Gateway to the Classics: Boys' Book of Border Battles by Edwin L. Sabin
Boys' Book of Border Battles by  Edwin L. Sabin

Old Fort Mims the Foolish (1813)

And the Fearful Price it Paid

While the battle of Tippecanoe was being fought Tecumseh was upon his way home from a visit to the Creeks and Cherokees of Alabama and Georgia. His mother had been a Southern Indian. The Creeks and Cherokees formerly mingled with the Shawnees, their cousins. But this had not been a mere friendship visit. He desired the Southern Indians to join the red league against the Americans.

His first trip failed to win the Creeks, whose peace party was stronger than their war party. His second trip, in the winter of 1812, resulted better. He had entered the British army; he promised the Creeks that when they struck, the king across the water would help them, for there was war between the English and the Americans.

The Creek war party, whose color was red, raised their red war poles and listened to their own prophet, Monahoe. Prophets had become the fashion. The Choctaws, Cherokees and Chickasaws would not join in this war to free Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. They remained true to the Washington father, who had treated them justly. But the Creek nation alone was strong; it numbered thirty thousand people, with seven thousand warriors. It lived in civilized style; its well-to-do men kept slaves to till the fields of corn and cotton; their houses were built of cane and logs, and contained furnished rooms; the Creek towns were laid out like white towns; there were many large plantations; the men and women wore clothes of cotton woven by their own looms.

During the years since they had settled upon their lands in Alabama the Creeks had married with outsiders; their blood had become white and black as well as red; they were sending their children to white schools. White traders had been living among them, and had raised families.

In 1812 their war chiefs were Menewa, and Lam-ochat-tee or Red Eagle. Red Eagle's English name was William Weatherford, taken from the name of his father, a Scotch-English trader, Charles Weatherford. His mother had been a princess of the royal Wind clan of the Creeks. His uncle, her half brother, had been Alexander McGillivray, called the Emperor of the Creeks, son of another Scotch adventurer and a princess who was half French and half Creek.

The Weatherford family became wealthy and prominent. Red Eagle was brought up on the great plantation beside the Alabama River. Few Southern planters knew more luxury. All the wealth descended to Red Eagle. But although he was educated by private teachers, and was of white blood as well as of red blood, he remained Indian at heart. He was a Creek, and despised the Americans. Tecumseh said that the sight of white people made his flesh creep; with Red Eagle it was much the same. The only outsiders that he desired about him were the black slaves; for himself he wished liberty.

By 1812 he had grown to be a tall, straight, handsome, flashing-eyed dark man of thirty-two; was noted as an orator, a horseman, a hunter, an athlete and a warrior. He cared nothing for his education. He lived in state upon his plantation; he spoke in the councils and the old men listened, for he spoke like a king; then, at times, he plunged into savage carousals and the young men thought themselves honored by his invitation to carouse with him.

Red Eagle would forget his white blood. The whites could give him nothing; he was rich, in land and slaves. He feared that the Creeks would some day sell their lands, perhaps become slaves themselves; at any rate, yield like the red nations of the North had yielded.

So he listened to the fiery warnings and the earnest promises of Tecumseh. The war party followed him and Chief Menewa. There were raids and skirmishes. The white settlers sallied out and were defeated in the little battle of Burnt Corn. That spread keen alarm. The plantation families of southern Alabama fled like the families of Kentucky and West Virginia once had fled, to the nearest shelters. Some two hundred people gathered at Fort Mims, in southwestern Alabama where the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers unite to form the bayous at the head of Mobile Bay. It was the Lake Tensaw country, and the vicinity was known as the Tensaw Settlement.

This Fort Mims (which is also written Mimms) was the home of Planter Samuel Mims. As soon as the Creeks had begun to make trouble he had enclosed his house and buildings with a stockade of heavy split rails piled one upon another between pairs of posts. The stockade measured seventy yards square, surrounding about an acre. It was pierced with loopholes three and a half feet from the ground. Bastions or out-jutting half-squares were added, to command the faces of the walls.

Fort Mims resembled the stockades of Boonesborough, in Kentucky, and of Fort Wheeling, in West Virginia. A number of other settlers' centers were fortified at the same time. There were twenty and more such forts, along the Alabama River and elsewhere. The people of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee feared a general uprising of tribes, as Indiana had feared.

Fort Mims was situated back from the river, but was skirted by the Southern cane-brakes and swamps and heavy pine timber. The refugees from the outside region put up small houses inside the stockade, for shelter until the Creeks should have been brought to peace. There finally were twenty-four white families, including Creoles or mixed bloods, and one hundred negro slaves, making about two hundred and seventy men, women and children.

