Update: December 5, 2013, 5:54 PM
Eleven thousand men fought at the Battle of Olustee, the largest Civil War battle in Florida, which took place on Feb. 20, 1864. The fighting took place on the floor of a virgin pine forest and lasted until dark, when the Union forces retreated. There were 1,861 Union casualties, and 946 Confederate casualties, making the battle, proportionally, one of the bloodiest of the war.
This week, almost 150 years later, in a public school auditorium in Lake City, Fla., the Battle of Olustee once again pitted Confederates against Yankees. This time, there were no casualties. But at stake was the fate of a monument to the Union soldiers who fought in the battle, proposed by the Florida “department” of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
“We really don’t want controversy,” Charles “Buck” Custer, treasurer of the Union group, told TPM in an interview this week. “We’re down here in Dixie, and we certainly don’t want to make enemies of our neighbors and people that we live with. But on the other hand, I think there should be justice, if you will, and I think that those 2,000 Union soldiers that died up there are at least entitled to have people know that they were there and existed.”
The plans for a Union monument at the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park — about 46 miles west of Jacksonville, Fla. — began several years ago. The idea was to commemorate the Union regiments that fought at Olustee (pronounced oh-lusty), and to recognize the African American regiments that made up one third of the Union forces. The group members also hoped to correct a perceived imbalance — they say three Confederate monuments currently exist on the site — and to get the monument built in time for the battle’s sesquicentennial in February 2014. The Florida chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War intended to fully pay for the project, and to offer it as a gift to the people of Florida.
“In anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the battle that protected Florida’s capital from falling, the Sons of Union Veterans has obtained approval from the State of Florida Parks Department for a special monument to invading Federal forces,” Michael Givens, commander-in-chief of the national Sons of Confederate Veterans, wrote in an message to his group’s members in October. “The plan calls for a large black Darth Vadar-esque shaft that will disrupt the hallowed grown [sic] where Southern blood was spilled in defense of Florida, protecting Tallahassee from capture. … Confederate Forces won the Battle in 1864 – but will we win the 2nd Battle of Olustee and prevent this menacing monument from disrupting this hallowed Southern soil?”
The issue came to a head on Monday, at a public hearing in Lake City to discuss the location of the monument. Dozens of opponents to the project turned out, compared to a handful of supporters, and the meeting at one point devolved into a rendition of “Dixie” led by H.K. Edgerton, a black “Confederate activist” who works to “reveal the truth of the War for Southern Independence.”
“The whole audience, with the exception of the six of us who were the Union, got up — because here if you’re singing ‘Dixie’ that’s kind of like ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ — and everybody got up and sang along, and they yelled and waved, and gave rebel yells, and all that,” Custer said. “I mean, it was real. It was a sight to see.”
The Confederates feel differently about things, of course. James Davis, Florida division commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told TPM this week that he and his group are not opposed to the Union monument outright. They just don’t want it built on the three-acre battlefield site originally donated to the state by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
“Our particular view is, we’re not opposed to the Union monument,” Davis said. “We are opposed to the Union monument — or any other monument — being put on the original three acres at Olustee. And that’s where they want to put it.”
Davis considers the three-acre plot a “cultural and historical resource for the state of Florida” that should not be altered. He and other opponents of the project suggest that the Union monument should be built on any of the other “600 plus acres” of federal land that surround the battlefield site. Davis also disagrees with the idea that the largest monument currently on the site, built in 1912, is strictly a Confederate affair.
“People call it a Confederate monument, but it’s not,” Davis said. “It mentions both sides. It just kind of says, ‘Hey, this is what happened.’ So that’s pretty much it.”
The supporters of the Union monument remain unpersuaded by the arguments. Custer called the 1912 structure “blatantly a Confederate monument” that only a mentions Union forces in passing. And he rejected the idea of building the Union monument on federal land surrounding Olustee.
“That three acres is what’s called the cultural area, and that’s where the tourists go,” Custer said. “When there is tourists, they go to that area. To put it out in the middle of a forest — nobody’s going to see it. Well, of course, they don’t care that nobody sees it. But I don’t think that’s fair. And I don’t think it’s a position that’s tenable. They should at least let us put it somewhere were it would have some meaning.”
Both men said that Monday’s public meeting hadn’t been the “fight” described in some media reports. Custer called it “really a one-sided thing.” Davis, meanwhile, said that attendees “felt passionately about what they were talking about” but that the “overwhelming majority” made their points civilly. Asked about the singing of “Dixie,” Davis acknowledged that it had happened.
“One of the speakers was leaving, and he started singing Dixie,” Davis said. “That’s true.”
The future of the Union monument now rests in the hands of the Florida state officials, and neither supporters nor opponents of the project could predict which side officials would favor. But trying to build the project on the federal land surrounding Olustee could prove tricky. John Hennessy, chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia, told TPM that the National Park Service — which does not oversee the land near Olustee — several years ago adopted policies that discourage, with some exceptions, new monuments on Civil War battlefields.
“I would say the motivation for the [National Park Service] policy–to preserve landscapes (some of them already overburdened with memorials) and to prevent the accumulation of commemorative expressions over decades and centuries–seems a good deal different than the sentiments that appear to be driving opposition to the Olustee monument,” Hennessy wrote in an email.
Custer, who is 83, said his group never anticipated the controversy the monument plan would inspire. And he actually has a foot in both camps. Because not only is Custer a member of the Sons of Union Veterans — he is also a past 1st lieutenant commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“I have people on both sides,” Custer said. “When I reenact, usually, on the weekend, Saturday I’m a Yankee and on Sunday I’m a Confederate. But that’s common. Very common. And we are not fighting the war. They fought the war 150 years ago.”
Photo by fdbryant3 / Flickr. Civil War re-enactment in 2008 in Olustee, Fla.
Correction: This article originally referred to the federal land near the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park as national parkland. It has been updated to clarify that the land is not National Park Service land.