Black Burials and Civil War Forgetting in Olustee, Florida

This post is part of our online forum on Black Military Families in the Nineteenth Century.

Honoring men about to leave. [African American] women open a club for their men in the service, 1917 – ca. 1919 (National Archives/Wikimedia Commons)
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.

It was a conscious erasure of Black and white service in a war for freedom by Lost Cause advocates—a sacrifice on the altar of a white national reunion and reconciliation that continues until this very day.

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.

This Olustee story does not end with the close of the Reconstruction Era. At the century’s turn, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) created a “Lost Cause” shrine on the Olustee battlefield with no mention of the U.S. dead, as part of their effort to erase Black military service from their racist historical interpretation. The UDC made their intent clear when they attacked a Florida politician who proposed that the monument that these white women erected on the Olustee battlefield should honor both U.S. and Confederate dead.

The state division of the UDC rejected this racialized parity, even years after the Civil War ended. UDC women, who championed white supremacy, proclaimed that “if…the union dead had been white men it is possible that we would have remembered them in the bill, as they were negroes, and we ignored them in the bill, we consider the change by the legislature as worthy of our highest indignation.” The UDC’s efforts to create a false Civil War memory (as historian Karen L. Cox asserts) that removed U.S. Army soldiers’ sacrifices supported their efforts to demean Black Americans who preserved the U.S., and freed enslaved people.

The UDC retained control of this park until they handed it over to the state of Florida, in 1949, because they could no longer financially support it. Unfortunately, the Confederate monuments they created remain at a publicly financed state park managed by Florida State officials within the boundaries of the federally-supervised Osceola National Forest. While both government entities fly the same flag these men died for, in 1991, it fell to a group of private citizens to replace the memorial cross in the Black America cemetery next to the state park. This replica, like the original, makes no mention of the dead who likely lay nearby.

Three years later, archaeologists attempted to locate the mass grave. They chose a specific area to test because “it had been for many years locally assumed that (Union) Monument Cemetery was located on, or in close proximity to, the Union mass grave.” After excavating “seven judgmentally placed 2 feet by 2 feet test units” within the cemetery test site, they determined that “the organic hardpan, which was generally present throughout the surrounding area, is either absent or deeper than three feet below surface level at this site.” In this case, a lack of hardpan may indicate an area used as a gravesite.

At the same time, the same area was examined by ground-penetrating radar near the U.S. monument. The scientists conducting this limited study believed that a more sustained effort might identify any human remains in unmarked graves. Finding the dead is more than just of historical interest; a careful examination of federal laws governing veterans’ burial suggests that time does not remove the obligation to care for our dead soldiers.

In the twenty-first century, one would hope that these men’s sacrifices might be recognized. No one mentioned the existence of this mass grave when, in 2014, on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Olustee, the UDC, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and other so-called “heritage” groups successfully derailed the effort to place a U.S. memorial at the taxpayers’ supported state park. Even today, white and Black bodies remain unmarked under the U.S. flag, as part of a racialized landscape of Civil War memory.

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Barbara A. Gannon

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. It also received an honorable mention from the Lincoln Prize (Gilder Lehrman Institute) jury in 2012. She published her second book, Americans Remember their Civil War (Praeger) in 2017. She is currently leading a public history project related to the public erasure of the Union dead who remain in a mass grave on the Olustee battlefield.