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History of the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842

revised edition, by John K. Mahon, former professor of history at the University of Florida
published by Univ of Florida Press / Gainesville 1985

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I special-ordered this from Blue Heron Books, an appealing local bookstore I enjoyed in Key West, FL. I wanted to learn more about the war that my ancestor James Madison Abbott of TN had participated in (and maybe find a clue about why my great-great uncle born in Alabama was named Zachary Taylor Robinson...). There's not a lot about the TN volunteers - most of what there is, is right on this page - but I couldn't have been more pleased with the text. Mahon seems to have done a very thorough job of examining the aspects of this unhappy conflict. He first looks at the history and differences of the Indian groups concerned; examines the series of treaties signed in Florida - and the ways in which they were concluded; considers logistics; recounts the early hostilities; then proceeds to cover the period commander-by-commander, including the governors of Florida and each military leader, always keeping in mind the larger political picture. Mahon is no one's apologist and has no axe to grind. His depictions of Edmund Pendleton Gaines, Winfield Scott, Richard Keith Call, Thomas Sidney Jesup, Zachary Taylor, Walker Keith Armistead and William Jenkins Worth will interest any student of the U.S. military as well as those interested in this particular theatre. Fascinating reading - unemotional and quite un-sensationalistic reporting of many grim events; and a realistic look at a "war" that was unevenly carried forward.

These passages are quoted from:

Chapter 9: "Richard Keith Call"

The command in Florida remained ill-defined for so long that at last, on May 30, Governor Call again wrote directly to the President. He was sharply critical of Scott's campaign, and boldly sanguine about what he himself could do if officially given the task. Here was his proposal: use the Withlacoochee as a supply line, for by means of the river supplies could be brought within twenty miles of the hostile villages in the Cove; feint an attack with horsemen while supplies and men were being pushed up the river in fortified boats at night; when prepared and in position, beat Osceola once and the Seminole war spirit would wither. Jackson liked this proposal. It was the only way, he scrawled on the letter, to put a speedy end to the war. It "will redeem us from that disgrace which now hangs over us." Where was General Clinch? the President continued; if Call had not received the supreme command he should have it. In spite of Presidential nudging, it was June 18 before Secretary Cass finally determined that Scott was out of Florida, that Clinch had resigned, and that the way was open for Call to take over. On June 21, 1836, Call at length received from the Secretary of War the sanction he had so avidly sought.

... ... ... ... ... Hard though it might be, Call had to try to yoke citizen soldiers and regulars together into an effective force. When he assumed command, there were only about 1,000 regulars in Florida and 230 citizen soldiers. He could not start his promised campaign until he had somehow doubled this force. It happened that at this time militia and volunteers from Georgia and Alabama were becoming harder and harder to recruit for duty in Florida, especially after fighting against the Creeks broke out in their own states. Few wanted to serve in the peninsula during the "sickly season." Some said they would run away if drafted, others threatened bodily harm to anyone who undertook to conscript them.

This resistance made it necessary to go beyond the states bordering Florida to secure citizen soldiers. Since the traditional recruiting ground was Tennessee, General Scott, then in the Creek country, called for 2,500 Tennessee volunteers, 1,000 to be used against the Creeks and 1,500 to go to Florida. But Call waited in vain all summer for the detachment assigned to Florida. They had started on schedule in June, only to be held in Alabama to fight against the Creeks. Call was not informed of the change in plans. It was September before they were released from Alabama. To make matters worse, it appeared that they might then refuse to go on to complete their term in Florida. But one of their influential officers made the peninsular service a point of honor. Death in Florida, he said, was better than dishonor at home. Few Tennesseans could resist such an appeal, and most of them agreed to continue until the end of their six-months enlistment.

... The summer of 1836 was a time of frustrations for the new commander in Florida. It was an uncommonly sickly season, and Call himself was from time to time severely indisposed. Fever, coupled with Indian aggressiveness, brought about the gradual abandonment of the interior of the peninsula. Out of six companies at Fort King only 166 men were fit for duty. ...

... ... ... ...

