A crowd of nearly 100 people gathered at the historic Apalachicola Arsenal Museum in Chattahoochee, Florida, today, kicking off an 18-month commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War.
The history of this war once figured prominently in the history books of Florida, Georgia, Alabama and the nation, but times have changed. Few people remember it today and fewer still know why it was fought or that its results are visible all around us.
The First Seminole War was in some ways a continuation of both the War of 1812 and the Creek War of 1813-1814. Although its first pitched battle would not take place until November 1817, the series of events that led to its outbreak began with a military mistake 200 years ago this month in December 1816.
Lt. Col. Duncan Lamont Clinch’s battalion from the 4th U.S. Infantry had recently returned to Camp Crawford, a temporary outpost on the lower Flint River in Southwest Georgia, from a bloody campaign against the Fort at Prospect Bluff or “Negro Fort.” This former British post was destroyed even though it stood beyond the borders of the United States in Spanish Florida because American authorities feared that its walls and the large colony of maroons (escaped slaves) that they protected were a beacon of freedom to slaves on the plantations of Georgia, the Carolinas, the Mississippi Territory and the Creek Nation. An estimated 270 men, women and children died when a cannon shot from U.S. Gunboat #154 blew up one of the fort’s three gunpowder magazines on July 27, 1816.
Clinch and his soldiers returned to the lower Flint in early August with seven surviving prisoners in tow. One of these men, Abraham, is believed to have been the famed maroon or Black Seminole leader of that name who achieved fame as a leader and interpreter in later times. He and the others were locked away while the army sent out notices to newspapers across the south inviting their “owners” to come to the Flint River to claim and take them back into slavery.
The men of the 4th Infantry began to build a new and much stronger fort alongside the temporary log walls of Camp Crawford. They named it Fort Scott to honor Maj. Gen. Winfield T. Scott, a hero of the War of 1812. It was one of three new forts built to strengthen the U.S. claim to lands seized from the Creek Nation by the Treaty of Fort Jackson.
This treaty, named after the fort where it was signed, was signed on August 9, 1814. A “peace treaty” that ended the Creek War of 1813-1814, the Fort Jackson agreement imposed a cession of 23,000,000 acres upon the Creeks as a reparation to the United States for the costs of that war. It was signed almost entirely by chiefs who had sided with the American armies.
Not represented at the negotiations were most of the chiefs and head men of the towns and villages located in the ceded lands. Among these was Neamathla, the leader of Tutalosi Talofa (“Fowltown”), a village in Southwest Georgia.
He had played only a small role in the Creek War, having been defeated with his warriors at the Battle of Uchee Creek, Alabama, while on the march to join the Red Stick forces of Prophet Josiah Francis. Pursued by the U.S.-allied Creek forces of Major William McIntosh, the war leader of Coweta, Neamathla withdrew his people down into what are now Seminole and Decatur Counties. Not a party to the Treaty of Fort Jackson, he had no reason to believe that he would be forced to abide by its terms. He did, however, soon become an ally of the British at Prospect Bluff.
The destruction of the “Negro Fort” infuriated Neamathla because part of the arms and ammunition stockpiled there had been left for his use by the British. He withdrew all of his people to a village site near today’s Bainbridge, Georgia. This placed them opposite the Flint River and about 12-miles away from the the new fort being built by Clinch’s men. In the chief’s mind, the river represented a barrier or border across which the white soldiers should not pass.
This was the situation that existed by November 22, 1816 – 200 years ago last month – when orders arrived for Lt. Col. Clinch and his men to withdraw from Fort Scott.
The decision had been made in Washington, D.C. The size of the reorganized U.S. Army was much smaller than it had been during the War of 1812 and Creek War. Maintaining a full battalion of troops at an isolated post on the border of Spanish Florida was extremely expensive. The nation’s political leaders also believed that the destruction of the “Negro Fort” had so shocked the Native American chiefs and warriors along the frontier that they would not resist the survey and occupation by whites of the Fort Jackson treaty lands.
President James Madison and his Secretary of War, William H. Crawford, made the decision to withdraw Clinch’s battalion from Fort Scott with good intentions. The lieutenant colonel was to leave behind a subaltern and 24 men to care for the buildings and supplies. He was then to march with the rest of his battalion up the Chattahoochee River to Fort Mitchell near present-day Phenix City, Alabama. The intervening post of Fort Gaines, Georgia, was to be completely evacuated as the troops withdrew.
It was a foolhardy move. Clinch knew that tensions were high along the frontier and disobeyed the orders to leave a tiny detachment of 25 men at Fort Scott. “It would have been better to have them shot at once,” he wrote to Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines on December 26, 1816. Leaving so few men at a post so far isolated from support would have condemned them to death at the hands of the Red Sticks, Seminoles and maroons who were infuriated over the attack on Prospect Bluff. The lieutenant colonel instead pulled all of his men from Fort Scott, but left a full company at Fort Gaines.
The decision by leaders in Washington, D.C., to pull back U.S. troops from the frontier of Spanish Florida proved to be a colossal military mistake. As the last of the soldiers marched away from Fort Scott in mid-December 1816, the chiefs and warriors of the region interpreted the evacuation as a sign of fear on the part of the army. The stage was set for the First Seminole War.
The departure of the soldiers from Fort Scott took place 200 years ago this week. Today’s event at the Apalachicola Arsenal Museum marked this important moment in history and served as a kickoff for 18-months of observances that will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War.
To learn more about the First Seminole War and related events, we have several please watch for coming articles and news about other commemorative activities. We also recommend the following books:
The Scott Massacre of 1817 (Dale Cox)
Florida’s Seminole Wars: 1817-1858 (Joe Knetsch)
Seminole & Creek War Events-Revised: Revised edition (Christopher Kimball)
Fort Gaines, Georgia: A Military History (Dale Cox)
Fort Scott, Fort Hughes & Camp Recovery (Dale Cox)
Elizabeth’s War: A Novel (John Missall & Mary Lou Missall)
In addition, this short documentary on the history of Fort Scott, Fort Hughes & Camp Recovery tells the story of the all but forgotten conflict: