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THE BATTLE OF OLUSTEE

Category: Short Stories | Posted: Mon Dec 07, 2020 11:36 am

A few years ago I took a stab at writing historical fiction. I got the idea from a short autobiography that was written by my great, great grandfather Henry Shaw. In the autobiography he briefly mentions that he was in The Battle of Olustee. I researched the battle and found out that it was the largest Civil War battle fought on Florida soil and that it was also one of the first battles that colored troops from the Union fought in. It is a long story, but I hope you can make it to the end.

The Battle of Olustee

PART 1
Henry Shaw scraped a small layer of frost from a fallen pine tree and sat down. His gray, woolen trousers quickly soaked up the left-over ice particles. He took a deep breath of morning air and surveyed his surroundings. The terrain was like that of his home along the banks of the Withlacoochee River. The forest was mostly filled with tall, gangly pine trees but occasionally a great oak could be seen spreading out its majestic branches. Palmetto bushes littered the forest floor and their large, green fronds added a splash of much needed color to the carpet of brown pine needles. The distinct smell of swamp water filled his nostrils, stirring pleasant memories of hunting trips with his father. For just a moment he was back home, listening to the dogs as they tracked down a white-tailed deer.
 
The woods around him were filled with thousands of Confederate soldiers and all along the tree line men were preparing for the battle that was soon to come. The Union troops were only a few miles away, slowly making their way along the Florida Atlantic Gulf Railroad. The Union’s objective was to capture Lake City and then continue to Columbus Bridge. They had no idea that the Southern troops were setting up a defensive position in the trees near Olustee Station, thirteen miles east of Lake City, Florida.

Henry was six-foot-tall and skinny, weighing all of one hundred fifty pounds. Despite his size, years of hard work had left his muscles hard and strong. With dark brown hair, deep set, piercing blue eyes and farm tanned skin he looked much older than his eighteen years. Born and raised in Florida, he joined the Confederate Army two years earlier, ready and willing to die in defense of his homeland, but the last year had been rough and the war was starting to take its toll. He worried about his mother at home by herself and wondered if his father and brother were still alive. He was deeply concerned about his family, but he was also troubled about the upcoming battle. He had been in a few skirmishes, but this was shaping up to be the largest one so far. Things looked somewhat better three days earlier when General Colquitt and his brigade of Georgia regulars arrived. This brought the Confederate numbers up from fifteen hundred to well over four thousand. At least the numbers were even now, but as the Yankees drew closer Henry was scared for is life.
 
PART 2
Like most of the other men in his company James Lyons had never been in a battle. A former slave, he had joined the 8th United States Colored Troops in Philadelphia only four months earlier. He was proud to call himself free, but claiming freedom didn’t come without problems. There weren't a lot of jobs available and he learned rather quickly that any work that could be found was never given to a black man. The army proved to be the best place to go because it offered food, clothing and something he had never seen in his life - a paycheck.

Army life was rigorous, but James enjoyed it. He was a quick learner and fit well into the military, becoming one of the top new recruits. However, he wasn’t the only one who noticed that most of their time was spent learning how to march instead of learning how to fight. In fact, most of the men hardly even knew how to carry their rifles much less shoot them. James worried that they were missing out on some valuable training and it made him feel very uneasy.
  
The 8th was near the front of the line as they slowly marched beside the railroad tracks toward Olustee Station. It was a good indicator that they would be among the first to see action. Spirits were high and the others were confident they could win, but as joyful cries of certain victory were sounded James looked around wearily, sensing that something bad was about to happen.
  
Just then he looked ahead and saw two Confederate soldiers turn their horses and start running in the opposite direction. Caught off guard, the troop movement stopped and the soldiers stood silently, dumbly watching the horsemen as they disappeared down the railroad tracks. Without warning, a shot rang out and James ducked instinctively just as a bullet whizzed past his head. After the first shot was fired there were a few moments of chaos, but the Union officers finally got it together and called out defensive maneuvers. With bullets flying all around them the 8th was ordered to advance toward the heaviest gunfire. The men were stunned and bewildered. Having never been in battle before some of them fell to the ground in fear and curled up like babies. Unfortunately, the lack of training proved to be their downfall and man after man succumbed to death or injury.

Standing six foot four and weighing over two hundred forty pounds James made a big target, but he managed to scramble into position behind a large pine tree less than three hundred yards from where the enemy was set up. As musket balls crashed into the tree above his head he stayed close to the ground and frantically tried to remember how to use his rifle. Finally, praying that he had it loaded correctly, he pointed it toward the Rebel line and pulled the trigger.
 
