A Seminole War Encounter on New Year’s Eve
The Battle of the Withlacoochee – fought on December 31, 1835 – was part of the Second Seminole War. It took place along the Withlacoochee River near today’s city of Dunnellon, Florida.
Brig. Gen. Duncan Lamont Clinch left his fortified plantation of Fort Drane on the morning of December 29, 1835, determined to snuff out Seminole resistance to U.S. demands that their entire nation “remove” to new lands in what is now Oklahoma. He did not know that Seminole, Miccosukee, and maroon (black Seminole) warriors had destroyed the command of Maj. Francis Dade just one day earlier. (Please see Dade Battlefield Historic State Park for more information).
Clinch had with him one battalion of regular U.S. troops and two regiments of Florida Mounted Volunteers, the total numbering fewer than 800 men. The first day’s march was slow, as the officers and men adjusted to the rigors of active campaigning. The pace accelerated on the second day and they reached the Withlacoochee River on the morning of December 31, 1835. [I]
The general’s objective was a cluster of Seminole and Miccosukee towns in an area of swamps, marshes, and islands then called the Cove of the Withlacoochee. These communities were the center of Native American resistance to removal plans and the Seminoles – including the Miccosukees and Maroons – had concentrated their fighters there over previous months as the Seminole War accelerated.
The Seminoles knew that Clinch was coming. Their scouts reported his movements almost from the time he left Fort Drane and 200-250 warriors moved to meet him at the Withlacoochee. The river was running high, leaving only one ford where it could be crossed by wading. The warriors took up positions there, expecting to block the soldiers from getting across, but Clinch’s guides led him to a different spot.
The soldiers quickly found that the river was too deep to ford but spotted a canoe on the other side:
…[C]ommenced swimming horses, and sent one man over for a canoe that was seen on the opposite bank, and in it began to cross the regular troops; at 12 o’clock, there were over all the regulars, and about 50 of the militia, when we were soon informed that Indians were coming, and but a moment elapsed before a furious fire was heard in our front. [II]
Seminole scouts informed the main body of Native Americans that soldiers were already across the Withlacoochee and a rapid movement was made to oppose them. Clinch led his men from the river through a hammock to a more open area and was waiting for Brig. Gen. Richard Keith Call and the rest of the Florida Mounted Volunteers to cross when the Seminoles attacked:
…Not before one half had crossed, the Battalion of Regular consisting of about 200 men were attacked by the Enemy, who were strong & posted in the swamp & scrub which extended from the River. This little band however aided by Lt. Col. Mills, Col. Warren, Major Cooper & Lieut. Yeoman with 27 Volunteers met the attack of a savage Enemy nearly three times their number, headed by the chief Oseola – with Spartan Valor. The action lasted nearly an hour, during which time the troops made three brilliant charges into the swamp & scrub and drove the Enemy in every direction. [III]
Gen. Clinch’s report, quoted above, magnified U.S. success in the battle beyond reality. The warriors actually almost overwhelmed the U.S. regulars on the front line. Making matters worse, the main body of the Florida Mounted Volunteers either would not or could not cross to help once the battle began. Those who did, fortunately, prevented warriors from getting between the regular soldiers and the river. Officers of the time credited the victory to the personal courage of the general:
For a time the result was doubtful. But the example of the commander, cheering his brave companions, seconded by the unflinching resolution and intrepidity of his officers, satisfied the enemy, that in the contest they had commenced, they were to encounter men as resolutely determined upon expelling them from the soil, as they were prepared to defend it. [IV]
So visible in the fight was Clinch that one rifle ball passed through the sleeve of his coat while another went through his cap, almost grazing his scalp.
The U.S. troops, supported by a small number of the Florida volunteers, made three charges against the Seminoles before finally driving them away. Even that charge was fiercely resisted, with the warriors fighting against it for 10 minutes before retreating. Halpatter Tustenuggee, called Alligator by the whites, helped lead the Seminole forces in the Battle of the Withlacoochee and later told Capt. John T. Sprague that the fight ended when Osceola was wounded in one arm. [V]
Gen. Clinch and other officers later reported that they were opposed by a much larger force than their own, but in fact, the actual numbers engaged were about equal. Had the rest of the Florida Mounted Volunteers crossed over to help, Clinch’s army would have outnumbered the Seminoles about three to one. Without them, however, the general only had around 225 men while Osceola and Halpatter Tustennuggee brought about the same number of warriors into the fight.
Seminole losses in the engagement, according to Halpatter Tustennuggee, were 3 killed and 5 wounded. Two black men, slaves of the important chief Micanopy, were also killed, but it is unclear if Halpatter Tustenuggee included them in his total. The U.S. forces, meanwhile, estimated Native American losses at 40 or more.
The army’s losses in the battle were much more severe: 4 killed and 59 wounded. Lt. Col. W.J. Mills of the Florida volunteers, who took part in the fighting, wondered how more were not hurt:
Many were shot through their clothes, and some horses killed and wounded – Col. Warren’s wounded. Gen. Clinch, one ball through his cap and one through his jacket sleeve. – The firing was heavy, and the bushes literally cut up around us – how it is that more were not shot, I cannot tell. [VI]
The Battle of the Withlacoochee was a tactical victory for the U.S. Army, Gen. Clinch and his men drove back the Seminoles after heavy fighting. His campaign, however, was over. The general and his soldiers withdrew back across the Withlacoochee as soon as possible, ending their plans for a strike against the Seminole and Miccosukee towns in the Cove of the Withlacoochee. Clinch’s army retreated the 30 or so miles back to Fort Drane and the Florida Mounted Volunteers, the terms of their enlistments having expired, headed for home.
The Seminoles achieved a significant strategic victory on the Withlacoochee, giving them more time to prepare for the army’s next assault.
The site of the battlefield is not developed for public visitation, but an idea of the general terrain can be obtained by visiting the nearby Halpata Tastanaki Preserve in Dunnellon, where the Battle of Camp Izard was fought two months later. The preserve features 8,146 acres along the Withlacoochee River and offers nearly 17 miles of multi-use trails. The address is 15430 SW CR 484, Dunnellon, Florida. Please click here for more information.
Also of interest nearby are Rainbow Springs State Park, Dade Battlefield Historic State Park, and the Withlacoochee State Forest. The city of Dunnellon is a great base for exploring the history and natural scenery of the Withlacoochee and Rainbow Rivers. Please click here to learn more.
[I] Lt. Col. W.J. Mills, Circular to the Good Citizens of Duval and Nassau Counties, January 3, 1836, published in the New York Evening Post, January 19, 1836.
[III] Brevet Brig. Gen. Duncan Lamont Clinch to Brevet Brig. Gen. Roger Jones, January 6, 1836, Adjutant General, Letters Received, National Archives.
[IV] John T. Sprague, The Origin, Progress, and Conclusion of the Florida War, New York: 1848.
[VI] Samuel Parkhill and J.S. Lyttle, Return of the Killed & Wounded at the Battle of the Withlachuchy on the 31 day of December 1835, Adjutant General, Letters Received, National Archives; Lt. Col. W.J. Mills, Return of killed and wounded in the battle of Withlacoochee, Dec. 31st, 1835, published in the New York Evening Post, January 19, 1836.