Reprinted from an article written by Gen. Samuel Jones and Gen. Joseph R. Hawley in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 4, 1888, pp. 76-80.
THE fourth year of the war was also the year for the election of a President of the United States, and it would have been strange if an event of so much importance had not in some measure shaped the conduct of the campaigns of that year. If any one of the Southern States could he brought so effectually under the control of the Union army as to give plausible pretext to any considerable portion of the inhabitants, white and black, to form a quasi State government recognizing the authority of the United States, it would not only be received as an earnest of the success of the Union arms, but the State could be represented in the approaching convention for the nomination of a candidate for President, and take part in the election to follow.
Florida appeared to offer better prospect of success in such an undertaking than any other Southern State. Its great extent of coast and its intersection by a broad and deep river, navigable by vessels of war, exposed a great part of the State to the control of the Union forces whenever it should be thought desirable to occupy it. The exigencies of the Confederate service had in a great measure stripped Florida of troops. If a column of Union troops could penetrate the country west-ward from Jacksonville, occupy a point in the interior, and break up communication between east, middle, and west Florida by the destruction of the railroad and bridges about the Suwanee [Suwannee] River, the Southern Confederacy would not only be deprived of a large quantity of the food drawn from east and south Florida, but a point d’appui would be established for any of the inhabitants who might be disposed to attempt the organization of a State acknowledging allegiance to the United States.
President Lincoln’s views on the subject are expressed in the following letter:
“Executive Mansion, Washington,
January 13th, 1864.
“I understand an effort is being made by some worthy gentlemen to reconstruct a loyal State government in Florida. Florida is in your department, and it is not unlikely that you may be there in person. I have given Mr. Hay a commission of major, and sent him to you with some blank-books and other blanks to aid in the reconstruction. He will explain as to the manner of using the blanks, and also my general views on the subject. It is desirable for all to cooperate; but if irreconcilable differences of opinion shall arise, you are master. I wish the thing done in the most speedy way possible, so that when done it will be within the range of the late proclamation on the subject. The detail labor of course will have to be done by others; but I shall be greatly obliged if you will give it such general supervision as you can find convenient with your more strictly military duties. Yours very truly,
Under these instructions General Gillmore, on the 5th of February, ordered General Truman Seymour to proceed with a division of troops from Hilton Head to Jacksonville, Florida. Admiral Dahlgren, who seems to have been always ready to cooperate with the land forces, sailed with the expedition with a squadron of five gun-boats, and was in readiness, if needed, to cover the landing. No opposition was met with, however, and on the 7th General Seymour’s force of about seven thousand men landed at Jacksonville.
The objects of the expedition as reported by General Gillmore to the general-in-chief (who did not approve it) were: First. To procure an outlet for cotton, lumber, timber, etc. Second. To cut off one source of the enemy’s commissary stores. Third. To obtain recruits for the negro regiments. Fourth. “To inaugurate measures for the speedy restoration of Florida to her allegiance,” etc.
It was known that the few Confederate troops in east Florida were widely scattered, and no opposition was anticipated until reenforcements could arrive. Celerity of movement was therefore important. General Seymour promptly marched in-land,—Colonel McCormick, commanding a picket at McGirt’s Creek, retiring,— captured five field-pieces which the Confederates could not move for want of horses, and reached Baldwin, twenty miles from Jacksonville, February 9th, where he was joined by General Gillmore. Colonel Guy V. Henry, commanding a small brigade of cavalry and mounted infantry, marched westward, encountered a picket of about 150 men at the crossing of the south fork of the St. Mary’s River, which, with the loss of twenty-five of his men, killed and wounded, and without loss to the Confederates, he dislodged, and proceeded to within three miles of Lake City, when he was recalled, and on the 11th joined the main body, which had reached Barber’s plantation on the south fork of the St. Mary’s. Here the command was delayed for the lack of transportation. The railroad had been relied on for transportation, but there was only one engine on the road, and that in such wretched condition that it could not be used within several days, if at all.
From Baldwin General Gillmore returned to Jacksonville, and on the 13th to Hilton Head, whence he issued a proclamation announcing his occupancy of Florida, calling on the people to take the oath of allegiance to the Union, assuring them that the State had been recovered from rebel rule, and would not again be abandoned, the United States being able to protect all loyal citizens.
