The Native American army of the Prophet Josiah Francis launched a massive attack against U.S. ships on the Apalachicola River on December 15, 1817 – 200 years ago today.
This article is part of a continuing series that marks the 200th anniversary of the Seminole Wars. To read the full series, please visit Seminole War 200th.
The morning of December 15 found 800-1,200 Red Stick Creek, Seminole, Lower Creek, Miccosukee, Yuchi and Black Seminole warriors positioned on both sides of Florida’s Apalachicola River along the twisting section between Ocheesee Bluff in what is now Calhoun County and today’s Torreya State Park which is across the river in Liberty County. Provisioned with corn and other supplies captured at William Hambly’s plantation (see The Killing of Chief Perryman at Spanish Bluff), they were prepared for a battle that would prove to be the longest of the Seminole Wars.
The two U.S. supply ships were ocean-going vessels that had sailed from Mobile with ammunition, regimental clothing and other supplies for the 4th and 7th U.S. Infantry regiments. They had departed Mobile Bay at about the same time that the main bodies of those regiments stepped off on their long march across South Alabama and Southwest Georgia to Fort Scott.
The site for the Prophet’s attack was carefully chosen. As it flows into the area (see map at the bottom of the page), the Apalachicola River rounds two sharp bends, one at the north end of the battlefield and another at the south. The heights on the east side provided a view of the entire scene while Ocheesee Bluff on the west bank was elevated enough to allow warriors to fire down into the ships as they attempted to pass by. Since the vessels had to move upstream by warping – that is, using a zigzag course so the sails could catch enough wind to move them forward against the current – the site would allow for close-range fire against the men on the ships no matter which way they turned.
Maj. Peter Muhlenberg commanded the 150 man escort aboard the two ships. An additional 40 men were present aboard a keelboat that had gone down from Fort Scott at the time of the attack on Lt. Richard W. Scott’s command (see The Bloodiest U.S. Defeat of the First Seminole War). The major had been cautioned to be extremely vigilant as he made his way upstream but was not entirely attentive to the warning and allowed his command to be taken by surprise:
On Monday morning the transports were attacked by Indians from both sides of the river with a heavy fire of small arms. We returned their fire, the firing has continued ever since. We have lost two men killed and thirteen wounded, most of them severely. Whether we have injured them any I am not able to say. We are now compelled to remain here, as it is impossible for us to carry out a warp, as a man cannot shew himself above the bulwarks without being fired on. [i]
One of the severely wounded men would die within the next few days.
The three vessels could not move forward or backward as the nature of the river channel allowed warriors to shoot at them from all directions. Muhlenberg and the ship captains had no choice but to drop anchor in mid-stream and return fire as best they could. The two larger ships were armed with at least swivel guns for defense against pirate attacks on the Gulf of Mexico and these were probably employed when possible, but were too small to drive off the Prophet’s forces.
The scene must have been chaotic. The war cries and shouts of the warriors filled the air, punctuated with the rattle of musket and rifle fire and the occasional boom of a swivel gun. Aboard the vessels, the sound of lead balls striking the bulwarks and masts was constant, as were the groans and cries of wounded soldiers:
…I can assure you that our present situation is not the most Pleasant not knowing how soon or whether we are to receive succor from above, the wounded are but in a bad situation owing to the vessels being much crowded, and it is impossible to make them any ways comfortable on board. Not having other means to communicate to you, I am compelled to dispatch the keal boat with instructions to make the best of his way to Fort Scott. I hope to hear from you soon with instructions how I am to proceed in my present situation. [ii]
The keelboat was able to break through the ring and fire and escape upriver because its sides had been fortified with planking before it was sent down from Fort Scott. It could also be propelled by oars, which could be pulled without any of the men exposing themselves. The two larger ships, however, could not move and would remain pinned down for days to come.
The situation was complicated for the army when a separate force of several hundred warriors attacked Fort Hughes at present-day Bainbridge, Georgia, at almost the same hour. I will post more about that attack tomorrow.
The best places to view the battlefield are Torreya State Park at 2767 NW Torreya Park Rd, Bristol, Florida and Ocheesee Landing at the east end of Ocheesee Landing Road off FL-69 between Blountstown and Grand Ridge, Florida. There is no interpretation yet about the engagement at either location, but both provide outstanding views of the river where the battle was fought.
To see and learn more about the Battle of Ocheesee, please watch this free video:
[i] Maj. P. Muhlenburg to Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle, December 17, 1817, Adjutant General, Letters Received, NARA.