A Photo Journey Back in Time to Florida's Largest Civil War Battle

by AbbyFitz

Only a few Civil War battles took place in Florida, and no battlefield is more preserved than Olustee. View photographs of the reenactment of the 1864 battle.

Every President’s Day weekend, Civil War reenactors from all over the world converge on the little town of Olustee, Florida, to commemorate Florida’s biggest Civil War battle.

Here, Confederates held off the Union troops and eventually won the battle, forcing the North to retreat back to Jacksonville with the biggest percentage of casualty losses they would suffer during the entire war.

2014, the 150th anniversary of the battle, was the first year I attended the reenactment there in the middle of nowhere.

Others may have attended because they’re history buffs, school kids, or just tourists passing through looking for something to do.

But I had another reason for being there.

Through oral family history, I knew my great great grandmother had lived just a few miles away from the battlefield.

I wanted to experience the reenactment with her in mind and imagine what she might have felt and seen that cold February day in 1864.

A Family Connection that Spans 150 Years

History isn't just dates and facts.

Olustee 150th Anniversary ReenactmentMy father's grandfather had told him the story his own mother, Cynthia, had told him about the day the Civil War came to her back door.

We'd pass by the battlefield occasionally on our road trips, and Daddy would always repeat it to me. We never stopped to visit, though, because my mother didn't like how she felt just driving past it.

I remember being fascinated by the story as a child because of my personal link to the past. In school, I learned about the war in history class, but it was just facts and dates to me. My great great grandmother's story made the Civil War an actual event, and it developed a love of history that I still carry with me.

It's that love of the past, along with my grandmother's story, that finally made me attend the 150th anniversary reenactment in 2014. 

A Walk Through Old Olustee Town

Be a peeping tom into life in 1864.
Women and Children Civil War Reenactors in Olustee, Florida
Women and Children Civil War Reenactors in Olustee, Florida
Author

There were so many people in period dress, I kind of felt out of place. I felt like a peeping tom spying into their world.

While walking through the woods, camps, and fields, I let my mind wander to Cynthia. In February 1864, she was 19 with a two year old little girl and pregnant with my great grandfather.

I snapped a picture of the lady above because she made me think of her. Her husband and brothers were states away fighting for the Southern Cause. Pregnant and caring for a small child, while being surrounded by two opposing military forces, must have been very frightening for her.

A Civil War Mercantile in Olustee, Florida
A Civil War Mercantile in Olustee, Fl...
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Civil War Era Corset
Civil War Era Corset
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 As I meandered through the tent shops, I found most things for sale were period clothing and other various items for reenactors.

I had left my purse in the car so I wouldn't spend too much money. It was a wise move, because I think I would have bought myself a new dress.

I would have even bought the underwear. I've always had a secret desire to wear a corset. It's not like I'm into torture or anything, I'm just all for anything that makes my stomach look flat.

Civil War Campfire at Olustee Battlefield
Civil War Campfire at Olustee Battlefield
Author

As is often the case, we romanticize the past and think it was so much better than present day. Sadly, I'm no different. Just like I think wearing corsets and hoop skirts would be fun to do everyday, the thought of cooking over the open fire appeals to me, too.

My grandmother probably would have told me I was crazy and gladly traded her corset for Victoria's Secret, and her cast iron skillet for a microwave.

Antique Cast Iron Cookware
Antique Cast Iron Cookware
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My Favorite Photograph of the Day:

Civil War Photographer
Civil War Photographer
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Near the shops, a ladies' tea was being held in the event tent, but only women in period dress were allowed to attend. Those of us who were indecent had to watch from outside.

I wondered, though, if period clothing was required, shouldn't period food have been, too? I'm pretty sure Coke wasn't invented yet.

Civil War Ladies in Olustee, Florida
Civil War Ladies in Olustee, Florida
Author

Walking closer to the battlefield, I encountered the armies' camps. It was interesting to see how soldiers lived, but I wonder how historically accurate it was. Did they actually have beds and furniture, or did they sleep and eat on the ground?

Since my grandmother lived only a few miles from here, I wondered if any soldiers had camped on her land. The 1860 census shows her family owned a 1,000 acre farm. There were over 5,000 confederate troops that fought at Olustee, so it's definitely a possibility. 

Books About Florida's Role in the Civil War:

The Union Army is All Business in the Hours before the Battle

A good game of chess with some bacon and beans.
Union Troops Before Battle at Ocean Pond Olustee
Union Troops Before Battle at Ocean Pond Olustee
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Things are More Festive at the Southern Camp

Southerners don't need a reason to have a party.
Confederate Camp at Olustee, Florida
Confederate Camp at Olustee, Florida
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The Popular Hits of 1864

Well, depending on what side you were on.