There seems to have been some vacillation in the execution of the expedition. General Seymour, on whom the execution of General Gillmore’s plans devolved, wholly disapproved it. The movement on Lake City he regarded as in opposition to sound strategy, and inadvisable, and he had discovered that what had been said of the desire of Florida to come back into the Union was a delusion. “Do not,” he writes to Gillmore, “fritter away your infantry in the interior,” but at once withdraw the who whole force back to Jacksonville and Palatka, points which could be easily held and would serve as rendezvous for such Floridians (if any) as should desire to form a new State government under the Union flag. To this Gillmore replied telling him not to risk a repulse by an advance on Lake City; if he met serious opposition he should concentrate at Sanderson’s on the St. Mary’s. But how was he to advance at all without risking seeing a repulse, seeing that there was an enemy in his path? Nor could he remain at Sanderson’s with entire safety, for Seymour reported that Sanderson’s could not be fortified to advantage or the troops supplied there. Gillmore then directed him to concentrate without delay at Baldwin, but that point offered scarcely more advantages of strength than Sanderson’s, and was, besides, twenty miles from his supplies at Jacksonville, and he had but little transportation.
Whilst General Gillmore was at his headquarters at Hilton Head and the army in the interior or Florida was beyond the reach of telegraphic communication, much of necessity war left to the discretion of General Seymour. Having obtained reliable information that the strength of the enemy in his front did not exceed his own, the excellent character of his own troops, as he reports to his chief, forbade any doubt as to the propriety of a conflict on equal terms. Accordingly he resolved to carry out the general plan on which he supposed the occupation and control of east Florida had been based, by marching at once to the Suwanee [Suwannee] River and destroying the bridges and railroad, thus breaking up communication between east and west Florida. On the receipt of Seymour’s letter communicating his determination, Gillmore promptly returned a sharp and emphatic disapproval; but it was too late.
On the landing of Seymour’s expedition at Jacksonville, Brigadier-General Joseph Finegan, the Confederate commander of east Florida, immediately telegraphed to Savannah and Charleston for reenforcements, and by February 10th had collected at Lake City 490 infantry, 110 cavalry, and two field-pieces of his own widely scattered force. That night he placed the men in position two and a half miles east of that town, and reenforcements were sent to him from Charleston and Savannah. Demonstrations were made by the Union commanders at these points, but they failed to prevent the departure of reenforcements for Florida.
By the 13th a Confederate force of about 4600 infantry, 600 cavalry, and three field-batteries (12 guns) was concentrated near Lake City. This force was organized into two brigades; the first, A. H. Colquitt’s, made up of the 6th, 19th, 23d, 27th, and 28th Georgia regiments, the 6th Florida, and the Chatham battery of Georgia artillery. The second brigade was composed of the 32d and 64th Georgia Volunteers, 1st Regiment Georgia Regulars, 1st Florida Battalion, Bonaud’s Battalion of Infantry, and Guerard’s Light Battery. Colonel George P. Harrison, Jr., of the 32d Georgia, commanded the brigade. The cavalry was commanded by Colonel Caraway Smith, and the Florida light artillery was unattached and in reserve. The whole force numbered about 5400 men at Ocean Pond on the Olustee, 13 miles east of Lake City.
The country along the railroad from the Suwanee [Suwannee] River eastward is low and flat, without streams to delay the march of an army, and covered with open pine forests unobstructed by undergrowth. The only natural features which could serve any purposes of defense were the lakes and ponds scattered over the country. The position at Ocean Pond offered these advantages. From the 13th to the 20th some defensive works were begun, but little progress was made toward completing them, on a line extending from Ocean Pond on the left, a sheet of water of about four miles in length by from two to two and a half miles in width, to another pond about two miles long, on the right and to the south of the railroad. A short distance in front of the left was another pond, and in front of the right a bay or jungle, passable only within two hundred yards to the right or south of the railroad. The position possessed strength provided the enemy would attack it directly in front, but could be readily turned.
