The bloodiest U.S. defeat of the First Seminole War took place 200 years ago today on November 30, 1817. Lt. Richard W. Scott and almost his entire command were wiped out in an attack at what is now Chattahoochee, Florida.
This article is part of a series marking the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Seminole Wars. Visit Seminole War 200th to read the entire series.
The bend of the Apalachicola River one-mile below its source at Lake Seminole is a beautiful place today. The wide river sparkles in the afternoon sun of a clear day and waves lap against the shore of River Landing Park, a popular spot for picnicking, boating, fishing and sightseeing. It is difficult to imagine that one of the most critical battles in American history took place here on a Sunday morning in 1817.
A U.S. Army keelboat carrying Lt. Richard W. Scott, 39-40 soldiers, 7 women and 4 children had been making its way up the river for several days (see Lt. Scott’s last message). The lieutenant had been sent down from Fort Scott on the lower Flint River with a detachment of 40 men to assist two supply ships trying to navigate the Apalachicola up to that post. Maj. Peter Muhlenberg, 4th U.S. Infantry, exchanged 20 of the lieutenant’s able-bodied men for 20 of his own men who were unarmed and sick with fever. Along with the civilians and a supply of regimental clothing, the sick men were placed aboard Scott’s boat and he was ordered to take them up to Fort Scott. It proved to be a disastrous decision.
Despite warnings that Red Stick Creek, Seminole, Miccosukee, Lower Creek, Yuchi and Black Seminole warriors were preparing an ambush ahead, Lt. Scott continued to make his way upstream. He approached the bend one mile below the forks of the Chattahoochee and Flint at around midday on November 30, 1817.
So few people survived the disaster that happened next that it is difficult to reconstruct exactly what happened, but the following is the story as excerpted from the book The Scott Massacre of 1817: The First U.S. Defeat of the Seminole Wars:
As the boat entered the widest part of the arc of the bend, it was pushed hard by the full force of the water pouring from the river’s two main tributaries. The Apalachicola was beginning its winter rise, a fact that made its current even stronger. The vessel was pushed from the center of the river towards the east bank as the men pulled hard on their oars to maneuver it against the current and around the bend. Their forward progress stalled as the current ran hard against the side of the boat and drove it ever closer to the bank. All that could be seen there were the trees and bushes of the swamp and the focus of the lieutenant and his men was devoted almost entirely to the navigation of the large bend so that they did not run aground in the shallows.[i]
The chill of the morning replaced by the heat of the adrenalin running through their veins, hundreds of warriors waited in the thick trees and brush that lined the east bank at the point where the boat would be forced closest to shore. Stripped for battle and painted in their traditional colors and designs, they took careful aim with their rifles and muskets and waited for the signal to open fire.
…While Homathlemico probably did lead the attack, the force that assembled to attack Lieutenant Scott’s boat did not operate with the same degree of command and control seen in a regiment or brigade of the U.S. Army. The warriors from each town or band fought grouped together and under the leadership of their own war chief. The warriors of each of these groups understood the strategy and tactics by which the battle was to be fought, but they functioned more as independent war parties fighting together to achieve a common objective than they did as individual parts of a cohesive organization. On November 30, 1817, however, the organization of the Indian force did not matter as much as its size. Lieutenant Scott had only 20 able-bodied men, while the total strength of Homathlemico’s command cannot even be accurately estimated. He must have had at least 500 warriors at his disposal, probably many more. This gave the attackers a numerical superiority of more than 25 to 1 over Scott’s command. The difference in firepower was devastating.
Lieutenant Scott and his men were focused almost entirely on getting their boat around the bend and into the straight channel that would take them up to the confluence when the east bank of the Apalachicola River suddenly erupted with a solid wall of flame:
[The survivors] report that the strength of the current, at the point of the attack, had obliged the lieutenant to keep his boat near the shore; that the Indians had formed along the bank of the river, and were not discovered until their fire commenced; in the first volley of which Lieutenant Scott and his most valuable men fell.[i]
The explosion of gunfire from the trees and bushes along the bank all but annihilated the able-bodied portion of Scott’s command. The lieutenant and most of his armed men went down without ever firing a shot. The boat now floated on the current and in minutes was pushed aground in the shallows. The various war cries of the Red Stick Creek, Seminole, Yuchi and African warriors rose above the scene, drowning out the terrified screams of the women and children of Lieutenant Scott’s party.
