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A Christmas Eve Battle for Freedom

By William Loren Katz
December 24, 2009

Editor’s Note: The United States prides itself as a nation that fights for freedom and human rights, yet it often obscures heroic battles in which the U. S. government was on the side of the oppressors.

One such battle occurred 172 years ago on Christmas Eve in the swamps of south-central Florida, as author William Loren Katz describes in this guest essay:

This Christmas Eve marks the 172nd anniversary of a battle for liberty in 1837 on the banks of Lake Okeechobee, Florida, that helped shape the United States of America.

An estimated 380 to 480 freedom-fighting African and Indian members of the Seminole nation threw back an advance of more than a thousand U.S. Army and other troops led by Colonel Zachary Taylor, a future President of the United States.

The Seminoles so badly mauled the invaders that Taylor ordered his soldiers to fall back, bury their dead, tend to their wounded . . . and ponder the largest single U.S. defeat in decades of Indian warfare.

The battle of Lake Okeechobee is not a story you will find in school or college textbooks so it has slipped from the public consciousness. But in a country that cherishes its freedom-fighting heritage, Black and Red Seminoles of Florida sent everyone a message that deserves to be remembered and honored.

Beginning in the early 18th Century, hundreds of African-Americans fled bondage in Georgia and the Carolinas to find refuge and a productive life in Florida.

Though Spain claimed Florida, it was an ungoverned land in which Native Americans roamed freely as did slave runaways, pirates and whites who rejected the limitation established by European invaders.

Generations of slave runaways established plantations in Florida, raised cattle and horses, brought up their children and took care of their elderly. For 50 miles along the Apalachicola River, African people pursued a healthy, happy family life.

Around 1776 – as the 13 English Colonies were declaring their independence from King George III – a new multicultural nation took shape on the Florida peninsula. The Seminoles, a break-away segment of the Creek Nation, arrived in Florida joining up with the Africans who taught the Seminoles methods of rice cultivation brought from Senegambia and Sierra Leone.

Based on this cooperation, two peoples of color hammered out an agricultural and military alliance against U.S. slaveholder posses that periodically raided their communities.

War on the Seminoles

In 1816, General Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 and commander of U.S. Armies in Florida, grew determined to terminate this resistance on the southern flank of the U.S. border.

To Jackson and slaveholders who dominated the federal government, Florida's free Seminole people of color constituted a clear and present danger to the U.S. slave system. They saw these free communities as holding a beacon of light that could entice thousands of runaways to bolt Georgia, the Carolinas and Louisiana.

Even more, the Seminoles offered escapees a safe haven. And perhaps most important, since Africans played a leadership role in the newly-integrated Seminole Nation, their villages stood as successful, alternative societies, and refuted white claims that Africans were meant to be slaves.

Prodded by slaveholders, Washington officials connived at destroying the Seminole alliance and re-enslaving its African members. Beginning in 1811, President James Madison, Virginia slaveholder and father of the U.S. Constitution, provided covert U.S. support to this military effort.

Finally, in 1819, the United States purchased Florida from Spain, and prepared to settle scores with the Seminoles. The Seminole nation, however, refused to capitulate, and rejected any surrender of its African brothers and sisters.

The result was three wars against the Seminoles that lasted from 1816 to 1858, at times tying up half the U.S. Army, costing Congress $40,000,000 and claiming 1,500 U.S. military deaths. This also represented the single largest and longest explosion of slave resistance in the United States.

Throughout the wars, Africans played key roles. In 1837, when U.S. troops were engaged in the second Seminole war, U.S. General Sidney Thomas Jesup, the best informed U.S. officer in the field, wrote "This, you may be assured, is a negro and not an Indian war." He continued:

“Throughout my operations I have found the negroes the most active and determined warriors; and during the conferences with the Indian chiefs I ascertained they exercised an almost controlling influence over them.”

Because Seminoles fought in a jungle area that they knew better than the white invaders, their armies ran circles around their numerically and technologically superior foe.

Though they had the added burden of moving their families out of harm's way, Seminoles soldiers were able to baffle, surprise and humiliate the U.S. army, navy and marines.

Hostage Takings

In its desperation to quell resistance, U.S. officers ordered the taking of women and children as hostages and the violation of other codes of warfare.

These tactics did not achieve victory or split the red-black alliance, but they reveal how the Seminole wars can be viewed as a precursor to U.S. counterinsurgency strategies, including the intervention and disaster in Vietnam. 