Early on the morning of February 20th, Seymour marched westward from his camp on the south fork of the St. Mary’s River, to engage the enemy near Olustee, about eighteen miles distant. The country over which he marched was open and level, presenting no strategic points, and the ground was firm, offering no difficulty to the march of troops of any amount. Colonel Henry was in advance with his small brigade of cavalry and Elder’s Horse Artillery (Battery B, First U.S. Artillery). Though there was no lack of general officers in General Gillmore’s command, on this expedition the three infantry brigades were commanded by colonels. Colonel (afterward General and United States Senator) J. R. Hawley led in three parallel columns, marching by flank, the center one on the road, the other two dressing on it. Colonels W. B. Barton’s and James Montgomery’s brigades followed in the same order of march. Captain John Hamilton’s Light Battery ‘’E,” 3d United States Artillery, and Captain L. L. Langdon’s “M,” 1st United States Artillery, and a section of Rhode Island Artillery, under Lieutenant Metcalf, followed. One regiment, the 55th Massachusetts, was left in camp, which, with other regiments detached, reduced the force engaged to about 5500 men, with 16 field-pieces.
General Finegan had thrown forward Colonel Smith’s cavalry, supported by the 64th and two companies of the 32d Georgia regiments, to skirmish with the advancing enemy and endeavor to draw thorn on to attack in the selected position. Apprehending, however, that the Union commander would be too cautious to attack a relatively strong position which could be so easily turned, he ordered forward General Colquitt with three of his regiments and a section of Gamble’s artillery to assume command of all the troops in front. About two miles east of Olustee Colquitt found the enemy, who had driven in the pickets, advancing rapidly.
The colonel of the 64th Georgia, a new regiment, never before in action, supposing that only mounted troops were advancing against him, had formed square to resist cavalry. Colquitt arrived just in time to save the square from being ripped open by the enemy’s artillery. He threw forward skirmishers and quickly formed line of battle under a brisk fire, the 19th Georgia on the right, the 28th on the left, with the section of Gamble’s battery in the center. The 64th and the two companies of the 32d Georgia were formed on the left of the 28th. The 6th Georgia was thrown still farther to the left to check any movement by that flank; the cavalry was divided and thrown to the two flanks. In this order the line advanced, the enemy yielding slightly but stubbornly contesting the ground. Finding the enemy in force in his front, Colquitt called for reenforcements, but General Finegan had anticipated him and Colonel Harrison was at hand with his brigade. The 6th Florida, Battalion was put in line on the right of the 19th Georgia, and the 23d on the left of the 64th Georgia. Colonel Harrison with his own regiments, the 32d Georgia and 1st Georgia Regulars, took position between the 23d and 64th Georgia, and by Colquitt’s order assumed direction of affairs on the left of the line. Instead, therefore, of attacking the Confederates in a selected position strengthened by field-works as the Union officers supposed, the battle was joined about 3 o’clock P.M. on level ground covered with open pine forest, offering no advantage of position to either.
General Seymour’s plan was to concentrate his artillery in the center, strongly supported on both flanks by the first brigade, and while the two brigades in rear were hastening into position, to overwhelm his enemy by a rapid fire of his superior artillery, and then charge. Hamilton’s and Langdon’s batteries were hurried forward to join Elder’s, which had been in advance with the cavalry. The 7th Connecticut, which so gallantly had led the first assault on Battery Wagner, July 11th, 1863, had first felt and driven back the advanced Confederates, all in turn had itself yielded ground, was withdrawn to unmask the line; the 7th New Hampshire moved forward into line on the right and the 8th United States Colored Troops on the left of the batteries. The fire of the latter was exceedingly effective. The section of Gamble’s battery was soon put hors de combat. It was replaced by the Chatham Artillery of Savannah, which, under Captain John F. Wheaton, was drawn from the right to the center under a galling fire. The whole Confederate force on the field moved forward and the action became general along the whole line. The 7th New Hampshire, a veteran regiment armed with superior rifles, broke and fled in confusion; not, however, until it had suffered severely in killed and wounded. The most strenuous efforts of its colonel, Abbott, and of Colonel Hawley, aided by staff-officers, could not stem its flight and reform it. The 8th United States (colored) on the left experienced the same fate. Its colonel, Fribley (white), had fallen mortally wounded; other commissioned officers and many of the rank and file had fallen, when it too fled and did not appear again as a regiment on the field. Barton’s brigade replaced the 7th New Hampshire and Montgomery’s the 8th United States Colored Troops, but the flight of those regiments had greatly exposed the artillery. Though it continued its fire with admirable effect, the men and horses were falling fast, and some of these, becoming unmanageable, dashed and locked their carriages against the trees, until so many of the men and horses were killed and wounded that five guns were abandoned to the advancing Confederates.
