The United States Colored Troops Killed at Olustee, Florida are Still Owed a Proper BurialRoundup
tags: Florida, Civil War, African American history, memorials, battlefields, United States Colored Troops
Barbara A. Gannon is an Associate Professor at the University of Central Florida. She is the author of The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (UNC Press, 2011). This book received the Wiley-Silver Prize (University of Mississippi) for the best first book in Civil War History.
Like so many Civil War battlefields, memorials dot the landscape at Olustee, Florida—the site of the largest battle fought in Florida that included multiple U.S. Colored Troop (USCT) regiments and white volunteer state regiments. Unlike other current Civil War sites managed by official U.S. government entities, no memorial exists on the field to memorialize the deceased U.S. soldiers—Black and white. In a Black cemetery nearby, separated from the preserved battlefield, private groups placed a U.S. monument to honor and commemorate the dead. Unknown to the casual visitor to the U.S. memorial, the remains of the U.S. Army deceased soldiers at Olustee, Florida, likely remain close to where they died: Black and white, Connecticut men and New Yorkers, free men and the formerly enslaved.
At Olustee, the soldiers represent the interracial coalition that freed enslaved people, and simultaneously preserved the U.S., even though it cost them their lives. Their skeletal remains still lie in body bags in a mass grave dug by occupying forces after the war; they lay there unknown and un-honored because of the cause for which they gave that last full measure.
How did this happen in the U.S., where even traitors of a failed slave republic receive their due? First, the U.S. lost the battle to the Confederate Army on February 20, 1864. ’s––The incompetence of Brigadier General Truman Seymour, the U.S. Army commander, explains the defeat. He moved forward into Florida with no military intelligence of the position of the Confederate Army. They had moved into his path. As a result, U.S. and Confederate forces clashed fifty miles west of Jacksonville.
The Confederates had time to prepare for the U.S. forces. Two forces of comparable size met: one side defended prepared positions, the other attacked with limited prior planning. Defeated U.S. forces retreated leaving some of the living and all the dead in enemy hands. While this denouement was not unusual, the actions of some Confederates violated the laws of war when they executed some Black prisoners of war (POW). The Confederate “Black Flag,” or no mercy policy prompted some Confederates to murder Black POWs as part of the racialized military violence, as historian Kevin Levin asserts. Not all POWs suffered this fate, most captured Black and white U.S. soldiers spent the rest of the war at the infamous and deadly Andersonville prison camp, in Georgia; many died in that notorious hell hole before the war’s end. As for the dead at Olustee, they remain on the battlefield.
In 1866, elements of the victorious U.S. Army visited the field and found that Confederate soldiers failed to give deceased U.S. soldiers a proper burial. The U.S. Army officer in charge of the burial party explained that deceased U.S. soldiers were “buried by the Confederates in such a careless manner that the remains were disinterred by the hogs within a few weeks after the battle in consequence of which bones had skulls were scattered broadcast over the battlefield.” He counted 125 skulls among the remains. The mass grave contained the remains of Black and white soldiers from various northern regiments, including the 115th New York, Seventh New Hampshire, and Seventh Connecticut.
Either intentionally or not, the mass grave of the U.S. Army dead is racially inclusive with numerous Black soldiers of the Eighth USCT, the Thirty-Fifth USCT, and the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry. The diversity of individuals buried at Olustee ranged from immigrants to the native-born, and from the formerly enslaved, to freeborn men. The burial detail placed these remains in a mass grave and marked it with a cross honoring their sacrifice. Years later, a U.S. Army officer passing Olustee noted that the cross had been destroyed even before the official end of the Reconstruction Era when former Confederates reclaimed the former Confederates states, including Florida.
The bodies should have been moved, as part of a U.S. Congressionally mandated and funded effort to relocate the Civil War dead to the newly created national cemeteries, as historian Drew Gilpin Faust highlights. Contractors across the nation moved any of the U.S. Civil War dead that could be found to newly established national cemeteries. In contrast, evidence suggests that someone stopped the effort to remove the Olustee dead to Beaufort National Cemetery in South Carolina. The U.S. Army did not have a large enough occupying force to enforce the U.S. government’s obligation to bury the dead properly, or make emancipation mean citizenship in Florida or anywhere else in the former Confederacy.