A forgotten battle from a forgotten campaign in a forgotten war.
By 1812, there was conflict between the Americans and the British over the “Northwest Territories”, centered in present-day Ohio. Looking to expand westward and drawn by rich farmland and river trade routes, American settlers had begun illegally pouring into this area, to the resentment of the various Native American nations who already lived there. The inevitable result was conflict, as resistance came from a powerful confederation of Natives under the Shawnee war leader Tecumseh.
When the War of 1812 broke out, Tecumseh was still attempting to build a grand alliance of tribes to drive the Americans out of the Ohio River Valley, and he allied himself and his supporters with the British. As the Native American warriors of Tecumseh’s confederation were fighting against the United States in Canada and the Ohio River Valley, his message of opposition to American expansion also found a ready audience in the southeast. In the Mississippi Territory, at what is now known as Alabama, the Creeks were a powerful Native tribe that were steadily losing their land to an illegal influx of white settlers, and while most of the southeast tribes stayed neutral when the War of 1812 broke out, a large faction of Creeks threw their lot in with the British, hoping to expel the Americans and form an independent Native Nation in the area. These Creeks became known as the “Red Sticks”, from their painted war clubs.
After Tecumseh was killed in battle in 1813, the Red Sticks carried on their fight, and the “Creek War” became the focus of the War of 1812 in the south. Andrew Jackson formed a group of Tennessee militia and marched into Alabama, quickly winning victories at Tallushatchee and Talladega.
By 1814, the Red Sticks had been pressed to retreat to a large settlement known to the Creeks as Tohopeka (“Horseshoe Bend”), on the Tallapoosa River near present-day Alexander. Here, the Red Stick leader William Weatherford had gathered most of his forces in a fortress protected by a long log wall. In March 1814, Jackson left Fort Strother with 4,000 men, a force which included his US infantry, Tennessee militia, and several hundred Cherokee, Choctaw, and “White Stick” Creeks who had allied themselves with the United States.
The Americans reached Horseshoe Bend at 10am on March 27. Jackson divided his force in half, with one group remaining with him in front of the Red Stick barricade wall and the other taken by General John Coffee to the other side of the village. Once in position, Jackson began a bombardment with his two small cannons, but the Creek’s defensive wall was sturdy and they were unable to penetrate it.
On the other side of the village, some of Coffee’s Cherokee made a daring raid. First they swam across the Tallapoosa River and seized a number of Red Stick canoes, which were then used to ferry a handful of troops across. Within minutes, a number of Red Stick lodges were burning.
While the Creeks were thus distracted, Jackson launched an assault on the defensive breastworks that protected Tohopeka. One of the first infantrymen over the wall was a young Lieutenant named Sam Houston.
The Red Sticks fought back fiercely and, though outnumbered, refused to surrender. Nor were the Americans inclined to grant them any quarter. Moving his cannons into place, Jackson blasted the village with shot and shell, while his troops swarmed all over. Most of the Creeks died defending the village. Towards evening, the remaining survivors tried to escape by swimming across the Tallapoosa, where they either drowned or were shot from the riverbanks. In all, around 800 of the 1,000 Red Sticks in Tohopeka were killed. Jackson lost only 70 dead and 200 wounded.
It was a decisive blow which broke the back of the Red Sticks. Only one prize still remained: the war leader William Weatherford had not been at Horseshoe Bend. As the remaining bands of Red Sticks in the area surrendered one by one, Jackson demanded that they find Weatherford and hand him over. Instead, Weatherford audaciously walked into the American camp one afternoon, alone, and surrendered. “My warriors can no longer hear my voice”, he declared. “Their bones are at Talladega, Tallushatchee, Emuckfaw and Tohopeka.” Jackson was impressed by his bravery and, defying those who wanted to execute Weatherford, spared his life. With his surrender, the Red Stick War came to an end.
As word of his victory at Horseshoe Bend reached the north, Jackson became a hero, heaped with honors for being the only success in a war which was going very badly for the United States. Within weeks, he had been granted a commission as a General in the US Regular Army.
Equally quickly, he began demonstrating that propensity to be a government of one that would cause him controversy for the rest of his life. On his own and without any authority from the US Government, Jackson “negotiated” a set of treaties with the Creeks in which they gave up claim to over 20 million acres of territory stretching from Georgia to Mississippi. Incredibly, Jackson forced land concessions even from “White Stick” tribes that were serving as American allies (to Jackson, an “Indian” was an “Indian”, and none of them deserved any consideration from whites). Years later, after President Andrew Jackson had forcibly removed the entire Cherokee Nation and herded them to Oklahoma, the Cherokee Chief Junaluska, who had fought alongside him in the Red Stick War, declared, “If I had known that Jackson would drive us from our homes, I would have killed him that day at the Horseshoe.”
Today, the site of Jackson’s win over the Red Sticks is preserved as the Horseshoe Bend National Military Park. There is a three-mile driving tour which takes visitors around the battlefield.