Friday, March 31, 2023

Abigail’s Famous Dear John Letter Laid Down Early Demands for the Ladies

Abigail Adams, painted here as the first mistress of the Executive Mansion in Washington D.C., kept up a frequent and detailed correspondence with her husband John while he was in Philadelphia attending the Continental Congress.

Note—This has become a semi-traditional wind-up for Women’s History Month here.

On this date in 1776 as the Revolutionary War was still young and Boston was besieged by George Washington Abigail Adams sent a letter to her husband John who was in Philadelphia as a Delegate to the Continental Congress from their home in Braintree, Massachusetts.  The success of the war against the most powerful empire in the world was far from assured and the Declaration of Independence, of which John was a prime mover, was yet months away.  But amidst the turmoil Mrs. Adams admonished her husband not to neglect, as male governors had done from time immemorial, rights and needs of women.  

In the midst of a lengthy, chatty letter filled with news from home she included one remarkable passage not even a full paragraph:

I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

Abigail may have regarded the threat of rebellion with tongue firmly in cheek.  For his part John did not seem to take it seriously, although he frequently relied on his wife’s advice.  Certainly, neither he nor Congress did anything about it.  To lawyer Adams, women’s rights and privileges would certainly continue to be constrained by English Common Law which is to say they hardly existed.  Women were and would remain virtual chattel first of their fathers and then of their husbands.  Even widows and spinsters had precious little control of their property or affairs.

Abigail's noted comment was contained in a short passage of the lengthy three page letter.

Mrs. Adams was 32 years old that year and the mother of five children.  She was every inch the match of her husband, well read, keenly intelligent, strong willed, and independent.  She comfortably mastered raising her brood and managing the affairs of the family and their small stone farm during the long absences—months, even years—while her husband was away helping to invent America and serve it interests.  In New England where many wives of merchant traders, fishermen, and sea farers had to cope with such long absences perhaps women were more used to self-sufficiency than in other regions where they mostly stayed with their mates on family farms or tended house in villages and towns.

Since the letter was not a public document, it roused no movement among women who might have been similarly disposed.  It was not published until 1848 when Abigail’s grandson Charles Francis Adams included it in his multi-volume compendium of their correspondence.  Of interest mostly to serious historians, the books were not widely read, and little special notice was given to a single passage which was not echoed anywhere else in the collection of missives.

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton cited Abigail's phrases in the first volume of their monumental History of Woman Suffrage more than 100 years after she wrote it.

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton took note of the letter in the first volume of their epic multi-volume History of Woman Suffrage which was first published in 1886.  Slowly the quote spread in the suffrage movement largely to add a connection to the nation’s founders.

But it was the second wave feminist movement of the 1960s and ‘70s that really made the passage famousGloria Steinem featured it proximately in early issues of MS. Magazine and was featured on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and demonstration placards.  In the 21st Century it has become widely shared as a meme.

Dozens of widely circulated memes keep Abigail's words alive on the internet.

Whatever Abigail intended by her passing comment, it certainly has grown legs.  


Thursday, March 30, 2023

The Hyphen War and the Rise and Fall of a Republic

Tomáš Masaryk,  Founder and first President of Czechoslovakia.

It is never a good sign when your national legislature cannot agree on the name of your country—or the punctuation of the name.  It is a worse sign when the argument gets so nasty that the world press begins to mock it as the Hyphen War.  It was certainly not a good omen for, as Prince might have constructed it, the Nation Formerly Known as the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic

The nation came into existence in the tumultuous aftermath of World War I.  Its boundaries, as established by the Treaty of Versailles, included the largely ethnic Czech lands of former Bohemia and Moravia in the west, and Slovakia which also encompassed significant areas ethnic Poles to the north and Ruthenia to the southeast.  All of these were within the border of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Czechs land included a crescent along its western rim which had a German speaking majority which included much of the new country’s heavy industry.

Historically the Czechs had been administered by the Austrians who had not interfered with their ethnic identity.  Slovakia and Ruthenia, however, came to the Empire as part of the Kingdom of Hungary and continued to be administered by Hungarians who pursued a vigorous policy of forced Magyarization on their ethnic minorities.  Those regions were also more agricultural, far less industrialized and urban than Czech lands.  These differences contributed to strains from the beginning.