PART 3
A February chill rushed through the air as Henry watched two regiments of men mount their horses and ride off. If the plan worked they would make contact with the Union army and draw them back to the fortified battle line where the remaining Confederate soldiers waited. With Ocean Pond to the north, heavy swampland to the south and thousands of troops scattered throughout the tree line victory was almost certain. The plan made perfect sense, but after contact was made the enemy failed to advance toward the trap that had been so carefully set. When word came that heavy fighting was taking place less than two miles away more troops were sent as reinforcements. Henry stood firm at his post in the trees but grew more anxious as he watched the other men leave. Finally, the order was given to move forward and the Sixth Florida Battalion moved out to join the others. Henry’s heart pounded heavily as Company G marched double time toward the front lines.
 
Cannon fire rumbled in the distance as the Sixth Florida Battalion made their way to the battlefield. It wasn’t long before shouting and heavy gunfire could be heard all around. They came up on a place where the doctor was busy treating some of the wounded men. The moans of the suffering soldiers only added to Henry’s anxiety. He closed his eyes as they rushed by and the bloody image of a badly injured soldier etched itself in his memory.
 
By the time Henry got to the battlefield the fighting had been going on for over two hours. They were quickly moved up to the front lines and told to scatter along a large embankment. Henry crawled to the top of the large hill on his belly, passing two or three dead soldiers on the way. He pushed himself along numbly, trying hard not to look into their faces. The smell of gunpowder filled the air while gun fire, cannon blasts and the shouts of fighting and dying men rang out everywhere.  There was no escaping the horrific sights and sounds of war.

When Henry reached the top of the hill and looked out on the battlefield he couldn’t believe what he saw. Bodies were scattered everywhere and the Union troops seemed to be in disarray. His mind was still trying to take it in when the desperate troops tried to rally around a cannon. It was clear they wanted to make a final stand, but man after man was shot down. At last, when it was clear they didn’t have a chance, someone grabbed the colors and they all made a hasty retreat. Shots rang out after them and more men fell to the ground as they tried to get away from the relentless Confederate gunfire.
 
A sound to charge was given and the Rebels took chase. Hundreds of men rushed after the retreating Union troops and Henry jumped to his feet. With adrenaline fueling every step he took off down the hill, but when he was almost to the bottom he stepped on a large pine branch and it rolled out from underneath his foot. In the split second that he was falling he saw a large pile of rocks and knew instinctively that he was going to hit them head on. He closed his eyes to brace for the impact and then felt something slam into his side. He missed the rocks by two feet, but his head crashed onto the hard ground causing him to pass out. 

PART 4
Henry woke up to the smell of dirt and pine needles, his face partially buried in a mixture of both. Slowly, consciousness crept back and he became aware of a sharp, throbbing pain in his head. He suddenly remembered the battle and jumped to his feet. His brain revolted at the sudden movement by releasing a swarm of small, angry lights that attacked his eyeballs and left him both dizzy and nauseated. He tried to take a step but was unable to find his footing and fell backwards onto the carpet of pine needles. This time he stayed there.
 
"Are you alright?"
 
The deep, unfamiliar voice seemed to be traveling down a long tunnel. Henry stirred on the ground, still feeling the effects of the dizziness. Then it came again, "Hey! Are you alright?”

When Henry opened his eyes he was startled to find a large, black man leaning over him. He noticed a blue, Union Jacket and he could see the man’s left shoulder was covered in blood from a gunshot wound. Everything about him was big, even his face, which was beaded in sweat; large drops of it forming across his forehead and dripping down his cheeks onto his chin. Henry couldn’t move or speak so he sat there motionless, expecting the worst. The stranger spoke again, his voice softer this time, “I ain’t going to hurt you.”
 
Ignoring the statement, Henry looked around for his rifle and spotted it lying on the ground a few feet away. Following his eyes the man said, “You don’t need the gun.”

Though trembling with fear, Henry spoke bravely, “Why don’t you go ahead and kill me?”

The man pulled his big face closer to Henry’s and said, “If I wanted to kill you then I would have let you crash into those rocks.”

Then, the man waved his arm at the battlefield and said, “Besides, I seen enough killin’ today.”

After that, with much difficulty, he sat down on the ground across from Henry. Henry propped himself up on one arm and watched him sit down. His head was still spinning slightly, but he was slowly regaining his senses. Surprised by what he had just heard, he asked, “So… you pushed me away the rocks?”

