Friday, January 17, 2014

What the Olustee battlefield really needs

The story on the controversy over the Olustee battlefield in today's New York Times is a missed opportunity. The story frames the debate as a scrap between modern carpetbaggers and mossback southerners over whether a monument honoring Union troops should be placed on state land.

The battlefield is a state park within a national forest. This is a bureaucratic and political nightmare. The proposal to erect a Union statue near the old pro-Confederate monuments at Olustee was bound to stir states'-rights passions. This is the subject of the Times story, which covers it well.

But the story leaves a lot out. For research on Our War, I visited the Olustee battlefield twice in 2012. A chapter in the book deals with the 7th New Hampshire Infantry's experience there on Feb. 20, 1864. With a new African-American regiment on its left, the 7th regiment initiated the attack on a strong rebel line at Olustee. The result was bloody disaster.

The epilogue of my book closes with this paragraph:

"A year after the war’s end, a federal army detachment was sent to Olustee, Florida, to see what had become of the Union dead. Wild hogs had unearthed them, and buzzards had picked their bones clean. The federal troops found bones and skulls spread across the field and skeletal hands and feet protruding from the ground. The soldiers filled two wagons with bones and buried them nearby in a mass grave, which was fenced and marked. In time the fence and marker disappeared. Somewhere on or near the battlefield the mingled dust of black soldiers and white still lies under the earth."

Since the book came out, I've blogged about Olustee twice (here and here). At the risk of repeating myself, here is what should happen at Olustee:

1. The visitors' center should be expanded and modernized, and the battle interpretation should be updated.

2. The battle site should be re-marked to reflect how and where the battle was actually fought.

3. The spot where black and white soldiers' bones were buried, whether it is on state land or not,  should be found and commemorated.

Confederate soldiers' legacy is honored at Gettysburg. Yankee soldiers deserve no less at Olustee.

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