But the common cause of independence allowed the philosophy professor and Czech nationalist democrat Tomáš Masaryk to cobble together the Czechoslovak National Council during the war which eventually was recognized as a government in exile in recognition of the contributions of volunteer Czechoslovak Legion units raised to fight the Central Powers in France, Russia, and Italy.  With his enormous prestige Masaryk was elected president of the new nation, originally named Czecho-Slovakia, and helped create a constitutional, parliamentary democracy.  

An opponent of both German nationalism and Soviet Marxism, Masaryk became the beau ideal in the west of a Central European democrat.  Like many Czechs he had been raised a Catholic but had left the faith behind to become a humanist heavily influenced by his American Unitarian wife.

Masaryk reflected the sophisticated, cosmopolitan nature of Czech society, especially in the capital of Prague, considered the Paris of Slav lands and the most westernized capital in Eastern Europe.  Moreover, it was prosperous—at the creation of the nation it encompassed more than 80% of the total industrial capacity of the old Hapsburg Empire.  And most of this industrial capacity being far from the front lines of the war was intact.  So, the new nation came into existence as one of the top industrial nations in the world.  Unfortunately, most of the heavy industry, including steel production, was located in that majority German crescent and owned largely by German banks and corporations.  The Slovaks lagged far behind in development and tended to look culturally to the east.

Prosperous and cosmopolitan Prague in the 1920's.

A new constitution, crafted with Masaryk’s blessing, renamed the nation Czechoslovakia in 1920.  Under it term he was re-elected three times in 1920, ’27and ’34.  His nation thrived through the 1920’s as neighboring German was ravaged by hyperinflation and unemployment and the Soviet Union to the east struggled to recover from a long Civil War and not always successful experiments in rapid industrialization and a command economy. Moreover, it fared better than most industrialized nations during the world-wide Depression of the ‘30’s.  He managed to keep the sometimes fractious nation together through 10 changes of ministries before retiring due to old age and infirmity on December 14, 1935 as Hitler was ominously consolidating his power in Germany.  Less than two years later he was dead.

Meanwhile Nazi agents in the German majority areas were agitating there to destabilize the Czechoslovakian government.  In September 1938 the former Western allies led by Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement with Germany in hopes of mollifying its expansionist ambitions.  This appeasement policy handed over the Bohemian, Moravian and Czech Silesian borderlands called the Sudetenland by Hitler to Germany and allowed for the Czech minorities there to be forcefully expelled

The dismemberment of Czechoslovakia during World War II.

With no allies to support it the Czechoslovakian government was forced to agree to the annexation, but Masaryk’s hand-picked successor President Edvard Beneš resigned and fled to London. 

A weakened Second Republic, re-named Czecho-Slovakia was declared, which was soon forced to cede much of southern Slovakia to Hungary and areas of the north to Poland. The nation continued to unravel.  Slovakia declared its independence in March 1938 and Hitler assumed control of Czech lands on March 15, 1939 claiming them as the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.  The same day the Carpatho-Ukraine—the former Ruthenia, declared its independence from Slovakia and was immediately invaded by Hungary which went on to gobble up adjacent areas of Slovakia. 

After 21 years of existence and as the only Eastern European nation to maintain itself as a functioning and stable democracy for the whole period, Masaryk’s cherished republic ceased to exist.

There were notable and highly effective resistance movements in both the Czech and Slovak regions.  But the Czech resistance looked to London for support and to a Government in Exile headed by Beneš and operated mostly in small, urban cells.  The Slovaks looked to the Soviets and organized partisan irregulars who operated in larger units in the rural countryside taking advantage of the cover of the rugged Carpathians.

Masaryk's political heir Edvard Beneš led a government in exile from London during World War II and returned to lead the nation in the post-war years as it was being drawn into Soviet domination.

The Third Czechoslovakian Republic was declared in April of 1945 following the collapse of Germany.  Beneš returned as President and issued decrees ordering the forced removal of 2.9 million ethnic Germans.  A National Front government was installed led by three socialist or Marxist parties which had dominated the Resistance movements—the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, the Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party, and the Czechoslovak National Socialist Party with minority representation from non-socialist parties. 