In 1837, Chief Osceola and other Seminole leaders were seized while carrying a white flag to a conference called by U.S. authorities. Osceola's personal bodyguard of 55 at the time included 52 men of African descent.

U.S. forces imprisoned the Seminoles in a cell in Castillo de San Marcos, later renamed Fort Marion, in St. Augustine. Osceola, ill and depressed, sat slumped on the floor, his life ebbing away.

Army officials also captured another Seminole peace delegation that included two fire-brands of the resistance, Wild Cat or Coacoochee, 25, and his Black sub-chief, John Horse, also 25.

Bilingual, tall, powerfully built and a commanding presence, Horse draped himself in silver amulets, rich sashes and elaborate, bright plumed head shawls. Widely respected for his knowledge of the foe, and a crack shot, Horse occupied a strategic position among the Seminoles.

Revered for his often-tested diplomatic talent, calm self-assurance and courage in battle, he also was brother-in-law of Holatoochee, a leading Seminole who had the ear of Miconopy, the nation's ruler. Chiefs such as Jumper and Holatoochee repeatedly asked Horse to negotiate with U.S. authorities.

From their 18-foot-by-33-foot cell at Fort Marion where they were held with two dozen Seminole prisoners, Coacoochee and Horse devised a plan. "We resolved to make our escape or die in the attempt," Wild Cat later wrote.

They took weeks to loosen the iron bar in the jail's 18 foot roof and create a hole eight inches wide. The heavier prisoners agreed to diet in order to slip through, and some 20 prisoners, including two women, escaped through the opening.

For over five days the band made its way southward gathering allies and guns and living "on roots and berries."

U.S. Colonel Zachary Taylor raced after them accompanied by 70 Delaware Indian mercenaries, 180 Missouri riflemen and 800 U.S. regular army soldiers from the Sixth Infantry, the Fourth Infantry and Taylor's First Infantry Regiment.

The Battle

The day before Christmas in 1837, U.S. forces located the Seminoles, who had carefully positioned themselves at the northeast corner of Lake Okeechobee. Seminole marksmen were perched in the tall grass or in trees, the sprawling lake a few hundred yards behind them.

Taylor's forces advanced through a swampy area and its five-foot-high razor-edged sawgrass. Movement was impassable for horses, and extremely difficult for humans as soldiers sank up to their thighs in the mud and water beneath them.

At 12:30 in the afternoon, Seminole snipers prepared for battle. The first shot had yet to be fired when the Delaware mercenaries, sensing disaster, deserted and left. The Missouri riflemen charged toward the Seminoles, but a withering fire brought down their commander, many commissioned officers and some of non-commissioned officers. The Tennesseans fled.

Colonel Taylor then ordered his regular army troops forward but they encountered deadly rifle fire. He later reported their earliest barrages brought down "every officer, with one exception, as well as most of the non-commissioned officers" and left "but four . . . untouched."

After a 2 ½-hour battle in which they had been outnumbered, Seminole forces fell back to their canoes and made their escape.

As Christmas Day dawned Colonel Taylor forces counted 26 U.S. dead and 112 wounded, seven dead for each dead Seminole fighter, and the U.S. had taken no prisoners. U.S. troops rounded up 100 Seminole ponies and 600 cattle.

Lake Okeechobee was the U.S. military's most decisive defeat in more than four decades of warfare in Florida.

Four days after his army limped back to Fort Gardner, however, Colonel Taylor claimed victory. He said: "the Indians were driven in every direction." The U.S. Army accepted his report, and promoted him.

From that point, however, U.S. officers had to recognize the unity and strength of the African-Seminole alliance. Said General Thomas Sidney Jesup, "The negroes rule the Indians, and it is important that they should feel themselves secure; if they should become alarmed and hold out, the war will be resumed."
Based on his reputation as an "Indian fighter," Zachary Taylor was elected the 12th President of the United States.

Historians continue to distort the battle of Lake Okeechobee. In The Almanac of American History (1983), Arthur Schlesinger Jr. summarized the battle in one inaccurate sentence, “Fighting in the Second Seminole War, General Zachary Taylor defeats a group of Seminoles at Okeechobee Swamp, Florida.”

This is the nation of Patrick Henry and “Give me Liberty or give me death!” The United States was born in struggle against British colonial rule. It proudly declared people had natural rights and dedicated itself to self-determination.

The heroic, freedom-fighting struggle of the Seminole nation stands as a milestone in the American battle for liberty.

Copyright 2009 by William Loren Katz, author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage from which this article is adapted.

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