A diorama at Horseshoe Bend National Military Park depicts the 39th Regiment of U.S. Infantry breaching the Creek fortification during the Battle of Horseshoe Bend..
In 1814 Andrew Jackson took a little trip. But despite the memorable ballad, he never came “down the Mighty Mississip.” Well before he got to New Orleans he and an army of Tennessee Volunteers, Army Regulars, and a few hundred Cherokee and other native allies plunged deep into the Alabama wilderness in pursuit of a “renegade” faction of the Creek Nation known as the Red Sticks. He found them at a place called Horseshoe Bend and fought them in the most important American battle you have probably never heard of.
Historians are somewhat divided on how to categorize the conflict. Many, maybe most, put it in the broader context of the on-going War of 1812 because the Red Sticks were informal allies of the British and were largely armed with weapons smuggled from Spanish Florida. Others insist on calling it a distinct Red Stick or Creek War and placing it more generally in the context of an on-going, genocidal land grab from Native Americans. It seems to me it was both.
The whole thing started as something of a civil war within the Creek Nation. The Creek were a large tribe whose traditional territories and hunting grounds stretched from western Georgia across much of the mid-South. Like their cousins, and sometimes rivals for hunting grounds, the Cherokee they were considered one of the Civilized Tribes because they tended to live in permanent or semi-permanent settlements and engaged in extensive agriculture in addition to hunting. In the eastern and southern portions of their range in Georgia, many had adopted White farming methods, clothing, and customs. Many intermarried with frontier Whites and the more prosperous owned slaves.
When war broke out with the British these Creeks, who had lived cheek to jowls with Whites in a sometimes dicey, but essentially stable relationship for decades, declared their allegiance to the United States and expressed willingness to support the Army militarily if need be.
A larger group of Creeks residing further inland, however, maintained their traditional culture and were resentful of both the “civilized” branch of the tribe and the continuing pressure of encroaching settlement in their territory by Whites.
In 1811 the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, a close ally of the British, toured the Five Civilized Tribes of the South in an effort to bring them into his Indian Confederacy to oppose American expansion. The British, he told tribal leaders, would provide arms and guarantee a permanent Native homeland off limits to settlement. The Cherokee, Choctaw, Lower Creeks, and other tribes who all had treaties with the U.S. refused to join. But the Red Sticks, influenced by younger warriors, were ready for war against the Americans.
They did not formally join Tecumseh’s Confederacy but became allies and allies of the British, who were active in near-by Florida. The Red Sticks were soon raiding isolated farms and settlements in a relatively low key guerilla war. In support of their treaty commitments, Lower Creeks asserted their claim to tribal leadership and moved against the Red Sticks, arresting those warriors they could find. The Red Sticks responded with attacks on the Lower Creeks including the slaughtering of cattle, pigs and other domestic animals that were symbolic of adoption of white ways.
In July of 1813 a sizable party of Red Sticks was returning from Florida with a pack train of horses loaded down with corn meal, powder, shot, and arms purchased with £500 sent to them by the British via the Spanish in Florida. Lower Creeks got wind of the transaction and sent word to American troops at Fort Mims, Alabama. Troops under Major Daniel Beasley of the Mississippi Volunteers led a mounted force of 6 companies 150 white militia riflemen, 30 mixed blood Creek known as métis under Captain Dixon Bailey to intercept Red Stick Leader Peter McQueen’s party.
The troops surprised McQueen during a mid-day meal break and quickly scattered them, capturing the pack train. But the undisciplined Militia fell into a frenzy of looting as they tore into the packs. McQueen rallied his warriors in the surrounding swamp and re-took the camp and supplies in a bloody fight known as the Battle of Burnt Corn.
On August 29 somewhere between 750 and 1000 Red Sticks led by McQueen and the other head warrior, William Weatherford or Red Eagle launched an attack on the Fort, symbolically also at a noon lunch break. Major Beasley had neglected to put out pickets or sentries and had ignored the warnings of two slaves who had been gathering firewood outside the post. One gate of the fort could not even be completely closed because of drifting sand.
The Red Sticks stormed and easily took the outer palisade as the soldiers and civilians retreated behind a lower secondary defense. Captain Bailey rallied his forces and held off the attackers for two hours all the while being peppered by fire by Creeks using the outer perimeter’s gun loops. Both sides suffered significant losses. The Red Stick retreated outside the walls to regroup. A second attack at 3 pm sent the defenders reeling back to their block house bastion, which the attackers set on fire.
After resistance finally collapsed around 5 pm warriors began to club and tomahawk the wounded and other survivors despite Weatherford’s attempts to restrain them. At least 250 were killed and scalped, their bodies left where they lay. The Red Sticks spared about 100 surviving slaves, but took them captive along with 30 or so women and children. 36 defenders, including the mortally wounded Captain Bailey escaped to tell the tail. Two weeks later a relief column arrived to find the Fort destroyed and the bodies of both the defenders and about 100 Red Sticks rotting in the sun.
The news of the Fort Mims Massacre set off a panic across the frontier. Settlers streamed to the safety of older settlements. The Federal Government was unable to provide much help. Most of the Army was on the Canadian Frontier or scattered in costal defense forts. The best they could do was to call up the Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi militia and volunteers and place them under the overall command of lawyer/planter/politician General Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. While other militia units mostly took up defensive positions on the edge of Red Stick territory, Jackson assemble an army to extract vengeance and, “Make Alabama safe for White settlement.”
Andrew Jackson, veteran commander of the Tennessee Militia was placed in Command by the War Department of a large joint force of militia from 5 states or territories, volunteers, Regular Army, and Native American auxiliaries to punish the Red Sticks.
