Dade Battle & the Second Seminole War
Dade Battlefield Historic State Park preserves the scene where Native American warriors inflicted one of the most significant defeats on the U.S. Army in American history. The battlefield is in Bushnell, Florida.
Seminole, Miccosukee and maroon (Black Seminole) warriors attacked Maj. Francis Dade and a column of 109 U.S. soldiers on December 28, 1835. For Native Americans, the Second Seminole War was already underway. For the United States, however, the battle drew the nation into a conflict that would cost thousands of lives and continue for years to come.
Tensions were extremely high in Florida when Major Dade and 109 officers and men marched out from Fort Brooke (today’s Tampa) on December 23, 1835. The U.S. government was attempting to force the Seminoles to relocate to new lands west of the Mississippi, but hundreds of Seminole chiefs and warriors opposed the move. Several small encounters took place in the month’s leading to the attack on Dade’s command – most significantly the incident at Hickory Sink and the Battle of Black Point – but these were small when compared to the attack of December 28, 1835.
Dade and his men were marching to reinforce the garrison at Fort King, a frontier stockade on the present site of Ocala. The column included two companies of men from the 2nd and 3rd U.S. Artillery and a single 6-pounder field cannon, along with a few men from the 4th U.S. Infantry. They were wary of possible attack, having been warned that 250 warriors waited for them somewhere along the road, but the danger seemed to have diminished by the 28th when they emerged from thick swamps and began marching through open pine lands.
The day was very cold. More relaxed now that they had emerged from a region of thickets and swamps, the major allowed his soldiers to wear their heavy coats over their cartridge boxes, bayonets and other equipment. The advance guard, followed by Maj. Dade, marched about 200 yards ahead of the main column. Because they were now moving through open pine woods, the major failed to send out scouts and flankers.
Ransom Clark (or Clarke), who survived the attack, remembered that Dade had just promised them three days of Christmas rest after reaching Fort King when the first rifle shot rang out:
At the time of the attack, this guard was about a quarter of a mile in advance, the main body following in column, two deep. The Chief’s rifle was followed by a general discharge from his men, and Major Dade, Captain Frazier, and Lieut. Mudge, together with several non-commissioned officers and privates, were brought down by the first volley. [I]
The Seminoles were concealed in tall grass and palmettos, completely invisible to the soldiers. Halpatter Tustenuggee – called “Alligator” by the whites – remembered that the warriors formed in the undergrowth on the west side of the road at a point it passed by a pond, which lay to the east. An officer on a horse passed by and, when the column was less than 20 yards away, the Seminole leader Jumper suddenly gave a war cry:
…Micanopy fired the first rifle, the signal agreed upon, when every Indian arose and fired, which laid upon the ground, dead, more than half the white men. The cannon was discharged several times, but the men who loaded it were shot down as soon as the smoke cleared away; the balls passed far over our heads. The soldiers shouted and whooped, and the officers shook their swords and swore. [II]
Survivors John Thomas and Ransom Clark later told Capt. F.S. Belton at Fort Brooke that fifteen rounds were fired by the warriors before the soldiers ever even saw them. The soldiers returned fire as best they could, aiming at puffs of smoke and flame coming from the high grass and palmettos. [III]
There was a pause in the battle after the first onslaught. The survivors thought this was due to the fire of the soldiers and their cannon, but Halpatter Tustenuggee said simply that the attacking warriors thought the engagement was over:
…As we were returning to the swamp, supposing all were dead, an Indian came up and said the white men were building a fort of logs. Jumper and myself, with ten warriors, returned. As we approached, we saw six men behind two logs placed one above the other, with the cannon a short distance off. This they discharged at us several times, but we avoided it by dodging behind the trees just as they applied the fire. We soon came near, as the balls went over us. [IV]
The rest of the warriors – around 180 in number – rejoined the battle as well. Archaeologists later found piles of flattened rifle balls at the site of the log breastworks. The shooting continued here until not a man of Dade’s command remained able to return fire. The warriors then surged forward, shooting or tomahawking any that showed signs of life. They carried away the soldier’s muskets and pushed the 6-pounder cannon into the pond just east of the battlefield.
Only four of the soldiers survived the battle. Three of these – Ransom Clark, Joseph Sprague and John Thomas eventually made it back to Fort Brooke on Tampa Bay with news of the defeat. A fourth, according to Clark, was killed by a warrior they encountered on the road to the fort. A fifth man, Dade’s interpreter Louis Pacheco, also survived the attack. He was captured in the opening minutes of the battle and spared because he was African American.