A lieutenant and sixteen militia soldiers of Alabama had marched in, as garrison. Then in July, 1813, Governor William C. C. Claiborne of the new State of Louisiana, who had been appointed commanding general of all that district, sent Major Daniel Beasley with one hundred and seventy-five Mississippi Volunteers.

Seventy of the settlers were organized into another battalion, under Dixon Bailey. This gave a fighting force of two hundred and sixty well equipped officers and men, who ought to be able to hold the stockade against Red Eagle's warrior Creeks.

But Red Eagle was no ordinary leader; he combined education and savagery, pride and cunning, and two bloods. The Creeks themselves were terrific battlers; they could match any Indians in America. Red Eagle had one thousand warriors at his back.

There were so many people in the stockade that Major Beasley built an addition, sixty feet deep, across the east front. Here he quartered the most of his soldiers, in tents; he occupied a house here. The gate-way now connecting the old stockade and the new was left as a wide gap between; the large double gates were moved to the gateway in the east side of the new stockade. That was the main gate.

General Claiborne paid a visit of inspection. He ordered two more bastions to be constructed, and warned Major Beasley against a surprise. Said General Claiborne:

"To respect an enemy, and prepare in the best possible way to meet him, is the certain means to insure success."

No advice could have been wiser. It was a sound military maxim. Major Beasley set to work, urged on by alarms of an attack. The attack did not come—he lost patience with the timid folks, black and white and red, who brought the rumors and frightened his people. Soon he commenced to let the work drift. The summer was very hot, the fever of the swamps made the men ill, the Volunteers begged off from drill, the block-houses were not pushed and discipline lapsed.

A number of the soldiers were permitted to go home, to see their relatives and friends; detachments were sent to reinforce other forts. Toward the end of August there were less than two hundred armed men in Fort Mims.

The alarms continued to arrive. The friendly Choctaws passed the word that the Creeks of Chief Weatherford were planning to seize Fort Mims. A slave who had been with Red Eagle escaped to say that the Creeks were already on their way. Scouts went out from the fort, and after looking about asserted that the slave was a liar.

On August 29 a dispatch was received from General Claiborne, dated at another fort, warning that Mims was surely to be attacked. This same day two negroes, herding cattle outside the fort, ran in crying that they had seen painted faces.

Major Beasley was again all out of patience with such tales. He ordered Captain Middleton to investigate. Captain Middleton's men saw nothing.

Tie those black rascals up and flog them for lying," Major Beasley directed.

One slave was flogged, but the master refused to let him be whipped.

"You will obey orders and have your lying black boy punished as he deserves, sir, or you will leave the fort in the morning," Major Beasley declared.

"He never has lied before," Settler Fletcher answered. "He is a good negro. To turn me and my family out among the Creeks is unjust. But I will think the matter over."

In the morning he submitted. What else could he do? And it made no difference, as happened, for at that very moment one thousand Creek warriors, black and yellow and olive, in their cloth head-dresses and their bright cotton shirts and leggins, armed with guns and knives, hatchets and clubs, were ambushed under Red Eagle in the cane brakes and swamp grasses and the pine timber, within musket shot of the walls.

They had been prowling about for some time. They had seen the east gates open, night and day, until the sand had drifted against the sagging ends. The longer the Creeks waited, the harder it would be to close those gates in a hurry.

Red Eagle Weatherford had now figured that the time was ripe. The hour should be noon, this day, August 30.

Planter Fletcher's slave boy had been tied to the whipping post, for punishment. The other negro had been sent out again to herd the cattle. He much disliked to go, but go he must. He saw the signs of Indians, as before; he dared not run into the fort and say so. Instead, he fled to Fort Pierce, up river from Fort Mims, and babbled there. The whippings cost Major Beasley dear.

The morning had been close and hot. The sentries, stationed to cover a cleared space of one hundred and fifty yards in front of the fort, nodded as they stood; the cane brakes swam before their heavy eyes. Inside the fort the other soldiers lolled, playing cards or dozing. The settlers kept in the shade of their houses; the cooks, both men and women, were preparing dinner; it is said that there were one hundred children, white and black, playing about. The scene was scarcely that of a military camp in wartime, threatened by a crafty enemy.

The drummer orderly beat the mess call, to dinner. That was the signal to Red Eagle's men also. The troops and the settlers in the fort were noisily hurrying for the tables, leaving the poor slave tied fast in the hot sun and awaiting the lash. The fierce Creeks sprang from their cane brake and charged like rabid wolves across the open space. So swiftly they had broken from covert and so stupid were the guards, that they were within thirty yards of the gateway before a gun was fired.

