The Battle of Lake Okeechobee

The Battle of Lake Okeechobee was part of the Seminole Wars, which have now been mostly forgotten.

General Zachary Taylor photo from WikiCommons

In the summer of 1836, the Second Seminole War had been raging in Florida for over half a year. The Seminoles had retreated into the nearly impenetrable swamps and wetlands, and the US Army, commanded by General Richard Call, had launched several attempts to find them and bring them to battle, only to be met with a series of skillful guerrilla raids by the Native warriors, who ambushed patrols and launched hit-and-run raids on troop columns.

In October, Major General Thomas Jesup assumed command of the US forces in Florida. His first move was to meet with representatives from the Seminoles to try to negotiate an agreement, but talks with Alligator and Micanopy went nowhere. Although there were disagreements amongst the Seminoles, none of them wanted to be relocated away from their homelands.

Jesup then came up with a grand military plan to surround the Seminoles and end the war.  He divided his troops into four columns, each based at a different point around the Florida peninsula. The idea was that each of these would march inwards to converge around the Seminole strongholds, capturing any Natives they met along the way.

One of these columns, led by the 1st Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel Zachary Taylor, was to be based at Fort Gardiner, a stockaded enclosure they had hastily constructed on the shore of Lake Kissimmee. They received orders to advance on December 19.

Taylor’s route took him along the Kissimmee River towards the Pease Creek (now known as the Peace River), and he knew there were Seminole encampments there. They found a few Native villages which had been abandoned except for noncombatants, and Taylor’s men stopped for a short time to build a temporary stockade post, dubbed Fort Basinger, in which they stored all of their heavy equipment.

A short time later, Taylor’s men captured two Seminole scouts, who told him that there was a large force of warriors camped along the north shore of Lake Okeechobee. Taylor hastened to move towards them.

Taylor had a total of 803 men with him. This included three US Army infantry regiments (the 1st, the 4th and the 6th) and 224 volunteer militia from Missouri, led by Colonel Richard Gentry.

As they approached the Seminoles, Gentry offered a plan to surround the area and attack from the flanks. But Taylor, knowing that he outnumbered the Natives and glad for the opportunity to finally bring them to battle, wanted to launch a full frontal assault instead. Gentry continued to argue against this, but was finally quieted when Taylor bluntly asked him if he was afraid to be in the front lines.

Taylor’s plan was a simple one. The assault would be led by the Missouri Volunteers, with the 4th and 6th Regiments following. The 1st Regiment would be held as a reserve. The attack was launched at 12:30 in the afternoon of December 25, Christmas Day.

But the Seminoles had been well aware of Taylor’s movements, and they had prepared an ambush. Led by Alligator, Wildcat and Sam Jones, the Seminoles had about 400 warriors. Along Taylor’s line of approach, they had cut down the sawgrass and palmetto vegetation to give a clear field of fire and had hacked notches into the side of trees as rifle rests.

As the Missouri militiamen approached, the Seminole opened fire and cut them to pieces.  Colonel Gentry was killed, and seven other officers were killed or wounded. Taylor’s second line now moved forward, and they too were met by withering rifle fire. The 6th Regiment lost all of its officers but one, including its commander Lt Colonel Alexander Thompson.

Most of the 4th Regiment, however, were able to reach the Seminole positions and engage in fierce hand-to-hand fighting. Taylor sent in his reserve force, which attacked the Seminole camp from the flank. At this, the Seminoles retreated, paddling their canoes across the lake. Taylor’s forces were unable to follow them. The battle had lasted almost three hours.

Taylor considered the battle to be a victory, since he had forced the Seminoles to retreat. In his official report, he said, “We suffered much … The hostiles probably suffered, all things considered, equally with ourselves, they having left ten dead on the ground, besides, doubtless, carrying off many more, as it is customary with them, when practicable.”

In reality, though, the US had suffered far more losses than the Seminoles had. Taylor reported 29 dead and 109 wounded (most of them officers and NCOs, which had apparently been intentionally targeted), while most historians estimate the Seminole losses as less than a dozen killed. Most importantly, all of the inhabitants of the Seminole village were able to escape and avoid capture and deportation.

As a result of his reported victory at Lake Okeechobee, though, Taylor was given a temporary brevet field promotion to Brigadier General, and five months later General Taylor would himself replace Jesup as US commander in Florida. In the end, though, Taylor was no more successful against the Seminole insurgents than his predecessors had been, and after two years in Florida he requested a reassignment elsewhere. He would go on to command American troops in Mexico and be elected President in 1848.

Meanwhile, his after-action report caused a political controversy. In it, he had noted of the Missouri Volunteers, “They mostly broke, and, instead of forming in the rear of the regulars, as had been directed, they retired across the swamp to their baggage and horses, nor could they be brought into action as a body, although efforts were made repeatedly by my staff to induce them to do so.” Some of the surviving militiamen, feeling that Taylor’s report was impugning their honor, complained to the Missouri legislature, which convened hearings on the matter, and they in turn accused Taylor of making tactical errors during the battle, and demanded that he be dismissed.

In 1839, after the fighting in north Florida had finally ended, the American troops who had been hastily buried at Lake Okeechobee were disinterred and taken to Missouri for reburial, before being moved again three years later to a military cemetery in St Augustine FL.

Although the Seminole Wars have been mostly forgotten, there have been some attempts to memorialize the battlefield. In 1939 the Florida Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a stone monument here, and the battlefield was designated a National Historic Landmark and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. By the 1980s the area had been altered by a water management project and there was now some disagreement about exactly where the battlefield was, and in 1985 the Florida Archaeological and Historical Conservancy sent a scientific expedition to locate and excavate the area. They were able to pinpoint the site of the fighting and of Taylor’s command camp, stretching along the lake shore for about a mile. Part of the battlefield had already been turned into housing developments, so the Conservancy recommended that the State purchase the remaining area and preserve it. This kept getting delayed, however, and as development continued, the battlefield was listed by the National Trust for Historical Preservation as one of “America’s Most Endangered Historical Places”. Finally in 2006 the State of Florida purchased the remaining 145 acres of battlefield and designated it as a State Park.


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