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The First Seminole War [1817-1818] By James Parton

 

Upon the conclusion of peace with Great Britain the army was reduced to ten thousand men, commanded by two major-generals, one of whom was to reside at the North and command the troops stationed there, and the other to bear military sway at the South. The generals selected for these commands were General Jacob Browns for the Northern division, and General Andrew Jackson for the Southern, both of whom had entered the service at the beginning of the late war as generals of militia. General Jackson's visit to Washington on this occasion was in obedience to an order, couched in the language of an invitation, received from the Secretary of War soon after his return from New Orleans; the object of his visit being to arrange the posts and stations of the army. The feeling was general at the time that the disasters of the War of 1812 were chiefly due to the defenseless and unprepared condition of the country, and that it was the first duty of the Government, on the return of peace, to see to it that the assailable points were fortified. "Let us never be caught napping again"; "In time of peace prepare for war," were popular sayings then. On these and all other subjects connected with the defense of the country the advice of General Jackson was asked and given. His own duty, it was evident, was first of all to pacify, and if possible satisfy, the restless and sorrowful Indians in the Southwest. The vanquished tribe, it was agreed, should be dealt with forbearingly and liberally. The general undertook to go in person into the Indian country and remove from their minds all discontent. He did so.

It is not possible to overstate his popularity in his own State. He was its pride, boast, and glory. Tennesseeans felt a personal interest in his honor and success. His old enemies either sought reconciliation with him or kept their enemity to themselves. His rank in the army, too, gave him unequaled social eminence; and, to add to the other felicities of his lot, his fortune now rapidly increased, as the entire income of his estate could be added to his capital, the pay of a major-general being sufficient for the support of his family. He was forty-nine years old in 1816. He had riches, rank, power, renown, and all in full measure.

But in 1817 there was trouble again among the Indiansthe Indians of Florida, the allies of Great Britain during the War of 1812, commonly known by the name of Seminoles. Composed in part of fugitive Creeks, who scouted the treaty of Fort Jackson, they had indulged the expectation that on the conclusion of peace they would be restored by their powerful ally to the lands wrested from the Creeks by Jackson's conquering army in 1814. This poor remnant of tribes once so numerous and powerful had not a thought, at first, of attempting to regain the lost lands by force of arms. The best testimony now procurable confirms their own solemnly reiterated assertions that they long desired and endeavored to live in peace with the white settlers of Georgia. All their "talks," petitions, remonstrances, letters, of which a large number are still accessible, breathe only the wish for peace and fair dealing. The Seminoles were drawn at last into a collision with the United States by a chain of circumstances with which they had little to do, and the responsibility of which belongs not to them.

The Government, in the absence of a general officer from the scene of hostilities, resolved upon ordering General Jaekson to take command in person of the troops upon the frontiers of Georgia. On the 22d of January, General Jackson and his "guard" left Nashville amid the cheers of the entire population. The distance from Nashville to Fort Scott is about four hundred and fifty miles In the evening of March 9th, forty-six days after leaving Nashville, he reached Fort Scott with eleven hundred hungry men. No tidings yet of the Ten
nessee troops under Colonel Hayne! There was no time to spend, however, in waiting or surmising. The general found himself at Fort Scott in command of two thousand men, and his whole stock of provisions one quart of corn and three rations of meat per man. There was no supply in his rear, for he had swept the country on his line of march of every bushel of corn and every animal fit for food. He had his choice of two courses only: to remain at Fort Scott and starve, or to go forward and find provisions. It is not necessary to say which of these alternatives Andrew Jackson selected. "Accordingly," he wrote, "having been advised by Colonel Gibson, quartermastergeneral, that he would sail from New Orleans on the 12th of February with supplies, and being also advised that two sloops with provisions were in the bay, and an officer had been dispatched from Fort Scott in a large keel-boat to bring up a part of their loading, and deeming that the preservation of these supplies would be to preserve the army, and enable me to prosecute the campaign, I assumed the command on the morning of the 10th, ordered the live stock to be slaughtered and issued to the troops, with one quart of corn to each man, and the line of march to be taken up at twelve meridian."