By that time the Confederates had exhausted their ammunition, and there was none near at hand. The regiments were halted, the few men who had ammunition returning a slow fire to the very brisk fire from the other side, while staff-officers, couriers, and orderlies were riding at utmost speed between the line and an ammunition-car on the railroad some distance in the rear, bringing up cartridges in haversacks, pockets, caps, in anything into which they could be crammed, and distributing them along the line. To hold a line under a heavy fire which it cannot return is a severe trial to the steadiness of the best troops. During this trying pause Lieutenant Hugh H. Colquitt of the general’s staff was a conspicuous object to the troops in both lines as he galloped in front of the Confederates, waving a battle-flag and exhorting the men to stand fast, not to lie down or shelter themselves behind the pine-trees, lest the enemy should suppose the line had broken and melted away, and assuring them that their cartridge-boxes would soon be replenished. The men were equal to the emergency and stood fast until they were supplied with ammunition. In the meantime the 27th Georgia Regiment, Bonaud’s Battalion, the 1st Florida Battalion, and a section of Guerard’s Battery arrived from the intrenched lines in the rear. They were put in position near and a little in advance of the center, to hold the enemy in check until the other commands could be supplied with ammunition. By direction of General Colquitt, Colonel Harrison had formed the 6th and 32d Georgia regiments on the extreme left, thus securing an effective cross-fire on Seymour’s right. A general advance along the whole Confederate line followed, and the Union line yielded ground, first reluctantly and sullenly, then with some precipitation which presently became a confused flight. When the Union line gave way, the Confederates sprang forward with a yell and pursued the enemy several miles and until night closed in on the scene and stopped pursuit.
During the engagement Colonel Smith’s cavalry had guarded the flanks, Lieutenant-Colonel A. [Abner] H. McCormick, 2d Florida Cavalry, on the right, and Colonel Duncan L. Clinch, 4th Georgia Cavalry, on the left. Early in the action Colonel Clinch was so severely wounded as to necessitate his removal from the field, and was succeeded by Captain N. A. Brown. When the Union line finally gave way and the flight commenced, the cavalry was ordered to pursue and seize every opportunity to strike the retreating enemy. But from some excess of caution, or other unexplained cause, the pursuit was not vigorous, and thus the full fruits of a dearly won victory on a well-contested field were not gathered. The retreat was covered by Colonel Henry’s cavalry and the 7th Connecticut Volunteers, which halted for a time at the St. Mary’s and Baldwin, but the main body of the shattered army continued its flight until it gained the shelter of the gun-boats at Jacksonville. As so often happened during the war, the victors were ignorant of the full extent of the victory, which, on this occasion, was so complete that a vigorous pursuit could scarcely have failed at least to double the already heavy Union loss.
General Seymour, who throughout the day had shown his usual coolness and gallantry, attributed his disaster to the “great numerical superiority of the Confederates,” an opinion which doubtless he held with sincerity at the time, but which was soon found to be entirely erroneous, the numbers engaged being nearly equal. General Gillmore and his staff sharply criticised the whole affair, and even charged Seymour with disobedience of orders, but did not give the specifications. In the Union camps in the Department of the South the affair was characterized as a second Dade’s massacre, or Braddock’s defeat. It was, however, a fair fight in an open field. The tenacity with which the Union troops contested the field is shown by the losses on both sides. Theirs was about one-third of their number engaged, and 120 horses killed. It was especially heavy in officers: Colonel Fribley was mortally wounded and died on the field, Lieutenant-Colonel Reed was mortally, and the major of his regiment, Bogle, severely wounded, as were Colonels Moore of the 47th, Sammon of the 115th New York, and the chief of artillery, Captain Hamilton. Captain Vandervere [Captain Garrett Van Deveer] of the 115th New York was killed. General Seymour commended the good conduct of all the troops engaged except the 7th New Hampshire and 8th United States Colored Troops. The former’s misconduct he attributed to the presence in the ranks of a number of inferior conscripts and substitutes. It lost in the engagement 209, and the 8th United States Colored Troops 310, officers and men. In addition to five or six field-pieces, the Confederates captured 1600 rifles and muskets, a flag, and a quantity of ammunition.