Among the soldiers on the boat that day was a man identified only by his last name, Gray. Badly wounded in the first volley, he was still at Fort Scott when Major General Andrew Jackson arrived there in March 1818 at the head of a brigade of Georgia militiamen. In the campfires of the army camps, Gray described the speed and ferocity with which the attack took place:
…As those on board were hooking and jamming (as the boatmen called it) near the bank, and opposite a thick canebrake, the Indians fired on them, killing and wounding most of those on board at the first fire. Those not disabled from the first fire of the Indians made the best fight they could, but all on board were killed except Mrs. Stuart and two soldiers Gray, and another man whose name I have forgot, if I ever knew it; they were both shot, but made their escape by swimming to the opposite shore.[ii]
Gray’s account of the battle was preserved by Major Thomas Woodward, a noted frontiersman and Georgia militia officer who served with William McIntosh’s Creek Brigade during Jackson’s Florida campaign. While his memories of the soldier’s story were not perfect when he wrote them down forty years later in a letter to John Banks, a Georgia militia soldier who also served in the invasion, Woodward’s account remains the only known detailed description of the battle as originally provided by a participant.
Either six or seven soldiers actually survived the battle, not just the two remembered by Woodward, but otherwise the details of his account are consistent with the reports of the fight sent by General Gaines to the Secretary of War, General Jackson and Governor Rabun of Georgia. The “Mrs. Stuart” mentioned by Woodward was Mrs. Elizabeth Stewart, the wife of a soldier from the First Brigade. Her husband was not part of Scott’s party, having taken part in the land march to Fort Scott. His wife and six other women (also wives of soldiers) were on board the vessel, along with four small children. Of these eleven civilians, only Mrs. Stewart survived:
…Lieut. Scott and his Party…were fired on by a party of Indians about two miles from the mouth of the river, and without being able to make any defence fell into their hands, except seven, six of whom came in the succeeding day (five of them wounded). The seventh I understand is at this time with some friendly Indians. The women and children were all killed at that time or since murdered except one who not being wounded is at this time a prisoner with them.[iii]
According to Woodward’s memories of Gray’s account, the warriors waded into the water and stormed the boat as it ran aground in the shallows on the east side of the river. Because Lieutenant Scott and most of his able-bodied men had gone down in the first volley, there was little the sick soldiers, women and children on the vessel could do to defend themselves. In fact, Gray related that the only real resistance put up by the men of Scott’s command came in the form of a remarkable last stand by Sergeant Frederick McIntosh from Twiggs’ Company, 7th U.S. Infantry:
…When he found all on the boat were lost, and nothing more could be done, he went into a little kind of cabin that the Lieutenant had occupied as his quarters, in which was a swivel or small cannon; loaded it, took it on deck, and resting the swivel on one arm ranged it as well as he could, and (the Indians by this time were boarding the boat) with a fire-brand, he set off the swivel, which cleared the boat for a few minutes of Indians. At the firing of the swivel he was thrown overboard and drowned, and this clearing of the Indians from the boat for a short time gave Gray a chance to escape.[iv]
According to Woodward, Sergeant McIntosh was a well-known figure on the Florida frontier. A member of the force that invaded Florida in support of the Patriot Revolt of 1812, McIntosh was described by Woodward as a Scotchman who had served in Colonel Thomas A. Smith’s unsuccessful investment of St. Augustine in 1812. Popular with both officers and the enlisted men, McIntosh was said to be a cousin of William McIntosh, the Coweta chief who served under Jackson in both the Creek War of 1813-1814 and the First Seminole War. Woodward remembered that, “Sergeant McIntosh was a man of giant size, and perhaps more bodily strength than any man I have known in our service.”[v]
Woodward, as should be expected, was both accurate and inaccurate in his memories of Sergeant McIntosh as recorded 40 years after the man’s death. According to his actual enlistment records, McIntosh was enlisted in the U.S. Rifles by Colonel Thomas Smith between February and April of 1813 for the duration of the War of 1812. Woodward was correct in his memory that McIntosh had been born in Scotland and that he had served in support of the Patriot Revolt in East Florida. His enlistment record confirms that he was from Scotland and that he had enlisted at Camp New Hope in East Florida.[vi]
On the other hand, the sergeant was not a large and powerful man as remembered long after the fact by Thomas Woodward. His enlistment record indicates that he was 5’10” tall with blue eyes, fair hair and fair complexion when he enlisted at the age of 27 in 1813. Discharged at the end of the War of 1812, the sergeant left the service for a time but then reenlisted on March 5, 1817, in Twiggs’ Company, 7th Infantry, as a sergeant. He came back into the army as a substitute for a soldier with the curious name of Young Blood.[vii]
The sergeant’s act of heroism in taking up the small cannon in his bare hands and firing it at the warriors as they swarmed over the bulkheads of the boat cost him his life, but created an opportunity for Gray and the other five male survivors to escape. The soldiers able to do so, all but one of whom were wounded, went over the sides of the vessel and swam away under the water. They swam across the current of the Apalachicola and pulled themselves from the river on the Jackson County shore. Others might also have attempted to escape in this way, but if they were severely wounded, the river could have certainly claimed their lives before they reached the opposite bank.
