Olustee Battle Festival & Annual Re-Enactment is Feb. 13-16
Published: Friday, February 7, 2014 at 4:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 7, 2014 at 4:06 p.m.
Only a fifth-grader at Melrose Park Elementary 13 years ago, Cody Gray was enthralled listening to a re-enactor talk about the largest Civil War battle fought in Florida.
Olustee Battle Festival & Annual Re-Enactment
When: Thursday through Sunday
Where: Downtown Lake City and Olustee Battlefield State Park on U.S. 90
Cost: Downtown events free; battlefield $10 adults, $5 children
Info: 386-758-0400 or www.battleofolustee.org
Park 'n Ride: Park 'n Ride service from Lake City Airport and Baker County Prison Center begins 1:30 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. Sunday; $2 adults, $1 students
Schedule of events
Downtown Lake City
7 p.m.: Alligator Community Theatre presents “Our Leading Lady” at Columbia School Board auditorium, 372 W. Duval St. Free.
9 a.m.: Civil War memorial service, Oaklawn Cemetery
9 a.m.: Vendor booths open
Noon: Opening ceremonies
5 p.m.: Monitor & Merrimac battle and Civil War skirmish, Lake Desoto and Wilson Park
7 a.m.: 5K run
8:30 a.m.: Blue-Grey 1-mile run around Lake Desoto
9 a.m.: Vendor booths open
10:30 a.m.: Annual parade on Marion Avenue
Noon: Olustee family recognized
7:45 p.m.: Blue-Grey Square Dance, Roundtree Moore Toyota, 1252 W. U.S. 90
9 a.m.: School field trip tours; re-enactors arrive and set up
9 a.m.: Presentation of colors
9 a.m.: Park opens
1 p.m.: Medical demonstration
2:30 p.m.: Period music concert
3:30 p.m.: Mini-battle at battlefield
8:30 a.m.: Presentation of colors
9 a.m.: Park opens
1:30 p.m.: 38th annual Olustee Battle re-enactment
With classmates from his Lake City school, the 10-year-old walked the re-enactment camps and toured the battlefield a few hundred yards from the isolated railroad stop of Olustee about 12 miles east of Lake City. He touched the towering granite monument installed 102 years ago honoring the sons of the South who prevailed that February day in 1864.
His ancestors had, after all, fought in the War Between the States, though not here.
Fast-forward to February 2012. Gray, 21 at the time, was the Civil War re-enactor talking to Melrose Park fifth-graders during their annual field trip to the Olustee battle site and memorial.
"It was so significant to me because that is where I went to school," Gray recalled recently. "It was a full-circle sort of thing, here I am years later speaking to the same grade I was in that came out here and saw this."
Over the years, the Olustee Battle Festival & Annual Re-enactment hasn't changed much, only gotten bigger. And this year's — the sesquicentennial of the Battle at Ocean Pond — is likely to be the biggest yet; upward of 30,000 visitors are expected to spend time this week revisiting this slice of Florida history.
While here, they'll spend some $4 million on hotels, food, gas and hand-crafted trinkets and geegaws for sale along Marion Avenue. Then they'll drive out into the Osceola National Forest in neighboring Baker County to watch a replay of the bloody battle, where a combined 300 died and another 2,000 were wounded.
As many as 3,000 re-enactors — maybe more this year — will relive the balmy afternoon of Feb. 20, 1864. A mini-battle is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Saturday, while the main battle re-enactment is at 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
Mayor Stephen Witt suggested parking at the Lake City Airport or the Baker Correctional Facility and riding a shuttle to the re-enactment site.
"You can park along the road (U.S. 90)," he added, "but you're going to walk for miles. I made that mistake years ago; it isn't a good idea."
And for anyone planning to stay overnight, if they don't already have reservations, they may be out of luck.
"All of our local hotels are booked, and our RV campgrounds are filling up," said Gray, an administrative assistant with the Columbia County Tourist Development Council.
Now 23, Gray is a major in the
Blue-Grey Army — it was not unusual for someone his age or younger to hold high rank in the Union and Confederate armies — and also an organizer of the annual festivities in Lake City this week. He'll be in the thick of it, both the battle and behind-the-scenes.
"I was hooked," Gray said of his first visit to the site in fifth grade; researching and reliving the war has been his life since.
