150 Years Ago This Week: Major battle in Florida

February 1864

Before the First Congress of the Confederate States adjourned its fourth session, it suspended the writ of habeas corpus until Aug. 2 to meet resistance to the conscription laws and other disloyal activities; the suspension was restricted to cases of arrest ordered by President Jefferson Davis or Secretary of War James Seddon.

They also extended the limits of the military conscription to men between the ages of 17 and 50; this prompted vice president Alexander Stephens to write, “Far better that our country be overrun by the enemy, our cities sacked and burned and our land laid desolate, than that the people should suffer the citadel of their liberties to be entered and taken by professed friends.”

The vice president was, in effect, accusing the president of betraying the most precious ideals of the nation. The hostility between Mr. Stephens and Mr. Davis was an increasing handicap to the Confederacy, while the Congress had wrestled with the increasing demand for peace and discontent with the way the Davis administration was conducting the war.

In Washington, President Abraham Lincoln wrote Massachusetts Gov. John A. Andrew that “if it really be true that Massachusetts wishes to afford a permanent home within her borders, for all, or even a large number of colored persons who will come to her, I shall be only too glad to know it.” The president also lifted the blockade at Brownsville, Texas, allowing normal trade but no commerce in military articles.

Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour and some 3,500 Federal troops, marching toward their objective of Jacksonville, Fla., advanced on Saturday, Feb. 20, at Ocean Pond or Olustee against 5,000 Confederates commanded by Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan. In the initial clash of battle, the 7th New Hampshire Infantry and the 8th U.S. Colored Troops retreated in great confusion.

From strong fieldworks, the Confederates renewed the attack and severe fighting continued until dark, when Gen. Seymour withdrew his troops. Confederate cavalry was ineffective in pursuing the retreating Federals. While the Union troops withdrew east to Jacksonville, Confederate soldiers repaired damages to the railroad.

Casualties among the Northern troops were heavy: More than 200 killed, 1,100 wounded and 500 missing, for a total of more than 1,800. Confederate casualties numbered almost 1,000, with 93 killed and 841 wounded. This was the only major battle in the Florida during the war.

To the west, at Meridian, Miss., having accomplished his objective of capturing the important railroad center, Maj. Gen. William Sherman began withdrawing most of his men back west to Vicksburg. North of Meridian, in a series of running fights, the Union cavalry commanded by Maj. Gen. William Sooy Smith were vanquished by Maj. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest’s Confederate troopers. When hundreds of slaves flocked to the Northern column, Gen. Smith realized that he would not be able to join or support Gen. Sherman’s infantry.

A major cavalry engagement at Okolona, Miss. was fought on Monday, Feb. 22, and involved some severe hand-to-hand fighting in which Jeffrey Forrest, the Confederate commander’s brother, was killed. Okolona was one of Gen. Forrest’s greatest victories, as the Federals under Gen. Smith were forced to quickly continue their withdrawal toward Memphis.

In Washington, political intrigue surfaced, again involving Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, who submitted his resignation to President Lincoln, who refused to accept it. At the center of the controversy was the so-called “Pomeroy Circular,” a document making the rounds among the Radical Republicans and violent abolitionists in the Congress. These individuals were opposed to Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, and the document, signed by Kansas Senator Samuel Pomeroy, advocated Mr. Chase for president in the election.

Mr. Chase wrote to the president, denying knowledge of the circular but admitted talking with those who supported his run for the presidency. It was later confirmed that the Treasury Secretary was aware of the circular and approved its publication. Mr. Lincoln wrote to Chase that he would discuss the Pomeroy Circular with him later, and convened a cabinet meeting without Mr. Chase in attendance.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.