The Seminole War entered a new phase 200 years ago today when Andrew Jackson unleashed two companies of rangers to exterminate any warriors found still breathing in the Florida Panhandle.
This article continues an extended series that commemorates the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Please click here to see the timeline of stories for the entire series.
Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson’s army was roughly 29 miles northwest of Pensacola and about to march out of West Florida when his adjutant ordered Captains Zachariah McGirth (or McGirt) and Thomas H. Boyles to raise companies and go after any living Red Sticks still in the region:
…As soon as captain M’Girt raises thirty men, he will proceed directly to Perdido, and scour the country between it and Mobile and Pensacola, putting to death every hostile warrior that may be found, preserving the women and children, and delivering them to the commanding officer at Pensacola. The subalterns will be left to raise the balance of the company, and will immediately join him at Pensacola, where the officer commanding will be instructed to
regularly muster them into service. [I]
The U.S. Army was raising the “black flag” and ordering the execution of any warrior captured. There would be no surrender for male American Indians in the Florida Panhandle.
Boyles was given similar orders:
Captain Boyle, of the said territory, is in like manner instructed and authorised to raise a company, and will proceed with captain M’Girt on raising thirty men, to aid in executing the wishes of the major general, leaving his subalterns to raise the balance of his company, who will be instructed to join him at Pensacola, and be mustered into service. [II]
The mustering of the companies meant that the captains and their men would be functioning as U.S. soldiers during their operations and not merely as Alabama militia or volunteers. This put the legal authority of the United States behind them and allowed for them to be paid, supplied and provisioned by the U.S. Army.
Zachariah McGirth (or McGirt) was a good choice for the assignment. He left Fort Mims with two slaves in a boat on the morning of August 31, 1813, planning to bring back provisions from his nearby farm. They were on the nearby Alabama River when the sounds of gunfire echoed through the swamps. Smoke could soon be seen rising from the direction of the fort. The three men hid in the swamps that night, knowing that it was beyond their ability to help, and returned to Fort Mims the next morning to find the stockade destroyed and everyone in it dead. [III]
McGirth’s wife and daughters were captured during the attack on Fort Mims and later released, but his son was killed in the fighting.
Capt. Thomas H. Boyles (or Boyle) commanded a company of spies during the War of 1812 and eventually assumed command of both his own and McGirth’s companies as their operations continued into the fall and winter of 1818-1819. He carried out several raids into the Florida Panhandle, targeting Red Stick camps along the Yellow and Choctawhatchee Rivers. He also scoured the coastline along St. Andrew, St. Joseph and Apalachicola Bays. His movements will be described in detail in later articles.
The main U.S. Army, meanwhile, crossed out of Florida 200 years ago today on the road that would take it to Camp or Fort Montgomery near the site of the destroyed Fort Mims.
This series will continue. To learn more about Zachariah McGirth and the attack on Fort Mims, please enjoy this free documentary from Two Egg TV (also available on Amazon Prime Video and on the Two Egg TV Roku channel):
[I] Col. Robert Butler, Adjutant General, orders of May 31, 1818, Adjutant General’s Office, Letters Received, National Archives.
[III] Fort Mims Restoration Association website (www.fortmims.org), retrieved May 31, 2018.