This was one of the most troublesome, expensive and unmanageable Indian wars in which the United States had been engaged; and from the length of time which it continued, the amount of money it cost, and the difficulty of obtaining results, it became a convenient handle of attack upon the administration; and in which party spirit, in pursuit of its object, went the length of injuring both individual and national character. It continued about seven yearsas long as the Revolutionary Warcost some thirty millions of moneyand baffled the exertions of several generals; recommenced when supposed to be finished; and was only finally terminated by changing military campaigns into an armed occupation by settlers. All the opposition presses and orators took hold of it, and made its misfortunes the common theme of invective and declamation.
Its origin was charged to the oppressive conduct of the administrationits protracted length to their imbecilityits cost to their extravaganceits defeats to the want of foresight and care. The Indians stood for an innocent and persecuted people. Heroes and patriots were made of their chiefs. Our generals and troops were decried; applause was lavished upon a handful of savages who could thus defend their country; and corresponding censure upon successive armies which could not conquer them. All this going incessantly into the Congress debates and the party newspapers, was injuring the administration at home, and the country abroad; and, by dint of iteration and reiteration, stood a good chance to become history, and to be handed down to posterity.
At the same time the war was one of flagrant and cruel aggression on the part of these Indians. Their removal to the west of the Mississippi was part of the plan for the general removal of all the Indians, and every preparation was complete for their departure by their own agreement, when it was interrupted by a horrible act. It was the 28th day of December, 1835, that the United States agent in Florida, and several others, were suddenly massacred by a party under Osceola,2 who had just been at the hospitable table with them: at the same time the sutler and others were attacked as they sat at table: same day two expresses were killed: and to crown these bloody deeds, the same day witnessed the destruction of Major Dade's command of 112 men, on its march from Tampa Bay to Withlacootchee. All these massacres were surprizes, the result of concert, and executed as such upon unsuspecting victims. The agent (Mr. Thompson) and some friends were shot from the bushes while taking a walk near his house: the sutler and his guests were shot at the dinner table: the express riders were waylaid, and shot in the road: Major Dade's command was attacked on the march, by an unseen foe, overpowered, and killed nearly to the last man. All these deadly attacks took place on the same day and at points wide apartshowing that the plot was as extensive as it was secret, and cruel as it was treacherous; for not a soul was spared in either of the four relentless attacks.
It was two days after the event that an infantry soldier of Major Dade's command appeared at Fort King, on Tampa Bay, from which it had marched six days before, and gave information of what had happened. The command was on the march, in open pine woods, tall grass all around, and a swamp on the left flank. The grass concealed a treacherous ambuscade. The advanced guard had passed, and was cut off. Both the advance and the main body were attacked at the same moment, but divided from each other. A circle of fire enclosed eachfire from an invisible foe. To stand was to be shot down: to advance was to charge upon concealed rifles. But it was the only coursewas bravely adoptedand many savages, thus sprung from their coverts, were killed. The officers, courageously exposing themselves, were rapidly shotMajor Dade early in the action. At the end of an hour successive charges had roused the savages from the grass (which seemed to be alive with their naked and painted bodies, yelling and leaping), and driven beyond the range of shot.
But the command was too much weakened for a further operation. The wounded were too numerous to be carried along: too precious to be left behind to be massacred. The battle-ground was maintained, and a small band had conquered respite from attack: but to advance or retreat was equally impossible. The only resource was to build a small pen of pine logs, cut from the forest, collect the wounded and the survivors into it, as into a little fort, and repulse the assailants as long as possible. This was done till near sunsetthe action having began at ten in the morning.
By that time every officer was dead but one, and he desperately wounded, and helpless on the ground. Only two men remained without wounds, and they red with the blood of others, spirted upon them, or stained in helping the helpless. The little pen was filled with the dead and the dying. The firing ceased. The expiring lieutenant told the survivors he could do no more for them, and gave them leave to save themselves as they could. They asked his advice. He gave it to them; and to that advice we are indebted for the only report of that bloody day's work. He advised them all to lay down among the deadto remain stilland take their chances of being considered dead. This advice was followed. All became still, prostrate and motionless; and the savages, slowly and cautiously approaching, were a long time before they would venture within the ghastly pen, where danger might still lurk under apparent death.
A squad of about forty negroesfugitives from the Southen States, more savage than the savagewere the first to enter. They came in with knives and hatchets, cutting throats and splitting skulls wherever they saw a sign of life. To make sure of skipping no one alive, all were pulled and handled, punched and kicked; and a groan or movement, an opening of the eye, or even the involuntary contraction of a muscle was an invitation to the knife and the tomahawk. Only four of the living were able to subdue sensations, bodily and mental, and remain without sign of feeling under this dreadful ordeal; and two of them received stabs, or blowsas many of the dead did. Lying still until the search was over, and darkness had come on, and the butchers were gone, these four crept from among their dead comrades and undertook to make their way back to Tampa Bayseparating into two parties for greater safety.
