Seeking the Seminoles in Florida (1835)
With the Regulars of Major Dade
Among the doctrines taught by the Shawnee Prophet and carried into the South by his brother Tecumseh, was the theory that no Indian lands might be sold to the white men without the consent of all the Indians.
This was perhaps a good doctrine for the protection of the tribes, but it brought many disputes; it split the tribes, for some Indians agreed to sell, and then the other Indians refused to let them sell. It ruined the Shawnees; it divided the Creeks and ruined them also; and it ruined the Seminoles of Florida.
Now, the Seminoles were a branch of the Creeks. In an early day they had separated from the Creeks and had withdrawn into Florida. The Creeks called them Seminoles, or Runaways.
Pretty nearly all the wars with the Indians have been occasioned by land disputes. Sometimes the Indians did not understand, sometimes they broke their promises, and frequently the United States broke its promises or enforced harsh contracts.
When in 1821 the United States bought Florida from Spain the Seminoles were living there. They occupied the best lands; they had been friendly with the Spaniards, who did not try to open the country and farm it; they had their cabins of palmetto leaves, and their patches of tilled ground, and traded furs and meat for powder and lead.
The American settler and land speculator entered Florida. To them the Seminoles were only savages—lazy, ignorant savages, at that. They demanded that the Florida lands be thrown upon the market for settlement.
This looked like an easy matter. The Seminoles had no written titles to the land; they were accustomed to doing business by word of mouth with the careless Spaniards. Soon the Seminoles found themselves being gradually pushed into smaller and smaller. territory; they signed papers that they could not read, and constantly sold more land than they thought that they had sold; they were punished by fines and whippings when they trespassed, and they were accused of stealing slaves from the white planters. There long had been bad feeling, on this score, between the planters of Georgia and the Seminoles. It was true that run-away slaves sought refuge among the Seminoles of Florida.
The Seminoles evidently had to get out. Then in 1824 their head men were induced to sign a treaty, which bound the nation to remove to a reservation, somewhere else, when such a reservation should be found. In 1832 the reservation was found by the United States in Arkansas.
The Seminoles sent a committee to look at it. The committee did not like Arkansas; but by touching the goosequill they signed a paper which said that they did like it, and that the nation would go there within three years.
When they had returned to Florida, and learned that they had signed away their homes, they and all the other Seminoles, and their negro slaves vowed that they would never go.
In April, 1834, Brevet Brigadier General Duncan L. Clinch, colonel of the Fourth United States Infantry, was ordered to Florida, to prepare the Seminoles for leaving. The treaty was laid out upon the council table at the house of General Wiley Thompson, the Indian agent.
"It is a white man's treaty," the chiefs declared. "We did not understand it. The agents lied to us. None of us had a right to sign such a paper, and some of us never touched the quill."
A young head-warrior, Osceola or Black-drink Halloer, stepped forward. He drove his knife half-way to the hilt through the paper and into the table.
"The only treaty I will sign is with this," he said.
The Seminoles went back into their swamps, and General Clinch could do nothing; nor could Wiley Thompson, the Government Indian agent with the Seminoles, who, they said, had lied to them with his smooth tongue and long speeches.
In February of the next year, 1835, the Government sent ten companies of Regulars, as reinforcements to General Clinch; made ready with steamboats to take the Seminoles to New Orleans and up the Mississippi; had wagons assembling to carry them from the mouth of the Arkansas River across country into Arkansas.
The result was seven and one-half years of war, with forty battles, which cost the United States fifteen hundred soldiers and $20,000,000.
The white planters of Georgia and Florida had looked upon the Seminoles as an easy-going, shiftless people, good only as swamp hunters, and without the nerve to fight. But these stoutly built natives were as fierce in fighting as their brothers the Creeks, although they mustered less than three thousand warriors. Like the Creeks they were of mixed bloods—red, black and white. They had their towns and their farms; they owned slaves. The negroes preferred the red masters to the white, and the half-wild life of the palmetto groves and the bayous to the plantation life.
The Seminoles were helped by the country in which they lived and which they so well knew. They had snug retreats upon dry ground in the midst of the great swamps, reached by blind trails for paddle or moccasin through the tall grasses and the palmettos. There were bear and deer and turkey in plenty; there also were alligators, poisonous snakes, and mosquitoes; a single step aside would plunge man or horse out of sight. By canoe and by foot the Seminoles ranged as they pleased.
