Seminole War
The Battle of Fowltown: Day Three (Seminole War 200th)

A small natural spring bubbles up at one of the possible sites of Fowltown.

The most violent hour of the Battle of Fowltown took place 200 years ago today on November 23, 1817. It was a Sunday morning.

The battle had started two days earlier when U.S. troops tried to surround the Lower Creek town near present-day Bainbridge, Georgia, during the predawn darkness.  Resistance by Fowltown’s warriors allowed the people to escape the Army’s planned kidnapping. If you have not read the first three articles about the battle, you can access them by visiting The March to FowltownThe Battle of Fowltown: Day One and The Battle of Fowltown: Day Two.

Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle’s column of 300 men from the 4th U.S. Infantry, 7th U.S. Infantry and the Corps of Artillery approached Fowltown from the south on the morning of November 23. Neamathla and his warriors had plenty of warning this time and evacuated the women, children and elderly from the town before the arrival of the troops. The following account of the fighting that took place 200 years ago today is excerpted from the new book Fowltown:

Neamathla (Eneah Emathla) was the principal chief of Fowltown.

–Excerpt–

It was late morning by the time the troops came within site of the village:

…The town which is about eighteen miles distant from this place and four from the Bluff we entered on the 23 Instant about 10 O’clock in the morning without opposition. On our approach several signal guns were fired by the Indians who no doubt discovered one of our flanking parties but at the time that all the troops had reached the town no Indians were seen and a few yells only were heard from a swamp which skirts its north east side. I took a position near the town so as to secure the troops from any fire which might issue from the swamp, and after posting such sentinels as would prevent us from being surprised I ordered the men to refresh themselves while the waggons were loading with corn.[1]

Arbuckle was by nature a much more cautious officer than Maj. Twiggs. The fact that he approached Fowltown with flanking parties out is clear evidence that he was taking all proper steps to avoid being surprised. Such steps had likely been reinforced prior to his departure from Fort Scott by Gen. Gaines, who routinely cautioned officers under his command to be vigilant and careful.

Neamathla and his warriors attacked from Fowltown Swamp and then withdrew into the wilderness as the Battle of Fowltown came to an end.

The soldiers knew that Neamathla and his warriors were in the swamp and watching them but the intensity of the attack still took them by surprise when it hit:

…[The loading of the wagons] was done and the troops were about to march when the Indians, fifty or sixty in number (as I judge) were perceived advancing by the sentinels posted in the swamp and fired on: The fire was instantly returned by the Indians who giving the War Hoop advanced rapidly towards our lines. Parties were immediately detached to take possession of the houses between our position and the swamp which movement checked the progress of the Indians and compelled them to fall back. A spirited fire was then kept up for twenty or twenty five minutes when the Indians retreated into the Swamp. During the affair the Indians frequently appeared in the open ground and from the number which were seen to fall, there can be no doubt but six or eight were killed and many severely wounded yet as the swamp was large and uncommonly thick I deemed it not prudent to pursue them into it or search for those who fell on its edges.[2]

Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle commanded the U.S. troops at Fowltown on November 23, 1817.

Arbuckle was surprised that Neamathla would attack a much larger force over open ground. The intensity of the attack also took him off guard. The officer did not realize, however, that the corn stocks in the village were vital to the survival of men, women and children through the coming winter. The town had relocated three times in four years. Its once extensive herds of cattle were gone and the corncribs likely meant the difference between life and death for many in the community. The warriors were fighting to save their homes and families and did so against odds of roughly 6 to 1:

…A spirited fire was then kept up for twenty or twenty five minutes when the Indians retreated into the Swamp. During the affair the Indians frequently appeared in the open ground and from the number which were seen to fall, there can be no doubt but six or eight were killed and many severely wounded yet as the swamp was large and uncommonly thick I deemed it not prudent to pursue them into it or search for those who fell on its edges. The skill and valor displayed by the officers and men engaged in the little affair affords a pleasing prospect should their services be required on another important occasion. The Indians must have been deceived as to our numbers otherwise they should not have had the temerity to attack us.[3]

Whether all of the officers and soldiers fought as valiantly as Arbuckle indicated is subject to some debate. Rumors swirled after the battle that Lt. Milo Johnson of the 4th Artillery had not performed well in action. Johnson had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the Class of 1815. Notable officers to come from that class included Gen. Samuel Cooper, who became the highest-ranking Confederate officer, and Col. William Chase, who supervised construction of Fort Pickens at Pensacola, Florida. Johnson requested a chance to defend himself against the allegations being made against him:

An interpretive marker for the Village of Fowltown can be seen on Faceville Highway south of Bainbridge, Georgia.

Having understood that a report is calculating through the camp, that I behaved unlike a soldier in being separated from my compy. and while separated in the affair at Fowl Town, on the 23d of Nov. 1817. I am compelled in justice to myself to demand a court of enquiry, to investigate the truth of sd. report.[4]

No further explanation of Johnson’s actions during the battle has been found and there is no evidence in the available military records that a court martial was ever convened in his case. Subsequent events quickly overshadowed the Battle of Fowltown and the lieutenant’s conduct – whatever it might have been – was forgotten.

The Native American account of the battle was simple. Boleck and Cappachimico wrote – likely through Alexander Arbuthnot – in a letter to Gov. Charles Cameron in the Bahamas that Fowltown had been attacked by American soldiers. “Our Indians, rallying, drove the Americans from the town,” they reported, “but in their exertions had two more people killed.”[1]

The chiefs did not report the number of warriors who were wounded in the fighting, but U.S. soldiers reported seeing several fall along the edges of the swamp. Lt. Col. Arbuckle listed his own losses as 1 killed and 2 wounded. The soldier who lost his life at Fowltown was Pvt. Aaron Hughes, a regimental musician. He had joined the army at the age of 15 and served through the War of 1812 without injury. He was reportedly shot while trying to rally the troops by standing on an Indian cabin and playing his fife.[2]

Monument honoring fifer Aaron Hughes at Chason Park. He was the first U.S. soldier killed in the Seminole Wars.

The firefight lasted 15-20 minutes and ended when Neamathla and his men withdrew deeper into the swamp. Arbuckle described what happened next as a “march” but officers in his command said it was a “retreat.” The soldiers definitely moved quickly from the town and marched up the trail to Burges’s Bluff (Bainbridge).

–End of Excerpt–

The soldiers camped on the night of the 23rd – 200 years ago tonight – at the site of today’s J.D. Chason Memorial Park in Bainbridge where they began to build a small fortification that Arbuckle named Fort Hughes to honor the unfortunate fifer. Hughes’s body was brought away from the battlefield and buried at the site of the new fort. He was the first of more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers who would lose their lives to battle wounds or disease in the Seminole Wars.

Tomorrow’s article will look closer at the building of Fort Hughes.

A series of events will take place next week to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the First Seminole War. The schedule below provides the basic calendar of events. We will provide much more information over coming days.

 

[1] Cappachimico and Bowlegs to Gov. Charles Cameron, n.d., The Trials of A. Arbuthnot and R.C. Ambrister, London, 1819: 19-20.

[2] Mark F. Boyd, “Historic Sites in and around the Jim Woodruff Reservoir.”

[1] Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle to Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines, November 30, 1817, Jackson Papers, Library of Congress.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lt. Milo Johnson to Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines, November 30, 1817, Records of the Office of the Adjutant General, Letters Received.


 




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