Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Swamp Insurgency: Fighting Seminole Guerrillas in Nineteenth Century

The Seminole Wars show the problems that a conventional army can encounter when their enemies adopt guerilla tactics. Ian Beckett, in his survey work Modern Insurgencies and Counter-insurgencies(Routledge, 2001) describes the Seminoles as “particularly skillfulopponents” of the United States Army. (p.29)  Throughout the first half of the eighteenth-century, skirmishes, ambushes, and raids typified a conflict, where American's had as much trouble finding their enemies as defeating them on the battlefield.

The Seminoles were largely Lower Creek people which had been driveninto Spanish Florida, with other members from the Oconee, Yuchi, Alabama, Choctaw and Shawnee tribes. By the mid eighteenth century, familial links had also been made to runaway slaves which had found refuge in Floridian villages.  Their name has been variously suggested to derive from the Creek word simano-li, meaning "separatist" or "runaway", or the Spanish terms cimarron, for "wild" or cimarrones for "rebel" or "outlaw".  When Spain re-acquired Florida from Britain after the American Revolution, Spanish colonists, and American settlers alike aimed to settle in the area, coaxed in part by Spanish land grants.  Seminoles were allowed to take up land grants as well, as Spain hoped they would form a divide between the Spaniards and Americans.
Marines battle Seminole Indians in the Florida War--1835-1842. Defense Dept. Photo (Marine Corps) 306073-A

Causes for American-Seminole violence may relate to older British tactics of using Seminoles against American settlers.  In the war of 1812 the Seminoles had supported Britain.  Harbouring runaway slaves was one offence that later caused the Americans to seek punitive justice against the tribe.  Beckett suggests the First Seminole War (1816-18) was largely motivated by the need to fight back against Seminole raiding partiesElsewhere, the murder of several Georgia families by chief Neamathla has been suggested as the event that sparked the conflict. General Andrew Jackson invaded Spanish Florida with around 3,000 soldiers and pushed the Seminoles further south.  Jackson dispersed villagers, burnt towns and seized Pensacola and St. Marks.  The Seminoles, in turn, conducted hit and run attacks on towns and plantations.  American ambitions for control of the peninsula were another casus belli, and in 1819, Florida was ceded by Spain to the United States

In 1823 a large reservation was established for the Seminoles, but this four million acre tract was not to remain a sanctioned home for long. In 1830, with Jackson as president, the Indian Removal Act become law. The United States governments attempts to remove all Indians west of the Mississippi into "Indian Territory" was accepted by some leaders who signed the Treaty of Payne's Landing in 1832.  Others refused to leave and moved deeper into the Everglades.

Oseola (As-se-he-ho-lor, Black Drink),
 a Seminole; bust-length, 1837. 
The treaty of 1832 allowed for three years for the Seminoles to move west, and in 1835 the stage was set for conflict with the hold-outs.  In December 1835, a 108 man detachment of Major Francis Dade’s forces was ambushed in the Wahoo swamp of the Withlacoochie River. A contemporary heritage website notes that, "As Major Francis Dade marched from Fort Brooke toward Fort King, 180 Seminole warriors led by Micanopy, Alligator and Jumper attacked. Only one man of that army detachment survived the ambush."  That the Seminole War was "the fiercest war waged by the U.S. government against American Indians", would presumably be contested by some historians.  Florida Heritage claims that more than  1500 American soldiers died in the conflict.
The action would begin the Second Seminole War (1835-42), which would see a series of frustrating actions for American generals.  The Seminoles crossed the Georgia border constantly and established safe havens in the Okefenokee Swamp.  Megan Kate Nelson quotes Ware County militia commander Thomas Hilliard who complained in 1836 that the Seminoles, "go concealed as much as possible, and are committing depredations continually, robbing our corn fields and killing our stock."  Seminoles destroyed numerous sugar plantations in Florida, crippling the industry and freeimg numerous slaves.  In February 1836, Major General Edmund Gaines' force of over 1,000 men was besieged and forced to retreat.  Subsequent generals fielding even more troops could not even find the enemy.  Campaigning in the summer months was difficult due to torrential rainfall and disease.

One noteworthy exception to American defeat is found in the campaign of future president Zachary Taylor, who benefited from the Seminoles abandonment of guerrilla tactics. At Lake Okeechobee in December of 1837, the Seminoles defended a fixed position in the everglades, and the Americans triumphed. The tribe did not make the mistake again, and Taylor’s counter-insurgency techniques divided the area and patrolled from outposts. It may have been racial conceptions of superiority which led American forces under General T.S. Jesup to ignore military custom and capture leader Osceola while under a flag of truce.  Osceola died in confinement several months later.  Meanwhile, Taylor destroyed crops and removed livestock, to little effect, and Taylor’s war continued until April 1840 when he asked to be removed from his command.  Jesup had some successes establishing forts and using mobile columns to sweep the country.

Thomas Sidney Jesup (1788–1860), 

As Beckett notes the war ended in 1842, not through any military success, but “largely by the army announcing it was over.” (p. 29) While 3800 Seminoles had been removed, there remained 500 guerrillas left in the swamps. The Third Seminole War (1855-58) reduced this number to mere 100 who continued to hide out in ever more remote areas of the everglades. Beckett suggests that the Americans little learned very little about counterinsurgency these early actions.

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