By agreement at Yalta, the country had been liberated by the Red Army who were greeted as heroic liberators in all parts of the nation.  The Soviets were soon able to exert practical control over the country.  In spring elections in 1946 the Communists won a plurality in Czech regions and the anti-communist won an absolute majority in Slovakia.  But the Communists were able to form a coalition government.  Beneš, who had backed anti-communist slates in both half of the country, remained as president.

The body of pajama clad Jan Masaryk lays in the courtyard of the Foreign Ministry under his apartment window.  Suicide was the official explanation.  No one believed it.

In a controversy over whether or not Czechoslovakia should participate in the Marshall Plan, which Moscow opposed, in March 1947 the Communists staged a coup d’état forcing Beneš to dismiss the government and accept one completely dominated by the Communists.  Days later Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk, likely leader of a democratic movement, and son of the nation’s founder was found dead in his pajamas in the courtyard of the Foreign Ministry.  His death was ruled a suicide, which almost no one believed.

The new Communist dominated National Assembly approved the Ninth-of-May Constitution declaring Czechoslovakia a Peoples Democracy modeled on the Soviet Union.  Beneš refused to sign the document, resigned on June 7, 1948.  Already in poor health following two strokes, he died at his home, under close watch by the Communists, on September 3 the same year.

Czechoslovakia was soon under the complete domination of the Soviet Union.  In the 50’s when some leading local Communist figures were suspected of being too culturally close to the West—including those who had served in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War and who had contact with the British during the Resistance, scores were arrested and many leaders were put on Stalinist show trials.  15 former top leaders were tried, all convicted and 11 sentenced to death.  Stalinism exerted an iron grasp on the Czechoslovakian Communists who would last longer and remain stronger than elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

In 1960 yet another constitution re-named the country once again to the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.  Stalinist command economic policies proved disastrous and from one of the top ten industrial nations in the world, production plunged to among the lowest levels in Europe.  Extremely oppressive monitoring of universities and cultural institutions crushed what had once been a flower in Europe. 

In 1968 a Slovak reformer, Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary Communist Party on a program of de-Stalinization.  His liberalization policies were wildly popular and set off a near orgy of suppressed political and self-expression, most of it hostile to the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact.  Dubček refused to retreat from his position and allowed the Prague Spring to flourish. 

The Soviets and Warsaw Pact allies brutally suppressed the Prague Spring of 1968.

It was too much for Moscow and its partners.  Led by the Soviets, Warsaw Pact troops from every country except Romania invaded Czechoslovakia on August 20.  Dubček declared the invasion to be illegal but was quickly arrested and swooped to Moscow for “deliberations.”

Hardline Slovak Gustáv Husák became First Secretary of the Party and later President.  More than a third of all party members were purged as liberals.  The regime became even more repressive and re-emphasized a command economy that crippled some gains earlier in the decade that had brought Slovak production and incomes to nearly a par with the Czechs.

When Mikhail Gorbachev initiated his reform policy of perestroika in the USSR in 1987 Husák gave little more than lip service to instituting liberalizing reform.  In fact, he defied Kremlin directives. 

In 1988 long pent-up tensions boiled up in the first large anti-communist action in years at the March 25 Candle Demonstration in Bratislava.  As Gorbachev had feared, the repressive regime was ripe for popular rebellion and the USSR signaled it was not going to bail out Husák with a repeat of the 1968 invasion.  More demonstrations broke out in Prague on the 20th anniversary of the Soviet invasion and continued into the next year.

On January 16 students in Bratislava launched mass pro-democracy demonstrations, joined the next day by Prague students.  After heavy police repression the loosely organized reform Czech dissidents of the movement known as Charter 77 united to become the Civic Forum led by one of the nation’s most noted intellectuals, the playwright Václav Havel.  A parallel organization the Public Against Violence arose in Slovakia.  Each shunned the use of the word party because of its tainted association with the Communists.  Public support for the two groups swelled to the millions from all levels of society.

Václav Havel and the Hyphen War.

The Communist Party, without support from the Soviet Union and unable to now even rely on its own military, collapsed.  President Husák and his puppet Party Secretary were forced to resign and the party was too weakened to even offer reformed leadership. 