Micanopy was their head chief, as Menewa had been the head chief of the warring Creeks, back in 1813. Osceola, aged thirty-two, was another Red Eagle, who spoke as a chief. He was one quarter white, light colored, finely formed, smart, eloquent and fiery, and led the councils. It was he who enforced the law against selling to the whites without the permission of all the tribe, under penalty of death. Nothing was to be sold; nothing, whether land or goods.
An old chief, Charley-E-Mathlar, accepted American money; he pretended that it was paid to him for some cattle. Osceola and party met him returning home by the trail; killed him. Taking the money from the handkerchief Osceola scattered it.
"It is blood money, made of red man's blood," he said. "It will bring evil upon all who touch it."
The time limit given the Seminoles by the Government expired January 1, 1836. Agent Thompson declared that Micanopy, Jumper, Alligator, Sam Jones and Black Dirt were no longer chiefs. He himself had put them down. Osceola was seized and imprisoned by Agent Thompson—put in irons for six days until he promised to be peaceful. The traders were forbidden to sell ammunition of any kind to the Seminoles. Powder and lead was to be withheld from the tribe.
Seeing that the United States was determined to remove them from their country, in December, this 1836, the Seminoles struck their American enemy.
When the first of January neared, General Clinch made plans to round up the Seminoles. December 16 Major F. S. Belton of the Second Artillery, commanding officer at Fort Brooke not far from present Tampa of Tampa Bay on the Gulf of Mexico side, received the order:
"The general commanding the Florida district directs that upon receipt of this you immediately detach two companies of the troops at your post, outfitted for the field, with instructions to unite near the forks of the Ouithlacoochee (Withlacoochee) River with a detachment from Fort King, or else, failing of such meeting, to proceed on and await further instructions at that post."
There were only three companies of the Regulars at Fort Brooke. So Major Belton delayed obeying the order until the arrival of reinforcements from Key West. The first were forty men of Company B, Fourth Infantry, under Captain and Brevet Major Francis L. Dade.
From the Fourth Infantry men, and the men of Companies B, C and H, Second Artillery, and of Company B, Third Artillery, a column of one hundred rank and file was made up, in two companies.
Captain George Washington Gardiner of the Second Artillery was to command the column. He had graduated as Number 1 from the Military Academy in 1816, and was an accomplished officer. But in the night of December 23 his wife was taken quite ill. When at reveille in the morning, just before the column started, Major Dade heard of this, he insisted:
"You stay and care for your wife, captain. I'll go out in your place."
Captain Gardiner thanked him warmly. Major Belton consented to the change. The offer by Major Dade showed his good heart, for the march northward might not be pleasant; in fact it was likely to be very dangerous. It trended through swamps, and right into the country of Osceola and Chief Micanopy. The principal town of the Seminoles, known as Micanopy's Town, lay near the forks of the Withlacoochee.
By the road these forks were about sixty miles inland, northeast from Fort Brooke. Fort King was fifty miles by road, on north from the forks. Without doubt an expedition was being planned against Micanopy's Town.
At six o'clock in the morning of December 24 (the day before Christmas), the Fort Brooke detachment started, under Major Dade. There were one hundred and two enlisted men, seven officers, one six-pounder cannon drawn by oxen, the baggage wagons, and a guide and interpreter, Louis, who was half Spanish and half negro.
Captain Gardiner remained behind, to spend Christmas with his sick wife.
Captain Upton S. Fraser of the Third Artillery served as field commander for Major Dade. He had entered the army as ensign in 1814, and was about fifty years of age—the same as Major Dade, who had entered the army in 1813.
The lieutenants all were young. The senior lieutenants in the column were Second Lieutenant William E. Basinger (who had charge of the gun) of the Second Artillery, and Second Lieutenant Robert E. Mudge of the Third Artillery. Lieutenant Basinger had graduated Number 2 at West Point in 1830; Lieutenant Mudge had graduated in 1833. So neither of them had worn the blue uniform very long.
The junior lieutenants were still younger. They were Richard Henderson of the Second Artillery and John L. Keais of the Third; had graduated as classmates, Numbers 12 and 14, from West Point only this June of 1835; had both been assigned as brevet or extra second lieutenants of artillery, and were two "shave-tails" upon their first campaign.
