How to Use
Reading 3: The
Battle of Horseshoe Bend
Jackson, at this time a Major General in the Tennessee Militia, led forces who arrived at Horseshoe Bend at 10:30 a.m. The U.S. Army’s 39th Regiment and the East Tennessee Militia formed a line facing the barricade. To their rear, the West (Middle Tennessee) Militia formed a second parallel line. Well forward and to the right of both lines, on a rise about 250 yards from the breastwork, Jackson placed two artillery pieces aimed at the center of the barricade. Other troops surrounded the toe of the peninsula on the opposite side of the river to prevent a Creek retreat and to keep reinforcements from reaching the Red Sticks. The barricade impressed Jackson, who described it in a letter he wrote the next day:
It is impossible to conceive a situation more eligible for defence than the one they had chosen and the skill which they manifested in their breastwork was really astonishing. It extended across the point in such a direction as that a force approaching would be exposed to a double fire, while they lay entirely safe behind it. It would have been impossible to have raked it with cannon to any advantage even if we had had possession of one extremity.¹
For the first two hours of the battle, cannon shot plunged into the barrier, injuring the men behind it. The fortification remained strong enough, however, to prevent the attackers from marching through it.
Meanwhile, some of Jackson’s American Indian allies who were guarding the south side of the Tallapoosa decided to swim 120 yards across the river. There they stole Red Stick canoes, which they used to transport a mixed force of Cherokee, Creek, and Tennessee Militia back to the peninsula. These men attacked the Red Sticks from the rear, burning the village of Tohopeka and taking the women and children prisoner.
The main army, however, was still blocked by the breastwork. Jackson saw the smoke rising from Tohopeka Village and heard continuing small arms fire from the peninsula. He decided to assault the barricade directly while the Creek were diverted to their rear. Though a failed charge could destroy his army, Jackson concluded that the futility of the artillery bombardment left him no alternative.
At 12:30 p.m. a roll of the drums signaled the beginning of the attack. The fighting was ferocious, with great bravery displayed by both sides. Jackson reported that the action was maintained "muzzle to muzzle through the port holes, in which many of the enemy’s balls were welded to the bayonets of our musquets...." Once the breastwork was surmounted, hand-to-hand fighting ensued. Slowly, the superior numbers of Jackson’s infantry overwhelmed the Red Stick warriors, who also found themselves harassed from behind by the Indians and other militia units who had crossed the river.
What followed is best described as a slaughter. European American soldiers and their Creek allies killed as many Red Sticks as possible. For example, they set fire to a heap of timber the peninsula’s defenders had hidden behind; when the Red Sticks emerged, they were immediately shot down. The bloodshed continued until dark; the next morning another 16 Creek, found hidden under the banks, were killed. In the end, 557 warriors died on the battlefield and an estimated 250 to 300 more drowned or were shot trying to cross the river. Only 49 Tennessee militia men died that day, and another 154 were wounded, many mortally. Fewer than a dozen "friendly" Creek also died.
Among the militia was 21-year-old ensign Sam Houston, later governor of Tennessee and president of the Republic of Texas. Years later he described the results of the battle:
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.²
The Battle of Horseshoe Bend effectively ended the Creek War. In August Jackson went against orders from Washington and singlehandedly negotiated the Treaty of Fort Jackson, which forced the Creek to cede almost 20 million acresnearly half their territoryto the U.S. Although most of the land the U.S. government took had been held by Red Sticks, the territory also included many villages and a great deal of hunting land held by friendly Creek. (In the 1960s the Creek won a judicial decision that provided compensation to the heirs of those whose land was taken unfairly.)
Surprisingly, Red Eagle, who was not at Horseshoe Bend, was one of the Creek who made out well after the war. When he surrendered to Jackson, he received a promise of safe passage for Red Stick women and children, most of whom were now ill and hungry. It appears this deal with Jackson also allowed Red Eagle to retain his farm in southern Alabama.
Horseshoe Bend was not the last conflict between Jackson and the Creek. Rather than surrender, some Upper Creek fled to northern Florida where they allied themselves with the Seminole. For a brief time they received weapons from the British, but in 1814 England decided to concentrate on defeating Napoleon and stopped sending supplies. The Seminole continued to fight European American settlement anyway, first as part of the War of 1812, then in what became known as the First Seminole War (1818-1819). In 1818 Jackson led an army into Florida, then claimed by Spain, to stop the Seminole from attacking border settlements and providing refuge for slaves. This campaign increased Jackson’s popularity among American citizens, because he won victories that forced the Spanish to cede Florida to the United States. Many of the remaining American Indians then moved into the Florida swamps.
After Horseshoe Bend, the European American population of Georgia and Alabama continued to skyrocket. In the latter state, for example, the nonIndian population rose from 9,000 in 1810 to 310,000 in 1830. Despite increasing pressure from European American settlers, however, the Creek resisted attempts to force them to sell their lands. When William McIntosh, a mestizo chief, attempted to sell the U.S. virtually all the remaining Creek territory, the Creek council voted to execute him. Leading the party that carried out this sentence was Menawa, who had survived terrible injuries from Horseshoe Bend to regain a position of leadership among both Lower and Upper Creek.
Yet ultimately the Creek could not hold back the flood of European Americans into their homeland. In 1829 Jackson became president, in part because of the popularity he had acquired from his victories over American Indians. He decided to adopt the Indian policy favored by most Southerners who wanted more land: move the remaining tribes west of the Mississippi to "Indian Territory," what today is Oklahoma. The Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Choctaw, the Creek and the Seminolethe "Five Civilized Tribes"each had treaties signed by the U.S. giving them control of their lands, and in 1831 the Supreme Court upheld the Cherokee land titles. But the Jackson Administration ignored these facts and forced the five tribes to move.
Responses to federal policy varied. The relocation of the five tribes became known collectively as the "Trail of Tears," because it separated the tribes from their homelands and caused many deaths during the trip. Perhaps as many as 25,000 Creek (including Menawa) reluctantly took part. Other Creek decided to move south and continue fighting the U.S. government. In Florida, these Indians joined those Seminole who also refused to move; together they fought the Second Seminole War (1835-42). Finally, some Red Sticks slipped quietly into southwestern Alabama, joining other Creek who had moved there both before and after Horseshoe Bend. Today members of the dominant group in the area are known as "Poarch" Creek, a name whose origin is unclear.
Questions for Reading 3
1. Why did Red Stick leaders, even with 2,000 fewer soldiers, believe they could score a victory over U.S. troops?
2. What was Jackson's reaction to the Creek barricade?
3. What two events turned the battle to Jackson's advantage?
4. Why do you think the militia and its Indian allies were so brutal toward the peninsula's defenders?
5. What were the terms of the Treaty of Fort Jackson? Were the Lower Creek rewarded for assisting the U.S.?
6. What did Jackson's popularity reveal about European American attitudes toward American Indians during the early 19th century? Do you think someone with experiences and beliefs like his could become president today? Why or why not?
Reading 3 was compiled from George C. Mackenzie, "The Indian Breastwork in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend: Its Size, Location, and Construction," National Park Service, 1969; the National Park Service’s visitor’s guide for Horseshoe Bend National Military Park; Donald Hickey, The War of 1812, A Forgotten Conflict (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989); J. Leitch Wright, Creeks & Seminoles: The Destruction and Regeneration of the Muscogulge People (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992); J. Anthony Paredes, "Federal Recognition and the Poarch Creek Indians," in Paredes, ed., Indians of the Southeastern United States in the Late 20th Century (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989), 120-22.
¹Jackson Papers, first series, vol. XVIII, doc. 1586, Library of Congress.