Olustee, Florida—Lugging their private artillery pieces behind their pick-up trucks, heavy-weapons hobbyists drive days to get to the annual celebration of the Civil War Battle of Olustee, fought 150 years ago, on February 20, 1864. Fire fills the night sky as celebrants shoot off their mini-howitzers, and the next day rebel yells fill the air as reenactors whup the Yankees. Other events include a crafts fair and the annual Tiny Miss Tots Battle of Olustee contest.
These festivities commemorate what news reports, history books, and the organizers describe as Florida’s greatest moment of the Civil War. According to the Ocala Star-Banner, Olustee was “a decisive victory for the South.” Standard accounts also describe Olustee as “the largest Civil War battle on Florida soil.”
That’s historical misinformation, and the official Confederate archives prove it. In his official report following the battle, General P.G.T. Beauregard sourly informed President Jefferson Davis that the results of the fighting at Olustee were “insignificant,” thanks largely to the fact that his own forces made “no serious attempt… to pursue” U.S. troops as they withdrew.
When asked why he and his men were letting the federal forces escape, one Confederate field officer responded: “Killing niggers, sir.” A timely advance by black troops saved the day for the Union forces. As one white eye-witness put it, “The colored troops went in grandly, and they fought like devils,” suffering high casualties as they advanced. As white U.S. troops withdrew, the Confederates set upon the wounded American black men in uniform. In their eagerness to murder wounded blacks, the Confederates threw away what Beauregard called “the apparent opportunity of striking the enemy an effective blow.”
Though approximately 700 Union soldiers were killed at Olustee, only about 200 died in battle. The greatest proportion of the dead came from the more than 500 Union troops initially described as wounded and missing. “Most of the colored men were murdered on the field,” U.S. General John P. Hatch reported, following an investigation.
The Confederates reverently buried the remains of their own war dead. The remains of the Americans who fought for, rather than against their country that day, were left to be rooted up “by the hogs...in consequence of which the bones and skulls were scattered broadcast over the battlefield,” a returning Union veteran of the battle recounted. There never has been a thorough search to find and identify the remains of the loyal Americans missing at Olustee, of the kind that has occurred in Vietnam. Olustee enthusiasts don’t take kindly to suggestions that loyal Americans be honored there. Just two months ago neo-Confederate flag-wavers disrupted hearings on proposals to erect an Olustee monument to honor the Union dead.
“Victory at Olustee,” as title headings in history books call it, was conjured up a generation after the Civil War ended. State law ordained that all children be taught the fictional version, and a Confederate war monument was not erected in Olustee until 1912 at the insistence of white supremacist nostalgists. The “reenactment” of the battle, an even more recent anachronism, dates back only to 1977. Participants in the actual battle recalled how horrible it was; just getting there was an ordeal of mud and insects. Today’s reenactors strut their stuff on a clear-cut parade ground. The murder of the wounded plays no role in the festivities. In most accounts the presence of black troops, let along their heroism, is never mentioned.
Just as Beauregard would have scorned today’s claims of a Confederate victory at Olustee, the secessionists who intemperately plunged a defenseless Florida into war would have found mystifying the later pretense that the Civil War was anything other than a war for slavery. “Why all this?” John C. McGhee, president of Florida’s secessionist convention, asked in his keynote address. “At the South and with our people, of course, slavery is the element of all value.”
As Olustee shows, it’s a mistake to treat Florida simply as the scene of bizarre events, for Florida is our truth-teller state. In 2000 it told the truth about our Electoral College presidential election system, a legacy of the over-enfranchisement of slave owners, and the threat it poses to our democracy. Every day Florida shows how climate change is now a backyard reality as well as a scientific fact. Located near the spot where the intersecting Interstates 10 and 75 form a gigantic diagonal cross, like the one on the Confederate flag, Olustee is another of those places where important truths, along with the dishonored remains of true American heroes, lie just beneath Florida’s quirky, postmodern surface.