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The Battle of Olustee (Ocean Pond)

54th Massachusetts at OlusteeSeven months after their gallant charge on Fort Wagner, the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry was engaged in the Battle of Olustee (Ocean Pond) under their new commander Colonel Edward Needles Hallowell. This event, which began as a skirmish on February 20, 1864, escalated into a full-scale battle in the pine woods by Olustee Station, near the swamplands in north-central Florida. Though the Union forces of Brigadier General Truman Seymour and the Confederate troops of Brigadier General Joseph Finegan were evenly matched—with approximately 5000 soldiers from each side swept up in combat—the four-hour battle ended in a bitter defeat for the Federals. The Union lost more than 1800 soldiers killed, wounded, missing or captured—among the highest percentage of casualties in the war—a far greater loss in comparison to the Confederacy's casualties of fewer than 950 soldiers.

Major Hallowell
The 54th Massachusetts was not the only black regiment (under the command of white officers) engaged in combat at Olustee. Colonel Charles W. Fribley's 8th United States Colored Troops was thrust into the battle at the outset, and Lieutenant Colonel W.N. Reed's 35th United States Colored Troops of North Carolina fought alongside the 54th—both regiments having entered the fray near the end of the battle. Though the losses of the 35th U.S.C.T. and the 54th were not severe, it was the 8th U.S.C.T. that suffered the most with 310 casualties—the heaviest regimental loss in the entire battle. This was the 8th's baptism of fire, and as they lacked training and experience on the mindset and maneuvers of rigorous combat, they were slaughtered.

As a result of the Battle of Olustee, the Federals retreated to Jacksonville. This battle of the Florida Campaign would be the largest battle of the Civil War fought in the state.


Above left: Soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts fight in the Battle of Olustee. Photo of painting courtesy of Florida Photographic Collection. Above right: Major Edward Needles Hallowell of the 54th Massachusetts, before his colonelcy with the regiment, image care of MOLLUS—Mass. Collection, USAMHI.

Special thanks to Brian Pohanka for his contributions to this article.

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The following is an excerpt from a letter dated March 20, 1864 to the editor of the Christian Recorder. This letter by Sergeant Major Rufus S. Jones, a senior non-commissioned officer (NCO) of the 8th U.S. Colored Troops (of African descent), tells his story of the battle:

Our force was five thousand troops, composed of artillery, cavalry, and infantry. The Eighth and Seventh Connecticut and Seventh New Hampshire Volunteers are brigaded together. No interruption was had during the day till 3 o'clock P.M. Musket firing was heard in front, the Federals having driven in the Rebel pickets. Heavy firing was soon heard, and the troops were moved forward rapidly. The Eighth U.S.C.T., having been on the railroad for a short distance, was ordered to change direction to the right, and received orders to go into the fight without unslinging knapsacks, or the sergeants taking off their sashes, which caused nearly all the first sergeants to be killed or wounded. Only one-half the regiment was loaded, so harmless had been the estimate placed upon the enemy, that he was not looked for short of Lake City, and not there, if any place was left open for retreat. The Battle of Olustee, or Ocean Pond, on the 20th of February, will be long remembered by the Eighth, which suffered terribly in the conflict. No expectation of meeting the enemy is apparent, when not sufficient ammunition was brought along to fire over sixty rounds of musketry. Colonel Charles Fribley, of the Eighth, fell, mortally wounded, a short time after going into the engagement. Major Loren Burritt then took command, and fell, badly wounded, and was borne to the rear. Both field officers now being taken from the regiment, Captain R.C. Bailey, of Company B, being the Senior Captain, took command of the regiment, and knowing that the ammunition was exhausted, ordered the regiment to the rear of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts, which was now engaging the enemy successfully, and, had one more regiment come to its assistance the occupation of Jacksonville by so large a force as is now here would be useless. The battle lasted from three o'clock P.M. until dark, when a retreat was ordered by the Commanding General. The wounded, both white and colored, were placed in ambulances and wagons of all kinds, and hurried to (the towns of) Baldwin or to Barber. I cannot but speak of the conduct of Dr. Alex P. Heichold, Surgeon of the Eighth, who was particular in collecting the colored troops who were wounded, and placed them in his ambulance and pushed on for a place of safety. Some one thought the white troops should be brought away also; but Dr. H. said: "I know what will become of the white troops who fall into the enemy's possession, but I am not certain as to the fate of the colored troops," and pushed with alacrity towards Baldwin. He also dressed the wounds of all the Eighth that came into camp at Barber, and a great many others belonging to white regiments. It looked sad to see men wounded coming into camp with their arms and equipments on, so great was their endurance and so determined were they to defend themselves till the death.


Edwin S. Redkey, A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861-1865 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 41-42.

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Lieutenant NortonAfter their slaughter at Olustee, the 8th U.S. Colored Troops remained for a time in Jacksonville. First Lieutenant Oliver Willcox Norton of Company K wrote a letter to his father describing the surrounding area, giving his comments on the events of the battle as well. The following are passages from his letter dated March 1, 1864:

On the 20th we fought our first battle at Olustee, or Ocean Pond, as some call it. They might as well call any other place in these pine woods some high sounding name, for this country is all alike. Since leaving Jacksonville I have not seen five hundred acres of cleared land in a journey of forty-five miles to the west. The country is covered with scattered pines, most of them blazed for turpentine. The ground between the trees is covered with a dense growth of coarse grass and palmetto shrubs. At intervals there are swamps, not deep, but broad and wet....

Olustee  Battlefield today
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....

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. When we were flanked, flesh and blood could stand it no longer, and Colonel Fribley, without orders, gave the command to fall back slowly, firing as we went. He fell, shot through the heart, very soon after that. Where was our general and where was his force? Coming up in the rear, and as they arrived, they were put in, one regiment at a time, and whipped by detail....

You may judge of the severity of the fight by this: Of fifty-five men in Company K who went into the fight but two came out untouched by balls. Of twenty-two officers engaged but two were untouched. I got a ball in my hat that made five holes and drew blood on my head. Another took off the corner of my haversack.

Colonel Fribley was shot through the heart, Major Burritt, gallant fellow, had both legs broken. Captain Wagner fell pierced with three balls, but got off, and I hear is in a fair way to recovery....



Oliver Willcox Norton, Army Letters, 1861-1865 (Ohio: Press at Morningside, 1990), pp. 201-203.

Above left: Oliver Willcox Norton in December 1863, after his promotion to First Lieutenant of the 8th USCT, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Image care of Norton's Army Letters book. Above right: Olustee Battlefield State Historic Site, with its pine woods and palmetto shrubs (photo by CNO). The battlefield was acquired by the state of Florida in 1909.

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