The attack on Fort Mims during the War of 1812 marked the beginning of a mostly-forgotten phase of the war, in which Native Americans fought on the side of the British against the US in hopes of winning a secure homeland for themselves.
In 1794, American troops under General “Mad Anthony” Wayne defeated a coalition of Native American tribes at the battle of Fallen Timbers, which opened up what was then known as the “Northwest Territory”—the area around the Great Lakes—to white settlers. In treaty after treaty, the defeated Native tribes ceded huge areas of land to the United States.
By 1809, Native resistance to this encroachment began to build around a Shawnee war leader named Tecumseh. Negotiating with tribal chiefs from Minnesota all the way to Florida, Tecumseh tried to unite all of the various Native Nations into one gigantic confederacy that would work together to defeat the Americans and return their lands to the Natives.
The Americans accused the British, who had long been vocal in their opposition to US expansion westward, of not only providing weapons and supplies to Tecumseh’s warriors, but of actively encouraging Native resistance all along the American borders in the north and south. When war broke out between the US and Britain in 1812, many Native nations allied themselves with the British, hoping to drive the Americans out of their lands. In the southeast a faction of Tecumseh’s followers among the Creek Natives, known from their painted war clubs as the “Red Sticks”, launched attacks on American settlements in the Mississippi Territory. In July 1813, the raiders were ambushed by local militia at Burnt Corn Creek, in present-day Alabama.
After their defeat at Burnt Corn Creek, the Red Sticks, under the leadership of the Creek war chiefs Peter McQueen and William Weatherford (also known as Red Eagle), planned a retaliatory attack. Since the American militia at Burnt Corn Creek had been mostly from Fort Mims and was accompanied by Captain Dixon Bailey, the Fort’s second-in-command, McQueen selected this outpost as his target.
Fort Mims, located about 40 miles north of Mobile AL, was an improvised stronghold consisting of a wooden stockade fence surrounding about an acre of ground containing a small group of buildings. One of these was the house of Samuel Mims, who ran a ferryboat across the Alabama River. In all, about 500 people lived inside the fortification, and it was defended by 120 militia under the command of Major Daniel Beasley.
The fighting at Burnt Corn Creek had divided the Native Americans in the area. The Red Stick faction had decided to join the British in their war against the Americans, hoping to drive the settlers out and establish a secure homeland under English protection. Other factions of Creeks threw in with the Americans, and several hundred of them joined the settlers inside Fort Mims.
As McQueen approached Fort Mims, he was joined by Weatherford, and together they had around 1,000 warriors. Knowing that they could not take the Fort by siege or by storming the walls, they decided upon guile. Moving stealthily, they advanced unseen and took up positions in the surrounding woods, about 150 yards from the walls. At night, Red Stick scouts crept up to the stockade fence and spied on the defenses inside by looking through the loopholes. The Fort was virtually undefended: the front gate was propped open by a pile of drifted sand, and there were no sentries or pickets on duty. By the morning of August 30, everything was ready for McQueen and Weatherford to launch their attack.
Unknown to the Natives, however, their approach had indeed been detected. Two of the African-American slaves from the Fort had seen the Creek warriors while outside tending cattle and had told the officers inside. But when a patrol failed to find the war parties, Major Beasley decided that the slaves were lying and had them whipped for passing bad information and raising a “false alarm”. A short time later, a local scout named James Cornells also reported that there was a large force of Creeks in the area, but Beasley discounted this information as well. By some reports, Beasley had been drinking whiskey all morning.
At twelve noon, a drum beat announced to the Fort’s occupants that lunch was ready, and all of the various workers outside the walls now entered the Fort. It was the signal that the two Creek commanders had agreed upon to launch their attack, and now a swarm of 1000 Red Sticks ran at the Fort. While a number of warriors took up positions at the outer walls and began firing inside through the gun loopholes, others poured in through the open front gate. Major Beasley attempted to rally his militia to form a defensive line, but was killed almost immediately. Captain Bailey now assumed command and organized a defense from inside some of the buildings: the Red Sticks responded by setting the houses afire.
After about three hours of vicious fighting, Bailey was severely wounded (and would die later), the militia had broken (a small force managed to escape through a gap in the stockade fence), and the Red Sticks had control of the entire Fort. For the next two hours, the victorious Creeks looted everything of value inside the compound, taking away tools, weapons, livestock, and slaves.
As the warriors prepared to withdraw, they faced the problem of what to do with their captives: they had no means of keeping prisoners secure, and if they released the settlers and militiamen, they concluded, they would only need to fight them again sometime in the future. So the Red Sticks did the only thing they could do with them. Over the next hour or so, they systematically killed nearly all of the captives, including the women and children. Weatherford later recalled that he had tried to stop the killing of noncombatants (he wanted them taken as captives instead) but, he said, his warriors were “like famished wolves” and wanted revenge for the white encroachment into their lands. It became known as the “Fort Mims Massacre”.
Although the attack on Fort Mims was an overwhelming tactical victory for the Red Sticks, it was a strategic defeat. US forces under General Andrew Jackson were now assigned the task of forcing them into submission. The massacre and its aftermath forced the other Native American nations to choose sides: most of the Choctaw, under the leadership of chiefs Pushmatha, Mushulatubbee, and Apuckshunubbee, allied with the Americans, though a sizable faction of Choctaws joined with the Red Sticks. The “Red Stick War” would now become the most important campaign of the War of 1812 in the southeastern US.