Weather and fever continued to take their toll. Lieutenant Wheelock committed suicide on June 15, 1836. The living suffered terribly. (Major) Heilman urged the War Department to send mounted troops because the intense heat and burning sands rendered foot soldiers useless after one day's march. Even with mounted men it would be hard to accomplish much in the fiery summer. ... Then the fever struck Heilman too, and by June 27 he was dead. Like Wheelock, he was to receive no other memorial than to have a short-lived log fort on Black Creek named for him.

... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...

General Call could not begin his operations until the Tennessee volunteer brigade arrived. Its progress toward the fight is easy to trace because of a revealing diary kept by Lieutenant Henry Hollingsworth. When they first entered Florida, the Tennesseans came to believe that their misgivings had been chimerical, for they found West Florida inhabited by happy people and dotted with fine farms. Encouraged by what they saw, and mindful of their state, they spruced up to enter Tallahassee. Down the main street they went, 1,200 strong, on September 11, 1836, but they created no more stir in the capital than if they had been a procession of farm wagons.

One resident of Tallahassee, however, was so delighted to see them that he dragged himself up from the sick bed where he had lain for a week sweating out a burning fever. This was R.K. Call, and the next day, he led them, plus 140 Florida militia, toward the Suwannee River. The Tennesseans commenced to meet the Florida they had dreaded, "swampy, hammocky, low, excessively hot," Hollingsworth complained, "sickly and repulsive in all its features." They were not encouraged when they reached the famous river on September 24 and found only one small boat provided to ferry the whole brigade across. They paused here five days for provisioning and preparation.

Getting this brigade across the Suwannee was the least of General Call's worries. What if General Jesup should turn up in Florida before he got a chance to show his mettle as commander? Unable to stand the suspense, he wrote Jesup tendering him the command. Even though that officer was nearly finished with his assignment in the Creek country, he declined to assume control until Call had had an opportunity to carry out his planned campaign. He even offered to serve in a subordinate capacity. ...

The same day that the Tennessee brigade reached Tallahassee (September 18, 1836), the opening action of Call's campaign took place. ... [There were small battles, but Call had hoped to find and defeat a great number of Indians at Fort Drane on October 1: and instead, when the army arrived, the Indians had fled - possibly forewarned.]

For nine or ten days thereafter this portion of the army had to remain amidst the charred ruins of Fort Drane, abandoned in July and burned later by the Indians. When supplies ran low, the volunteers blamed Call. On October 8 Major B.K. Pierce reached the ruins with a few days' supplies and 200 regulars, and the inactivity ended. The reinforcements raised Call's strength to about 1,350, and he turned toward the Cove of the Withlacoochee.

On the twelfth the advance guard came upon forty or fifty Indians, and killed fourteen of them. The next day it emerged upon the bank of the Withlacoochee nearly opposite the Cove. Protected by cannon, the scouts and advance guard began to cross. A withering fire which was too hot to bear lashed them from the west bank while they were trying to swim their horses. Perhaps they could have made it on rafts, but there were not enough axes to build them. In the interest of mobility, Call had left the axes behind. He now had to rely on a party of Tennesseans he had sent downstream a few miles to attempt a crossing. That party overran an Indian village on the east side but could not reach the west bank because the river was badly swollen by rain.

The general apparently accepted the fact that he was temporarily restricted to the east bank of the Withlacoochee. A council of officers agreed with him that the best course was to advance northward along the river's edge. With this movement they could reach Read's depot. The new course was held for a day or two, and then it was discovered that the army was nearly out of food. Horses were dying by the score for lack of forage; at least 600 perished during the campaign. Every morning the volunteers burned a dozen or so saddles rather than carry them on foot. And their grumbling rose as high as the smoke, for they had come to fight, they said, not to hike. When advance scouts could not locate Read's depot, resupply became the decisive factor in command decisions. Call reluctantly turned the column back to Drane, where it arrived hungry and disaffected on October 17. The much vaunted offensive had not provoked even one major engagement.

... Call was obliged to send the Tennessee mounted men 105 miles northeastward all the way to Garey's Ferry where they could be subsisted. When these starving men reached the abundance of the depot, they ate until they vomited, and then filled up again.