The other officer was Assistant Surgeon John S. Gatlin, appointed in August of last year.
Today the column marched only a short distance, and halted early to camp until the oxen had been traded for horses. The oxen would not haul the field piece. Major Dade sent a note back to the fort, requesting horses. Then in the evening who should come galloping on but Captain Gardiner himself. He had found a way to join, after all. How lucky that the column had waited! There was a transport sailing at once for Key West where his wife's relatives were stationed—and where the change of air would do her good. So he had stowed her aboard, and here he was.
That was true soldierly spirit. Major Dade of course had no notion of being relieved. Here he was, too; and they agreed to go on together with the column, Major Dade in command.
Horses instead of the weak oxen were put to the gun. The Spanish negro led. The trail was soft with sand and bogs; they did not arrive at the forks of the Withlacoochee until December 27, the fourth day's march. During the last two days they had seen signs that the Seminoles were watching them. But they did not know that the half-breed Louis was in the pay of the Seminoles and had told where the Americans were going; and they did not know that Chief Micanopy and Osceola were only waiting, with all plans made to attack.
The detachment from Fort King was not at the forks. Major Dade continued up the trail, December 28. Beyond the forks, at eight this morning, the trail emerged from the swampy grounds into a harder, open stretch. On the left there were scattered pine trees and bunches of grass; on the right there was a large pond grown about with grasses and palmetto palms.
Nobody except Indians could have lain concealed at such a place; yet two hundred Seminole warriors commanded by Chief Micanopy were hidden like snakes in the grass and beneath the broad palmetto leaves.
It was a good spot for an ambush, because when the Americans were attacked from the right they would be driven into the open of the scrub pines and have no other shelter.
To Major Dade and officers the place did not look like an ambush place. There had been so many darker, thicker places. Captain Fraser and Lieutenant Mudge were in the advance, with a small party. Major Dade and the main column followed, with Lieutenant Basinger's six-pounder and the baggage wagons.
Osceola had expected to join in the attack, but had decided to strike at Fort King, instead. And while Micanopy's men were killing the column from Fort Brooke, the Osceola warriors were killing the hated Agent Thompson and others just outside of Fort King.
Chief Micanopy had told his men to wait for him to fire the first shot. They waited. He permitted the whole line to pass on until it all was within range from the palms and grasses. He made certain—he picked out the commander and fired and killed Major Dade instantly. That was the signal.
Major Dade's horse ran away into the midst of the Seminoles. They delivered a terrible volley; down fell Captain Fraser, dead; down fell Lieutenant Mudge, mortally wounded. The left arm of young Lieutenant Henderson was broken, both arms of boyish Lieutenant Keais dangled. Of the eight officers only three, Captain Gardiner, Lieutenant Basinger and Doctor Gatlin, were untouched. At least fifty of the rank and file were killed or wounded. The blow had been swift and sure.
Louis the guide was down, also—shamming.
Captain Gardiner took command at once. He found not a single coward in the detachment. No one ran; every man who was able obeyed orders, sprang behind a tree, along the road, and began to fight. The work was very hot. Surgeon Gatlin used a double-barreled shotgun that he had brought for hunting. Lieutenant Basinger unlimbered the six-pounder and turned loose with canister.
"Don't fire unless you see your mark, men," Captain Gardiner shouted. Perhaps he regretted having come when he might have stayed for Christmas with his wife; perhaps not. He was a soldier.
The Seminoles lay close; but now and then a head and shoulders were visible, in the grass and among the palmettos and pine trunks. The flint-lock muskets scored. There was hard fighting for twenty minutes. The canister seemed to frighten the enemy; on a sudden the Seminoles broke, and disappeared behind a little hill half a mile in the northwest.
"Now, my lads! Quick! Save those wounded, doctor. Set a detail at work gathering cartridges, Henderson. Be prepared to move your gun, Basinger. We'll have to throw up breastworks, lads."
The words of Captain Gardiner were cheery. There still was no thought of retreat. While the wounded were being attended to and the cartridge boxes collected, the rest of the men felled trees. They hastened to pile the trunks into shape of a small triangle, near the road. But they had raised their breastworks only knee high when an alarm shout sounded—the Seminoles were coming back, over the hill and down!
"That will have to do, men. Deploy as light infantry," Captain Gardiner ordered. "Take what shelter you can and we'll beat 'em off."
