Thursday, February 14, 2013

Faces of Fort Wagner, Olustee and Andersonville

The recent blizzard has us thinking of Florida, where my wife Monique and I take a short winter break most years. Last year our drive south led to the greatest adventure of my research for Our War.

Our car is also dreaming of the trip to Florida.
The clash of Union and rebel troops at Olustee on Feb. 20, 1864, was Florida’s only significant Civil War  battle. On the way to the state's west coast for a few days on our favorite beach, I wanted to see the Olustee battlefield. I was writing a chapter on the Seventh New Hampshire infantry regiment’s miserable performance there. Much of the regiment fled the battlefield that day.

On our way to Florida we had stopped at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where I read the papers of the Seventh’s brigade commander, Col. Joseph Hawley of Connecticut. In a letter to his wife Hattie shortly after the battle at Olustee, he wrote: “I nearly killed myself trying to rally the 7th N.H.” He advised her to “say nothing of their conduct.”

Pvt. Bradford Holmes of
Concord, killed at Fort Wagner.
The Olustee battlefield is just off U.S. Route 90 in the flat pine country between Lake City and Jacksonville. A state historic park situated in Osceola National Forest, it needs more modern facilities and updating in its battle interpretation. The way the field is now marked, it isn't easy to see what happened during the battle. (I wrote about these problems for the Tampa Bay Times after our visit.)

During our visit the park ranger on duty was helpful, but if we really wanted to know about Olustee, he said, Dicky Ferry was the man to see. Dicky’s hobby since boyhood had been to collect letters, diaries, flags, weapons and anything else connected to the battle. The ranger told us Dicky lived in a small town not far from Olustee.

Pvt Warren Kimball of
Salem, killed at Wagner. 
It was a warm, sunny Saturday, and we went looking for Dicky Ferry. First, we had to find the town. Because of my dumb assumption, we drove right through it the first time.

There were few people on the town's streets, but outside the library we happened upon a man wearing a jacket and tie. We asked if he knew Dicky Ferry. The name rang a bell, he said, and he thought there had been an exhibit of Olustee battle memorabilia at the local historical society. We were in luck: It turned out the historical society was open only on Saturday. The bad news was that there was no Olustee battlefield exhibit there, and the young man at the desk knew nothing about Dicky.

But then we met Sheldon Beasley, a veteran volunteer. He had gone to high school with Dicky. After a bit of pleading, Sheldon gave us an idea where we might find him.
Sgt. Alexander Stevens of
Penacook, killed at Wagner.

While searching along a rural road, we looked up a driveway and saw a small sign that read “Ferryland, Pop. 10." We turned in, stopped at the first house on the property, a handsome one-story home, and knocked on the door. No answer. I thought that was the end of the line, but Monique suggested we wait a few minutes in the hope that Dicky would turn up.

Sure enough, not five minutes later, he did.
Pvt. Thomas Healey of
Penacook, wounded and
captured at Olustee,
died of wounds.

Once I had convinced him I was a legitimate historian, he led me to his collection. It was amazing – diaries and letters in stacks, the uniform of a Seventh New Hampshire soldier, battle flags, weapons, you name it. Dicky shared all the Seventh New Hampshire material he had. For my book he also allowed me to use his letters from Confederate soldiers, including some in which the writers described killing wounded black Union soldiers after the Olustee battle.

Pvt. Oliver Abbott of
Penacook, wounded at
Wagner, died 1865. 
To me, the most astonishing aspect of the collection was a large number of photographs which, at some point during the 19th century, almost certainly graced the wall of a Grand Army of the Republic meeting place in Penacook, N.H. The GAR was the chief Union veterans’ association, and many GAR chapters honored their fallen comrades by displaying photographs of them. Much of Company E of the Seventh New Hampshire had been recruited in Penacook, and the GAR post was named after the original company commander, Capt. (later Maj.) Jeremiah Durgin.  

Pvt. Jefferson Searles
of Webster, captured
at Olustee, died
at Andersonville.
The photo collection, which Dicky had bought from a dealer some years before, included many men from Company E. Most of the pictures were copies of wartime photographs. All were identified, and nearly all of them had been killed or wounded at the Seventh’s two fiercest engagements. One was the battle of Fort Wagner, S.C., on July 18, 1863, where the Seventh went in shortly after the famous 54th Massachusetts and suffered similar slaughter. The other was Olustee, where the regiment was rushed into an untenable position covered by a large, well-formed rebel infantry force. Some of the Olustee wounded from Dicky's photo collection had been abandoned on the field and died at Andersonville.

A sampling of Dicky's photos appears in Our War, which tells the stories of the Seventh's experience at both Wagner and Olustee and of a soldier from the regiment who was blinded at Olustee and survived Andersonville. I’ve reproduced a few additional pictures with this post.

On our return trip to New Hampshire last year, Dicky allowed Monique and me to stop in again and examine material we didn’t have time for on our first visit. As amazing as these paper discoveries were, I also had the good sense to ask Dicky Ferry many questions about Olustee. He and I have our differences about the war and its causes, but in addition to being a generous man, he is a scholar of this little-known battle.

The Reed brothers of Penacook, Cpl. Selvin  and Pvt. Samuel,  Co. E,  7th NH infantry. Selvin died of disease in 1863 at age 20. Samuel was wounded at both Wagner and Olustee. He was killed at New Market Road, Va,  Oct. 7, 1864. 


  1. Mike, you may be interested in this letter written by Alexander Peter Heichhold, the surgeon of the Eighth U.S. Colored Infantry, about the participation of his regiment at the Battle of Olustee:

    1. Thanks, Ron. I recently heard from Dicky Ferry that the Olustee battlefield has received a large grant for a new visitors' center. It also has one of the best websites of any battlefield I know:

  2. I have just started reading your book and find your work very helpful. Thanks very much for posting this piece. I would very much like to converse with you about the 7th, and especially about Capt. Paul Whipple, who is my great-great grandfather. Mostly for the family genealogists and own curiosity, I have been researching the 7th and Paul Whipple's life in order to write up a brief biography of him, but it seems to be mushrooming into a much bigger (and therefore long term!) future project. my email is
    I have been slowly putting up on my blog some of the information that I have, though there is much as well from the period after the war up until Paul's death in 1915. He returned to SC to become one of the most prominent farmers there and remained a radical Republican until the end. Below are some of the posts I have done and I would be grateful to you as well if you might point out any errors. No rush, of course, I can not really start writing the bio for at least a couple more years as there is much left to learn. Again, thanks for posting this.
    Ric Brown

    The Song of the N. H. Volunteers: Captain Paul Whipple and the 7th Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers

    Letter from H. W. Baker - duty at St. Augustine, Fla. 1862-1863

    The Seventh New Hampshire in the Civil War: The First Charge On Fort Wagner, Morris Island, S.C. July 11, 1863

    The Second Assault on Fort Wagner, July 18, 1863: The account of Henry F. W. Little, Seventh New Hampshire Volunteers