The man answered quietly, “Yes.”

"Why?"

"Because you could have been killed!"

"But we're at war. That’s the whole point!"
 
“I told you, I seen enough killin’ today.”

The answer wasn’t what Henry expected, but in a peculiar way he understood. Why were they trying to kill one another anyway? He thought about the war and tried to remember why it even began. When it first started everything seemed so clear, but now the reasons seemed blurred and unimportant. A big part of him wanted it to be over, to be back home with his family.

From where he was sitting Henry looked out onto the battlefield. There were hundreds of dead soldiers, many so badly shot up that they were seriously disfigured. Cannon balls had ripped through the trees and large branches were scattered about, some still giving off small wisps of gray smoke. A heavy thump caught his attention and he looked toward the other man. He was lying on his back and there was another large, blood-soaked stain on his trousers just above his left knee. It was clear that he was badly injured and Henry thought about the gun. He could easily reach it and finish the man off, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he called out, "Hey! What's your name?"

The man sat up slowly and glanced over at Henry. After painfully readjusting he answered, "James."
 
A movement caught Henry's eye. Their position in the woods wasn't too far from the railroad tracks and through the trees he saw three men walking down the tracks toward them. From the jubilant sounds of their voices he knew it was the first of the Confederate troops on their way back from the chase. A decision had to be made quickly. James was badly wounded and it would be easy to jump and run to the other men, but he couldn't escape the fact that James had tried to save his life. James heard the voices and an uneasy look came over his face. Both men knew that if he was found on the battlefield alive that he would be killed. Henry could think of only one thing to do. He whispered, "You got to hide."
  
There was a large patch of palmetto bushes nearby and Henry motioned toward them. He went in first and helped James crawl across the rough trunks and through the noisy fronds to the center of the largest bush. It didn't offer a lot of cover, but at least it was on the outer edge of the battlefield. He looked at James; his huge body twisted to fit in the tight area and said, "Stay here. I'll be back soon."

Then, he turned and exited the makeshift hideout. By now, the men were drawing closer and one of them heard the commotion in the bushes. He pulled his rifle up to his shoulder and yelled, "Who goes there?"

Henry called out, "Don't shoot! I'm on your side."

Then, in order to keep them away from James he rubbed his stomach and said, “I wouldn’t go that way if I were you. Breakfast didn’t set well.”

The three soldiers laughed, the one lowering the gun, and they walked on.

It didn’t take long before more men filtered back in, filling the woods with Confederate soldiers. Henry tried not to draw attention to himself or run into anyone from his company. He listened closely to the conversations around him trying to find out where the Union troops were headed.
 
Dusk finally started to settle in and Henry breathed a sigh of relief as the troops lined up to head back to Olustee Station. He managed to gather some supplies and creep back into the woods without being noticed. The air was turning cold when he got to the palmetto bushes. He called out quietly as he drew near, "James, are you still here?"

A deep voice answered back, "Yes."

Henry made his way through palmetto bushes as quietly as possible. It was almost eight o’clock and the crescent moon barely gave off enough light to see by. He crouched in front of James and handed him a canteen and a few pieces of salt pork. James took the food and water greedily and ate as Henry laid out the plan. “After you finish eating we’re going to crawl out of these bushes. When I’m sure it’s clear, I’m going to help you down to the railroad tracks. From there, we’re going to walk along the tracks at the edge of the trees until we find your camp. From what I've heard it's quite a few miles away.”
 
James responded with a painful look on his face, “I don’t know if I can make it. I’m hurt bad.”

Henry assured him, “Yes, you can. I’ll help you.”

After a few seconds of silence, James asked solemnly, “Why are you doing this?”

Henry’s answer was hesitant, but sure, “I owe you for saving my life.
 
James reacted defensively, "You don't owe me anything."

Henry tried to explain, "Listen, I know soldiers on opposite sides ain't supposed to help one another, but also I know that this is the right thing to do. Now, will you just let me help you?"

The pain in James' leg and shoulder was starting to get worse and he knew he could never make it back to the camp alone. After a moment he answered with a humble, "Yes".

They sat quietly as James finished his meal and when he was done they crawled out of the palmetto bushes. Henry instructed James, “Now, put your weight on my shoulder as we walk.”

Then, with the battlefield to their backs, the two men slipped out into the darkness together.



Last edited: Mon Dec 07, 2020 11:36 am

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