It was necessary to cross the swollen river, an operation which consumed all the afternoon, all the dark night succeeding, and a part of the next Morning. Five days' march along the banks of the Appalachicolapast the scene of the massacre of Lieutenant Scott brought the army to the site of the old Negro Fort on Prospect Bluff On the way, however, the army, to its great joy, met the ascending boat-load of flour, when the men hadtheir first full meal since leaving Fort Early, three weeks before. Upon the site of the Negro Fort, General Jackson ordered his aide, Lieutenant Gadsden, of the engineers, to construct a fortification, which was promptly done, and named by the general Fort Gadsden, in honor, as he said, of the "talents and indefatigable zeal" of the builder....

On the 6th of April the army reached St. Marks, and halted in the vicinity of the fort. The general sent in to the Governor his aide-decamp, Lieutenant Gadsden, bearing a letter explanatory of his objects and purposes. He had come, he said, to chastise a savage foe, who, combined with a lawless band of negro brigands, had been for some time past carrying on a cruel and unprovoked war against the citizens of the United Slates." He had already met and put to flight parties of the hostile Indians. He had received information that those Indians had fled to St. Marks and found protection within its walls; that both Indians and negroes had procured supplies of ammunition there; and that the Spanish garrison, from the smallness of its numbers, was unable to resist the demands of the savages.

"To prevent the recurrence of so gross a violation of neutrality, and to exclude our savage enemies from so strong a hold as St. Marks, I deem it expedient to garrison that fortress with American troops until the close of the present war. This measure is justifiable on the immutable principle of self defense, and can not but be satisfactory, under existing circumstances, to his Catholic Majesty the King of Spain." [So added Jackson. ]

The Governor replied that he had been made to understand General Jackson's letter only with the greatest difficulty, as there was no one within the fold who could properly translate it. He denied that the Indians and negroes had ever obtained supplies, succor, or encouragement from Fort St. Marks. On the contrary, they had menaced the fort with assault because supplies had been refused them. With regard to delivering up the fort entrusted to his care, he had no authority to do so, and must write on the subject to his Government. Meanwhile he prayed General Jackson to suspend his operations. "The sick your Excellency sent in," concluded the polite Governor, "are lodged in the Royal Hospital, and I have afforded them every aid which circumstances admit. I hope your Excellency will give me other opportunities of evincing the desire I have to satisfy you. I trust your Excellency will pardon my not answering you as soon as requested, for reasons which have been given you by your aide-decamp. I do not accompany this with an English translation, as your Excellency desires, because there is no one in the fort capable thereof, but the before-named William Hambly proposes to translate it to your Excellency in the best manner he can."

This was delivered to General Jackson on the morning of the 7th of April. He instantly replied to it by taking possession of the fort! The Spanish flag was lowered, the Stars and Stripes floated from the flagstaff, and American troops took up their quarters within the fortress. The Governor made no resistance, and indeed could make none.

When all was over, he sent to General Jackson a formal protest against his proceedings, to which the General briefly replied: "The occupancy of Fort St. Marks by my troops previous to your assenting to the measure became necessary from the difficulties thrown in the way of an amicable adjustment, notwithstanding my assurances that every arrangement should be made to your satisfaction, and expressing a wish that my movements against our common enemy should not be retarded by a tedious negotiation. I again repeat what has been reiterated to you through my aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Gadsden, that your personal rights and private property shall be respected, that your situation shall be made as comfortable as practicable while compelled to remain in Fort St. Marks, and that transports shall be furnished, as soon as they can be obtained to convey yourself, family, and command to Pensacola."

Alexander Arbuthnot, a Scotch trader among the Indians, was found within the fort, an inmate of the Governor's own quarters. It appears that on the arrival of General Jackson he was preparing to leave St. Marks. His horse, saddled and bridled, was standing at the gate. General Jackson had no sooner taken possession of St. Marks than Arbuthnot became a prisoner. "In Fort St. Marks," wrote General Jackson, "an inmate in the family of the Spanish commandant, an Englishman by the name of Arbuthnot was found. Unable satisfactorily to explain the object of his visiting this country, and there being a combination of circumstances to justify a suspicion that his views were not honest, he was ordered into close confinement.

