The Battle of Olustee: A Tale of the United States Civil War, Part II

Union soldiers guarding the Potomac River in 1861. Behind them is the old Aqueduct bridge and Georgetown University on top of the hill

Union soldiers guarding the Potomac River in 1861. Behind them is the old Aqueduct bridge and Georgetown University on top of the hill

Like most of the other men in his company, James Lyons had never been in battle. A former slave, he had joined the 8th United States Colored Troops in Philadelphia only four months earlier. He was proud to call himself free, but claiming freedom didn’t come without problems. There weren’t a lot of jobs available, and he learned quickly that any work that could be found was never given to a black man. The army proved to be the best place to go because it offered food, clothing, and something he had never seen in his life – a paycheck.

Army life was rigorous, but James enjoyed it. He was a quick learner and fit into military life quickly, becoming one of the top, new recruits. However, he wasn’t the only one who noticed that most of their time was spent learning how to march instead of learning how to fight. In fact, most of the men hardly even knew how to carry their rifles, much less shoot them. James worried that they were missing out on some valuable training… and it made him feel very uneasy.

The 8th was near the front of the line as they slowly marched beside the railroad tracks toward Olustee Station. Spirits were high, and the others were confident they could win the upcoming battle, but as joyful cries of certain victory were sounded, James looked around wearily, sensing that something bad was about to happen.

Suddenly, he looked ahead and saw two Confederate soldiers turn their horses and start running in the opposite direction. Caught off guard, the troop movement stopped, and the soldiers stood numbly watching the horsemen as they disappeared down the railroad tracks. Then, a shot rang out, and James heard and felt the bullet whiz past his head and sink into the body of someone behind him.

More shots came, and the men were stunned and bewildered to react. Having never been in battle before, some of them fell to the ground in fear and curled up like babies, but as bodies fell all around them and the fighting grew more intense, they recovered their senses and stood up to fight back. Unfortunately, their lack of training proved to be their downfall, and man after man succumbed to death or injury.

Standing six foot-four and weighing over two hundred-forty pounds, James made a big target, but he managed to scramble into position behind a large pine tree less than three hundred yards from where the enemy was set up. As musket balls crashed into the tree above his head, he stayed close to the ground and frantically tried to remember how to load his rifle. Finally, praying that he had it loaded correctly, he pointed it toward the Rebel line and pulled the trigger.

Table of contents for The Battle of Olustee

  1. The Battle of Olustee: A Tale of the United States Civil War, in Four Parts
  2. The Battle of Olustee: A Tale of the United States Civil War, Part II
  3. The Battle of Olustee: A Tale of the United States Civil War, Part III
  4. The Battle of Olustee: A Tale of the United States Civil War, Part IV

Last 5 posts by Tom Hames

Last 5 posts by Tom Hames