Today is the 203rd anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, the American victory that paved Andrew Jackson’s path to the White House.
While Jackson’s role in the battle has been explored thousands of times, few people realize that some of Florida’s most important Native American chiefs watched the British disaster from across the battlefield. These same leaders would command Seminole, Miccosukee and Muscogee (Creek) forces when the Seminole War broke out in 1817-1818.
This article is part of a continuing series that marks the 200th anniversary of the Seminole Wars. Please click here to read other articles in the series.
Admiral Alexander Cochrane commanded the British fleet that assembled off the coast of Louisiana in December 1814. On board were the troops that Great Britain hoped would seize New Orleans and march up the Mississippi River Valley. Treaty negotiations were underway in Belgium and both sides expected the agreement to include a provision that the War of 1812 would end with Great Britain and the United States holding the lands they possessed upon ratification. If the British could take New Orleans and the Mississippi Valley, they would hem in the United States and control the destiny of North America.
Among the troops on board Cochrane’s ships was the battalion of Colonial Marines raised in Florida by Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls and Maj. George Woodbine. Most of the men in the battalion were maroons (escaped slaves) or free blacks who joined in exchange for freedom papers offered by the British. They had trained in Pensacola and at Prospect Bluff on the Apalachicola River and Admiral Cochrane had stopped his flagship HMS Tonnant and other vessels off Apalachicola Bay while en route to New Orleans to pick them up.
The admiral’s stop off the west end of St. George Island also gave him the opportunity to invite a delegation of Seminole, Miccosukee and Muscogee (Creek) chiefs aboard the Tonnant for dinner and talks. The men accepted Cochrane’s invitation to join the campaign as observers and were provided with British uniforms and other gifts. Many of the admiral’s officers, however, were not impressed:
…Some of them appeared in their own picturesque dresses at first, with the skin of a handsome plumed bird on the head and arms; the birds beak pointing down the forehead, the wings over the ears, and the tail down the poll. But they are now all in hats (some cocked, gold-laced ones), and in jackets such as are worn by the sergeants in the Guards, and they have now the appearance of dressed-up apes. (1)
This description was written by Cochrane’s fleet captain, the future Admiral Sir Edward Codrington. His account of a chief wearing the skin of a plumed bird on his head matches descriptions of Red Stick prophets from the Creek War of 1813-1814. The individual so dressed may have been the Prophet Josiah Francis, who is known to have been included in the delegation that went aboard the Tonnant. Others in the group included the primary Seminole chief Thomas Perryman and the Miccosukee head chief Cappachimico. They had allied themselves with the British on the Apalachicola and commanded more than 2,500 warriors who were ready to join in an expected invasion of Georgia that would follow the taking of New Orleans.
Things, however, did not go as planned. The chiefs witnessed the preliminary phases of the Battle of New Orleans and then were present as observers when the main British attack on Line Jackson took place 203 years ago today. Col. Benjamin Hawkins, the U.S. Agent for Indian Affairs, later spoke with a Red Stick chief who gone with the delegation from the Apalachicola to witness the battle and wrote his account verbatim. Hawkins identified him as “Ecunchat Emautlau of the Hickory Ground”:
…”The British officers say they have beaten Jackson, and will soon take him prisoner. I saw all the fights, he beat them in every one. The British had more men than Jackson. On the 8th they said they would fight him before his men arrived and take the town. They attacked him and after four hours fighting got back leaving the field of battle to the American breastworks covered with killed and wounded. They lost three great Generals among them the head one I saw dead. (2)
The Red Stick chief saw things clearly. As he reported to Hawkins, the Battle of New Orleans was a disaster for the British. They tried to attack Jackson’s fortified line over open ground and the U.S. artillery, rifle and musket fire cut them to pieces. General Sir Edward Pakenham was killed and his army lost 858 killed or mortally wounded and 2,468 wounded. Jackson lost 7 men killed and 12 wounded.
The chiefs returned to Florida in January 1815, still stunned by what they had seen on the plain of Chalmette. They remained willing to fight, but the disasters of Horseshoe Bend and New Orleans led them to change their tactics in the coming Seminole War. They would avoid head-on battles with Jackson’s army and instead focus on disrupting U.S. supply lines and attacking only when they had a reasonable chance of success.
This series will continue. Please click here to learn more about the Battle of New Orleans. Also be sure to enjoy the videos below!
(1) Sir Edward Codrington, letter dated December 14, 1814, in Memoir of the Life of Admiral Sir Edward Codrington (Abridged Edition), Page 239.
(2) Col. Benjamin Hawkins to Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, February 27, 1815, Jackson Papers, Library of Congress.