As American and Spanish forces fought for control of Pensacola Bay, legal chaos erupted in Georgia 200 years ago today over the man responsible for the Chehaw Massacre.
This article continues our special series marking the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Please click here to see the entire timeline of stories.
Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson’s army spent this date 200 years ago tending to its wounded and conducting inventories following the surrender of Fort San Carlos de Barrancas. In Georgia, meanwhile, a political and courtroom battle was taking place as Maj. John Davis of the U.S. Army tried to carry out Jackson’s orders for the arrest and detention of Capt. Obed Wright of the Georgia militia.
Capt. Wright was the officer who led militia forces in the massacre of the peaceful inhabitants of the Chehaw villages in what is now Lee County. The town had supplied Jackson’s main army with desperately needed food and most of its warriors were serving in his army when the Georgia militia attacked on April 23, 1818. Wright estimated that he and his men killed 40 or 50 people, most of whom were women and children. (Please see The Chehaw Massacre).
It soon emerged that the town was attacked as its chief, Major Howard, was waving a white flag. When Gen. Jackson learned this, he ordered that Capt. Wright be taken into custody:
…Captain Wright must be prosecuted and punished for this outrageous murder, and I have ordered him to be arrised and confined in Irons untill the pleasure of the President is known upon the Subject. If he has left Hartford before my reaches, I call upon you as Govr. of Georgia to aid in carrying into effect my order for his arrest and confinement, which I trust will be afforded and Captain Wright brought to condign punishment for this unprecedented murder. [I]
The general and his main army was then on the march for Pensacola but his orders soon reached Maj. John Davis who attempted to carry them out. As he soon notified Jackson, things did not go well:
By express I hasten to communicate to you that in pursuance of your order to me of the 7th Inst. I came up with Captain Obed Wright of the Georgia Militia, in Dublin on the 24th Inst. I arrested him, and brought him on with me as far as Milledgeville, when the civil authority interfered and discharged him. [II]
A judge in Milledgeville ordered Wright released and challenged the U.S. Army’s authority over him. Maj. Davis further reported to Jackson that the judge and other officials in Milledgeville – then the capital of Georgia – were not alone in their support of the controversial captain:
So far as I have had an opportunity of discovering, the minds of the Georgians is much agitated on this occation, and many of them warmly advocate Wright’s conduct! I had to brook several insults while I had him in custody – The general impression of the rabble was that Wright would be delivered up to the Indians. The enlightened class new better, & said that you were incapable of doing such an act – I did not let the court know the extend of my orders – I only shew my first order, which directs him to be delivered over to the military authority at Fort Hawkins there to be kept in close confinement untill the will of the President be known. The Govr. of Georgia is absent at present, whether he will on his return order him to be delivered over to me on my application, or not, is uncertain, I don’t expect he will. [III]
Maj. Davis petitioned Gov. Rabun 200 years ago today for the return of Wright to military custody. After explaining that a writ of habeas corpus had been served on him to deliver up the captain, he requested that the governor “have Captn. Wright delivered to me that I may be able to keep him in confinement untill the will of the president of the U.S. be known.” [IV]
Gov. Rabun refused to deliver up Wright, defending him on the grounds that he had not been mustered into the federal service but was an officer at the state at the time of the Chehaw attack. Jackson fired off letter after letter to the governor about the matter, but the captain was never turned over for military trial.
Wright was arrested by state authorities but escaped custody on July 27, 1818. Gov. Rabun issued a $500 reward for his apprehension and return, but the captain was not captured and never faced trial for his role in the Chehaw Massacre. He later reappeared in Georgia and lived out the rest of his life in Coweta County.
This series will continue.
[I] Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson to Gov. William Rabun of Georgia, May 7, 1818, National Archives.
[II] Maj. John M. Davis to Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, May 30, 1818, Jackson Papers, Library of Congress.
[IV] Maj. John M. Davis to Gov. William Rabun, May 29, 1818, Jackson Papers, Library of Congress.