As the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Olustee, Florida, grows near, controversy has arisen over a proposal to erect a new monument on the state-owned portion of the battlefield that would commemorate the participation of Union troops in the battle. Currently there is an impressive monument and two flanking monuments, all honoring the Confederacy, on the state property. There is also, in an adjacent cemetery, a monument honoring the Union participation in the battle.
The Union monument is a large granite cross that represents a wooden monument (of unknown form) that was placed on the battlefield when a detachment of Union soldiers returned in 1866 to gather and bury Union dead from the battlefield. This was one of the first Civil War monuments in Florida, but within a decade it was no longer present. In 1991 the granite cross was erected by the Union Army District of Florida (a Union reenactment organization). It incorporates the inscriptions recorded as having been on the 1866 monument. Of relevance, because it also commemorates soldier graves, is a monument dedicated to “Our Confederate Dead” erected in 1901 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in the Lake City’s Oaklawn Cemetery where Confederate dead from the Battle of Olustee are buried.
Three Confederate monuments were placed on the actual battlefield in 1912, 1936, and 1951. The 1912 monument is one of the largest and most impressive in Florida, and was funded by the State of Florida and the UDC. In 1899 the Florida Legislature approved a bill to erect a monument at the Olustee Battlefield dedicated to both the Union and Confederate officers and soldiers who had participated. Subsequent protestations by the UDC resulted in the bill being amended by the 1901 Legislature to remove reference to the Union. In 1909 land was donated to the state for placement of this monument, and in 1912 the impressive Gothic-style monument that is now prominent at the battlefield was dedicated with great fanfare.
The intent of the Florida Legislature and the UDC that this would be a Confederate monument is clear. It is also clear by examining the symbolism and the language on the monument that this is the case. The monument is emblazoned with three Confederate battle flags. The inscription on the front of the monument reads:
“The Battle of Olustee was fought on this ground February 20th, 1864, between 5,000 Confederate troops commanded by General Joseph E. Finegan and 6,000 Federal troops under General Truman Seymour. The Federals were defeated with a loss of 2,000 men the Confederate loss was less than 1,000.”
The inscription on the back reads:
“To the men who fought and triumphed here in defence of their homes and firesides this monument is erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy aided by the state of Florida, in commemoration of their devotion to the cause of liberty and state sovereignty.”
Some of those who object to a new Union monument have said that the 1912 monument honors both Confederate and Union, but this is clearly not the case; the only mention of Federals is about their defeat.
That this is a Confederate monument was reconfirmed in 1994 when a granite band was added around the 1912 monument dedicated to the southern units that fought there.
In 1936 and 1951 the UDC erected smaller monuments in front of and flanking the 1912 monument. The 1936 monument honors Confederate Brigadier Alfred Holt Colquitt. The 1951 monument honors Brigadier General Joseph E. Finegan.
It is my opinion that the State of Florida should allow the placement of a monument to commemorate the sacrifice of the Union soldiers who fought and died at Olustee. The Union sacrifice was significant, and this ground is hallowed by their blood as much as that of the victorious Confederate soldiers.
There is ample precedence for this, as demonstrated by the erection of monuments in recent years at Civil War battlefields in Florida and beyond. In fact, Florida did not erect monuments to their troops at Vicksburg until 1954 and at Gettysburg until 1963, long after most of the scores of monuments that decorate those grounds were placed. In 1994 at Olustee, the granite border was added to the landscape to honor Confederate units, and in 2000 at Natural Bridge a modest monument was added to honor both Confederate and Union dead. The recent Natural Bridge monument was sponsored by a number of organizations, including the UDC and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Confederate monuments continue to be erected in Florida cemeteries and parks by the SCV and other Confederate heritage organizations. In this context, erection of a Union monument hardly seems unusual or controversial.
The Civil War is in fact over, right? The armies have surrendered, but the current vocal controversy shows that the pro-Confederate narrative introduced in 1866 as the “Lost Cause” is still alive and well. The UDC spent many years with an elaborate education and commemoration program in the south to validate the southern soldier and soldier dead, and did as much to slow national reconciliation after the war as anything. It is time that the “Lost Cause” be retired, so that we can begin to be a nation that can honor all of our soldiers who fought in the Civil War, even those who died after defeat on southern soil.
Those who truly honor southern heritage, including members of the UDC and SCV, should not oppose a Union monument at Olustee. They instead should offer to help raise the funds needed to erect a monument fitting of the memory of the Federal soldiers who died on this truly hallowed ground.
William B. Lees