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Battle of Horseshoe Bend

When Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief, welded a confederacy of tribes to block white man's expansion, arguing that the Indians must return to their old life to preserve their national existence, the Upper Creeks in Alabama eagerly accepted the doctrine.

When war was declared between the United States and England in 1812, Tecumseh, at the head of 1,500 warriors, entered British service with the rank of general. The Creeks tried to enlist the Cherokees, and a medicine dance was held at Ustanali, the national capital, where The Prophet, Tecumseh's brother, warned the Cherokees they had broken the road given their fathers at the beginning of the world.  They had taken the white man's clothes and trinkets, had beds and tables and mills, even books and cats.  All this was bad, they were told, and must be thrown away so they could be Indians again.

Of those present, only Major Ridge expressed opposition, warning that such talk would inevitably lead to war with the US and destruction.  The followers of  The Prophet attacked him and he narrowly escaped with his life.

The Prophet threatened to invoke a terrible storm, which would destroy all but the true believers, who were told to gather for safety on one of the mountains.  Many Cherokees abandoned their farms and slaves, and everything else that had come from the white man, and went to the mountains.  When the appointed day came and passed, the movement died among the Cherokees.

As Upper Creeks raged war across Alabama, in a series of battles that usually went bad for the Americans, the Cherokees and some Lower Creeks joined the fight against them.  About 400 Cherokee warriors became part of the army of General Andrew Jackson; the Cherokee homefront helped provision the American troops.  Cherokees garrisoned Fort Armstrong on the upper Coosa River.

Among the places where battles involving Cherokees were fought were Turkeytown, on the upper Coosa River; near the present-day Jacksonville; on the site of today's Talladega; at Hillabee; near present-day Tuskegee; at Holy Ground; near today's Benton; and at Emukfaw Creek, on the northern bank of the Tallapoosa River, where Jackson was badly mauled and had to retreat.

To the south, another American army, including another 400 Cherokees, was badly beaten by the Upper Creeks at Caleebee Creek, near today's Tuskegee.

All this lead up to the final event of the Creek war, the battle of Horseshoe Bend, of which it can probably be said it was as much a Cherokee victory as an American one, and has been called as much a massacre as a battle. Having received reinforcements, Jackson, with 200 men, including about 500 Cherokee, and two small cannon marched on Horseshoe Bend, where the Creeks held a fortified position on a peninsula of the Tallapoosa River, some 100 acres containing 1,000 warriors plus about 300 women and children.

Across the neck of the peninsula the Creeks had built a breastwork of logs, behind which were their houses, and behind those canoes for use if retreat became necessary.
On the morning of March 27, 1814, Jackson sent a mounted force of 700 men, plus nearly all his Indian allies - 600, including the 500 Cherokees - across the river to surround the bend and block escape.  Then he, with the rest of the army and cannon, assaulted the breastwork head-on.  The fortification was 5 to 8 feet high, with a double row of portholes, and so planned that no enemy could approach without being caught in a crossfire.  Two hours of cannonading and rifle fire did little.

According to report of General Coffee, who headed the cavalry force:

"The firing of your cannon and small arms in a short time became general and heavy, which animated our Indians, and seeing about 100 of the warriors and all the squaws and children of the enemy running about among the huts of the village, which was open to our view, they could no longer remain silent spectators.

"While some kept up a fire across the river to prevent the enemy's approach to the bank, others plunged into the water and swam the river for canoes that lay at the other shore in considerable numbers and brought them over, in which crafts a number of them embarked and landed on the bend with the enemy.

"Col. Gideon Morgan, who commanded the Cherokees, Capt. Kerr, and Capt. William Russell, with a part of his company of spies, were among the first that crossed the river.  They advanced into the village and very soon drove the enemy from the huts up the river bank to the fortified works from which they were fighting you.  They pursued and continued to annoy during your whole action."

The Creeks had been fighting the Americans in their front at such close quarters that their bullets flattened upon the bayonets thrust through the portholes.  This attack from the rear by 500 Cherokee diverted their attention and gave opportunity to the Tennesseeans, adopted Cherokee Sam Houston among them, to swam over the breastwork.
With more than half their number dead upon the ground, the rest of the Creeks turned and plunged into the river, only to find the banks on the opposite side lined with enemies and escape cut off. 

The men sent out to count the dead found 557 warriors dead within the enclosure.  Coffee estimated that another 250 to 300 were shot in the water.

Jackson himself said not more than 20 could have escaped.  There was no mention of any wounded.  About 300 prisoners were taken, of whom only three were men.  On the other side, 26 Americans were killed and 107 wounded, 18 Cherokee killed and 36 wounded, 5 friendly Creeks killed and 11 wounded.

The loss of the Cherokee was out of all proportion to their numbers, their fighting having been hand-to-hand work without protecting cover.

In view of the fact that Jackson had only a few weeks before being compelled to retreat before the same enemy, and that two hours of artillery and rifle fire had produced no result until the Cherokee attacked the rear of the enemy by crossing the river, this is considerable truth in the boast of the Cherokee that they saved the day for Jackson at Horseshoe Bend.

In the number of men engaged and the immense proportion killed, this ranks as probably the greatest Indian battle in the history of the United States and effectively ended the war in Alabama.

However, when the Cherokee returned to their home, they found them ravaged in their absence by disorderly white troops.  Two years later, the government agreed to reimburse them for the damage. Among the Cherokee who fought with the United States in this war were Major Ridge (who was just The Ridge before getting his military title in the campaign), Col. Taylor, Adjutant John Ross, Chief Kunnesee, Chief Junaluska and a private named Sequoyah.
Besides Jackson, who later became the Cherokees' worst political enemy, they had two great friends in this army - Houston and a scout who later also opposed their removal westward, Davy Crockett.

Source:  Past Times Magazine Aug. 1997

Other Web Links Referencing  Battle of Horseshoe Bend

Battle of Horseshoe Bend
The War of 1812

 

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