Jackson had commanded the Tennessee Militia since 1802. Under his over-all command units had been engaged in the ongoing Indian Wars that consumed the frontier in the years after the American Revolution. Not only did his Tennesseans include many veteran Indian fighters and experienced officers, but Jackson had drilled and trained them. These troops in no way resembled the rag-tag militias most states sent into the field. They were well armed, well trained and fiercely loyal to their demanding commander.
As soon as weather permitted in 1814 Jackson headed into Alabama at the head of an army of over 3000—2000 infantry including a company Regular Army 39th Infantry Regiment, 700 cavalry and mounted riflemen, and 600 Cherokee, Choctaw and Lower Creek auxiliaries. He also had at least two batteries of field howitzers.
Jackson march his column through the wilderness with discipline and as much stealth as an army on the move could muster.
Chief Menawa's Red Stick camp at Horseshoe bend was the target of Jackson's campaign. A naturally excellent defensive position, Menawa employed field fortifications across the neck of the loop in the river rarely employed by Native Americans.
By March 27 his scouts informed him that he was within six miles of Chief Menawa’s Red Stick camp of Tohopeka, nestled in a loop in the Tallapoosa River called Horseshoe Bend in central Alabama. Jackson sent his close friend and longtime political crony General John Coffee with the mounted riflemen and the native auxiliaries south across the river to surround the Red Sticks’ camp, while Jackson stayed with the rest of the 2,000 infantry north of the neck created by the bend in the river.
He found the camp surprisingly well fortified behind an impressive earth and log breastworks stretching across the neck. The logs were laid in a 400 yard zigzag line that permitted a lethal enfilading fire from behind its protections. These kinds of field fortifications were seldom encountered in Indian warfare.
Around ten o’clock in the morning, Jackson opened up with his artillery on the line. He pounded away for nearly two hours with no discernible damage to the fortifications. The fire also concentrated the attention of the Red Stick camp, which failed to detect General Coffee’s maneuvers to their rear.
Third Lt. Sam Houston was severely injured by an arrow in the thigh after breeching the fortifications.
Around noon Jackson ordered a frontal bayonet charge on the breastworks led by Colonel John Williams’s Regular Infantry. Despite taking heavy losses, the troops gained the wall and some got over it. That included Third Lieutenant Sam Houston who made it over the wall only to be gravely injured by an arrow in the thigh, a wound that would bother him the rest of his long and colorful life.
As more of Jackson’s men poured over the works, the fight turned into a desperate hand to hand struggle. Then the Red Sticks were hit from the rear by Coffee’s men. The fighting continued for hours over a large battlefield that provided good cover for the defenders, who refused to surrender, at least as reported in the official reports of the action.
Red Stick losses, almost all killed, were around 80% of the estimated 1000 warriors in the camp. A wounded Chief Menawa and about 200 managed to escape and make their way to Florida where they were welcomed and absorbed by the Seminoles there.
Tennessee militia Sgt. Davy Crocket acted as a messenger and translator to tribal leaders after the battle. But he was so horrified by the brutal treatment of the Red Sticks that he became a friend to the native tribes and as a Whig the lifelong opponent of Andrew Jackson.
The battle broke Red Stick power. The old General established Fort Jackson near Wetumpka, Alabama as a base of operations for mopping up actions. He dispatched messengers to summon tribal leaders to sign what everyone knew would be a dictated peace treaty. Among the messengers was Sgt. Davy Crocket, an experienced hunter who was fluent in Creek and other Indian languages. He grew to sympathize with the defeated enemy and their harsh treatment at Jackson’s hand eventually made him a Whig and Old Hickory’s political enemy.
The treaty signed by leaders of several bands including the Red Stick Upper Creeks, and the Lower Creeks on August 9, 1814 ceded 23 million acres of their remaining land in Georgia and much of central Alabama to the United States government. The loyal Lower Creek were shocked to be told that they had to give up their lands, but had no choice. And the Choctaw and Cherokee who also fought alongside the Americans discovered that the Creeks had signed away land that they had long considered theirs.
William Weatherford, Red Eagle, meets the General at Ft. Jackson where Creeks, both Red Stick and loyal Southern bands were forced to sign a treaty that ceded virtually of their lands and hunting grounds--and lands claimed by the Cherokee and Choctaw--to the United States.
Removal was not immediate although some bands began relocating across the Mississippi within a couple of years. The rest followed over time or were force marched out under Jackson’s unforgiving and absolute Indian Removal program during his presidency.
As a reward Jackson was promoted to Major General of Volunteers and kept in the field. Meanwhile the British, in a tardy response to the appeal for aid by the Red Sticks, had enlisted survivors in Spanish Florida and began arming others as they arrived. They garrisoned 400 Royal Marines at Pensacola. Without authority, Jackson marched his army into supposedly neutral Spanish territory easily taking the city and dispelling the threat. The move also prevented Britain’s new Creek and other native allies from pressing their attempted siege of Mobile.
Having essentially secured the Gulf Coast, Jackson then marched his battle hardened army overland to reinforce threatened New Orleans. You probably know the rest of the story.
American school children used to learn about the famous Battle of Tippecanoe in which General William Henry Harrison killed Tecumseh and destroyed forever the threat of his Confederacy. That, they knew safely opened up the Old Northwest Territory for settlement.
But for some reason they are not taught about the Battle of Horseshoe Bend which had equally disastrous effect on the Southern tribes and entailed an even larger direct land grab.