted in Pennsylvania and mustered into Federal service on December 4, 1863, the regiment took part in the Hilton Head Expedition in January 1864 before joining the Union forces in Florida. Following the Battle of Olustee where their colonel was killed and many soldiers injured or dead, the regiment moved to Virginia in the late summer.
They fought at Deep Bottom and New Market Heights before settling into the trenches. The Eighth took part in the Appomattox campaign, then headed for Texas to finish their enlistments – mustering out of service in November 1865.
Oliver W. Norton served as first lieutenant in the Eighth USCT Regiment. However, he had plenty of war experience from the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 to Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Rappahannock Station. His perspective and combat experience gives a solid glimpse into the devastating situation his regiment charged into.
Interestingly, aside from his Union war record and willingness to serve as an officer of an American American unit (something many Union officers did not want to do), Norton is credited with writing the bugle call “Taps” and playing it for the first time in July 1862. His contribution remains a lasting memorial to Americans of all ethnicity who fight for freedom – in any era.