Local African-Americans fought in deadly Civil War battle
By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association
More than 185,000 men of African descent served with the United States Colored Troops (USCT) during the American Civil War.
While the war officially began on April 12, 1861, when shots were fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, African American men could not serve in United States military units until the Second Confiscation and Militia Act was passed on July 17, 1862. And it was not until six months later, after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on Jan 1, 1863, that African Americans were allowed to fight.
This article provides a brief history of and local connection to the formation of the USCT.
After the passage of the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, Camp William Penn, located just outside Philadelphia, became one of eight training camps established specifically to train the newly enlisting African American troops. The camp served volunteers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
Nearly 30 Monroe County men volunteered to join the USCT. Recruitment efforts tried to keep men from the same area together, so many already knew each other as friends or neighbors, and some as kin.
Among the volunteers from our area were five brothers of the Haines family. The brothers, Edward, Burnese, Lorenzo, Sanford, and Conrad, all fought for the Union Army in the USCT. Edward, Burnese, and Conrad served with the 8th Regiment; Lorenzo asked to serve in the 8th, but was denied and served with the 32nd Regiment. Sanford Haines was listed as serving in both the 8th and the 24th regiments.
Most African American soldiers from Monroe County served in the 8th Regiment, Company G, USCT. When the regiment finally saw combat, it was at a deadly battle in Florida.
By July 1863, Camp William Penn was open and ready to receive new recruits to prepare them for the battlefield. Men from the tri-state area began to arrive at camp between September 22 and December 4, 1863. While in camp, the soldiers received basic training in loading weapons and military maneuvers.
On January 16, 1864, after having had only one month of preparation, the soldiers of the 8th Regiment left Camp William Penn for New York. From there, the soldiers were transported by boat south to Jacksonville, Florida.
According to Union General Quincy Gillmore, it was the mission of the 8th USCT to “procure an outlet for cotton, lumber, Timber, Turpentine, and the other products of the State… To cut off one of the enemy's sources of commissary supplies… To obtain recruits for my colored regiments..."
For the several weeks between the men of the 8th Regiment’s departure from New York and their landing in Florida, Union Brigadier General Truman Seymour had been successfully engaging in small skirmishes with Southern troops in the northern part of the state. Southern forces throughout the state learned of these skirmishes and prepared for the advancing Union Army by strengthening their numbers and fortifying strategic locations where they could.
At approximately 1:30 in the afternoon on February 20, 1864, the troops of the 8th USCT saw their first combat. The men were among a force of approximately 5,500 Union troops heading west near Lake City, Florida, toward Olustee Station, a narrow rail passage surrounded by swamps.
Confederate troops, numbering approximately 5,000, had taken up positions in fortified earthworks, awaiting the advance. As Northern forces arrived and the battle escalated, men from the 7th New Hampshire Regiment fell into confusion and pulled back due to a misunderstood order. As the 7th pulled back, the Confederates focused on the 8th Regiment USCT, now isolated without support. The unseasoned men fought hard, but they, too, fell into confusion and disarray when their commander, Col. Charles W. Fribley, was mortally wounded.
Their plight was described by Capt. John Hamilton, whose artillery battery was positioned in the line of battle held by the 8th, whom he described as “green troops.” He found himself involved with them.
“My whole attention was involved in holding the Eighth on their ground,” Hamilton wrote in an after-action battle. “My heart bled for them; they fell as ten pins in a bowling alley; but everything depended on their sacrifice.” Hamilton could not remove his guns unless the 8th held.
The regiment’s color company, charged with protecting the United States flag that was every regiment’s maneuvering guide and rallying point, was especially savaged. Captain Romanzo Bailey, who took over the regiment during the battle after Fribley fell, reported that “of 43 men of the color company who went into action, 30 were killed, wounded and missing, losing five of the color guard and three sergeants, who at different time seized the colors while attempting to save the battery.”
The men attempted to hold their ground, but eventually retreated, giving the southern army a victory.
The Battle of Olustee was the first engagement for the men of the 8th Regiment, who were ill-prepared and inexperienced and up against seasoned Confederate veterans.
The battle was a disaster for these under-trained northern soldiers. Not only did the soldiers of the 8th USCT lack sufficient practice in loading and firing their rifles, but it was also reported that some of the men did not even have ammunition for their weapons. The men had no prior idea of combat and incomprehensible bloodshed it would bring. Seeing fellow soldiers, neighbors, friends, and relatives struck down in Florida’s tall pines and cabbage palmetto stunned and disoriented them, as initial combat did to many green regiments during the war.
The Battle of Olustee was the largest Civil War battle fought in Florida and the third bloodiest for the Union Army. The Union lost 40 percent of its force while the Confederate Army lost only 20 percent. The 8th United States Colored Troops suffered 310 casualties.
After recovering from the Olustee campaign, the 8th Regiment was sent to Virginia where it fought around Richmond and Petersburg.
On April 3, 1865, the 8th USCT, in addition to other soldiers, made a strong and redeeming assault against the Richmond/Petersburg Confederate defenses. They marched through Petersburg and on to Richmond, where the men were greeted with, according to Colonel Samuel C. Armstrong, “a most cheering and hearty welcome from the colored inhabitants of the city, whom their presence had made free.”
Over the next several days, the 8th joined other Union troops pushing Gen. Robert E. Lee’s dwindling forces back until April 9, 1865, when Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. The men of the 8th United States Colored Troops returned to Philadelphia and were discharged on December 12, 1865.
African American soldiers who served in the United States Colored Troops made up roughly 10 percent of the forces of the entire United States Army during the Civil War. Their participation was greatly needed for the northern forces and came at an important time in the war. It is estimated that one-third of the men of the USCT who served lost their lives on the battlefield. Their sacrifice to the Union cause must not be forgotten.
Below is a listing of known local men who served in the United States Colored Troops. This list is ever-changing as new information is uncovered. If you have a Monroe County ancestor who served, please contact the Monroe County Historical Association at email@example.com so the archival records can be updated.
Robert F. Smith
Charles H. Adams
George W. Johnson
James B. Ray
John A. Quacko
William H. Anderson