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Proposed Monument Honoring Union Soldiers at Florida’s Olustee Battlefield Sparks Outrage

| December 3, 2013

The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry, one of the first black units organized on the Union side, played a key role at the Battle of Olustee, where the 54th saved the Union army from defeat. (Tony Fischer)

The Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry, one of the first black units organized on the Union side, played a key role at the Battle of Olustee, where it saved the Union army from obliteration. (Tony Fischer)

The state parks system is on the hot seat and a House leader is calling for action over a proposed monument to Union soldiers at the site of the biggest Civil War battle fought in Florida.

The bid to add a Union monument to the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park near Lake City has drawn a furious response, with about 100 people attending a Monday night public hearing at the Columbia County School District Auditorium. Representatives of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the state parks, moderated the hearing.

Passions ran high, at one point erupting in a spontaneous chorus of “Dixie” led by a black man, H.K. Edgerton, who called Union soldiers rapists and wielded his large Confederate flag like a conductor’s baton as the audience sang.

Speakers blasted the proposal as disturbing hallowed ground in a rural community where most families stay for generations.

“Putting a Union monument at Olustee would be like placing a memorial to Jane Fonda at the entrance to the Vietnam memorial,” said Leon Duke, a wounded veteran.

“Men died there. Let their spirits rest in peace,” said Nansea Marham Miller, who is descended from a Confederate soldier who died at Olustee. “Let my grandfather rest in peace.”

The park is in the Osceola National Forest, 50 miles west of Jacksonville and 15 miles east of Lake City. It was the site of a four-hour battle on Feb. 20, 1864, in which Union forces were routed by Confederate troops.

In 1909, the Florida Legislature acquired three acres there to build a memorial. In 1912, Olustee became the first state park in Florida, and each February, a re-enactment of the battle is staged there. There was heavy debate during Monday’s meeting about whether the already-existing memorial is a Confederate memorial or is broader in scope.

Last February, DEP received a proposal from the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War to add a memorial specifically for Union officers and soldiers. The agency vetted the proposal and scheduled Monday’s public hearing to discuss possible locations at the park for the memorial.

But the discussion never got that far.

Many of the speakers identified themselves as descendants of soldiers who lost their lives at the Battle of Olustee. Many said they participated regularly in Civil War re-enactments. Many began their speeches by stating how many generations of their families had lived in Florida.

Jeff Grzelak of Orlando, a Civil War historian whose business card depicts him in a Union uniform, said a Union marker had been placed in the cemetery at Olustee 23 years before.

Mike Farrell, a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, is also descended from a soldier who died at Olustee. Farrell said he’s been a historical exhibitor at the park for years and proposed the new memorial as a result.

“I always have the visiting public approach me and ask me where the Union monument is on the battlefield, and I often tell them, ‘There isn’t any.’ I’m not talking about what Jeff was talking about, which was a cemetery marker to the dead. What I’m talking about is a battlefield monument,” Farrell said.

That prompted disagreement from audience members, and moderator Lew Scruggs, DEP’s chief of park planning, called for them to let Farrell finish.

Many speakers said the land on which the current memorial is placed was originally secured by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which generated donations to match the state’s contribution. The United Daughters of the Confederacy also administered the site until 1949, when the state took over.

Jamie Likins, president general of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and a fifth-generation Floridian, noted that the idea for the monument had come from a member of her group whose husband had fought at Olustee.

“The Olustee monument is to the Battle of Olustee and honors all, both, Confederate and Union soldiers,” Likins said.

Agreed Susan McKinney, also a member of group: “Either abide by the agreement or give the land back!”

House Judiciary Chairman Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said he was concerned that no elected body had reviewed the proposal.

“There is a sacred trust that’s being violated when you go in and change an historic site from the way it was commemorated by those who established (it),” Baxley said.

He suggested getting the matter “off the table” by means of a bill that he would sponsor. “I can do a very simple proposal to the Legislature that we protect all monument sites,” Baxley said to cheers and applause.

But Rep. Elizabeth Porter, a Lake City Republican, said she had spoken with DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard and that the public hearing — by getting local reaction onto the record — would help resolve the dispute.

She also disagreed with Baxley’s suggestion of a legislative remedy.

“If I agreed with that, I would have asked for it to go through the Legislature,” Porter said. “I wouldn’t have asked Secretary Vinyard, ‘Could we have a local meeting with local people and stakeholders who have a real say in what goes on here?’ ”

“And let’s face it,” she continued, “Does anyone here think the Legislature always has the right answer? I’m in it, and I don’t.”