On December 29, 1989 Havel was elected President by the National Assembly.  One of his first actions was to ask to rename the country the Czechoslovak Republic simply dropping the word Socialist.  He did not anticipate that this would be anyway controversial.  After all it was the name of the country through most of its existence, between 1920 and 1939 and again from 1945 to 1950.  So of course, it was immediately controversial.

The Slovaks now claimed that this was a slight against their co-equal status.  They insisted on hyphenating the name to the Czecho-Slovak Republic or, better yet, the Czecho-Slovak Federation.  They could also point to the use of this form between 1918 and 1920 and during the German dominated days of the Second Republic in 1938 and ’39.  In retrospect, perhaps they should not have brought the last example up.  But the amicable Havel was willing to placate Slovak sensitivities in the name of national unity and quickly agreed to the Czecho-Slovak Republic.

That set off the Czechs who now felt insulted.  With frequent angry debates covered with ill-disguised glee by the world press, the issue settled into a stalemate that brought almost all other business before the Assembly to a halt. 

On March 29, 1990 the stalemate seemed broken with the adoption by the Assembly of a compromise name—Czechoslovak Federative Republic.  In a nifty trick, the new name was to be spelled without a hyphen in Czech and with a hyphen in Slovak.

Yet even this solution wasn’t permanent.  The Slovaks came to believe that the Czechs were insisting that it was a dash, not a hyphen, in the Slovak name. That made a difference because in both Czech and Slovak grammar a hyphen represented a connection between equals while a dash meant something else.  This objection is not clear because a dash and hyphen are represented by different words in Slovakian but by the same word—pomlčka in Czech.

Back to the drawing board.  On April 20 the name was changed again to the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic.  This time it stuck even though it violated a strict rule in both languages that only the first word in a multiple word name be capitalized.  With linguistic purists—a strong voice in both nationalist movements—holding their noses the new name went into effect.

But it did not last long. The bitter divisions exposed by the Hyphen War continued to fester over more substantial issues.  Effective government was all but impossible.

Czechoslovakia no more.

In the late 1990s the Federal Assembly, divided along national lines, barely cooperated enough to pass a law officially separating the two nations.  On 1 January 1993, the Czech Republic and Slovakia simultaneously came into existence.

By any spelling Czechoslovakia ceased to exist.



Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Vintage Murfin Verse on UUs, Lent, and Sacrifice

It is only 11 days until Easter Sunday, so we are well into Lent and I was reminded that there is at least a mild rash of interest in and even observance of the season of personal sacrifice and contemplation of the Holy among my fellow Unitarian Universalists.  It was not always so.

As heirs of the Radical Reformation and step siblings Unitarianism and Universalism as they evolved in the United States instinctively rejected what they regarded as Popish trappings, liturgy, and anything that stood between humans and a direct relationship with God.  While both remained in the 19th Century avowedly Christian in the Protestant  tradition that meant eschewing the priesthood, Episcopal authority, the mass, saints, the liturgical calendar and holy days like Christmas or Ash Wednesday.

Springing from New England Puritanism, the Unitarians often practiced days of fasting, humiliation, and prayer in times of war or distress, they saw no reason for a special 40 day season.  After all, a good Puritan lived his or her entire life in a kind of perpetual Lent.

The Universalists preferred to joyfully celebrate the bottomless mercy of a loving God who sooner or later reconciled all souls to Him. The contemplation of this universal beneficence was enough to encourage mortal men and women to live virtuous lives to show themselves worthy of it.

Over time both traditions evolved under the influences of Transcendentalism, Free Thought, exposure to world religions via the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, and the explosion of Humanism following the First and Second World Wars.  Both tended to become less explicitly or orthodox Christian, although a wide variety of spiritual practice was found in both traditions.

A reflection of agnostic Humanism hostility to traditional Christianity.

By the time the two united to become the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1960 a flinty sort of agnostic Humanism was the dominant strain among Unitarians and flourished to some degree among Universalists.  The larger and more muscular Unitarians soon dominated the united faith and Humanism overshadowed theism in its various guises for the rest of the century.

Humanists denied any supernatural intervention in human affairs and stressed the need for men and women to take charge of their own salvation in a broken world to create a kind of heaven on earth.  That translated into activism in matters of war and peace, social justice, civil rights, womens equality, LBGTQ inclusion, and the environment.

