Horseshoe Bend National Military Park | BATTLE OF HORSESHOE BEND

Battle of Horseshoe Bend

Battle of Horseshoe Bend

BY | Larry Holzwarth

In the spring of 1814, American military fortune was at its nadir. The War of 1812 had not gone well for the United States. A series of humiliating defeats along the Canadian border had left the federal government in Washington with few resources to continue the war, and little possibility of defending the southwestern frontier against the trepidations of Native Americans allied with England.

The Creek Indians had for centuries maintained their ancestral lands in parts of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, and over time they had divided into two factions. The Lower Creeks lived along the Chattahoochee River, which forms the southern half of the present day border between Georgia and Alabama. They had largely assimilated into the society of the American settlers on the frontier. Intermarriages among Creeks and settlers were commonplace, with many Creeks having European names, as well as large plantations. Some owned slaves.

The Upper Creeks controlled the lands to the west along the Alabama and Tallapoosa Rivers. Although displaying a degree of assimilation as well, they maintained a society more in line with the traditions of their ancestors. When the Shawnee war chief and orator Tecumseh visited the Creek confederation in 1812, exhorting them to join in his union of tribes dedicated to driving the Americans from Indian lands, he found deaf ears among the Lower Creeks, but willing allies among their brethren.

Tecumseh’s oratory to the Upper Creeks inspired their local chiefs, Menawa and Red Eagle among them, to initiate a campaign against the Lower Creeks. This Creek civil war included raids against towns and settlements which were often of mixed races. The Lower Creeks turned to the American settlers and local militias for help in preventing these attacks, while the Upper Creeks, soon known as the Red Sticks due to the blood-red war clubs they carried, allied with the British, who encouraged them to expand their attacks to wholly American settlements. The British also provided arms to the Red Sticks through the Spanish authorities in Pensacola.

In February 1813, a party of Red Sticks massacred seven American frontier families. Pressured by the United States government, a Creek tribal council rounded up the Red Sticks who were responsible and had them executed. Afterwards, Red Stick leaders vowed to wipe out all those associated with the executions, who were mainly Lower Creeks.

Matters worsened in July 1813 when a party of Red Sticks returning from Pensacola, where they had obtained arms from the Spanish, were ambushed by militiamen sent from Fort Mims, a stockade and settlement some thirty-five miles north of present day Mobile, Alabama. Taken by surprise, the Red Sticks initially fled into the swamps before launching a very successful counterattack against the Americans, who were distracted by plundering the supplies the Red Sticks had left behind. Reported American casualties were two dead and a half-dozen wounded, while the militiamen estimated the Red Stick casualties at ten dead. Those who made it back to Fort Mims were ridiculed as buffoons for many years afterward.

In August, a Red Stick force of nearly 1,000 warriors, encouraged by the July 13th success at what became known as the Battle of Burnt Corn, attacked Fort Mims. Over 500 militia and settlers, including women and children, were massacred. Led by, among others, Red Eagle (who was of mixed parentage and had been born under the name of William Weatherford), the Red Sticks destroyed the stockade at a loss of an estimated 100 warriors.

Panic ensued along the frontier, and for the rest of the summer and autumn of 1813 raids were conducted at will. With the frontier aflame from southern Tennessee to the Gulf of Mexico, requests to Washington for troops to quell the Red Sticks came from local governments and from the military commander in Tennessee, Colonel of Militia Andrew Jackson.

The U. S. Army had few troops to spare, with most of its men deployed at various points to defend against an invasion from British Canada. Only the U. S. 39th Infantry regiment was ordered to join Jackson’s militia, but it would not arrive until early 1814.

Jackson moved south with his army, supported by an estimated 600 Lower Creek and Cherokee allies. By December he had established a base on the Coosa River, but his army nearly dissolved when the enlistments of his militia expired at the end of the year. In January 1814, a newly arrived contingent of 900 raw recruits from Tennessee bolstered his force to just over 1,000 men. Rivalries and jealousies among the militias of the several states hampered joint operations, and discipline was nearly non-existent within some units. Jackson attempted offensive operations against the Red Sticks along the Coosa River, but problems with supply, lack of coordination with other militia armies in the area, and the inexperience of his new troops prevented any meaningful strikes against the enemy.

In February, the 39th U. S. Infantry arrived, providing a veteran, disciplined center around which Jackson could build his army. With newly enlisted militia regiments also arriving, his army grew in numbers, but due to many of the enlistments being for only sixty days, Jackson had little time to prepare his force before losing a significant portion of his troops.

The Red Sticks under Menawa and Red Eagle had by this time fortified the village of Tohopek, a temporary winter home nestled in a bend of the Tallapoosa River shaped like a horseshoe. The river itself provided protection along three sides of the village. Across what would be the open end of the horseshoe, the Creeks built an earth and wood barricade that stretched from the east to the west banks of the Tallapoosa, blocking any approach by land. The hilly terrain descended to the village, meaning any approaching force would be seen well before reaching the village.