The one that came in first had a narrow escape. Pursuing a path the next day, an Indian on horseback, and with a rifle across the saddle-bow, met them full in the way. To separate, and take the chance of a divided pursuit, was the only hope for either: and they struck off into opposite directions. The one to the right was pursued; and very soon the sharp crack of a rifle made known his fate to the one that had gone to the left. To him it was a warning, that his comrade being dispatched, his own turn came next. It was open pine woods, and a running, or standing, man visible at a distance. The Indian on horseback was already in view. Escape by flight was impossible. Concealment in the grass, or among the palmettos, was the only hope; and this was tried. The man laid close: the Indian rode near him. He made circles around, eying the ground far and near. Rising in his stirrups to get a wider view, and seeing nothing, he turned the head of his horse and galloped offthe poor soldier having been almost under the horse's feet. This man, thus marvelously escaping, was the first to bring in the sad report of the Dade defeatfollowed soon after by two others with its melancholy confirmation.
And these were the only reports ever received of that completest of defeats. No officer survived to report a word. All were killed in their placesmen and officers, each in his place, no one breaking ranks or giving back: and when afterward the ground was examined, and events verified by signs, the skeletons in their places, and the bullet holes in trees and logs, and the little pen with its heaps of bones, showed that the carnage had taken place exactly as described by the men. And this was the slaughter of Major Dade and his commandof 108 out of 112; as treacherous, as barbarous, as perseveringly cruel as ever was known. One single feature is some relief to the sadness of the picture, and discriminates this defeat from most others suffered at the hands of Indians. There were no prisoners put to death; for no man surrendered. There were no fugitives slain in vain attempts at flight; for no one fled. All stood, and fought, and fell in their places, returning blow for blow while life lasted. It was the death of soldiers, showing that steadiness in defeat which is above courage in victory.
And this was the origin of the Florida Indian war: and a more treacherous, ferocious, and cold-blooded origin was never given to any Indian war. Yet such is the perversity of party spirit that its authorthe savage Osceolahas been exalted into a hero-patriot; our officers, disparaged and ridiculed; the administration loaded with obloquy. And all this by our public men in Congress, as well as by writers in the daily and periodical publications. The, future historian who should take these speeches and publications for their guide (and they are too numerous and emphatic to be overlooked), would write a history discreditable to our arms, and reproachful to our justice. It would be a narrative of wickedness, and imbecility on our partof patriotism and heroism on the part of the Indians: those Indians whose very name (Seminole-wild), define them as the fugitives from all tribes, and made still worse than fugitive Indians by a mixture with fugitive negroes, some of whom became their chiefs.3
1 From Benton's "Thirty Years' View."
2 Osceola, the Seminole chief, was born in Georgia in 1804 and died at Fort Moultrie, S. C., where he was a prisoner, in 1838. He was the son of an English trader and an Indian woman.
3 Of the way itself, its nature and causes, Mr. Schouler says in his "History of the United States": "This was the last serious obstruction offered by our Indian population to the national plan, nearly carried out already, of transferring them bodily to the west side of the Mississippi. Farther and farther removed from the encroaching surge of civilized settlement, their cries grew fainter, and their chastisement, when necessary, henceforth devolved upon the United States regulars, our only professional soldiers. Seldom again, as in earlier days, was the war-whoop to pierce with alarm, even in border villages; for the tribal alliances were ruptured, and Indian wars from henceforth were skirmishes which occasion might force at the outposts of distant reservations. President Jackson's imperious orders had taken effect in all quarters save one.
"Far down at the peninsula of sandy Florida a last stand was made by Osceola and his Seminoles for the abiding-place of their ancestors. The war was a bloody and expensive one; lasting seven years, costing some twenty millions or more as another item to score under the purchase price of these old Spanish dominions, and baffling some of the best and bravest American generals. The treaty for the transfer of these tribes to the far West, signed in 1832, ratified in 1834, postponed at the solicitation of their chiefs till 1836, and then solemnly renewed, the Seminoles broke with treachery and massacre. The war which followed was bequeathed by Jackson to Van Buren after it had lasted some eighteen months. He sent fresh men and supplies into Florida; General Jessup conquered the Seminoles in open fight; but dispersing in small parties, and favored by the climate and impenetrable swamps to which they were accustomed, they became a formidable banditti to all white settlers of the region about Florida and southern Georgia. Large appropriations were made for this war by the late Congress; but the enemy could not be crusht out.
"For this costly and cruel war, in which bloodhounds were once used, Van Buren was loaded with obloquy, just as he was called a British tool for checking the American raids into Canada. Black Hawk's tour and the pathetic tale of the Cherokees had excited in the North a sentimental pity for the Indian race, strongest, like that for the negro, in States unembarrassed by high neighborhood. This same sentiment exalted Osceola, the Seminole chief, like Black Hawk, into a patriot hero, bloodthirsty and perfidious tho he certainly was. Armed occupation of the soil by white settlers, a policy advised by Secretary Cass and army officers of experience, took at last the place of troops and military campaigns, and brought this prolonged struggle to the usual close, every Indian war ending sooner or later in the red man's subjugation."