The Battle of Olustee was the largest conflict fought in Florida during the Civil War. On February 20, 1864, a Confederate force under General Joseph Finegan defeated an army commanded by General Truman Seymour, and this victory kept the Confederates in control of Florida’s interior for the rest of the war.
Union casualties numbered 1,800 killed, wounded, or captured, while the Confederates lost approximately 900 men. The battle disrupted the flow of supplies from Florida to other Confederate armies, but it failed to bring about a new state government. Most of Florida remained in Confederate hands until the end of the war.
Each year, a reenactment of the battle is performed at Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park, the largest annual Civil War event held in the southeastern United States. Nearly 2,000 reenactors from all over the world come to recreate the battle, including a group from Amelia Island’s own Fort Clinch State Park. Headed by Park Ranger Frank Ofeldt, the Fort Clinch group is part of the 3rd Rhode Island Artillery, which served in a variety of roles during the Civil War, including artillery, infantry, and cavalry, as well as manning U.S. Navy gunboats. The regiment fought in battles in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
The 3rd Rhode Island is responsible for providing the cannons used in the battle reenactment, and they begin moving their artillery and tents into the park several days before the battle. “It takes us several days to set up our camp and cannons,” says Ofeldt. “Our group is in charge of safety procedures as well, and making sure that protocol is followed during the reenactment.”
The Battle of Olustee is a weekend event that begins on Friday, when thousands of students invade the site with their teachers and parents to learn more about the Civil War, witnessing medical, cavalry, infantry, and artillery demonstrations. Food is served throughout the day, while sutlers sell their wares. Hundreds of encampments feature reenactors living as they would in 1864, cooking stew over open fires, playing music, and telling Civil War tales.
On Saturday, a Civil War battle is performed on part of the field where the actual Battle of Olustee was fought. This is not the scripted battle (which is held on Sunday), but a performance designed to help spectators understand what a true Civil War battle was like. Replete with cannons, gunfire, horses, wagons, and music, Fort Clinch’s 3rd Rhode Island is at the forefront of the battle, which is surprisingly realistic.
That evening, spectators are welcome to stay and watch the reenactors cook their evening meals, which range from bacon and hardtack at some camps to full sit-down dinners at others. After dinner, many reenactors don their dress uniforms and gowns to attend the Reenactor’s Ball later that evening.
On Sunday, the Federal and Confederate camps each host authentic, non-denominational, church services with real ministers who are also reenactors. Religion was an essential part of life in the 19th-century America, and most Civil War soldiers and their families felt very strongly about their faith. The scripted Battle of Olustee begins at 1:30 p.m., while an authentic Confederate band plays Civil War music to entertain spectators while they wait for the battle to begin. An announcer offers an explanation to the audience during the performance, in order to help them understand what is happening on the battlefield as the conflict progresses.
Because the battle is so realistic, many spectators gasp in horror as soldiers begin to fall, while chaplains and medical personnel come to their aid. Within 90 minutes, the Confederates have taken down the Union troops, and the battle ends with a tribute to those who lost their lives.
The Battle of Olustee reenactment was started in 1977. Aided by the funding of the Blue-Grey Army, Inc. and the State of Florida, the battle reenactment has grown to include up to 28 artillery pieces, over 50 mounted troops and horse-drawn artillery, 100 ground charges, and greater degrees of authenticity each year. For more information on the event, visit www.battleofolustee.org.