But it also meant a bristling hostility to conventional religion among many.  In some congregations a Minister could lose his/her pulpit for using the “G word,” or citing Biblical scripture.  The old joke was that Unitarians read ahead in their hymnals to make sure that they approved of the lyric.

By the early 21st Century, however there was a growing restiveness in the pews and a yearning for deeper spirituality largely due to rise of the womens movement within the UUA which led to the adoption of 7th Principle, “respect for the web of existence of which we are a part.”  That gave rise to a kind of pantheism, neo-paganism, Buddhist practice, yoga, and various elements of New Age Spirituality.  Inevitably it also led to a re-examination of Christian tradition and teaching.

As an aging generation of Humanist ministers retired, they were replaced by graduates of UU Theological Schools and other seminaries who were more receptive to Christian theology and practice.  Today most UUs still identify mainly as Humanists, but are more tolerant of the theists among them and are more prepared to learn from the wisdom of religions including Christianity. 

Inevitably that has led some to examine traditions like Lent as personal spiritual practices.  Lenten themed prayers or meditations, sermons, and small group discussions are easily found online.  While Lenten practice is far from widespread, it is no longer an aberration.

About 2002 as those changes were just getting underway, I was moved to write a poem for a service at the old Congregational Unitarian Congregation in Woodstock, Illinois—now  the Tree of Life U.U. Congregation in McHenry.  It was included in my Skinner House Meditation Manual, We Build Temples in the Heart published two years later.  Since then it has occasionally popped up in services at other congregations.

Despite its length and structure I have often call this my Zen poem.

What Unitarian Universalists Should Give Up for Lent if They Observed It, Which They Don’t, Most of Them.


Pews without padding, Nature Conservancy calendars.

Volvos, polysyllabic verbosity,

herbal tea, austerity,

National Public Radio, unread books in fine bindings,


    Liberalism, Buddhism. Humanism,

    Marxism, Feminism, Taoism,

    Vegetarianism, Conservationism, Transcendentalism,

    Atheism, Consumerism, Sufism,

    for Christ’s sake, Libertarianism,

Joys and Concerns, pretension,

committee meetings, Habitat t-shirts,

potluck tuna casserole, black-and-white films with subtitles,

petitions, sermons, tofu and brown rice,

drums, theology,

season tickets to anything but baseball,

liturgical dance, poetry readings,


    Pilgrim pride

    pride of intellect

    pride of lineage

    pride of lions

    the pride that cometh before the fall

bistros, pledge drives,

advanced degrees, spirituality,

coffee hour, sensible shoes,

philosophy, choir rehearsal,

arrogance, animal sacrifice,

gender-neutral hymnals, learned clergy,

natural fibers, string quartets,

whiteness, turquoise jewelry,

recycling, self-congratulation,

acupuncture, birdwatching at dawn,

yoga, Common Cause,

God, doubt,

egotism, self-denigration,

yesterday, tomorrow.


—Patrick Murfin


Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The French Airman Who Took Off from Water, Set Back Down on It and Survived

                             Henri Fabré on the dock beside his invention.

The Wright Brothers may have been first, but for a number of reasons within the first decade of flight the French leapt ahead of the Americans and their chief rival Glenn Curtis in technical innovation and the advancement of aviation.  It was not really so surprising.  In the early decades of the 20th Century French science and engineering led the world in many areas.

Perhaps one of the most important advancements in aviation was the development of a floatplane—an aircraft that could take off and land on water.  Everyone knew that such a development was crucial in making air travel practical over long distances and commercially viable.  Some had tried with disastrous results.  Until Henri Fabré.

On March 28, 1910 Fabré, who had never before flown an airplane of any type, took off from the Étang de Berre, a tidal lagoon by the small port of Martigues northwest of Marseilles near the Côte d’Azur, and successfully touched down on the water 1,500 feet later.  Fabré made three more flights that day until the plane, dubbed the Fabre Hydravion, crashed with minor damage.  By the end of the week Fabré was able to fly over three and a half miles.

Fabré in the air astride the top beam of the Fabre Hydravion.