The military dead lay unburied for nearly two months until Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines marched a force to the battlefield in February 1836. Capt. Ethan Allen Hitchcock was part of that command. He described how they first saw scattered boxes and other debris, along with a cart with the skeletons of a team of oxen still in their harnesses:
…We then came to a small enclosure, made by felling trees in such a manner as to form a triangular breastwork for defence. Within the triangle, along the north and west faces of it, were about thirty bodies, mostly mere skeletons, although much of the clothing was left upon them. These were lying, almost every one of them, in precisely the same position they must have occupied during the fight, their heads next to the logs over which they had delivered their fire, and their bodies stretched with striking regularity parallel to each other. They had evidently been shot dead at their posts, and the Indians had not disturbed them, except by taking the scalps of most of them. Passing this little breastwork, we found other bodies along the road, and by the side of the road, generally behind the trees which had been resorted to for covers from the enemy’s fire. [V]
U.S. casualties at Dade’s battle were Brevet Maj. Francis Dade and 7 officers, 2 non-commissioned officers and 96 enlisted men killed, 4 wounded and 1 civilian interpreter captured. One of the wounded men was killed well away from the scene on the day after the battle.
Native American casualties are more difficult to estimate. Halpatter Tustenuggee told Capt. John T. Sprague that only 3 warriors were killed and 5 wounded. A prisoner taken near Fort Brooke in the following weeks gave a slightly higher estimate, telling Capt. Francis Belton that “the cannon broke legs, arms &c. but puts the number of wounded & killed very low, 13 & 7.” [VI]
Maj. Dade and his men were buried in mass graves on the battlefield by Gen. Gaines and his men in February 1836. The bodies were taken up in 1842 and moved to what is now the St. Augustine National Cemetery where they were reburied in vaults topped by stone pyramids. One of Dade’s officers, Capt. Upton Fraser, may not be among them. He may have been buried separately at Fort Brooke and remains bearing his name were exhumed and relocated to Barrancas National Cemetery at Pensacola. A headstone there marks his grave.
The defeat of Dade’s command, coupled with Osceola’s killing of U.S. Indian Agent Wiley Thompson on the same day, sent a shock wave through the United States. The disaster was magnified a few days later when Brig. Gen. Duncan Lamont Clinch and a large command was badly mauled by Seminole forces on the Withlacoochee River.
The Second Seminole War continued until 1842. Soldiers forced thousands of Seminole and Miccosukee men, women and children from their homes in Florida to new lands in what is now Oklahoma. Hundreds more black Seminoles were either returned to slavery or also sent west on the Trail of Tears. More than 1,400 U.S. soldiers were killed or died of disease, along with untold numbers of noncombatants – white, black and Native American. The economic cost of the war was a major drain on the federal budget and in the end small groups of Seminoles and Miccosukees still held out in the swamps of the Big Cypress and Everglades. Their descendants live in Florida to this day.
Dade Battlefield Historic State Park includes the preserved battlefield area, reconstructed log breastworks and a museum/visitor center as well as picnic areas and walking trails. The park is open daily from 8 a.m. – sunset. Museum hours are 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
To reach the park from Interstate 75, take Exit #314 (County Road 48) at Bushnell, Florida. Turn east toward downtown Bushnell. Turn right (south) on County Road 603 and follow it to the battlefield, which will be on your right. The address is 7200 CR 603; Bushnell, Florida. Entry is $3 per vehicle. See the map below for directions.
Also of interest in the immediate area are Fort Cooper State Park in Inverness and the site of the Battle of Wahoo Swamp, between Bushnell and Floral City on County Road 48 West. The U.S. soldiers killed in the battle are buried beneath the Dade Pyramids at St. Augustine National Cemetery.
[I] Statement of Ransom Clark, given to a U.S. Army officer, published in the Camden (SC) Commercial Courier, July 8, 1837.
[II] Statement of Halpatter Tustenuggee, given to John T. Sprague, published in Sprague’s The Origin, Progress and Conclusion of the Florida War, New York, 1848
[III] Capt. Francis S. Belton to the Brevet Brig. Gen. Roger Jones, January 1, 1836, published in numerous newspapers of the time.
[IV] Statement of Halpetter Tustenuggee.
[V] Capt. Ethan Allen Hitchcock to Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines, February 22, 1836, in John T. Sprague, The Origin, Progress, and Conclusion of the Florida War, pp. 108-109.
[VI] Capt. Francis Belton to Brevet Brig. Gen. Roger Jones, January 14, 1836, Adjutant General, Letters Received, National Archives.