Saturday, March 1, 2014

Civil wars

There was a battle fought a few miles from my home here in north Florida a couple weeks ago. You could hear the cannon's fire from my house. No one was in danger and, as far as I know, no real bullets were used in the rifles. It was a re-enactment of a civil war battle, the battle of Olustee. Every year the hotels fill up with people who come to watch the re-enactors sleep in tents, eat their meals on the battle field, wear authentic uniforms and even fall on the field as if dead. The outcome of the battle is never in doubt: the Confederacy wins as they did back in the day. Locals come out to cheer on the victors, enjoy the sunshine and talk to re-enactors. There is the obligatory beauty pageant, as well. Miss Olustees of all ages are crowned.

Today Olustee is a state historical site that marks that important Confederate victory - a complete victory over a much larger force - is the way the historical revisionists have it.  T. D. Allman in his book, Finding Florida, points out that this historical re-enactment misses a few important facts. The Confederate troops were slightly out manned by about 300 troops, 5500 Union to 5200 Confederate. The Confederates had the advantage of knowing the lay of the land. The Confederates had far fewer casualties than the Union forces (93 dead, 842 wounded to the Union's 203 dead and 1,152 wounded) but the really surprising fact was the Union soldiers missing in action. The missing Union soldiers numbered 500 more than the Confederate missing (506 to 6). Most of these were part of a black regiment that fought at Olustee. Allman says that instead of continuing their offensive, Confederate soldiers halted their advance  in order to specially target the black soldiers wounded on the field of battle. General Hatch, commander of the Florida Union forces later said that most of the wounded black soldiers were murdered on the field (pages 230-232 in Allman's book). General Beauregard wrote to Jefferson Davis and informed him the fruits of the victory at Olustee were insignificant because there was no serious attempt to pursue the federal forces as they withdrew. The black soldiers laying wounded on the field were from the regiment made famous in the film Glory. It seems it was more important to make sure the fallen black soldiers were dead rather than pursue the larger Union army. This sordid chapter of the fighting is not re-enacted. Neither is the report of a U.S. lieutenant that a shallow grave was disinterred by wild hogs a few weeks after the battle and the bones of soldiers strewn all over the field.

There is a large Confederate monument at the battle site honoring the Confederate men who lost their lives there. There is a movement by some people to place a Union monument there, too. But, that has been consistently vetoed by the powers that be. There is nothing there that mentions the sacrifice of black soldiers.  Nor, for that matter, is it mentioned in most history books.

The weekend of the re-enactment was a fine couple of days to be outdoors. Although invited to go and see what was going on, we declined. It's fun, we were told, and educational.