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The Guns that Won Florida’s Only Major Civil War Battle

By: Friedrich Seiltgen

In February 1864, more than 10,000 Union and Confederate troops fought for over five hours in Florida’s Battle of Olustee. At the end, 2,807 troops lay dead.

The Battle of “Olustee,” meaning “Ocean Pond,” happened in Baker County. Olustee comes from the nearby creek derived from the Muscogee (Creek) language meaning “Blackwater.” The fight was a victory for Confederate forces and would end up being the only major battle to take place in Florida during the Civil War. The Union defeat would help keep Florida in the hands of the Confederacy until the end of the war.

Lincoln Wanted Florida Back in the Union
When Olustee took place, the American people were growing dissatisfied with the progress of the war, and President Lincoln was looking for a way to improve his political situation. If he could bring Florida back into the union, it might help his cause.

Union General Truman Seymour arrived in Florida and immediately secured Jacksonville for the North. He sent cavalry units out to Gainesville and Lake City with John Hay, Lincoln’s private secretary. Hay’s mission was to issue loyalty oaths to citizens to form a Republican government and assemble delegates in Florida prior to the 1864 Republican Party Convention.

A Five-Hour Battle
Seymour arrived in Jacksonville intent on disrupting Confederate supply lines. He was to remain in Jacksonville, but believing there was little resistance there, and determined to destroy a railroad bridge on the Suwannee River and continue marching towards Tallahassee, he disobeyed orders.

During a chow break near Sanderson, east of Olustee, the general and his staff met a southern woman who reportedly told them, “You will come back faster than you go.” Sure enough, upon arriving in Olustee, Seymour met the resistance of 5,000 troops from the Confederate District of East Florida.

A fierce battle raged for more than five hours. The Union forces were defeated and started a retreat to Jacksonville. The Massachusetts 54th, one of three black regiments (later made famous in the movie Glory) was particularly devastated. Prior to the battle, Lt. Rambo (yes, Rambo!) of the Milton Florida Artillery Battery mounted a 30-pound Parrott rifle onto a rail car. One of its rounds found its way into the middle of the 54th Regiment. Then, as the retreat continued, the 54th was ordered to march back 10 miles, as a train transporting wounded men from the battle had broken down. The regiment attached ropes and pulled the train three miles before meeting a cavalry unit whose horses helped pull the train the rest of the way to Jacksonville.

The Union Spencer Rifle & Colt Army 1860 Revolver
The Spencer Rifle was the world’s first military repeating rifle. It was designed by Christopher Spencer, and more than 200,000 of them were manufactured. It was a .52 caliber, 7-round, tube magazine, lever-action rifle adopted by the Union Army – preferred especially by Union cavalry troops – during the Civil War. The rifle was a huge advance in weapons design. Many generals preferred the Springfield 1861, complaining that with the Spencer, soldiers would fire too rapidly and waste ammunition. Wasted ammo would be a logistical nightmare, as the Army already had its hands full trying to supply ammunition as it was.

The Colt Army 1860 revolver was a single-action, .44 caliber, cap and ball revolver. It was sometimes fitted with a shoulder stock to improve accuracy. Colt produced more than 200,000 units of this gun, and it was a mainstay during the Civil War.

The CSA Springfield Model 1861 & Colt 1851 Navy Revolver
The Confederate States of America (CSA) were forced to use a large array of diverse weapons: everything from the .75 caliber “Brown Bess” musket to the 1860 Enfield Musketoon, to the .52 caliber Spencer seven-shot repeating rifle, to the Le Mat revolver, a nine-shot revolver with a shotgun barrel mounted under the pistol barrel that weighed about 5 pounds.

While the Union had their Spencer rifles, southern troops’ use of the Spencer was limited to captured weapons, because the south had a limited manufacturing capability and a shortage of copper with which to produce cartridges. The CSA would use several different rifles. The 1853 Enfield rifle was imported in large quantities by both sides, but a favorite was the .58 caliber Springfield model 1861. The CSA would acquire many of these muskets on the battlefield, and copies were made at several factories in the south.

The Colt 1851 Navy pistol, along with copies like the Griswold and Gunnison, or the Leech and Rigdon, were the most common pistols used by the CSA. With a 14-inch barrel, the 1851 was a large pistol. At the beginning of the Civil War, the Colt factory was busy producing the 1860 model. When the factory was cut off from the south, however, southerners turned to what they had on hand. Many southerners had a Colt 1851 or two already on hand, and more were bought through border states, and a large number were imported from Colt’s factory in London, England.

Civil War Weapons Advancements
One thing is for sure, nothing stirs up the genius of man more than war.

Repeating rifles loaded with cartridges, instead of black powder muzzleloaders, would increase rounds fired per-minute remarkably from 2-3 rounds to 20. The first submarine with its makeshift “torpedo” would sink the USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor. Cannons firing “grapeshot” (like shrapnel) would decimate lines of soldiers. Ironclad ships, the hand grenade, and the Minié Ball spin stabilized bullet were all invented during the Civil War. Many of these innovations changed not just the outcome of the Civil War, but combat forever.

Friedrich Seiltgen is a retired Master Police Officer with 20 years of service with the Orlando Police Department. He currently conducts training in Lone Wolf Terrorism, Firearms, and Law Enforcement Vehicle Operations in Florida. Contact him at polizei22@msn.com.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.