TENNESSEE HISTORY Classroom
FULL HISTORY STORIES

The Battle of Horseshoe Bend


In the years following the American Revolution, colonial expansion continued westward across the State of Tennessee and the northern territories. American claims to territory west of the Appalachian Mountains was still questioned by Britain and Spain, who saw an opportunity to topple the young government and restore "Old World" boundaries. On the oceans, the British Navy had been losing sailors to desertions because of the wretched conditions and was boarding American Merchant Ships to "look" for the men. On occasion, the British even kidnapped and pressed some American sailors into service. The act furiously angered the American Congress, who began calling for war with Britain.



While Britain and Spain could not publicly do something for fear it might attract a united opposition from their European enemies, they continued to harass America and formed alliances with the numerous Native American tribes. They pointed out that the tribes were losing land to the colonists and they could "help" the tribes stop the flow of immigration. By doing so, they hoped it would create an entirely new war front in the west that would put America in a diplomatic crisis.
The eastern Tribes had developed complex trading relations with many European companies. They sold the natives weapons and ammunition and were successful in finding a voice among the Native Americans in the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh and his brother known as "The Prophet". The British promised to return the land taken by the colonists if he would help them.
In 1811, the rousing speaker addressed the Upper Creek tribes in Alabama. The Creeks were a confederation of different southeastern tribes, who often battled the Cherokee for control of the region. The prophets of the Upper Creeks quickly believed the persuasive Tecumseh and preached the doctrine of war to the warriors of the tribes.
Tecumseh’s brother prophesied the earth would rumble as a sign of the impending war that would destroy the colonists. Tecumseh’s power increased ten-fold among the Upper Creek tribes in the South when the New Madrid fault exploded in 1811 rolling the Mississippi River backwards, shaking windows in the White House, and creating the massive Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee.
With the new support, the British immediately commissioned Tecumseh a General and gave him command of the "Indian Confederacy" of North America.
The Upper Creeks took the message to the second largest nation and their old enemy the Cherokee. At first, the Cherokee priests were excited by the brotherly message and preached against the Cherokee’s acceptance of the white man’s ways. Their possession of books, clothing, and wealth, they preached, were an abomination of Cherokee culture.
Cherokee Principal Chief Major Ridge, however, voiced his opposition to the prophet’s message and was attacked by his followers on the spot. His friends came to his rescue and Ridge escaped, but one of his friends was stabbed in the process. Like most eastern tribes, the Cherokee regarded the village as sacred ground and safe houses. The attack was seen by many as an unforgivable atrocity. The Cherokee as well as many Creeks were repulsed by the "united tribal message" that didn’t allow other opinion. The disagreements and the attack on Major Ridge suddenly pushed the Creeks into a civil war and gave cause for the "Red Stick" tribe to launch attacks on southern colonists.
President James Madison constantly tried to negotiate an end to the British harassment, but witnessed the efforts breaking down. During his campaign for office in 1811, however, Madison had promised action on the British incidents.
On June 18, 1812, Congress declared War on Britain. The entire Tennessee delegation, who were known as "War Hawks" immediately cast their votes in favor of the declaration. British and Spanish agents started fanning the flames of war among the Creeks in the South.
In Aug. 1813, news reached Nashville that the Creeks under the command of Chief Weatherford had attacked Fort Mims, Ala. and massacred 250 colonists. Tennessee Governor Willie Blount, nephew of William Blount, called Andrew Jackson out of retirement and put out a call for 2,500 volunteers to deal with the "Red Stick" Creeks. As President Theodore Roosevelt would later point out in his book "The Winning of the West", the volunteers who responded to Blount’s call were, in many cases, the sons of the men who had followed General Sevier to battle the British at Kings Mountain. What many Tennesseans saw as an "Indian problem", however, unknowingly turned into the Southern front of the War of 1812.
As the first Tennesseans started towards the Southern territories, other volunteers were continuously raised to relieve those whose terms of enlistment expired or were out of action. Militias were also raised in Georgia and Alabama to join the Tennesseans.
The British-backed "Red Stick" tribe soon turned on their own and began attacking opposing Cherokee and Creek villages. Chief Major Ridge and other tribal leaders put out a call for warriors in the villages and joined the Tennesseans in tracking Chief Weatherford’s warriors.
As Jackson and the Tennessee Militia marched towards Alabama from the north, the Creeks attacked the village of Turkeytown. Cherokee Chief Pathkiller sent runners to ask for the army’s help. Jackson dispatched newly arrived General White and his troops to relieve the village. General White’s force consisted of 1,000 men, including 400 Cherokee and Creek warriors. They relieved the town after a brutal engagement.