The Confederate loss was 940 killed and wounded. The 32d Georgia had suffered most severely, losing 164 officers and men. Among the killed or mortally wounded were Lieutenant-Colonel James Barrow and Lieutenant P. A. Waller, 64th Georgia; Captain H. A. Cannon, commanding the 1st Georgia Regulars; Adjutant William H. Johnson, 19th Georgia; Lieutenant W. H. Combs, 6th Georgia; Lieutenant Thomas J. Hill, 6th Florida; and Lieutenant W. W. Holland, 28th Georgia. Lieutenant R. T. Dancey, 32d Georgia, on Colonel Harrison’s staff, was killed by the side of his chief early in the action.
This expedition to Olustee, the only one of any magnitude which General Gillmore had undertaken beyond the range of the gun-boats, terminated his campaign in the Department of the South.
COMMENTS ON GENERAL JONES’S PAPER, BY JOSEPH R. RAWLEY, BREVET MAJOR-GENERAL, U.S.V.
I HAVE read General Jones’s paper upon the battle of Olustee with much interest. It is clearly his sincere endeavor to write an impartial statement of the facts; it is amusing to see how widely he varies from the exaggerated reports of Generals Beauregard and Finegan.
He fairly presents the differences between Generals Gillmore and Seymour. At Baldwin, a night or two before the battle, General Seymour called together six or eight of his officers for consultation. Some were cautious, others were outspoken, but it was decidedly the general opinion that it would be impossible to hold permanently a position out toward the center of the State, having for its line of communication a rickety railroad with one engine running fifty or sixty miles back to the base at Jacksonville. It would take more than our whole little army simply to hold the line against the force that would certainly soon be collected against us. The Confederates could have ruined us by letting us march one more day without interruption and then sitting down on the railroad between us and home with their rapidly increasing force. Most of us thought it would be sufficient to attempt to make the St. John’s River our main western line, but Seymour thought it his duty to go on. He was, and is, a brave and honorable patriot and soldier.
General Jones shows that the Confederates had chosen a strong position. They had their line of battle fully formed to meet us. My old regiment, the 7th Connecticut Infantry, about 330 strong, armed with Spencer carbines, led the advance guard, commanded by Colonel Henry, and composed of the mounted 40th Massachusetts Infantry (a small regiment), Captain Samuel S. Elder’s regular battery, and a detachment of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. Between 2 and 3 P.M. they met and drove back the enemy’s cavalry, and soon found the main line, striking up a vigorous combat. Our troops were stretched along the road in the order General Jones describes. When the artillery opened, General Seymour told me the enemy had but a section of artillery “up there” and that it could be captured. Under his orders I put the 8th United States Colored Troops, Colonel Fribley, in line and sent them up the road and led the 7th New Hampshire to the right, moving around to strike the enemy’s left flank. Our artillery began to work fast. My little regiment of three hundred, deployed as skirmishers in rather close order, went straight into the face of General Colquitt’s brigade in full line waiting for us. Suddenly the 7th New Hampshire, moving in column of companies, saw the solid gray line about 250 yards ahead. A heavy fire was opened on us. Colonel Abbott misunderstood my order of deployment; I undertook to correct the error, and the regiment broke. Here General Jones is in error; they re-formed and did excellent service on our right flank, and later rejoined the 7th Connecticut in the center. They lost in all 209; there were never braver men. In the meantime Colonel Fribley’s black men met the enemy at short range. They had reported to me only two or three days before; I was afterward told that they had never had a day’s practice in loading and firing. Old troops, finding themselves so greatly overmatched, would have run a little and re-formed—with or without orders. The black men stood to be killed or wounded—losing more than 300 out of 550. General Jones is again in error; they fell back and reorganized. Colonel Fribley’s monument shows where he fell.