Battle of Horseshoe Bend

Battle of Horseshoe Bend

With the threat of expiring enlistments, and with his characteristic pugnaciousness, Jackson moved against the village in March, establishing a garrison at Fort Williams, on the Coosa, before driving overland through the thick forest to Tohopek. In the pre-dawn gloom of March 27, 1814, Jackson divided his three thousand man army, sending a force of about 1,300 men—including nearly 600 Creek and Cherokee allies—under Colonel John Coffee across the river to surround the village. Coffee’s men were put in place to stop any Red Stick retreat and to prevent any help from reaching them. Across the river to the west of the barricade lay an island where Coffee placed 40 men under Lieutenant Jesse Bean with orders to shoot dead any Red Sticks who attempted to swim across the river to take refuge on the island (today known as Bean’s Island).

Jackson placed two cannon, a 3- and 6-pounder (named for the weight of the ball it shot), on a hill overlooking the barricade. The barricade was as high as eight feet and had port holes in it so the Red Sticks who had rifles could fire out and upon any attackers. There was no way to approach it without being exposed to bullets. At around 10 AM, Jackson ordered the cannons to fire upon the barricade in hopes of blowing a hole in it. The bombardment continued for more than two hours, but did little damage to the structure. The effectiveness of its construction would be remembered by Jackson and adopted by him less than a year later on a plain near New Orleans.

Cannon exhibit marks the location where Jackson fixed two cannons on the Red Stick barricade below (barricade site marked by white posts), Horseshoe Bend National Military Park

Cannon exhibit marks the location where Jackson fixed two cannons on the Red Stick barricade below (barricade site marked by white posts), Horseshoe Bend National Military Park

In the meantime, a group of Cherokee warriors swam across the Talapoosa River and managed to steal a number of Red Stick canoes. With these vessels they were able to ferry men across the river and attack the village from the rear, burning it to the ground and taking the women and children as prisoners. Realizing that the Red Sticks were already under attack, Jackson ordered a frontal assault on the barricade at around 12:30 PM. Led by Colonel John Williams, the 39th U. S. Infantry regiment assaulted the barricade with bayonets while supported by militia from west Tennessee, known to posterity as the Tennessee Volunteers.

One of the first men over the barricade was a young lieutenant named Sam Houston, who was severely wounded by an arrow in the groin. Houston ordered one of his men to remove it, and when the man demurred, Houston threatened him with his sword. When the arrow was yanked out it removed a large amount of flesh with it, an injury which would trouble Houston for the rest of his life. Despite the loss of blood, he returned to action and was wounded twice more in the shoulder before the battle was over.

The battle raged, mostly hand to hand, for the rest of the day. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Red Sticks fought with desperation. Most of those who attempted to escape were shot down by Coffee’s men as they swam across the river. Though some Red Sticks managed to escape, they asked for no quarter and received none. When the fighting ended at dusk, nearly 800 Red Sticks were dead. Jackson’s losses were about 70 dead and 200 wounded.

Over the next several weeks, small bands of starving Red Sticks surrendered to Jackson’s army, including Red Eagle, who so impressed Jackson that he was let free. He returned to using the name William Weatherford and became a successful planter, later in life visiting Jackson at his estate in Tennessee (the Hermitage) where they discussed Indian affairs as well as race horses.

Other Red Sticks, including Menawa, who had been wounded but survived, fled to the Seminole lands of Florida. Among them was a young boy who had been present at Horseshoe Bend but managed to escape, named Osceola. He would achieve his own fame among the Seminole two decades later.

The Battle of Horseshoe Bend was the single largest defeat, in terms of casualties inflicted, which the native peoples of North America would suffer in the nearly three centuries of armed conflict with the European-American settlers. It effectively ended the Creek War and allowed Jackson to dictate the Treaty of Fort Jackson, which deprived the Creek Confederation of 23 million acres of their ancestral lands in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

For his victory at Horseshoe Bend, Jackson was rewarded with a promotion to Major General of the Regular Army and command of the 7th Military district, including Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, and the Mississippi Territory. This placed him in a position to achieve even greater fame when the British attacked New Orleans nine months after he routed the Red Sticks. After his days in the military, he re-entered politics, eventually running for President of the United States three times, losing the first in 1824, but winning on his second and third attempts in 1828 and 1832. He retired to the Hermitage after serving his two terms, though he remained active in politics until his death from tuberculosis and other ailments in 1845.

Larry Holzwarth is a freelance writer and author residing in the Cincinnati area.

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Last updated on March 21, 2023
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