Orders for Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson to head to the Florida frontier left Washington, D.C., 200 years ago today on December 27, 1817.
This article is part of a continuing series that marks the 200th Anniversary of the First Seminole War.
The arrival of Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines’s report announcing the destruction of Lt. Richard W. Scott’s command (see The Bloodiest U.S. Defeat of the First Seminole War) arrived in the nation’s capital over the Christmas holiday of 1817. President James Monroe’s Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun, was shocked by the news when he returned to his office on December 26th. In consultation with the President and other senior leaders, he sat down and began to write two dispatches that left his office 200 years ago today.
The first went to Maj. Gen. Gaines, who had just learned of the disaster when orders arrived from far away Washington for him to leave Fort Scott on the lower Flint River (today’s Lake Seminole) for St. Marys, Georgia, and neighboring Amelia Island, Florida:
…The fate of the detachment under Lieutenant Scott is much to be regretted; but, under all the circumstances, no blame can attach to yourself or the officers immediately concerned. When the order of the 12th November was given, directing you to repair to Amelia Island, it was hoped that the Seminoles would have been brought to their reason without an actual use of force, and that their hostility would not assume so serious an aspect. It is now a subject of much regret, that the service in that quarter has been deprived of your well known skill and vigilance.[i]
Gaines was informed that Andrew Jackson was being sent to the frontier to assume command of an army that would invade Spanish Florida and attack the Seminoles.
The government did not then – and probably still does not – understand the complex nature of the Native American alliance then in arms against the United States. Leading military officers and civilian officials usually blamed the “Seminoles” for the war and the attack on Scott’s command, not understanding that the army was facing determined resistance from Red Stick Creek, Lower Creek, Yuchi, Miccosukee, Seminole, Black Seminole and even a few Choctaw warriors. The United States also never admitted that it had started the conflict by attacking Fowltown and attempting to kidnap its chief and leading men.
Gen. Gaines was given discretion to decide his immediate course of action. If U.S. troops had completed their invasion across the St. Marys River into Spanish East Florida and had firm possession of Amelia Island – which they had – he could either return to Fort Scott and assume command there until Jackson arrived, or he could pursue a second course that Calhoun outlined in his letter:
…[I]f you should think the force under your command sufficient, and other circumstances will admit it…penetrate through Florida, and co-operate in the attack on the Seminoles. I am not sufficiently acquainted with the topography of the country between Amelia and their towns, to say whether it is practicable, or what would be the best route; but it is not improbable that some advantage might be taken of the St. John’s river, to effect the object. Should it be practicable, it is probable efficient aid might be given to the attack on them, as the attention of their warriors must be wholly directed towards Fort Scott. Should you think it practicable and advisable to co-operate, with the force under your command, you will leave a sufficient number at Amelia Island to retain the possession of that place.[ii]
The second dispatch penned by Sec. Calhoun on December 26th was to Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, the “Hero of New Orleans” and principal commander of U.S. forces in the Southeast.
Jackson was then approaching the height of his fame. Fifty years old and of emaciated appearance from the many illnesses and injuries he had suffered in life, he stood 6’1″ tall and had served as the first U.S. Senator from Tennessee before achieving distinction as a military officer. His victory over the Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend had left the Tallapoosa River running with the blood of more than 500 slain warriors and his imposition of the Treaty of Fort Jackson on the Muscogee (Creek) Nation had placed more than 22 million acres of Native American land into the hands of the United States.
Jackson was best known, however, as the American general who smashed the British at the Battle of New Orleans. In the climactic action of January 8, 1814 – a date that was honored as a national holiday during his lifetime – Jackson’s army inflicted losses on the British of 858 killed or mortally wounded and 2,468 wounded while suffering the loss of only 7 killed and 12 wounded. It was one of the most lopsided military defeats in the history of the world. (To learn more, please visit The Battle of New Orleans).
“Old Hickory” was at his home in Nashville, Tennessee, when John C. Calhoun’s orders left the War Department 200 years ago today:
You will repair, with as little delay as practicable, to Fort Scott, and assume the immediate command of the forces in that section of the southern division. The increasing display of hostile intentions, by the Seminole Indians, may render it necessary to concentrate all the contiguous and disposable force of your division upon that quarter. The regular force now there is about eight hundred strong, and one thousand militia of the State of Georgia are called into service. General Gaines estimates the strength of the Indians at two thousand seven hundred. Should you be of the opinion that your numbers are too small to beat the enemy, you will call on the Executives of adjacent States for such additional militia forces as you may deem requisite.[iii]
Calhoun told Jackson that President Monroe had tried to avoid the war – despite the fact that the attack on Fowltown had been authorized at the highest levels of the U.S. government – but was now convinced that a U.S. invasion of Spanish Florida was the only solution to the situation on the frontier.
It would take time for the dispatches to reach the generals. Until then, the war would continue with U.S. forces largely on the defensive.
This series will continue.
[i] Hon. John C. Calhoun to Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines, December 26, 1817, American State Papers, Military Affairs, Volume I, pp. 689-690.
[ii] Hon. John C. Calhoun to Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines, December 26, 1817, American State Papers, Military Affairs, Volume I, pp. 689-690.
[iii] Hon. John C. Calhoun to Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, December 26, 1817, American State Papers, Military Affairs, Volume I, p. 690.