Call held the foot troops with him at Drane where they were augmented on October 19 by the Creek regiment, 750 strong. That unit had reached Fort Brooke at the end of September and had at once started for the interior. On the last day of the month it had had the mentioned sanguinary encounter with the Seminoles on the margin of the Cove. Afterwards the regiment had crossed the Withlacoochee (although Call had not been able to do it because of opposition and high water), and continued to Fort Drane. There it was arranged that the Creeks should wear white turbans in combat lest their friends mistake them for the enemy. Their progress must have been difficult, for the day of their arrival at Drane, their commander, Colonel John F. Lane, retired to his tent and ran a sword into his brain through his right eye. The official explanation was that he was deranged by fever and fatigue. Whatever the reason, thus passed a versatile man, at once street fighter and the inventor of a bridge which was successfully used during the war.

Lane's death left Lieutenant Colonel Harvey Brown in command of the Indian regiment. Call, with this unit at his disposal, now began to formulate fresh plans to end the war. Elsewhere more powerful persons than he were making contrary dispositions. Rumors of Call's campaign reached Washington, and so did Lieutenant Alexander M. Mitchell from the combat zone. Since the general's own report never arrived at the capital, the Administration took action on the basis of such information as it had. Rumor and Mitchell both said that Call had been battling ill health. President Jackson was astounded and angry that his long-time friend should have come to the very edge of the Seminole heartland, and then turned back. There were no reasons which in Jackson's eyes could justify such retrogresion. Accordingly, under his orders, Acting Secretary of War Benjamin F. Butler wrote a harsh letter on November 4 to the Florida commander. The President, it read, was regretful and surprised Call had not attacked. He was also disappointed that the general had started a campaign without adequate supplies. Call's retrograde movement had given heart to the Indians. Next came the high explosive: due to his ill health, said Butler, Call was relieved of the command and ordered to turn it over to General Jesup as soon as the latter should arrive. Jesup, who had reached Apalachicola on October 13, received there the order to take over.

Fortunately for Call's peace of mind, he did not receive Butler's letter for nearly a month. In the meantime, he launched in happy ignorance the grand attack he had designed from the first. With his diverse force of Tennessee volunteers, Florida militia, regulars, and Creek Indians, numbering close to 2,500 effectives, he sallied out of Fort Drane. On November 13, one month to the day after the previous failure, Call's army stood again on the banks of the Withlacoochee. The main body crossed without opposition at a point where the river was 220 yards wide. The only casualties were four men who drowned. In order to develop a pincers movement, the general sent the Tennessee brigade to make the crossing at the place which had been so hotly contested thirty days before. When both wings were over, the entire force made for the heart of the Cove. It was abandoned. The army had come thirty days too late. All Call could accomplish was to burn three large deserted log villages.

Frantic to find the new Indian stronghold, the general divided his force in order to sweep more territory. He himself took the Tennessee brigade, some regulars, and the Florida militia back to the east side of the river. The balance under Colonel Pierce began to work its way southward. The two wings were to meet at Dade's battleground. For the next several days the fighting fell to the northern wing. It discovered a large Indian encampment on November 17, whereupon the Tennesseans rode rapidly ahead of the column, dismounted, and made a gallant charge. As usual, this broke the Indian position, and the Tennesseans pursued. The pursuit led them sometimes waist deep into mud and water. In half an hour the fight was over at a cost of one soldier killed and ten wounded. The Indians left twenty bodies where they had fallen and lost their horses and baggage to the pursuers. General Call was lavish in his praise of the Tennessee brigade.


Now Call's division marched to Dade's battleground. Since Pierce did not reach the rendezvous until a day later, it was November 21 before a concerted action could be launched. The objective was the fighting force of the Indians which, according to all signs, was concentrated in Wahoo Swamp across the Withlacoochee from the Cove. So far the Tennesseans had born[e] the brunt of the fighting, but for what lay ahead the entire army had to be committed. ...

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One last note about the Tennesseans: "About 1,500 pieces of mail awaited the Tennessee body at Volusia; but they had been forwarded through so many hands that the postage was as much as ninety cents on one letter. Hollingsworth reported how ragged, dirty and worn his fellow Tennesseans appeared ..."

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James Madison Abbott, my ancestor in this war.

Mahon's History of the Second Seminole War 1835-1842tracking
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