Indian Sharpshooters at Olustee?

by Fred Ray on February 2, 2012 · 0 comments

Fought just west of Jacksonville on February 20, 1864, Olustee was another one of those pull-it-out-by-the-skin-of-the-teeth Confederate victories that staved off defeat just a little longer.

I recently came into possession of a letter by a member of a New York regiment about the battle, where he describes Confederate Indians shooting white officers leading back troops.

An excerpt:

In the last engagement which took place near this point, our loss was heavy considering the number engaged. … that they stood in the fire of the enemy until they had expended all their ammunition, which was 60 rounds each man. They state that their company went into the fight 69 strong and came out with only 38. Of the five Sergeants in the company, Brice is the only one that left the field uninjured. there were many prisoners taken. The colored troops were engaged, and much credit is due them for their undaunted courage, which they exhibited on this occasion. … the most desperate enemy that we have to contend with here is the Florida Indians, who have organized themselves into roving bands of bushwackers …. many of the Redskins are sharpshooters. During the last battle, they betook themselves to the treetops and picked off many of the officers of the Colored Troops …

The Olustee battlefield site has a sampling of letters and documents from both sides, including this except from The Black Phalanx, a history of the US Colored Troops (the 8th Phalanx referred to here is the 8th USCT). This also has a reference to the Indian sharpshooters, who apparently operated on the Confederate right:

Col. Fribley gave the order by the right flank, double quick! and the next moment the 8th Phalanx swept away to the extreme right in support of the 7th New Hampshire and the 7th Connecticut. The low, direct aim of the enemy in the rifle-pits, his Indian sharp-shooters up in the trees, had ere now so thinned the ranks of Col. Hawley’s command that his line was gone, and the 8th Phalanx met the remnant of his brigade as it was going to the rear in complete disorder.

The commander of the 8th USCT, Col. Charles Fribley was killed in the battle, likely by a sharpshooter.

Who were these Indians? Miccosukee? Seminole? Were they an organized part of the Confederate force or irregulars? Yet another unexplored corner of the Civil War for someone to look into.

Speaking of rifle fire, the Yankees of Hawley’s brigade were at a distinct disadvantage here—the 8th USCT was brand new and many of the men barely knew how to load their rifles, much less hit anything with them. The other two regiments, the 7th New Hampshire and the 7th Connecticut, were armed with Spencer repeaters, which should have given them the advantage, but both had been filled up with substitutes and draftees, and many of the New Hampshiremen had been forced to exchange their repeaters for Springfield muskets in poor shape.

Lt. Oliver Norton, an experienced officer in the 8th USCT, gives an idea of the accuracy and intensity of the Confederate fire:

Of twenty-two officers that went into the fight, but two escaped without marks. Such accurate firing I never saw before. I was under the impression all the time that an inferior force was shipping us, but the deadly aim of their rifles told the story.

He states in another letter that Col. Fribley had requested that he be given time to give his regiment at least some target practice, but was turned down each time by his superiors.



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