The Battle of Ocheesee Bluff entered its fourth day 200 years ago today. The fire of the American Indian warriors was unrelenting and the commander of the U.S. supply ships began to show signs of despair.
This article is part of our continuing series marking the 200th anniversary of the Seminole War. Please visit Seminole War 200th to read the entire series.
The keelboat sent down from Fort Scott the previous morning reached the scene of the battle during the early morning hours of December 19, 1817. Maj. Peter Muhlenberg commanded the U.S. soldiers detached to escort the two supply ships up the Apalachicola River to the fort and he was not happy to find that only 18 privates, one corporal and one sergeant had been sent to his aid:
…I was in hopes you would have been able to afford some relief to the command, as our situation demanded that something should have been done immediately, that we are not able to progress is evident, as we have the enemy on both sides of the river and therefore impracticable to carry out a warp, had we not heard from you by the keel boat this morning, it was decided that we should have attempted to return to the bay this morning.[i]
A warp was a nautical maneuver used to move a sailing ship when the wind did not cooperate. It could be done in two ways, either by using ropes stretched from land or an anchor to pull a ship forward or by sailing in a zigzag motion to allow the sails to use contrary winds to propel it forward. The former method was also known as kedging and since the reports relative to the situation on the Apalachicola refer to both “warping” and “kedging,” it is likely that Muhlenberg was referring to the later method (i.e. zigzagging) when he said that he could not “carry out a warp.”
Any attempt by the soldiers and sailors to so much as show themselves above the sides of the ships was met with a hail of gunfire from both banks of the river. The wounded men had still not been evacuated and suffered side by side with the others on the overcrowded decks of the vessels.
It often comes as a surprise to modern generations that sailing ships once navigated the Apalachicola River. As far back as at least the 1700s, however, ocean-going sloops and schooners often did travel as far upstream as the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers. The vessels used along the Gulf Coast were designed to operate in the shallow water of bays and rivers as well as on the open sea. Despite this fact, they could carry impressive amounts of cargo. If you would like to see an original 19th century schooner, drop by the St. Andrews Marina the next time you are in Panama City and check out the historic Governor Stone. Click here for more information.
The cargoes of the two ships pinned down at Ocheesee Bluff did not include much in the way of provisions, but did include something badly needed by army on the frontier – arms and ammunition. If the Prophet Josiah Francis and his warriors could capture the vessels, they would gain a critical upper hand in a war that was already going in their favor. If the ships reached Fort Scott, however, the war would likely turn in the favor of the whites.
With this in mind, Francis continued to wage a furious attack on the vessels from both sides of the Apalachicola River. The site for the attack was extremely well-chosen because the double bends in the section of the river between Ocheesee Bluff and today’s Torreya State Park allowed the warriors to fire on the ships from all four directions at once. There was little that Muhlenberg and his men cold do to respond.
The size of the Native American army, meanwhile, was growing. The attacks on Fowltown four weeks earlier had driven many previously neutral towns into the conflict against the United States. Military reports indicate that the chiefs and warriors of such towns as Ekanachatte (Red Ground), Attapulgas, Tallahassee Talofa, Tellmochesses, Ocheesee Talofa and others had now joined in the fight alongside those of Fowltown, Miccosukee, Suwannee Old Town and the Red Stick towns. The Black Seminoles of Nero’s Town were also engaged. In fact, other than the men of Iola (Blunt’s Town) and Tamathli, virtually every community south of the American line had joined the fight.
The firepower of the Prophet’s army was impressive, but so too was the drain on its supplies. U.S. Army estimates placed the strength of the force engaged in the Ocheesee Bluff attack at 800-1,200 warriors. They were rapidly expending their ammunition and consuming the stocks of provisions seized from Hambly’s Plantation at Spanish Bluff. Even so, they kept lead shot raining down on the supply ships.
The situation was rapidly becoming intolerable to Muhlenberg, who threatened to give up the fight:
…I shall now dispatch the keel boat under the command of Lieut. Gray and try to retain our present position until the night of the 21st. In case we should not hear from you or be reinforced by land we shall make the attempt to reach the Bay. Further particulars I refer you to Lieut. Gray.[ii]
The keelboat had been fortified with planks that allowed it to come and go without its crew being exposed to gunfire. Lt. Gray left the supply ships on the morning of December 19th – 200 years ago today – and began the trip back up to Fort Scott. The shallow draft of the boat allowed it to move quickly and the men could propel it upstream by rowing. Gray soon slipped free of the siege and was on his way up to Fort Scott.
The Battle of Ocheesee Bluff continued into the night and would resume the next morning for a fifth day of action.
To learn more about the First Seminole War and the Battle of Ocheesee, please watch this free video about the engagement and consider the books that are available at the bottom of this page:
[i] Maj. P. Muhlenburg to Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle, December 19, 1817, Adjutant General, Letters Received, NARA.