|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.
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
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.|