Fabré, born on November 28, 1882 had the perfect combination of background and training to become the first to build and fly a seaplane.  He was born into a prominent Marseilles ship building family and educated at the Jesuit College there and then in engineering at the University of Marseilles.  Unlike the Wrights, Curtis and other American aviation pioneers who were basically tinkering mechanics, Fabre was a trained scientist and engineer.  He immersed himself with everything that was known about aircraft and especially propeller design.

By 1906 he began to work on solving the challenges of building a float plane.  To do so, he had to make several innovations, especially the development of light, reliable pontoons.  To create a light weight but strong frame, Fabré designed and patented the Fabre beam—two girders joined by an internal system of rectangular struts, known as a warren truss. 

This enhanced photo illustrates the light weight but strong Fabre beams used in the wings and foreplane.

Fabré was assisted in the construction and testing of his aircraft by Marius Burdin, a former mechanic for Captain Ferdinand Ferber, the Army officer considered the Father of French Aviation, and by naval architect Léon Sebille.

Together this highly skilled team built a fragile looking buy deceptively sturdy monoplane with a frame and the leading edges of the single wing and two small foreplanes made of Fabre beams.  The pilot sat on a bicycle seat with legs astride the top beam of the frame.  A double-bladed Gnome Omega rotary 7-cylinder pusher engine provided the power.  The whole contraption sat on three pontoons, one mounted below the bottom frame beam in front the pilot, and two from the wings, all supported by strong guy wires.

Word of the successful flights soon got around and soon others interested in float plane technology beat a path to Fabré’s door.  Gabriel and Charles Voisin, proprietors of France’s first aircraft manufacturing company, bought several Fabre pontoons for use on their own Voisin Canard, a land based aircraft they converted for the French Navy.  Glenn Curtis, known as the Father of American Naval Aviation also bought Fabré pontoons which he used for the first successful U.S. float plane flight on January 26, 1911 at San Diego.  Curtis soon adapted the Fabré design with modifications to create an amphibious Model D.

Fabré took the Hydravion to the prestigious Concours de Canots Automobiles de Monaco for a demonstration flight on April 12, 1911.  This time mechanic Burdin was at the controls when he crashed and smashed the aircraft beyond repair.

Fabré never built another model.  Instead he turned his attention to the manufacture of pontoons for others, the exploitation of the Fabre beam, and other engineering and business pursuits.  He led a long and honored life and was still seen rowing on in the harbor of Marseilles as late as 1971.  He died on June 30, 1983 at the age of 101, the last of the original aviation pioneers.

This museum model of the Fabre Hydravion shows how fragile it appeared.  Note the Fabre beams used in the construction of the wing and foreplanes and the three pontoons.

As for the Hydravion, its parts were salvaged after its last flight.  Eventually it was re-assembled and restored.  It is now on display at the Musée de l’Air in Paris.

Monday, March 27, 2023

Horseshoe Bend—Old Hickory’s Other 1814 Battle


A diorama at Horseshoe Bend National Military Park depicts the members of 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 or Muskogee 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. 

This 1898 map shows the range of the Creek or Muskogee in green at the time of first contact with European settlers.  Eastern bands and those further west and along the Gulf Coast split around the War of 1812 and were in a civil war of their own.  The Seminoles in Florida were still a nation in formation made up of refugee Creeks, several local tribes, escaped slaves, and some Spanish peons.

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 of 150 white militia riflemen, 30 mixed blood Creek known as métis under Captain Dixon Bailey to intercept Red Stick Leader Peter McQueens 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.

After the battle McQueen and other Red Stick leaders called for a massing of warriors.  Raids stepped up.  Panicked settlers, their slaves, métis and other Lower Creeks sought refuge at Fort Mims, which was palisaded with a block house.  About 520 people including 230 ill trained Militia and Creek warriors, crowded into the fort which was located about 40 north of Mobile on the Alabama River.

The virtual massacre at Ft. Mims sent the Alabama frontier into a panic and led to the punitive expedition commanded by Andrew Jackson.

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 assembled 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 marched 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 Menawas 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.

                       A map of the battlefield based on rough sketch maps used by Jackson.

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.

Around noon Jackson ordered a frontal bayonet charge on the breastworks led by Colonel John Williamss 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.

                      Third Lt. Sam Houston was severely injured by an arrow in the thigh after breeching the fortifications.

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 Hickorys 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 an equally disastrous effect on the Southern tribes and entailed an even larger direct land grab.