A desperate attempt to take supplies down the Flint River to Fort Scott ended in disaster and death 200 years ago today.
A keelboat carrying Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines, hero of the War of 1812, crashed into a rock and sank in Georgia’s Flint River on the night of February 23, 1818. The accident sent shock waves across the frontier:
…I send an Express to you, the object of which is to inform you of the unfortunate loss of the boat & a part of the officers of Genl. Gaines party: Majr Wright is certainly drowned, the Genl. only escaped with Life & is wandering in the woods with one soldier. Majr Nicks has arrived. I have with my command examined the river where the accident happened (about 45 miles above Fort Scott by Land) the Boat is entirely a wreck, we found where the Genl. had left a note in pencil saying that he should cross the Creek for Fort Gaines as he supposed the Troops were there. [I]
How many men were aboard the boat and how many of them drowned in the flooded river is unclear. Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson reported that Gaines had set out from Fort Early near present-day Cordele with 12 men, but other reports suggest that the actual number was smaller.
The dangerous mission had been undertaken in response to a letter from Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle which threatened the evacuation of Fort Scott if supplies were not received by this date 200 years ago (February 23, 1818). Provisions at the fort had been exhausted and Arbuckle and his men were starving. If food did not reach them, they would have to go in search of it. [II].
The abandonment of Fort Scott, however, would be a disaster for the U.S. Army and the citizens of Georgia. Shiploads of food and other supplies had been ordered from New Orleans to support Jackson’s army, which was already on the march for Florida. Without Fort Scott as a depot for the delivery of their cargoes, however, the ships would turn back to New Orleans. Jackson’s entire army would be forced to either retreat or starve.
Keelboats had been sent down the Apalachicola River to look for the supply ships but no word of their arrival in the bay had yet reached the fort. Arbuckle was afraid that his men would starve before the ships arrived and he was running out of time to do anything about it.
In addition to eliminating the only source of supply for Jackson’s army, the evacuation of Fort Scott would break the stalemate of the war and expose the entire Georgia frontier to attack.
To prevent such a disaster, Gen. Gaines set off down the Flint River in a small keelboat with a supply of meat for the soldiers at Fort Scott. No U.S. vessel had ever made the trip and there were no charts of the river. Making matters worse, the Flint was at flood-stage and sections were filled with rocks. The general, however, pledged to travel day and night in a desperate attempt to reach Fort Scott in 48-hours. The attempt ended on a rock 45-miles from its objective.
As the boat went down, the general and one soldier were able to swim through the rushing water to the west bank of the Flint. He made it with only his pants and shirt. Major John Nicks, three soldiers and the general’s personal servant made it to the east bank. The two parties of survivors could see each other, but were separated by a flooded river.
Not everyone made it out. Maj. Clinton Wright, the assistant adjutant general detailed to Gaines’s staff, drowned as did at least two other soldiers. Another man was swept downstream in the darkness but somehow found safety on an island:
Major Nicks reports that about ten miles below where the boat stove a man by the name of Johnston drifted on an island of about a mile and a half in length. He cannot swim and is on the lower point of the island. Save him if possible. Your pirogue in the large creek may answer the purpose as I presume the Island is very near the mouth of the Creek. [III]
Whether Johnston was rescued is not known.
The two parties of survivors started downstream on foot through brutally cold weather. Some of the men, Gaines included, had lost their shoes, coats and any means of keeping themselves warm. They had no food.
Maj. Nicks and the men in his group made it to Fort Scott, showing up opposite the river from the post on February 28, 1818 – 5 days after the accident. Lt. Col. Arbuckle immediately sent out a force of soldiers under Capt. John S. Allison to look for Gen. Gaines and the soldier reported to be with him:
…The Ground has been well examined & the place found where he crossed the creek about 15 or 20 miles above its mouth on the north side; on the East I have dispatched with Capt. Bee some of my best men & Indians to look for the General on that side, and on the route to Fort Gaines: also Bill & another Indian to look into any Fork of the Creek. Dr. Bell who found the note of the General & traced him to his cross place, is of the opinion that in his Exhausted State it is doubtful if he succeeded getting over. I have done all that it is in my Power to do in this direction & for want of provisions am now on my return. [IV]
Allison did manage to find two other survivors from the boat, increasing the number of rescued men to seven. Gen. Gaines and the soldier with him remained lost in the woods and Johnston remained stuck on his island. One of the men rescued by Allison reported that he had been fired on by warriors.
Lt. Col. Arbuckle notified Col. Enos Cutler at Fort Gaines to be on the lookout for the general. Cutler, however, had somehow already learned of the disaster and was sending out rescue parties:
Yours of the 28th ult. reached me on the 2nd Inst. I had the day before sent 20 Indians in pursuit of the General, & immediately after your last express, Capt. Bee left here with 20 men & 20 Indians to search on the creek you alluded to. I hope before this he is safely with you, – if he is any where on the creek you mention, the Indians will find him, it is their old hunting ground. [V]
The detachments sent out by Cutler also failed to find the missing general and the officers and men at both Fort Scott and Fort Gaines began to despair, fearing that Gaines had died in the woods. They were on the verge of losing hope when an electrifying dispatch arrived from Andrew Jackson. The commanding general also dispatched the news to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun:
…The general reached me six days after, nearly exhausted by hunger and cold, having lost his baggage and clothing, and being compelled to wander in the woods four and a half days without any thing to subsist on, or any clothing except a pair of pantaloons. I am happy to have it in my power to say that he is now with me, at the head of his brigade, in good health. [VI]
It turned out that Gen. Gaines and the soldier with him had tried first to reach Fort Scott but had found their path blocked by the flooded waters of Chickasawhatchee Creek. After moving up the north bank of the creek for 15-20 miles he finally found a place to cross but so much time had passed by then that he feared Fort Scott had been abandoned and that Arbuckle and his men were on the march for Fort Gaines.
The general then turned for Fort Gaines but quickly changed his mind and decided instead to try to reach the main army under Gen. Jackson, which he knew would be on the march for Fort Scott. Turning north, he and the soldier with him stumbled out of the woods and were saved by the soldiers in Jackson’s vanguard on March 1, 1818.
A total of 10 survivors of the wreck eventually made it back to the army. Those lost in the accident included Maj. Clinton Wright and two enlisted men. The meat intended for the garrison of Fort Scott was lost, along with everything else in the boat.
This series will continue.
[I] Capt. John S. Allison to Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, March 2, 1818.
[II] Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle to Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines, February 15, 1818.
[III] Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle to Capt. John S. Allison, February 28, 1818.
[IV] Capt. John S. Allison to Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, March 2, 1818.
[V] Col. Enos Cutler to Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle, March 4, 1818.
[VI] Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, March 25, 1818.