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The Second Seminole War

A conventional army’s traditional, doctrinal approach to war is highly resistant to change. Terrain, the nature of the of conflict and enemy disposition and tactics often do not matter. The United States Army, while conducting the Second Seminole War, proved this thesis comvincingly. For seven years, from 1835 to 1842, eight different generals (including such notables as Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor) fought a frustrating war against an elusive foe aided by inhospitable terrain and weather. Concentrating superior Army firepower and discipline against an enemy with no flanks, lines of communication, political or industrial bases proved impossible using conventional doctrine.

Hostile Seminoles, led by Osceola, decided not to abide by the terms of a negotiated treaty with the United States government. Under the terms of the Payne’s Landing Treaty, the Seminoles would have been re-located in Arkansas. The natives demonstrated their thoughts on forcible re-location, by first killing a government agent and then by ambushing an Army column of 150 Regulars commanded by Brevet Major Francis Dade. Nearly all of the Americans died, including Major Francis Dade on December 28, 1835. The Dade Massacre signaled the beginning of the Second Seminole War.

The three Seminole Wars had their political genesis during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. His policy of forcible relocation of various Indian tribes e.g. Cherokees, Choctaws and Creeks, out of the Eastern United States precipitated several Indian insurrections during the first half of the 19 th Century. The relocations to Arkansas “reservations” continued, even though Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 and other Indian related policies were bitterly opposed at the time by many prominent Americans, including David Crockett.

The Dade Massacre

The opening action of the war is instructive because it shows the mind set and the typical doctrine of the opposing forces. Major Dade and his column of “red leg” infantry were marching along the only established road in central Florida. The military road between Fort Brooke and Fort King was an avenue of approach known to settlers and Indians alike. For two weeks, a 180 man force, composed of Seminoles and fugitive slaves, shadowed Dade’s marching column. Slowed by wagons, oxen and one cannon, the force moved down the road with no flankers, and no scouts ahead of them. Micanopy, the Seminole war chief, had postponed the planned ambush, waiting on Osceola to join him. Osceola, with a personal grudge against Indian agent Wiley Thompson, was waiting at Fort King for a chance to kill the agent. Micanopy, realizing that he could wait no longer to launch the attack because the column was nearing its destination, gave the order for the ambush.

Coincidentally, at almost the same time, Osceola’s band ambushed agent Thompson and an Army officer outside Fort King. Meanwhile, thirty miles away, Micanopy’s warriors deployed parallel to the military road. They waited patiently for Dade’s slow moving column to come into their kill zone. The Indians’ initial volley killed or wounded half of the soldiers, including Dade, mounted on horseback, a tempting target.

The soldiers, stunned by their immediate losses, managed to fire their cannon once, scaring off the attackers momentarily. With half of the command dead or wounded, it is likely that command fell to Lieutenant Bassinger. The officer ordered breastworks built thus establishing a defensive position. The soldiers erected a rough triangular position made of deadfall and dirt. The survivors also began caring for their wounded. The Indian force moved back in against the soldiers and the fight continued until about four in the afternoon. All but four of the Americans died on the field, including Bassinger. Of these four only one survived, making his way to Fort King. The American government reacted by reinforcing American troops in Florida and ordering that the hostiles be rounded up or killed.

American Conduct of the War

Winfield Scott, the first American commander during the Second Seminole War, initiated conventional military action against the Seminoles with a Napoleonic style maneuver typical of Army doctrine at the time. Three coordinated, converging columns, attempting to concentrate in time and space, marched on the main Seminole camp near modern Lake Tsala Apopka. Although Scott’s tactic had worked before against Indians who stood and fought, the Seminoles simply scattered into the Florida swamps as the Americans approached, never to mass again in one place.

From time to time, during the seven years of war, negotiation attempts aimed at persuading the Seminoles to leave Florida for reservations in the West were conducted, interrupting the Army’s campaigns. However, the Army and the federal government did not bargain from a position of strength consequently the talks were unsuccessful. Army doctrine was unsuccessful because it did not adjust to fighting an unconventional foe.

Seminole Conduct of the War

Even though the Seminoles were primitively equipped, they maintained the initiative by hiding when outnumbered and attacking only when conditions were favorable. The standard Seminole practice was to conduct ambushes on supply convoys and raids against small, isolated outposts. The Indians, who may have numbered no more than 1,000 warriors, fought a force ten to thirty times their number to a standstill. They also had highly motivated allies: Fugitive runaway slaves. These fugitives from southern plantations had no desire to see the white man victorious, for it could have meant an end to their own independence.