Today, he owns uniforms of both colors, and at need fills in on either side. Many re-enactors do this, he said. "It's called 'galvanizing' — donning the uniform of the other side."
"This is not a Confederate re-enactment," Witt emphasized. "It is called blue-grey for a special reason, that it recognizes both sides, the losses on both sides."
The battle has been replayed near Ocean Pond every February for 38 years; two years after it began, Lake City launched its festival, Witt said. Now nearly a week long, if you count tonight's Miss Olustee pageant, it's a time for speeches, a parade, food, recognizing pioneer families, train rides, pig races and a quarter mile of craft vendors lining both sides of Marion Avenue — all to mark a battle that could have tipped the scales for the North a year before the war actually ended.
The two go hand-in-hand; re-enactors are carted in from their period camps to form a joint color guard in the parade, and to skirmish on the banks of Lake Desoto. The Monitor and the Merrimac, the first ironclad warships that battled to a stalemate in 1862 miles away in Virginia, replay their fight in the lake two blocks from city hall.
Then on Saturday, the focus shifts to the battle site.
"It really teleports you back to a different time," Gray said.
"As re-enactors, we get asked that question a lot," he said. "Are you trying to relive the war? Are you trying to alter history? We're absolutely not."
"The reason we do this is so the memory of what happened here, the history and its significance stays alive," he added. "Unless the next generation understands where they came from, then there's no future. This was a tragedy that happened in America because people could not agree, and we do not want to repeat that in the future."
The home forces under Gen. Joseph Finegan prevailed that day, but Olustee was a battle the North nearly won. The Union badly wanted to "cut off Florida from being a main supplier to the South," Gray said. Without the beef, pork and salt coming from Florida, "it would have severely crippled the South."
And if they could capture Tallahassee, so much the better; it was an election year.
About midway into that Saturday afternoon, Confederate defenders ran out of ammunition. But a supply train from Lake City arrived with ammo, Gray said. Plus a mishandled command caused disarray in Northern ranks; by dusk, Union Gen. Truman Seymour began retreating to Jacksonville — leaving some 200 of his dead on the field behind.
The Union's 1,861 casualties were not quite 40 percent of the 5,500 who went into battle that day: 203 dead, 1,152 wounded and 506 missing. The South's total was 946: 93 dead, 847 wounded and six missing.
After the defeat here, the North mostly abandoned efforts in Florida beyond some smaller clashes such as the Battle of Gainesville the following August, and a raid on Ocala's Marshall Plantation in March 1865.
In 1866, a Lt. Frederick Grossman visited Olustee, according to official accounts, and had the remains of 125 Union soldiers buried in a mass grave there. A wooden cross to mark the spot eventually deteriorated; in 1991, a granite cross was erected in the spot believed to be where the original wooden one stood.
In 1949, the Florida Board of Parks and Historic Memorials took over responsibility for the grounds, and the Olustee Battlefield became the first of Florida's 171 state parks.
During the coming weekend, the festival will engulf much of downtown Lake City.
"We used to stay open for the festival," said Emmie Chasteen, owner with her husband, Robert, of Chasteen's Downtown, a hot spot for a hot sandwich Monday through Friday. "It brings a lot of people into the community, and you see a lot of friends and neighbors."
And while organizers emphasize both sides are honored, there is a bit of natural bias here.
Sam Oosterhoudt and Guy Williams shared a table at Chasteen's. Both are descendants of Olustee warriors for the South; both their families have been honored over the years.
"They rose up for a cause they believed in at the time, and they did what more than likely wouldn't be conceived of happening now," Oosterhoudt said. "Whether they were right about slavery or wrong about slavery, they did what a band of brothers should."
"They decided what they needed to do," he added, "and they did it."
Since April 12, 2011, Civil War sites both North and South have been marking the sesquicentennial; now it's Olustee's turn.
"This is the single biggest event that happens annually here," said Harvey Campbell, executive director of the Columbia County Tourist Development Council. "And the experience of this being the 150th brings out an almost 50 percent increase in attendance."
Gray, though, focused on the underlying theme of the entire festival and re-enactment.
"At the end of the day," he said, "the people who fought on both sides, regardless of their background, of what state they came from, and regardless of their belief, they were all Americans."
Contact Rick Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 867-4154.