As Jackson continued South, the Creeks began concentrating their forces to protect their villages. On Nov. 3, 1813, General Coffee and his men attacked the Creek at Tallaseehatchee in upper Alabama and took it after meeting stiff resistance.
With or without the British, the Creeks were a formidable force and fought brilliantly, General Coffee would later write of the Creeks in that battle:
"They made all the resistance that an overpowered soldier could do," wrote General Coffee. "The enemy fought with savage fury and met death with all of its horrors, without shrinking or complaining-not one asked to be spared, but fought as long as they could stand or sit."
The significance of the message was overlooked as Tennesseans and the Creeks slugged it out for months. Frustrated by a shortage of supplies and little support from the Department of War, Jackson had a hard time keeping his command together.
Throughout the early months of 1814, however, Jackson learned to overcome the frustrations and continued to march against the Creek Villages in Alabama. Jackson’s improvisational tactics and leadership skills proved themselves many times on the frontier battlefields, but the Creek resistance became harder to overcome. In January, Jackson and his command escaped destruction near Emukfaw Creek when the Creeks viciously launched a surprise attack against him at Emukfaw Creek. Jackson was forced to lurch his army into retreat toward Fort Strother. The wounded, including General Coffee, were being carried on slow moving horse-litters while the Creeks led a running attack on the retreating army. A unit of Cherokee had worked themselves around the Creeks, however, and sprung an attack from the rear scattering the warriors away from Jackson’s forces and saving them from being destroyed.
As spring approached, Jackson’s scouts brought him intelligence that the main body of the Creeks were camped on the Talapoosa River in a place known as Horseshoe Bend. They were in the perfect defensive position and had built earthworks across the neck of the 90-acre peninsula to strengthen their ability to withstand attacks. In addition, they had pulled all of the available canoes against the other bank to offer escape down the river.
In mid-March and with large reinforcements from Tennessee, Jackson left a small force to protect Fort Strother and marched towards the Talapoosa River. Jackson’s force numbered around 2,000 men, including 500 Cherokee and two small cannon. Upon arriving within two miles of Horseshoe Bend, Jackson began dispersing his forces into position around the peninsula.
Jackson ordered General Coffee and the Cherokee forces to a point three miles below his force where they could surround the bend and cut off escape. He advanced his force to the breastworks and set his cannons on a rise eighty yards from the Creek village. Once in position, Jackson ordered his men and the cannons to open fire.
The heavy fire did nothing to dislodge the Creeks from Horseshoe Bend. Their earthworks stood from five to eight feet high in places and successfully withstood the heavy bombardment.
From his position on the banks of the river, General Coffee and his men were seeing what was going on in the Creek encampment. The fire was keeping the Creeks pinned down and the Cherokee warriors saw an opportunity to work themselves past the earthworks. With the battle raging so close to him, Coffee was having a hard time keeping his men under control and in position.
During the early part of the battle, a group of Creeks were taken prisoner and brought to Jackson for interrogation. One of the Creeks suddenly recognized Jackson and, when he was within an arm’s distance of the General, lunged towards him with a knife. Cherokee Chief Junaluska caught the movement out of the corner of his eye and tripped the warrior, preventing him from reaching Jackson. The move saved the unprotected Jackson from certain death.
Whatever Jackson would have learned, however, would have proven little. General Coffee’s Cherokee unit couldn’t take the inaction anymore. Some dove into the river and began swimming towards the canoes anchored on the peninsula. With covering fire, they crawled under the bank of Horseshoe Bend while the others started swimming the canoes back to the opposite bank for reinforcements. The Cherokee began crossing the river in numbers and mustered on the bank.
With battle cries, they lunged over the breastworks and into the face of the battling Creeks. With attacks coming from the front and a new assault from the river, the Creeks dug in and began the bloodiest fighting of the war. A former Blount County School teacher, Lieutenant Sam Houston, courageously led a Cherokee charge over the breastworks with an arrow penetrating his upper thigh. A young David Crockett and William Carroll were also in the battle fighting furiously in hand-to-hand combat with the Creek warriors. Within five hours, the battle was over and the village blazing with fires. General Coffee and his men cut off the retreat in every direction of those trying to escape and estimated that close to 300 warriors were killed trying to reach the banks of the Tallapoosa River. With close to a thousand Creek Warriors dead or dying on the peninsula, the backbone of the British-backed Creeks was broken.
General Jackson’s victory was hard-won and his report of the battle showed that no quarters were given to the tribe.
"The enemy, although many of them fought to the last with that kind of bravery which desperation inspires, were at last entirely routed and cut to pieces," wrote Jackson. "The battle may be said to have continued with severity for about five hours, but the firing and slaughter continued until it was suspended by the darkness of night. The next morning it was resumed and sixteen of the enemy slain who had concealed themselves under the banks."