The soldiers extended in skirmish line behind the trees, once more. Lieutenant Basinger opened again with his six-pounder. The battle was resumed. The Seminoles had come too soon.
The six-pounder, exposed outside the breastworks, boomed in vain. Scattered, the Seminoles stole forward from tree to tree and grass clump to grass clump. They formed a circle enclosing the whole little company. It was not long before all the men were forced inside the breastworks. Now they numbered only thirty, and four officers. Two of these officers were wounded. Poor young Lieutenant Keais could do nothing. His broken arms had been slung in handkerchiefs; he lay behind the breastworks, his head and shoulders bolstered by the logs. Lieutenant Henderson, his left arm helpless, loaded and fired a musket, resting it upon a stump, with his right arm—"kept up his spirits and cheered on the men" until he, too, was killed.
Lieutenant Basinger and gun squad stayed outside with the field piece until he alone was left alive; then, badly wounded, he crawled in.
Unluckily the. breastworks had been built upon a spot which happened to be lower than the ground about it. Standing behind the trees the Seminoles could fire right into it. The brave Regulars were being picked off. Lying there, in line behind the low ramparts, they fought back from nine in the morning until two in the afternoon.
Lieutenant Keais had been killed at last, by a ball through the head. Lieutenant Henderson was gone. Doctor Gatlin had knelt with two double-barreled shot-guns beside him.
"Well, I've got four barrels for them," he had said. Then a bullet silenced him.
Gallant Captain Gardiner had fallen.
"I can give you no more orders, my lads. Do your best," he had uttered.
The wounded Lieutenant Basinger and three privates were still active. The Seminoles ceased firing. The four soldiers, peering between the logs, saw them approaching. Chief Micanopy, a heavy man stripped and painted to the waist, was making a speech and pointing. The Seminoles were about to charge and finish the business.
"Lie flat. Don't breathe. Let them think you're dead," Lieutenant Basinger gasped.
That was done. In came the Seminoles, at a run. But they acted rather better than might have been expected of Indians. They did not mutilate the bodies, except to take a few scalps. They stepped about carefully, gathering the guns and cartridges. They did not kill the wounded, and soon left, for the north.
Then a worse thing occurred. A horde of swamp blacks who had been abused by their former white masters rode up on mules and horses. They were like wild men. They plundered the fort, killed Lieutenant Basinger and a number of other wounded. They, too, left.
The three privates who had been overlooked remained alive. One of them, Private Wilson of the Second Artillery, could stand it no longer. He sprang up and made a dash. A Seminole who had stayed to watch shot him as he leaped over the logs.
The two other men, Privates Ransom Clarke and D. Long, lay flat until after darkness. At nine o'clock this night they decided to try for Fort Brooke. Private Clarke had been wounded in five places, and Private Long also could scarcely walk; but they set out.
The next day an Indian on horseback chased Private Long, and killed him. Ransom Clarke was three days in reaching Fort Brooke. He found that two comrades, who had escaped from outside the breastworks, had been ahead of him; they both had died. Out of the one hundred and ten officers and men he was the only survivor to tell the story of the great fight by the Major Francis Dade column, there in Sumter County, west central Florida, December 28, 1835.
It was over a year later—for the Seminoles had kept the United States troops very busy—when another column marched along the road past the battle field. The field was a remarkable sight. The story told itself. No bodies had been moved. Even the bones of the ox teams and the horses lay where they had first fallen. The skeletons of the advance squad could be counted; so could those of the main column, in the road and among the trees, fronting the enemy; and inside the breastworks there were the thirty, they likewise facing the enemy, in final lines, each shriveled form at its battle post.
Four wounded men, it was known, had escaped after the battle; three of them had reached Fort Brooke, two of these had not lived. All the others, one hundred and six out of the one hundred and ten—eight officers and ninety-eight men—were here by actual count.
They were buried in two graves, near the road; the six-pounder was hauled out of the swamp into which it had been thrown by the Seminoles, and was set up at the head of the trench, for a monument.
After the close of the Seminole War in 1842 the one hundred and six were removed to San Augustine. Another monument was erected, with solemn ceremony. And that the record of the Major Dade command shall inspire the young soldiers of the Nation, a pedestal to Major Dade was placed at West Point Military Academy, inscribed to commemorate that battle of the 28th of December, 1835, "in which (it says) all the detachment save three fell without an attempt to retreat."