The Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park was the center of an outcry in late 2013, when the state held a hearing on a plan to place a Union memorial there. But now, the site of Florida's largest Civil War battle — a Confederate victory — might have a peaceful solution in the works.
"We have to tell both sides of the story," said Jeff Grzelak, a Civil War historian and re-enactor for more than 40 years.
Olustee, between Lake City and Jacksonville, draws tens of thousands of people each year for its re-enactment of the battle, which took place on Feb. 20, 1864. Grzelak is leading the charge for a privately funded walkway between two memorials — one to fallen Confederate soldiers at the park and one to Union dead in a nearby graveyard.
"The walkway that I propose incorporates all the things that we as re-enactors and living historians are striving for," Grzelak said. "There was a tragedy. We want to put it in perspective. We want to put it in historical context. And we want to remember what happened there and why it happened, so that we don't ever repeat that again."
The Civil War was a tragedy for both sides, he said, but "all the books were written by the winners."
In the wake of last month's massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., cities and counties across the South are debating whether to fly the Confederate battle flag on public property. Florida is no different.
But at Olustee, the recent controversy about adding a Union memorial is now "on the back burner," said state Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who figured prominently in the debate.
In December 2013, the state Department of Environmental Protection held a public hearing that drew 300 irate Floridians to Lake City. The department had received a proposal from the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War to add a Union monument to the state park at Olustee, which DEP oversees. Agency officials had processed the request, scheduled the public hearing on where to place the marker — a routine step — and were shocked by the outcry that followed.
The anger was partly due to the department's plan to put the Union marker on three acres given to the state by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1909. The site is considered sacred by the many local descendants of those who died there. The site is also Florida's first state park, which the United Daughters of the Confederacy administered until 1949, when the state took over.
The outcry also was partly due to the fact that in 1991, a plain granite cross had replaced a rotting wooden marker in the Union graveyard near the battlefield. Grzelak and other re-enactors led the fund-raising for that, too — by performing "living history" re-enactments at Disney World to sweeten the pot.
"A lot of the Southerners were going, 'Oh my God, you're going to put a Union monument there,'" Grzelak recalled, referring to the 1991 project. "And we said, 'Why not? They were just as brave. Yeah, they lost the battle, but their blood was just as red — and they were Americans, too."
But to many at the December 2013 DEP hearing, the intent of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to honor their dead meant that a Union marker could never be placed on those three acres — especially not with the granite cross so near at hand.
In response, Baxley filed a bill that would have required legislative approval of any new historical monuments in the state park system. It passed one committee and died. Baxley said Thursday that he'd like to bring back a similar proposal.
"There really is no recourse," he said. "You had 300 people in an auditorium at a hearing begging non-elected officials not to do something. I still think that needs some kind of structural attention, so that people always have recourse before some elected body on those kinds of policy decisions."
But Baxley also said that the upcoming legislative session — given the 2016 elections, the need to redraw the state's congressional districts and the continuing flap over displays of the Confederate flag — might not be the best time.
"Sometimes you need to let things settle down a bit to make a good policy decision," he said.
Meanwhile, the Department of Environmental Protection has no immediate plans to touch the matter. Department spokesman Jason Mahon wrote in an email, "The potential of a Union monument at Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park as well as any other updates at the park will be addressed when the park's Unit Management Plan is updated in 2017."
And Grzelak's walkway proposal is gathering momentum. Among those who think it's a good idea is David McCallister, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who protested earlier this month at a Florida Veterans' Hall of Fame event due to its exclusion of Confederate soldiers.
"That's fine," McCallister said. "Just as long as they don't impinge on the three acres donated by the (United Daughters of the Confederacy)."