For two days only the army remained at Fort St. Marks. Suwanee, the far famed and dreaded Suwanee, the town of the great chief Boleck, or Bowlegs, the refuge of negroes, was General Jackson's next object. It was one hundred and seven miles from St. Marks, and the route lay through a flat and swampy wilderness, little known and destitute of forage. On the 9th of April, leaving a strong garrison at the fort, and supplying the troops with rations for eight days, the general again plunged into the forestthe white troops in advance, the Indians, under General McIntosh, a few miles in the rear.

The army made slow progress, wading through extensive sheets of water; the horses starving for want of forage, and giving out daily in large numbers. Late in the afternoon of the third day the troops reached a "remarkable pond," which the Indian guides said was only six miles from Suwanee town. At sunset the lines were formed, and the whole army rushed forward.

But the prey had been forewarned. A letter from Arbuthnot to his son had reached the place and had been explained to Bowlegs, who had been ever since employed in sending the women and children across the broad Suwanee into those inaccessible retreats which render Florida the best place in the world for such warfare as Indians wage. The troops reached the vicinity of the town, and in a few minutes drove out the enemy and captured the place. The pursuit was continued on the following morning by General Gaines; but the foe had vanished by a hundred paths, and were no more seen.

In the evening of April 17th the whole army encamped on the level banks of the Suwanee. In the dead of night an incident occurred which can here be related in the language of the same young Tennessee officer who has already narrated for us the capture of the chiefs and their execution. Fortunately for us, he kept a journal of the campaigns This journal, written at the time partly with a decoction of roots and partly with the blood of the journalistfor ink was not attainablelay for forty years among his papers, and was copied at length by the obliging hand of his daughter for the readers of these pages. "About midnight of April 18th," wrote our journalist "the repose of the army, then bivouacked on the plains of the old town of Suwanee, was suddenly disturbed by the deep-toned report of a musket, instantly followed by the sharp crack of the American rifle. The signal to arms was given, and where but a moment before could only be heard the measured tread of the sentinels and the low moaning of the long-leafed pines, now stood five thousand men, armed, watchful, and ready for action. The eagle of the alarm was soon made known. Four men, two whites and two negroes, had been captured while attempting to enter the camp. They were taken in charge by the guard, and the army again sank to such repose as war allows her votaries. When morning came it was ascertained that the prisoners were Robert C. Ambrister, a white attendant named Peter B. Cook, and two negro servantsAmbrister being a nephew of the English governor, Cameron, of the Island of New Providence, an ex-lieutenant of British marines, and suspected of being engaged in the business of counseling and furnishing munitions of war to the Indians in furtherance of their contest with the United States. Ignorant of the situation of the American camp, he had blundered into it while endeavoring to reach Suwanee town to meet the Indians, being also unaware thatthe latter had been driven thence on the previous day by Jackson."

Ambrister was conducted to St. Marks and placed in confinement, together with his companions. The fact that through Arbuthnot the Suwanee people had escaped, thus rendering the last swift march comparatively fruitless, was calculated, it must be owned, to exasperate the mind of general Jackson.

The Seminole War, so called, was over for the time. On the 20th of April the Georgia troops marched homeward to be disbanded. On the 24th General McIntosh and his brigade of Indians were dismissed. On the 25th General Jackson, with his Tennesseeans and regulars, was again at Fort St. Marks. It was forty-six days since be had entered Florida, and thirteen weeks since he left Nashville.

Ambrister had been connected with Arbuthnot in trading enterprises, and was believed to have headed some Indians and negroes in their defense of Suwanee. General Jackson put Arbuthnot and Ambrister both on trial for their lives before a court martial. Arbuthnot was accused of exiting and stirring up the Indians to war with the United States and of furnishing them the means to carry it on. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. Ambrister was also found guilty, and by two-thirds of the court was sentenced to death, but his case came up for reconsideration, when the sentence was changed to fifty stripes on the bare back and confinement at hard labor with ball and chain for twelve months. Jackson had both men executed by hanging. The case aroused much controversy in the country. A majority of the Military Committee of the Lower House of Congress condemned Jackson's action. The case, on being put to a vote of the House, resulted in 62 for disapproval and 103 against it.