In an attempt to cut off Confederate supply lines in Florida, Union General Truman Seymour raided from Jacksonville toward the center of the state, with Lake City as the objective. His command, 5,500-strong, included three regiments of black soldiers, including the famed 54th Massachusetts. Waiting in opposition near Olustee Station on the Florida, Atlantic and Gulf Central Railroad was Confederate General Joseph Finnegan.
The two forces met at in the morning of February 20th, with Seymour feeding his Federal troops into the fray in a piecemeal fashion. This ensured his defeat. Ultimately, his lines broke upon the Confederate entrenchments and the entire command, save the 54th Massachusetts and the 35th US Colored Troops, was sent into a retreat. Acting a rear guard, the two black regiments beat back the advancing Rebels.
It is here where the murdering began.
The Federals left behind their killed, many wounded, and hundreds more who had been captured by the Rebels. The white prisoners were treated well, swapping stories of the battle with their captors. “The Yankee prisoners say they had no idea of meeting with such a force here,” wrote Private James Jordan of the 27th Georgia the day after the battle. “They said they did not expect to meet nothing but cavalry here.”
The black prisoners, however, might have been treated much worse. Private Jordan continued: “The negroes were badly cut up and killed. Our men killed some of them after they had fell in our hands wounded.” A 2nd Lt. in a Georgia regiment nonchalantly wrote home that “at least two hundred negroes and Yankees lay dead on the field.” He made sure to differentiate between the two.
According to an 1865 account given by a Union “returned prisoner of war” whose testimony was given following his release:
“Just before the order was given to retreat, I received a bullet through my ankle, which obliged me to remain on the field. I managed to crawl into a bush, where I could see the rebels come to our wounded, and take their money, watches, and whatever they found on their persons; while they stripped the dead altogether.
“The wounded negroes they bayoneted without mercy. Close beside me was a fine-looking negro, who was wounded in the leg: his name was Brown, an orderly sergeant in one of the companies of the 8th United-States Regiment. A rebel officer happened to see him, and says, ‘Ah, you black rascal, you will not remain here long!’ and, dismounting from his horse, placed his revolver close to the negros head, and blew his brains out.”
William Frederick Penniman of the 4th Georgia Cavalry, observed the field of battle, and remembered it in a 1901 missive, where he picked up shortly after the Federal retreat, confirming the above Union account:
“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 Billow, 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 finish the job’. I rode on but the firing continued.
“The next morning I had occasion to go over the battlefield 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 place 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.
“A very few prisoners were taken, and but a few at the prison pen. One ugly big black buck was interrogated as to how it happened that he had come back to fight his old master, and upon his giving some very insolent reply, his interrogator drew back his musket, and with the butt gave him a blow that killed him instantly. A very few of the wounded were placed on the surgeons operating table- their legs fairly flew off, but whether they were at all seriously wounded I have always had my doubt.”
Sources: Official Records, Series 1, vol. 35, Part 1, p289, 312, 315, 340, 344, 349-350; Reminiscences of the Battle of Olustee by Lawrence Jackson; Excerpt from the Reminiscences of Captain William Penniman; Item 2711. “A Voice from Rebel Prisons,” 1865; Letter by 2nd Lt. Hugh Barclay, 23rd Georgia — 25 February 1864; Letter by Pvt. James Jordan, 27th Georgia — 21 February 1864.