While the Indians conducted a raiding logistic and combat strategy, the Army pursued their goals with a persisting combat strategy. The Indians’ avoided a stand up fight not on their terms and effectively thwarted the Army’s attempts to fight a Jominian style battle. However, the Army’s repeated failures may have prompted a sense of overconfidence and hence a change in Indian tactics. Brevet Brigadier General Zachary Taylor, commanding the 1 st Infantry Regiment, fought the decisive battle of the war on Christmas Day of 1837.

The Battle of LakeOkechobee

On December 19, Taylor received permission from army commander General Jesup to move a force of 1,032 men from Fort Gardner (on the Kissimmee River) towards Lake Okechobee in search of the Indians. The column began marching downriver the same day, and Indians began surrendering almost immediately. Taylor halted the army on December 21 to build a stockade (named after the ill fated Lieutenant Bassinger) to store his artillery, heavy baggage, and attend to 85 sick soldiers and some captured Indians.

Moving out the next morning with four days of rations, Taylor’s army moved through a large Indian camp where the cooking fires still burned. An intentionally captured Indian, deliberately pointed out to the Americans where the Seminoles had taken up position.

Located in a hummock with a half-mile of swamp in front of them, and Lake Okechobee behind them, the Seminoles had cleared fields of fire and notched tree stumps on which to steady their muskets. This force of 380-480 Indians (minus the majority of their ex-slave warriors) believed they held an impregnable position. On their right, led by Old Sam Jones, a former slave, were half the warriors. War chief Alligator led 120 in the center, and Coacoochee held the left with some 80 Indians. However, this force was not subject to the will of a single, unifying commander. Without cohesive fighting power, the Indians would fight as separate units.

It is unclear if there was any way flank the position, but the direct approach was Zachary Taylor’s preferred method anyway. An armed Seminole force ensconced on strong defensive ground with clear fields of fire offered battle and Taylor accepted the invitation. Taylor deployed the three regiments under his command, the 1st, 4th and 6th Infantry, along with some 500 Missouri volunteers in three lines facing the Seminole position across a mile of open swamp. The Missourians were in the first line, with orders to fall back and form a reserve if unable to hold their own. In the second line, deployed abreast were the 4th and 6th Infantry, numbering about 200 to 300 soldiers each. In the third was Taylor’s own 1st Infantry with much the same strength. Taylor, by keeping his own regiment as a reserve, probably figured that he could depend on his own unit’s élan and fighting power should all else fail.

At 12:30 on a pleasant Christmas Day, the combined unit advanced steadily through knee deep mud and water and thick five feet high wire grass. As the Missouri unit reached the edge of the swamp and came within range of the Seminole position, the crackle of musketry filled the air. For the first few minutes, the volunteers held their own; then the regimental commander Colonel Gentry was killed. The Missourians broke and could not be reformed.

The second line continued on and Seminole musketry began to take its toll. The Indians’ cleared fields of fire proved effective against the five companies of the 6th Infantry. The Regiment began falling back to reform after all but one of the company officers and most of the NCOs had been hit. As the second line pressed the assault, Taylor directed the 1st Infantry to the left in order to flank, at least obliquely, the Seminole position. Seeing this, the Indians under Sam Jones fired a final volley and began to withdraw. As they did so, Coacoochee’s and Alligator’s flank became untenable, and they withdrew their units as well. The Regulars successfully assaulted the Indian position, but at cost; Taylor lost a total of 26 killed and 112 wounded during the fight. The Seminoles suffered 11 killed and 14 wounded.

The battle was over by three in the afternoon. Though the Americans held the field, they did so at a disproportionate loss. Taylor’s next move was to return, via Fort Bassinger, to Fort Gardner, where he reported the capture of 180 Indians, 600 cattle, and 100 Indian horses.

This battle was significant for two reasons:

1. The US Army fought and won a regular, conventional battle according to their standard doctrine, against an unconventional foe, who fought a non-traditional battle violating the doctrine that had previously made them successful. The Seminoles, believing in the superiority of their defensive position, fought exactly the type of battle that their enemies wanted.