More Images of the Camps:

Inside a Civil War Tent
Inside a Civil War Tent
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Union Soldiers at the Olustee Reenactment
Union Soldiers at the Olustee Reenact...
Author
Sleeping Confederate Soldier
Sleeping Confederate Soldier
Author
Reeneactors waiting for the Battle of Olustee
Reeneactors waiting for the Battle of...
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Florida History Guidebooks:

The Battle of Olustee from a Civilian's Perspective

As the battle intensified, I understood my grandmother's words more clearly.

I was eager for the battle reenactment to begin. While sitting there waiting, I thought back to what Daddy had told me about Cynthia.

He had told me what his grandfather had told him, but I'm sure through 150 years it's nowhere near an exact quote.

"That afternoon I heard the sounds of cannon and gunfire far off at first, but then it seemed to be getting closer and closer until I thought they would be fighting on top of us. All the rest of the day I heard nothing else but the sounds of war."

Confederate Calvary at the Battle of Olustee
Confederate Calvary at the Battle of Olustee
Author

As the battle began, scouts seemed to come out to survey the surrounding area. I wondered if soldiers from either side had found their way onto Cynthia's farm in their attempts to feel out the enemy.

How terrifying would it have been for her to see Union troops so close to home?

Would she have felt comforted if she had seen Southern troops instead?

Personally, I think I would have felt safer if I had not seen anyone at all.

As soon as the cannons began to fire, Cynthia's story became real.

I've seen battle scenes in Civil War movies, but I had no idea how loud it was until both sides began exchanging cannon and rifle fire.

If she had only been a few miles away, then, yes, I'm sure it would have felt as though the fighting were right on top of you, even if you didn't see anything.

An American Civil War Cannon and Union Troops
An American Civil War Cannon and Unio...
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The Sights and Sounds of the Battle at Ocean Pond (Olustee)

Civil War Soldiers Exchanging Fire
Civil War Soldiers Exchanging Fire
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I was struck with how barbaric the battle was. With each side sometimes only being feet away from each other when exchanging fire, it's a miracle everyone wasn't killed or wounded.

Sitting there watching the wounded be taken off the battlefield, I wondered where the makeshift army hospital would have been located and whether Cynthia would have volunteered to care for the wounded and dying.

Civil War Nurses
Civil War Nurses
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Experience Olustee for Yourself

There's more to do than tour the battlefield.

The Olustee Festival is held every President's Day weekend, but there's so much more to see than just the battle.

Other activities in the nearby city of Lake City include:

  • Olustee Festival Parade
  • Blue-Gray Olustee Festival Square Dance
  • 5K Run
  • Olustee Arts and Crafts Festival

For more information, visit the Olustee Festival and Reenactment website.

 

Things to Know Before You Go:

Parking on U.S. Highway 90 at Olustee Battlefield
Parking on U.S. Highway 90 at Olustee...
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Crowds on the Union Side of Olustee Battlefield
Crowds on the Union Side of Olustee B...
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  • The battle reenactment draws thousands from around the country, and it's extremely crowded.
  • Wear comfortable shoes because you can walk for a mile or more before you even reach the entrance to the park, then it's another mile to the battle site  (Personal experience talking here, I had the blisters to prove it.)
  • Shuttles run to the state park from Lake City or Baker Correctional Institution for $2 to $3 a person
  • North Florida can be cold in February. Or it might not. Temps can range from 25F to 75F
  • Want a seat to watch the battle? Arrive at the stands at least 2 hours early

Where is Olustee, Florida?

The Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park is located on U.S. 90, 15 miles east of Lake City and 50 miles west of Jacksonville.

Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park

5890 Battlefield Trail Road

Olustee, Florida 32087

(386) 758-0400

Updated: 10/19/2014, AbbyFitz
 
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AbbyFitz on 02/23/2014

Thank you Mira!

AbbyFitz on 02/23/2014

Thank you dustytoes! The contrast was just too hilarious to pass up.

Mira on 02/23/2014

Very nice page, Abby! I hope it will inspire more people to visit the reenactment of the Battle of Olustee on Presidents' Day weekend. I enjoyed the virtual tour!

dustytoes on 02/23/2014

I loved that contrast between the north and south "serious" and "festive" before battle... I think it definitely relates to the nature of people from different areas of the country - and I've lived in both places. Great page Abby! This is a good time of year in Florida for wearing these costumes, and you took some great photos.

AbbyFitz on 02/22/2014

War is ugly, but I think we have to understand the past to keep from making the same mistakes twice. Unfortunately that didn't happen a lot of times.

ologsinquito on 02/22/2014

It's so sad we had to have this war in the first place, but I like the living history museum aspect. The photos are beautiful, and you get the sense that you are right there.

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