The thud of distant cannon fire was heard 200 years ago this morning at Fort Scott on the lower Flint River in Southwest Georgia. It was the agreed upon signal that the U.S. supply ships on the Apalachicola River had broken free and were approaching the forks of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers.
This article is part of a continuing series marking the 200th anniversary of the Seminole War. Please visit Seminole War 200th to read more from this series.
The Battle of Ocheesee Bluff (see Battle of Ocheesee Bluff) was the longest sustained major battle of the Seminole War, a conflict that lasted from 1817-1858. The Seminole and Miccosukee people generally consider this 41-year struggle to have been a single war. White historians usually break it into three separate conflicts, the First, Second and Third Seminole Wars. Combined they represent the longest war between the United States and Native Americans in the history of the country.
The engagement began on December 15, 1817, when an army of 800-1,200 Seminole, Miccosukee, Red Stick, Lower Muscogee Creek, Yuchi, Black Seminole and Choctaw warriors led by the Prophet Josiah Francis attacked two U.S. supply ships at Ocheesee Bluff on the Apalachicola River. The scene of the battle was a curving s-shaped section of the river between today’s Calhoun and Liberty Counties in Florida. Torreya State Park now occupies the east side of the river at the site while Ocheesee Landing and Ocheesee Bluff form the west bank.
Firing from both sides of the Apalachicola, the Prophet and his warriors were able to sweep the vessels with fire from all directions due to the unique nature of the channel at the point of attack. Fifteen U.S. soldiers were killed or wounded on the first day and the fighting continued for ten days straight.
Maj. Peter Muhlenberg, the commander of the U.S. Army escort assigned to protect the supply ships, reported on Christmas Eve night that the firing seemed to be diminishing:
…The Indians still continue to annoy us, but I do not think they are in such force as they were the three first days that we were attacked. Our situation at Present is a tolerable secure one, and we shall retain it as long as it is practicable. I have dispatched the keel boat under the command Lieut. Wilson with all the iron that was on board, and a quantity of fixed ammunition. It would be advisable when the keel boat returns to send down a small boat or two as in case of movement they would be very much wanting as we have non that we can do anything with. Our boat was lost the first day – the other so much injured that it is with difficulty she can be kept a float, it will also be necessary that the keel boat should be loaded with wood on her return to this place.[i]
The wood that Muhlenberg requested was needed to strengthen the sides of the ships to better protect soldiers and crew from the rifle and musket fire of the warriors. The iron that he reported sending up on the keelboat under Lt. Wilson was needed at Fort Scott where construction of a larger keelboat was hampered by a lack of iron for use in making nails and spikes.
The major’s observation that the size of the Native American force seemed to be diminishing was accurate. The Prophet Francis had maintained his attack on the supply ships for ten days, feeding the warriors with corn and other provisions seized at the Spanish Bluff (Blountstown) plantation of William Hambly. The ammunition they used was the last of a supply moved from the Fort at Prospect Bluff (i.e. the “Negro Fort”) to the Suwannee River before that establishment was blown up by U.S. forces in 1816. A small additional supply had been received from the Bahamian adventurers Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert C. Armbrister. (Note: Armbrister’s name is usually incorrectly given as “Ambrister.”)
Ten days of constant battle had all but exhausted the supplies of the Prophet’s army and he was forced to begin sending his men home to their towns where they could be fed. The war would resume in full force when Arbuthnot and Armbrister delivered on their promises to secure shipments of arms and ammunition for the alliance.
The supply ships were able to again make progress in the days after Christmas and finally broke free of the S-shaped channel at Ocheesee Bluff. Shadowed diminishing numbers of warriors, they steadily continued upstream and came within sight of the forks of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers – today’s Lake Seminole – on the morning of December 29, 1817. The final shots from the riverbanks rang out and the last of the warriors vanished into the forests. Muhlenberg ordered the firing of two shots from his swivel guns to let Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle at Fort Scott know that he was on his way:
Two guns in quick succession have been heard reported this morning, from which I conclude you are at or near the mouth of the Flint. Should my information on this subject be correct, you will inform me to night by one of the Boats of your positions and of that of the Indians, should they still continue to annoy you, of their increased or decreased numbers, as far as your opportunity will present you to judge.[i]
The two small sailing ships would reach Fort Scott the next day, bringing the long travail of Maj. Muhlenberg and his men to an end.
The Battle of Ocheesee Bluff closed 200 years today, achieving a place in history as the longest sustained major engagement of the Seminole and Creek Wars. The Prophet Francis failed in his attempt to take the supply ships, but had kept them pinned down for nearly two weeks, killing and wounding a number of U.S. soldiers in the process. The actions on the Apalachicola, along with attacks at Fort Scott and Fort Hughes, had forced the U.S. Army to end offensive operations and with small exception it would remain on the defensive through the Winter of 1817-1818.
This series will continue. To learn more about the Battle of Ocheesee Bluff, please enjoy this free video from Two Egg TV and consider the books available at the bottom of this page.
[i] Maj. P. Muhlenburg to Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle, December 24, 1817, Adjutant General, Letters Received, NARA.
[ii] Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle to Maj. P. Muhlenburg, December 29, 1817, Adjutant General, Letters Received, NARA.