Seminole War
Prelude to a Disaster (Seminole War 200th)

Col. Steve Abolt of the 7th U.S. Infantry Living History Association portrays Maj. Peter Muhlenberg.

The two U.S. raids on Fowltown ignited a war along the border dividing Georgia and the Mississippi Territory (today’s Alabama) from Spanish Florida, but Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines had no way to alert and warn the supply ships that were slowly making their way up the Apalachicola River.

This article is part of a continuing series that marks the 200th anniversary of the outbreak of the Seminole War. To read the full series, please visit Seminole War 200th.

A keelboat under the command of Lt. Richard W. Scott of the 7th U.S. Infantry had left Fort Scott before the Fowltown raids on a mission to help the heavy ocean-going supply ships make their way upriver. Fighting broke out at the Lower Creek town while Scott was making his way down the Apalachicola but the lieutenant did not know it. Gen. Gaines had sent orders by Scott’s hand for the vessels to remain close together and to exercise extreme caution.

The 38-foot keelboat Aux Arc on her trailer at a recent event in Alabama. She will be under sail on both Lake Seminole and the Apalachicola River this weekend.

Keelboats were very unique vessels that traveled the rivers of America before paddlewheel steamboats made their appearance on the scene. They could carry impressive cargoes while operating in very shallow waters. The reconstructed keelboat Aux Arc will be on Lake Seminole and the Apalachicola River later this week as part of a major living history weekend in Chattahoochee. It has a cabin and is propelled with either a sail or oars and can carry several tons of cargo, yet draws only 12-inches of water. When the boat is fully loaded, its draft increases to 13-inches. (See a video of the Aux Arc underway at the bottom of this page).

Scott reached the two ships – one of which was the General Pike which had played a role in the destruction of the “Negro Fort” at Prospect Bluff the previous summer – somewhere south of present-day Blountstown. Maj. Peter Muhlenberg of the 4th Infantry, who commanded the military escort aboard the vessels, inexplicably decided to ignore the general’s orders to be cautious and sent the lieutenant back up the Apalachicola with a message for Gaines:

Scott’s party included 39-40 soldiers, 7 women and 4 children.

…The lieutenant and his party had been sent from this place, some days before, to assist Major Muhlenburg in ascending the river with three vessels laden with military stores, brought from Montgomery and Mobile. The major, instead of retaining the part to assist him, as I had advised. . .retained only about twenty men; and in their place, put a like number of sick, with the women, and some regimental clothing. The boat thus ladened was detached alone for this place. It is due to Major Muhlenburg to observe, that, at the time he detached the boat, I have reason to believe, he was not apprised of any recent hostilities having taken place in this quarter.[1]

The boat started back up the Apalachicola and reached the vicinity of the modern communities of Blountstown and Bristol 200 years ago today. On board were Lt. Scott, 39-40 U.S. soldiers, 7 women (the wives of soldiers) and 4 children. Only half of the men were armed with their muskets and bayonets. The others were so ill with fever that they were placed aboard the keelboat without their arms.

Malaria and Yellow Fever killed thousands of people during the early 19th century and plagued U.S. troops during and following the First Seminole War. The doctors of that era did not know that the illnesses were carried by mosquitoes. They believed instead that they were caused by bad air that arose from swamps and bogs. In confined spaces such as the interiors of forts or aboard ships, the diseases spread quickly. The crews of ships often carried the fevers from one port to another.

Lt. Scott’s boat would reach the Spanish Bluff vicinity of Calhoun County the next day. The frontier trader and planter William Hambly lived there at a farm that he called Poverty Hall. He would give the lieutenant a dire warning.

This short video will give you an idea of how the keelboat Aux Arc looks while underway. Just click play:

The next article in this series will be posted tomorrow. You can also learn more about the events of 1817-1818 in this free documentary from Two Egg TV. Just click play to watch:

[1] Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines to Capt. J.J. Clinch, December 2, 1817, American State Papers, Military Affairs, Volume I, pp. 687-688.

 





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