DEP officials also came in for some criticism for having allowed the proposal to come as a surprise to the locals, but Porter said they were just doing their jobs.

David McAllister of Tampa, however, wasn’t reassured. He said his great-grandfather had donated four acres in Wakulla County to commemorate the Battle of Natural Bridge, and he was worried that that site would also be tampered with.

“Is Natural Bridge next?” he demanded.

Other suggestions included incorporating the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War as donors and collaborators in a battlefield museum, with an exhibit of their own.

The hearing lasted nearly three hours, and after everyone had spoken, DEP’s Scruggs said he would take all their comments back to his superiors.

“We have not reached any sort of decision,” he told the audience. “I don’t believe there’s a rush to judgment here.”

–Margie Menzel, News Service of Florida

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9 Responses for “Proposed Monument Honoring Union Soldiers at Florida’s Olustee Battlefield Sparks Outrage”

  1. rich says:

    Why are reenactments done? The south lost….get over it. The 21st century is here.

    • eric says:

      Good point, just like the Native Americans lost to th colonists, so let’s get over that as well and do away with all remnants of that issue. And Lincoln was killed, so let’s get rid of all monuments to him. Hell, let’s wipe away all records of history where it doesn’t go the way we want it to.

  2. Marissa says:

    Only fitting to the many, both Union and Confederate, that gave their life. After all, death does not discriminate nor take sides. Honor thy brave souls.

  3. NortonSmitty says:

    ““Putting a Union monument at Olustee would be like placing a memorial to Jane Fonda at the entrance to the Vietnam memorial,” said Leon Duke, a wounded veteran.” Hey, as a VietNam Vet I think we should out up something for ol’ Jane. Her efforts showed the idiots in Washington they had lost the people and ended the stupid-assed war sooner, saving who knows how many American lives. Even though the shot of her sitting on the AA gun was the stupidest military photo-op until Dukkakis rode in that tank. And before you start screaming about the passing notes and other stories you heard on the website, it has all been documented and proven to be bullshit.
    If you want to know the real traitor at the Hanoi Hilton, you probably voted for him in ’08, Hanoi John Mcain, who did 32 broadxcaswts over NVA radio, was out up for Court Martial by the ranking officer of the prisoners for Trason, and is the only member of Congress who has a Presidential Pardon and his military records permanantly sealed, by Nixon. Here: .And after his election, he fought to derail any real investigation into POW’s who might still be alive: SO who is the real traitor?

    As far as the controversey over the battelfield, who cares? It was 150 years ago. If you want to honor modern Southern Culture, pave it over and put up a Godamn WalMart!

  4. A.S.F. says:

    The Civil War was a tragic chapter in our nation’s history. We should have learned something from it. Apparentlly, we haven’t.

  5. rickg says:

    Union soldiers lost the lives there as well so its only fair that they get recognition. Last I heard I was still living in the USA not the CSA. The Civil War was tragic in and of itself. Why do we need to keep reliving it? As for the Black man waving the Stars and Bars….??? What is going on there???

  6. confidential says:

    I totally agree regarding the opposition to this union soldiers only monument. If any monument should be to both that gave their lives in that battle union and confederate too! Why to open old wounds allover again?
    Whether this monument is for both union and confederate soldiers, or none! Is not fair when history is written only by the victorious, as then is distorted! Just do not waste money in this unneeded monument and donate the funds to the poor and homeless that we have plenty!

  7. John Carter says:

    It’s a shame that such discord is still present 150 years later. Many Americans died in the Battle of Olustee, with the Union side losing twice as many as the Confederates. I am a Florida resident, and my own great-great-grandfather (from Delaware) fought in that battle, and I was looking forward to attending the ceremony early next year, in honor of the service that he & his fellow brethren gave to our country. This same great-great-grandfather was later shot in the left side of his chest at the Battle of Chapin’s Farm (aka Chaffin’s Farm) the following September and spent many months recovering. Had he not survived to return home and start a family, I would not be here today.

    How would those honoring Confederate heritage feel if they were not allowed to have any monuments in Gettysburg? Or to not have them in readily accessible/viewable areas?

    I just wish both sides could get along with each other in the same spirit as was involved in the placing of this monument in the state of Maine:

    Hopefully both sides can come to an agreement.
    John Carter
    St. Petersburg, FL

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