The Battle of Olustee
Something is going on in Florida that shows that Jim Crow is still very much alive in the hearts and motivations of some elected officials and their supporters.
This is going on in regard to the Battle of Olustee, and the Battle of Olustee Battlefield State Park. Last year the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War requested permission from the State Parks Department to place a monument at the site. The Parks Department responded favorably to the request and began to determine where on the battlefield to place the memorial to the Union dead. It would stand on ground where three monuments to Confederate units and casualties already stand.
The Main Monument at Olustee
That was when Republican State Representative Dennis Baxley, the House Judiciary Chairman got involved. Baxley is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He stated that he believed that a Union monument would “redefine” the park. He called it “revisionist history” and objected to a non-elected body making these kinds of decisions.
Baxley was joined by James Davis, the Florida Division Commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in opposition to a Union memorial at the site. Davis did not object to a Union memorial per say, but he objected locating one in the park. Davis said: “We are not opposed to the monument at all; we are opposed to the location, and here is why — it’s like any other historical building, you put something brand new in there and it destroys the significance of it.” Davis suggested that the memorial be built across the road from the park, near the museum located on Federal property instead.
The National Commander of the Son’s of Confederate Veterans began an internet campaign against the monument stating his opposition to the “Darth Vader-esque obscene obsidian obelisk.” Another leader of the group, Jim Shillinglaw noted: “If you have an Iraq war monument, you don’t want to put a Muslim/jihadist monument right in front of it.”
There are numerous Confederate monuments on Union soil, including a number of major monuments at Gettysburg. Across the country it is standard practice to include monuments for both Union and Confederate forces that fought at these battles. In fact I know of no battlefields where what is going on at Olustee has ever been an issue.
The Virginia Monument at Gettysburg
In fact the Florida State Parks Department is going ahead with plans to have a Union Monument. The chief officer for park planning, Lew Scruggs said: “The mission in the state park system is to commemorate the battle between the two opposing forces; it’s not restricted to one.” The park itself has also been recognized for its past work in remembering the African Americans who fought at the battle.
So why the fuss?
As a historian I wondered why this might be an issue to Baxley and Davis. But then I did some reading on the battle. It was fought in February 1864 and was a significant Confederate tactical victory. The Confederate troops, highly experienced combat veterans, including Colquitt’s Georgia brigade which had been detached to help hold back the Union in Florida inflicted heavy casualties on a badly handled Union force. Both sides had about the same number of troops involved and the Confederate victory kept the Union from setting up a Union government in the state prior to the end of the war. For a relatively small battle it was fierce and bloody, casualties on both sides were considerable. The Union suffered about 2000 casualties to just under 1000 suffered by the Confederates.
However, there is an issue that has not been brought up in most media accounts of this new “Battle of Olustee.” The fact is that nearly half of the Union troops engaged were “Colored Troops,” the 8th and 35th Regiments of U.S. Colored Troops and the illustrious 54th Massachusetts. The 8th and 35th USCT regiments were both new to combat. At the end of the battle the 54th helped cover the Union retreat back to Jacksonville.
After the battle the wounded Union Colored troops left on the battlefield were slaughtered by some units of Confederates. The testimony of Confederate troops in letters and memoirs attests to the slaughter of the wounded and other prisoners. William Frederick Penniman of the 4th Florida Cavalry wrote:
“A young officer was standing in the road in front of me and I asked him, “What is the meaning of all this firing I hear going on”. His reply to me was, “Shooting niggers Sir. “I have tried to make the boys desist but I can’t control them”. I made some answer in effect that it seemed horrible to kill the wounded devils, and he again answered, “That’s so Sir, but one young fellow over yonder told me the niggers killed his brother after being wounded, at Fort Pillow, and he was twenty three years old, that he had already killed nineteen and needed only four more to make the matter even, so I told him to go ahead and finis the job”. I rode on but the firing continued.
The next morning I had occasion to go over the battle field again quite early, before the burial squads began their work, when the results of the shooting of the previous night became quite apparent. Negroes, and plenty of them, whom I had seen lying all over the field wounded, and as far as I could see, many of them moving around from palace to place, now without a motion, all were dead. If a negro had a shot in the shin another was sure to be in the head.”
Likewise Corporal Henry Shackelford of the 19th Georgia Infantry wrote in a letter home: “We got all their artillery, 8 pieces, took about 400 prisoners and killed about the same number. How our boys did walk into the niggers, they would beg and pray but it did no good.” (Excerpt from letter written by Corporal Henry Shackelford, 19th Georgia Infantry 20 February 1864)
The Commander of the 2nd Florida Cavalry urged his men into battle that day with a clear message:
“Comrades and soldiers of the 2nd Florida Cavalry, we are going into this fight to win. Although we are fighting five or six to one, we will die, but never surrender. General Seamore’s Army is made up largely of negroes from Georgia and South Carolina, who have come to steal, pillage, run over the state and murder, Kill and rape our wives, daughters and sweethearts. Let’s teach them a lesson. I shall not take any negro prisoners in this fight.” (Lawrence Jackson, Company C, 2nd Florida Cavalry, written in 1929 when he was 65 years old.)
The unspoken issue is not that the fact that the troops being honored are simply white Union boys, but rather that so many were African Americans. Baxley’s and Davis’s words speak volumes. This is a racial issue. Davis is not opposed to a monument, he just doesn’t want it to be where the Confederate monuments are. Baxley says that having a monument to the Union troops who fought there is “revisionist history.” Give me a break. It is history. Union troops fought there too and they are entitled to a monument, last this become a shrine to those who murdered the wounded and prisoners after the battle. I wonder how these men would feel if a request by the Confederate Veterans for a monument to Confederate troops at a park in a state that fought for the Union was opposed in such a manner. I’m sure that they would make the same cry of revisionist history, but this time be correct.
Detail of the Main Monument at the Olustee Battlefield State Park
But then maybe that is what Davis and Baxley want. Maybe that is the history that they want to preserve. I would hope not, but their language makes it hard to believe that that is not exactly what they desire. I can only believe that both men still hold to the message “segregation forever” and are still committed to fulfilling the dream of the Lost Cause that died on the battlefields of the Civil War. They may not say so openly but the message is clear, keep the memory of the blacks out, even if they are dead.
Sorry, all the men who fought at Olustee deserve a memorial. Even the African American Union troops. That is history, that is recognizing all who fought there.
Note: All quotes from soldiers and information about the battle come from The Battle of Olustee and the Battle of Olustee Site Reenactment website, http://www.battleofolustee.org . The quotes from Davis and Baxley are found at the Tampa Bay Times article at http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/stateroundup/fight-flares-over-sons-of-union-veterans-request-for-monument-in-north/2161556
As a side note I am also eligible to join the Sons of Confederate Veterans, but because the organization frequently acts in this manner I refuse to join.