The 7th Connecticut assembled on their colors in response to their bugle-call, and I placed them in the center of the field opposite to my friend General Colquitt, and they were supplied with ammunition. Several times they checked the enemy with their seven-shooters, and they did not stir from their position until they received a second order from General Seymour to fall back. The 54th Massachusetts (colored) after a time came and stood on their left. The next brigade, under Colonel Barton, of the 48th New York, came up and deployed. But the whole Confederate force of five thousand was there. Barton’s brigade suffered frightfully. Montgomery’s two regiments, both colored, were heavily punished.
Omitting further details of the battle, which lasted over three hours, shortly after sunset General Seymour ordered us to full back to a new line. We did so, and several regiments successively gave three cheers. This was the occasion of the report to the Confederate commander that we had formed a new line. Their cavalry so reported, and, though six hundred strong, never fired a shot at us, nor came within our sight. Behind us was a small body of water—an acre, it may be—beside which were gathered a large number of our wounded, under the care of surgeons. All who could walk or be put into wagons were started off, and several surgeons were ordered to stay with the remainder.
Our whole column was put in motion deliberately. Seymour took my regiment from me again, to serve as infantry skirmishers in the rear-guard with Henry’s mounted men. The 54th Massachusetts was sent to report to me, and with three regiments, moving by the flank, in parallel lines my brigade marched eastward, with our comrades.
General Jones says the Union forces “yielded ground first reluctantly and sullenly, then with some precipitation, which presently became a confused flight. When the Union line gave way, the Confederates sprang forward with a yell and pursued the enemy several miles, and until night closed in on the scene and stopped pursuit.”
This must have been borrowed from some of the wild reports made by the enemy immediately after the battle. Our last formation in line of battle (just referred to) was a few hundred yards in rear of the center of the field. It was fast growing dark in the pine woods. Not a yell nor a shot pursued us that long night. When my command reached Baldwin on the 21st, we picked up some of our equipments, left there two or three days before, destroyed some stores, loaded up the cars and moved on to McGirt’s Creek. Crossing on the narrow road through the swamp, we formed line on the eastern bank, put out pickets, and took a good sleep. Colonel Henry and his mounted men and the 7th Connecticut stopped at Baldwin over the night of the 21st.
General Finegan’s report of the 23d (three days after the battle) says: “I occupy Barber’s place this morning and my cavalry are in the vicinity of Baldwin.” He says, also, “I left Ocean Pond [the battle-field] yesterday”—that is to say, two days after the fight.
The reports of Generals Colquitt, Finegan, Gardner, and others give reasons for the feeble pursuit—“fatigue, absence of rations, disadvantages of pursuit in the dark,” etc. It is stated that the order to pursue was withdrawn “in consequence of a report from the advanced cavalry picket that the enemy had halted for the night and taken a position (subsequently ascertained to be incorrect).” General Colquitt says he sent ‘’repeated orders to Colonel Smith of the cavalry to continue the pursuit, but only two companies on the left, and those but for a short distance, followed the enemy.’’ Smith was relieved from his command, and he requested a court of inquiry. Finegan was relieved by Gardner. General Beauregard, reporting to Richmond, March 25th, says “the fruits of the victory were comparatively insignificant” laying the blame on the cavalry commander, through “whose lack of energy and capacity for the service no serious attempt was made to pursue with his command, while the exhaustion of the infantry . . . and our want of subsistence supplies and ammunition made an immediate pursuit by them impracticable.”
It was a fair, square, stand-up fight in pine woods, just there not very thick, and having little undergrowth, save about an occasional swampy hole. There was probably a difference of less than five hundred in the numbers engaged. The Confederates knew the ground and were formed for battle. We rushed in, not waiting for the proper full formation, and were fought in detail. The enemy had the great advantage, with modern weapons, of being on the defensive and ready. There was absolutely no pursuit of the defeated party until the next day. The Confederate loss was 940; the Union loss 1861. This left the former with say 4500; the latter with about 3700, or in about that proportion. It was one of the sideshows of the great war, but the loss on the Union side was proportionately about three times as great as at Buena Vista. I suppose it did help to whittle away the great rebellion.
Publisher’s Note: The Olustee Battlefield is open to the public. For more information visit https://www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/olustee-battlefield-historic-state-park.
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