The sounds of the gunfire, war cries and screams from the destruction of Lt. Richard W. Scott’s command could not be heard 10 miles away at Fort Scott. The fate of the lieutenant’s party remained unknown there for more than 24-hours.
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Scott’s final message reached the fort at about the hour of his death, prompting Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines to send Captain J.J. Clinch down with 40 men to reinforce the threatened party. Darkness was falling by the time the captain could get his men, arms and supplies into a keelboat that was fortified by using lumber to raise its sides. If he saw any sign of Scott’s command as he passed present-day Chattahoochee, Clinch made no mention of it in his reports.
Gaines hoped that Clinch’s command would prove sufficient for the task, but such hopes were replaced by shock just 24 hours later:
Yesterday five of his men came in all wounded. They state, that Lieut. Scott was attacked by the Indians just below the forks of the river, and the whole party killed except themselves. This is truly lamentable. I expect we shall have some very warm work before many days. The whole Indian force is supposed to be 2,800.[i]
There is confusion over exactly how many men from Scott’s command made it to Fort Scott. The above quote indicated that five men survived. Gen. Gaines reported on December 2, 1817, however, that six men came in, four of whom were wounded. Maj. Clinton Wright, the general’s adjutant, placed the number at six, five of whom were wounded. A seventh, he reported, had been rescued by Lower Creeks who were allied with the United States.[ii]
It was known at Fort Scott by the morning of December 2nd that Elizabeth Stewart had been captured. Major Wright reported, “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.” Intelligence about her arrived steadily at the post over the next several months, providing tantalizing bits of information to her husband who, contrary to some accounts, was not among the men killed in the attack. [iii]
A message was sent downstream to Maj. Peter Muhlenberg, who commanded the supply ships lower down the Apalachicola, informing him of the disaster:
…Capt. Clinch must have joined you ere this and having done so, you will make such a disposition of his boats as you may think best, either construct bulwarks with the plank thereof or sink them, but in no case suffer your men to approach the bank of the river which it is presumed you will be compelled to do should you attempt to navigate them up stream.[iv]
The two boats sent down under Capt. Clinch were propelled by oars only and would be able to return upstream against the current without approaching the bank of the river. The supply ships under Maj. Muhlenberg, meanwhile, could slowly make headway up the river only when the winds blew in the right direction to fill their sails. Muhlenberg was ordered to continue his advance but to do so with extreme caution:
You will take the advantage of every wind that will enable you to progress, keeping in the middle of the river. So soon as the militia arrives a movement will be made and arrangements to form a junction with you, either at Spanish Bluff, or below, should you not be able to ascend the river to that point before we reach it. I will again remark your boats must be kept together and in the middle of the river, where with such bulwarks as you will be able to construct it is impossible you can sustain any injury from the species of force you will have to contend with, whatever may be their number.[v]
It was at this critical juncture that unexpected orders reached Fort Scott from the Secretary of War directing Gen. Gaines to leave the post and proceed to Point Peter on the St. Marys River. President James Monroe had ordered U.S. forces to seize Amelia Island on the Florida coast and Gaines was command that operation. The orders had left Washington, D.C., nearly three weeks earlier when the situation on the border was tense but still peaceful. The Secretary of War could not have anticipated the outbreak of full scale war by the time his orders reached the frontier.[vi]
[i] Letter from an officer at Fort Scott to his father in Baltimore, December 2, 1817, published in the Massachusetts Spy, December 31, 1817, p. 2.
[ii] Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines to the Secretary of War, December 2, 1817; Maj. Clinton Wright to Maj. Peter Muhlenberg, December 2, 1817, Office of the Adjutant General, Letters Received, 1805-1821.
[iii] Maj. Clinton Wright to Maj. Peter Muhlenberg, December 2, 1817.
[vi] George Graham, Acting Secretary of War, to Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines, November 12, 1817, Office of the Adjutant General, Letters Received, 1805-1821.