2. Taylor, having defeated the Indians in a stand up fight, now changed his strategy. Switching from a persisting combat strategy, he embarked on a raiding logistic strategy. The Regulars conducted zone search and destroy operations to systematically locate Indian camps and farms. The Army conducted total war by destroying the enclaves and killing warriors indiscriminately. By depriving the Seminoles of food at harvest time, the Army was able to logistically complete what the battle had started.

However, Taylor’s radical departure from the traditional doctrine displeased Washington. The War Department halted the “total” war approach seeking a resumption of peace negotiations with the hostiles. This political and diplomatic action was probably spurred, at least in part, by the public furor raised over Taylor’s use of bloodhounds to search for recalcitrant Seminoles.

In May of 1841, Colonel William J. Worth, succeeding Taylor’s replacement (Brevet Brigadier Walker K. Armistead), re-initiated Taylor’s search and destroy methodology. Through a deft combination of systematic annihilation and the destruction of Indian farming communities during the summer, Worth destroyed Seminole food supplies and practically starved the hostiles out of the Everglades. In August of 1842, President John Tyler announced to Congress that “further pursuit of these miserable beings by a large military force seems to be as injudicious as it is unavailing.” Worth was authorized to officially declare the victorious cessation of hostilities.

Future Union Army general William Tecumseh Sherman served as a lieutenant and a battery commander in the U.S. Second Artillery in Florida. He may have stored Taylor’s and Worth’s ruthless methods in his memory for future use; however, if he did, he makes no particular mention of it in his memoirs. Other future notables serving in Florida read like a Who’s Who of Civil War generals: Winfield Scott Hancock, James Longstreet, John Reynolds, John Sedgwick, George Sykes, and Ambrose Powell Hill.

The cost to the U.S. Army had been substantial: Nearly 1,600 men, through wounds or disease (especially malaria), lost their lives during those seven years. This was the most expensive Indian war the American government ever conducted. The cost to the U.S. Treasury was more than $40 million. Some four hundred civilians and thousands of Indians died during the war.

Logistics, specifically, the transportation of supplies, by wagon and boat, had been a nearly catastrophic disaster for the Army. The reviving of a legion of artificers (to repair and maintain boats and wagons), and the establishment of Army owned steamboats would all pay great dividends during the Mexican War.

Even with the official cessation of hostilities, the Seminoles won in the end, at best a Pyrrhic victory. Several hundred remained in the Everglades, resisting white encroachment on their ancestral lands. The American administration conceded a large tract of Florida by default to the Indians and concentrated its warfighting effort in the West.

Ten years after Florida’s admission to the Union in 1845, the federal government launched another effort to drive out the Seminoles, but the Third Seminole War bore no fruit. Most of the remaining Indians were paid to move west out of Florida, but even a few Seminoles remained defiant, not making peace with the government until 1934.

     Trevor N. Dupuy, The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History, Harper Collins, New York, 4th Ed. 1993.

     Mayo, Lida. Editor: Maurice Matloff, American Military History, Army Historical Series, OCMH, Washington DC. 159-161.

Artillerymen fighting as infantrymen.

Modern Tampa.

Near modern Ocala.

Florida State Park Service Exhibits, Dade Battlefield, Florida.

See Archer Jones’ The Art of War in the Western World, Oxford University Press, 1989, 54-57 for a full explanation of these terms.

At this time, Army doctrine was primarily influenced by the owrks of Henri Jomini. Jomini doctrine called for close order drill and the destruction of the enemy’s main force in open battle as the means to victory.

     Oliver Lyman Spaulding, The United States Army in War and Peace, Van Rees Press, NY, 1937, 159-161.

John K. Mahon, History of the Second Seminole War, University of Florida Press, Gainesville, 1967, 227-229.

     Olvier Lyman Spaulding, The United States Army in War and Peace, Van Rees Press, NY, 1937, 162.

     Allen R. Millet and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense, The Free Press, Macmillan Inc. New York, 1994, 143.

     William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs,

     Mayo,Lida. Editor: Maurice Matloff, American Military History, Army Historical Series, OCMH, Washington DC. 159-161. George C. Kohn, Dictionary of Wars, Anchor Books, Anchor Press/Doubleday, New York, 1987, 414.

     Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War, Macmillan Publishing Co. Ltd. New York, 1973, 67-68.

     George C. Kohn, Dictionary of Wars, Anchor Books, Anchor Press/Doubleday, New York, 1987, 414.