Major Beasley chanced to be looking through the gateway from the porch of his headquarters house. He saw them actually as soon as the sentries saw them. He shouted—"Indians! The Indians, men!"—and ran for the gates. They could not be closed; the sand blocked them and he and his helpers worked vainly. Strain, strain—haul, tub no use! Yelling triumphantly, the Creeks had arrived. In a moment they had shot Major Beasley through the body, had cut him down, hurled him and his support aside, and were pouring into the new stockade.

"Fight hard, men!" were Major Beasley's last words, from under the trampling moccasins. "Take care of the ammunition—rally in the houses."

The Volunteers did rally right gallantly; the settlers, men and women, seized whatever weapons they could find; the slaves fought with clubs and hands; the children threw stones and brandished sticks. For a time the Creeks were held to the sixty-feet width of the new stockade. They could not enter the old gateway into the main stockade. But they deployed along the outer walls; they thrust their muskets and rifles through the loop holes, the defenders did likewise, sometimes at one double discharge both fighters fell.

Red Eagle upon a splendid black horse commanded the Creeks. In the stockade Dixon Bailey, a skilled hunter and a brave mixed blood, had taken the command. He and all the men were battling for the women and children. They felt that the Creeks would spare nobody except the slaves. It was a struggle to the victory or the death.

The gate in the west end of the stockade was being battered. Axes had blunderingly been left outside; the Creeks were wielding these. A squad of the Indians had climbed upon the half finished bastion or blockhouse at the corner near that gate, and were shooting down into the stockade. They were driven back. Burning arrows had set a house inside ablaze—the kitchen of the Mims house in the center of the stockade was smoking, and the house itself was in danger.

But in spite of the bullets streaming through the loop holes and the gates and over the walls, the Fort Mims people did not falter. Hurrah! The enemy had done his worst—he was slackening—he had had enough and had gone to plundering the cabins outside. What a sudden joy swept the despairing garrison! Then the joy faded. Upon his horse Red Eagle had dashed hither-thither among his warriors, turning them back. On they came.

Again they entered the open east gates; they succeeded in hacking through the west gate; they scrambled over the south wall. The soldiers and settlers were very tired, and were few in number, now. The old men and women and the children had been stowed in the Mims house, which was large and two-story. It caught fire, at last—the Creek warriors surrounded it and let it burn. The slave at the whipping post had long ago been killed. The fighting had continued for three hours.

The only vacant place left was the north bastion, opposite the south wall. This had been Dixon Bailey's headquarters; all the survivors from bullet and hatchet and club and fire were pressed into it. They filled the enclosure full.

While they stoutly fought as best they could, Major Bailey called for volunteers to break through the outer wall of it; run the gauntlet and bring rescue. Nobody obeyed. He was bleeding from several wounds.

"I will go," he said.

They held him back.

"You can't do it, Dixon," they panted. "We're cut off. No man could make it."

The Creeks were raging through the stockade and burning the houses. Red Eagle's heart softened. He ceased being a savage. He flung himself from his horse and ordered his warriors to stop, but he was too late. The bastion yielded, the Creeks burst in; some were killed by the fighting men, some by the fighting women; of all the defenders only twelve or thirteen escaped by tearing a hole through the fence-rail walls. One was Major Dixon Bailey, wounded five times. He went on a little way, to the swamp; there he lay down and died.

Out of the three hundred white persons in Fort Mims about twenty-five saved themselves. The slaves were made captives to serve the Creeks. By twos and threes the refugees straggled into the other posts. A wounded negro woman, in a canoe, first brought the terrible word, to Fort Stodderd, twenty miles from ruined Fort Mims.

The Creeks lost two hundred killed and four hundred wounded; indeed they had reason bitterly to remember the defense of Fort Mims. And the next March General Andrew Jackson cut them to pieces when they, in turn, were behind wooden walls at To-ho-peka or Horseshoe Bend of the Tallapoosa River in east-ern Alabama, as told in "Boys' Book of Indian Warriors."

The story of old Fort Minis is not a pleasant story. It is a lesson in preparedness. Major Beasley and his officers were brave but they were foolishly brave; by proving their lack of fear they in the end not only needlessly sacrificed their own lives but, what was worse, the lives of the women, old men and children depending on them.

"To respect an enemy, and prepare in the best possible way to meet him, is the certain means of success." General Claiborne's advice covers matters of daily life as well as those of war.

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