Thursday, March 27, 2008

March 27

On this date in 1814, the Battle of Horseshoe Bend occurred on a peninsula of the Tallapoosa River, located in what would soon be the state of Alabama. The five-hour ordeal pitted a contingent of 1000 Upper Creek warriors -- known as “Red Sticks” -- against the West Tennessee Militia, the 39th United States Infantry, and an complement of Cherokee and Lower Creek (“White Stick”) fighters, all of whom answered to the command of General Andrew Jackson.

The origins of the battle were complicated. The Creek, unlike their Cherokee or Choctaw neighbors, were a loose confederation rather than a distinct political and cultural entity; as white settlement and influence extended further and further into the old Southwest, divisions emerged among the Creek villages over the question of how much resistance should be offered against white encroachments. The so-called Lower Creek -- known as “White Sticks” -- tended to adopt a more accommodationist stance. Meanwhile, certain factions of the Upper Creek -- also known as “Red Sticks” -- urged a more forceful response.. Influenced by a pan-Indian political and spiritual revival that had swept down from the Ohio Valley over the previous years, the Red Sticks tended to regard many of their fellow Creeks as spineless collaborators who had adopted too much of the European-American culture.

By 1813, the United States and Britain had entered into a war with each other, and the Creek had become enmeshed in a civil conflict. For a while, the Red Sticks maintained an upper hand in the fight; they conquered and sacked numerous Lower Creek towns in an effort to destroy all vestiges of white influence in the region. In August 1813, Red Sticks killed hundreds of Lower Creek who had taken refuge under American protection at Ft. Mims, located North of Mobile. Though most of the victims at Ft. Mims were Indian, the episode sent the region into a complete panic. Whites feared that the Red Sticks would not only receive military assistance from Great Britain and Spain, but that they would also stir up slave revolts throughout the deep South.

Militias from Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia immediately entered the civil war on behalf of the Lower Sticks, and after several months of skirmishes throughout the region, the Battle of Horseshoe Bend brought the Creek civil war to a violent conclusion. Fortified by extensive log breastworks on a peninsula along the Tallapoosa River, more than a thousand warriors and hundreds of women and children faced off against a much larger force of Americans and their allies. Once the breastworks had been breached, however, the Creek were trapped. The battle turned into a slaughter, as the 2600 American soldiers and their 600 Indian allies had thoroughly demolished the Red Sticks. More than 500 died in battle, with hundreds more drowning or otherwise being killed in the river as they tried to flee. A few hundred managed to escape to Florida, where they took refuge with the Seminole.

Years later, Sam Houston -- who fought in the Tennessee militia under Andrew Jackson -- described the aftermath:
The sun was going down, and it set on the ruin of the Creek nation. Where, but a few hours before a thousand brave...[warriors] had scowled on death and their assailants, there was nothing to be seen but volumes of dense smoke, rising heavily over the corpses of painted warriors, and the burning ruins of their fortifications.
Five months later, the Treaty of Ft. Jackson ceded to the US more than 23 million acres of Creek territory in southern Georgia and throughout the area that would eventually become the state of Alabama. In a remarkable gesture of ingratitude, the US took land that had been held by Red Sticks as well as the Lower Creeks who had fought with the Americans.

Two decades later, President Andrew Jackson oversaw the complete eviction of the Creeks -- along with the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw -- from the old Southwest. Meantime, the former Creek lands had been opened up to white settlement, and cotton planters flooded the region, rejuvenating the institution of slavery.

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