Seminole War
“Scarcely room to swing a cat” (Seminole War 200th)

A reconstructed blockhouse in Fort Gaines, Georgia.

A detachment of U.S. troops under Capt. George Birch arrived at Fort Gaines on the Georgia frontier 200 years ago today. So many people had crowded into the fort for protection from attack that Birch noted there was “scarcely room to swing a cat.”

This article is part of a continuing series that marks the 200th anniversary of the first year of the Seminole War. Please click here to read other articles in the series.

The detachment had camped about 15 miles south of Fort Gaines near present-day Blakely on the night of St. Valentine’s Day before continuing its march up the Three Notch Trail on the morning of the February 15, 1818. Capt. Birch already knew from a courier encountered on the 13th that a large force of Seminole, Miccosukee and Red Stick warriors were rumored to be on the move against Fort Gaines (please see “Nearly scared them to Death”). Entering the third day of their march from Fort Scott, however, the soldiers had encountered no resistance.

Soldiers of the 7th U.S. Infantry Living History Association march along the original Fort Scott road on December 1, 2017.

They had marched two or three miles on the morning of the 15th – 200 years ago today – when they heard the sound of approaching hoof beats. The riders turned out to be a party of mounted men from Fort Scott under Lt. Brady who brought orders for Birch to backtrack to that post:

I have since tatoo received information of a large party of Indians being on their way to Fort Gaines. They are there before this time. You will therefore fall back to this place with all possible dispatch, your party being to small to proceed without too much hazard. [I]

The information on which Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle had based these orders came from the same courier that Birch had encountered on the first day of his march. Because he was less than one day’s march from Fort Gaines but more than two days’ march from Fort Scott, the captain decided to continue forward. He did take the precaution of sending the mounted men to scout the situation ahead:

The reconstructed keelboat Aux Arc is an example of the type boat that the soldiers were ordered to complete at Fort Gaines.

…I directed Lieut. Brady to proceed on, that I should not return, until I heard from him, and continued my march and got within three miles of Fort Gaines before I met his express; with news that all was safe and quiet, I then pushed on and arrived there at half past three o’clock, put my men in the fort where there was scarcely room to swing a cat for men, women and children. All the inhabitants of the country had taken refuge there for fear of the Hostiles. [II]

Troops had already moved all of the corn stocks from area farms into Fort Gaines to protect it from capture or destruction. Food was therefore sufficient to feed the mass of people crammed into the stockade, but conditions there must have been miserable. The fort was small, designed to house only two companies of troops – around 160 men. The only quarters were in the two blockhouses that stood on diagonal corners of the square fort and most of the refugees were living in the open interior under whatever shelter they could find or make.

The winter of 1817-1818 was exceptionally cold. Ankle-deep snow had already been reported across Southwest Georgia, winds were brisk and conditions were raw. With so many people crowded into the small fort, the parade ground was likely churned to mud and sickness was rampant.

On the other hand, Capt. Birch and his small command had arrived without encountering the 300 warriors who were said to be moving against the fort. They would begin work the next morning to complete the keelboat that was being built on the riverbank below the bluff on which Fort Gaines stood.

This series will continue.

[I] Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle to Capt. George Birch, February 14, 1818.

[II] Diary of Maj. George Birch, 1809-1825 (manuscript).

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