The survivors appear to have been rescued by the inhabitants of the villages of Mulatto King and Yellow Hair on the Jackson County side of the river. As was noted earlier, the chiefs and most of the people of these towns tried to remain at peace with the United States during the war. In notifying Major Muhlenberg of the disastrous fate of Lieutenant Scott’s command on December 2, 1817, Major Clinton Wright noted that one of the surviving men was then “with some friendly Indians.”[viii]
Things did not go well for the wounded men, women and children trapped on the boat. The fate of the most helpless of these was particularly gruesome. Peter Cook, the store clerk of Alexander Arbuthnot, heard accounts of the attack first hand from some of the Seminole or Red Stick participants who described how the children aboard Scott’s vessel were put to death. He repeated these descriptions in a letter sent from the Suwannee River to Miss Elizabeth Carney in the Bahamas just six weeks after the Scott Massacre:
There was a boat that was taken by the Indians, that had in it thirty men, seven women, four small children. There were six of the men got clear, and one woman saved, and all the rest of them got killed. The children were took by the leg, and their brains dashed out against the boat.[ix]
The fate of the men and women found wounded in the boat was no better. Killed with hatchets and clubs, they were scalped and their bodies otherwise mutilated. Scalps recognized by the hair as having belonged to the men, women and children of Scott’s party were later found adorning a wooden pole in the primary Seminole villages near Lake Miccosukee.
Of the women, later reports indicate that at least two survived the initial bloodshed. One of these was Elizabeth Stewart:
…Mrs. Stuart was taken almost lifeless as well as senseless, and was a captive until the day I carried her to your camp. After taking her from the boat, they (the Indians) differed among themselves as to whose slave or servant she should be. An Indian by the name of Yellow Hair said he had many years before been sick at or near St. Mary’s, and that he felt it a duty to take the woman and treat her kindly, as he was treated so by a white woman when he was among the whites. The matter was left to an old Indian by the name of Bear Head, who decided in favor of Yellow Hair.[x]
The identity of the other woman carried away from the scene of the attack was not recorded and little is known of what happened to her other than that she became too exhausted to keep up with the warriors as they withdrew from the river. She was killed.
The veracity of Woodward’s account of the captivity of Mrs. Stewart is difficult to assess. The Yellow Hair mentioned by him could not have been the chief of Yellow Hair’s town near the battle site or she would have been taken back to Fort Scott. The statement that the Yellow Hair responsible for saving the woman did so to repay a kindness paid to him many years before by a woman on the St. Mary’s indicates at least circumstantially that he was a Seminole. It is known for a fact, however, that she was with Peter McQueen’s band of Red Sticks when she was freed by Andrew Jackson’s army following the Battle of Econfina during the spring of 1818.
The exact number of people killed and wounded in the attack on Scott’s party is difficult to determine with precision. The military reports and private letters from officers at Fort Scott dating from the days and weeks after the attacks give various estimates. General Gaines himself reported that Scott’s vessel was carrying the lieutenant, 40 soldiers and seven women. Of this number, he reported, six men and one woman survived. The general’s estimate, then, would place total losses in the attack at 34 or 35 men, 6 women and 4 children killed. Five men were wounded and one woman – Mrs. Stewart – captured.[xi]
–End of Excerpt–
You can see and learn more in this video from Two Egg TV:
Chattahoochee, FL will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the attack on Scott’s command with a major living history event at River Landing Park tomorrow and Saturday (Dec. 1 & 2) from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. each day.
[i] Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines to the Secretary of War, December 2, 1817; Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines to Gov. William Rabun, December 2, 1817.
[i] Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines to the Secretary of War, December 2, 1817, American State Papers, Indian Affairs, Volume II, p. 687.
[ii] Gen. Thomas S. Woodward to Col. John Banks, June 16, 1858, Woodward’s Reminisences.
[iii] Maj. Clinton Wright, Assistant Adjutant General, to Maj. Peter Muhlenberg, December 2, 1817, Office of the Adjutant General, Letters Received, 1805-1821, National Archives.
[iv] Gen. Thomas S. Woodward to Col. John Banks, June 16, 1858.
[vi] U.S. Army, Register of Enlistments, 1798-1815, National Archives.
[viii] Maj. Clinton Wright, Assistant Adjutant General, to Maj. Peter Muhlenberg, December 2, 1817.
[ix] Peter B. Cook to Elizabeth A. Carney, January 19, 1818, included in Message of the President of the U. States to Congress, 25th March, 1818, published in the New York Mercantile Advertiser, January 6, 1819, p.2.
[x] Gen. Thomas S. Woodward to Col. John Banks, June 16, 1858.
[xi] Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines to the Secretary of War, December 2, 1817, American State Papers, Indian Affairs, Volume II, p. 687.