The American forces had not escaped unscathed. There were 52 killed and 153 wounded, including Cherokee and friendly Creeks. The numbers of the Cherokee were out of proportion to their numbers, but only because the bulk of their fighting in the battle was hand-to-hand with the Creeks and without protective fire.
The victory at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend proved to be America’s second turning point. Jackson’s Army pursued the remaining Creeks and eventually forced Chief Weatherford and his warriors to surrender at Fort Jackson in August 1814.
President Madison gave General Jackson command of American operations in the Southwest and he began ridding the countryside of the British - a controversial task that would take him to the ports of Pensacola and New Orleans and to international prominence as an American leader.
The volunteers who fought in the Creek Wars would also set new standards of leadership. Sam Houston and William Carroll were two of four veterans of the war that would go on to become Governor of Tennessee. Houston would later resign the Governor’s office mid-term in disgust over the Cherokee removal and move with them to Oklahoma. After becoming involved with the fight for Texas Independence, he was elected President of the Texas Republic.
Jackson would also rise through the political ranks and become President of The United States.
Crockett would become a leading member of the Tennessee legislature and eventually be elected to Congress. He would, ironically, be killed while fighting with and under the command of the men he had served with at Horseshoe Bend.
The veterans of the battle began a movement that would shape American politics for a generation. It launched the "frontier statesman" era and, for the first time in history, establish America as a world power.
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While numerous books are written about the War of 1812, very little is mentioned about the Creek Wars in the South or the impact it had on American politics. When the Creeks surrendered to Jackson in Aug. 1814, the War of 1812 was going poorly for America. That same month British troops sacked Washington, D.C. putting the White House, the Capitol Building, the Treasury, and the War Department to the torch. That next month while in Chesapeake Bay negotiating the release of British prisoners, Attorney Francis Scott Key wrote the "Star Spangled Banner". Following the naval battle in Baltimore Harbor, the poetic tribute to the lone flag flying over the Maryland fort was printed on handbills and put to the tune of an old English drinking song. It wasn’t until 1931 that it would become the national anthem.
The War of 1812 ended with the Treaty of Ghent signed on Dec. 24, 1815 in Belgium. Because of the poor communications of the day, word of the Treaty did not reach America in time to end the hostilities. Fifteen days later, on Jan. 8, 1815, General Andrew Jackson and his Tennesseans would stun the world with their victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans.
The influence of the Creeks in the South is undeniable. Many landmarks in East Tennessee and Northern Georgia still carry Creek names that are often confused for Cherokee. Their influence stretched even to Louisiana, where the French named the City of Baton Rouge ("Red Stick") after the tribe.
Jackson’s reliance on the Cherokees in his Creek campaigns seemed to be quickly forgotten when he became President. When the Cherokee were removed down the "Trail of Tears" by Jackson and Gen. Winfield Scott, many of the aged warriors, who were veterans of Horseshoe Bend, stopped off at the Hermitage near Nashville to shake hands and visit with the General who had led them against the "Red Stick" Creeks.
A little known fact about Sam Houston was that, as a youth, he had lived among the Cherokee for three years and was adopted by the chief of the tribe. His Cherokee name "the Raven" was the one given to him by his adoptive father. The wound Houston received from a Creek arrow in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend never completely healed and plagued him throughout his life and was even rumored to have cost him a marriage. Houston always maintained close ties with the Cherokee and represented them on numerous occasions in Washington, D.C.
Among the Cherokee warriors at the battle, was one named George Gist, whom the entire world would later come to know him as Sequoyah.
Chief Junaluska, who saved Jackson’s life at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, was among the veterans of Horseshoe Bend removed to Oklahoma. At the time of the removal he reportedly made the comment:
"If I had known Jackson would remove the Cherokee from our ancestral lands, I would have never saved him that day on the Tallapoosa River."
When Junaluska reached the Oklahoma territory, however, he looked at it, turned around, and marched back to his beloved Smoky Mountains. His return to North Carolina angered some military leaders, but the state stepped in and made Junaluska a citizen to honor him for his service to America during the War of 1812. He was given a farm near present-day Robbbinsville, N.C. When the Cherokee Chief died, he was buried on a ridge near the old Mother Church in the City.
In 1912, the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a concrete monument to mark his final resting place and honor Junaluska for his service to America at The Battle of Horseshoe Bend.
Following the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, the Creek tribes were finally driven into Florida where they joined the Seminole Nation. The Seminoles were the only tribe to never sign a treaty with the United States and operated as an independent nation. In fact, following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Seminole Nation officially declared war on the Asian State - before passage of the bill was secured through the U.S. Congress.