March 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 2
With his usual threats of death to deserters, Gen. Andrew Jackson led two thousand troops through the wilderness of eastern Alabama for a final confrontation with hostile Creek Indians. About nine hundred Creeks had chosen a peninsula formed by a bend in the Tallapoosa River as the perfect site for a defense. They had barricaded the neck of the peninsula with thick log breastworks and were ready with canoes at the riverside if escape became necessary. Jackson saw immediately upon his arrival on March 27 that they had merely penned themselves up for slaughter.
Jackson began the Battle of Horseshoe Bend by firing cannonballs at the wall while Gen. John Coffee surrounded the peninsula from the other side of the river. Coffee sent his best swimmers across the Tallapoosa to cut loose the Creeks’ canoes and set fire to their village; as the smoke appeared, Jackson ordered an assault on the fortification.
That afternoon saw fierce handto-hand fighting as Jackson’s troops stormed the Creek bastion. A young ensign named Sam Houston, who twentyone years later would lead the Texas war of independence, caught a barbed arrow in his thigh but went over the wall anyway and fought until the Creek stronghold was taken. A fellow officer would need three excruciating yanks to tear the arrow from Houston’s leg.
At afternoon’s close most of the remaining Creeks were hiding securely below the bluffs of the river, completely under cover. Houston appeared again, still bleeding, and single-handedly invaded the Creek refuge, his platoon having ignored his order to follow. Two musket balls in his shoulder finally finished Houston for the day. Jackson saw that such an attack was futile and chose instead simply to burn the sanctuary and shoot those who fled.
More than 750 Indians were killed that day, compared with 55 United States troops. “If I had an army, I would yet fight,” lamented the Creek leader Red Eagle as he surrendered a few days later. “My people are all gone.” Jackson concluded his brilliant military campaign by seizing twentythree million acres of land in a shamefully unfair treaty forced upon both hostile and friendly Creek Indians.
After spending six weeks in Chile’s Valparaíso Harbor under a British blockade, the American frigate Essex , commanded by Capt. David Porter, made a desperate attempt to escape on March 28. In a conflict largely fought over military piracy on the high seas, Porter’s Essex had followed an appropriately swashbuckling course throughout the War of 1812.
Having broken off from his squadron late in 1812, Porter led the Essex and its smaller companion, the Essex Junior , on a privateering crusade against British shipping that took him around Cape Horn and made his ship the first U.S. Navy vessel to enter the Pacific Ocean. For more than a year Porter provisioned his ships with supplies, ammunition, and money commandeered from captured ships. He had a special affection for British whaling ships, which were unusually well stocked for long voyages. Based at the Galápagos Islands for one six-month period, the Essex plundered twelve of the roughly twenty British whalers known to be in the Pacific.
When word of an approaching British squadron reached Porter late in 1813, he judged his service in the Galápagos to be complete and sailed the Essex southwest to the remote Marquesas Islands. Six months of overhauling gave Porter enough confidence to approach the British warships near Valparaiso, a neutral port. Finding himself badly outgunned, Porter decided to remain at anchor in the harbor while the British waited outside.
On March 28 strong winds snapped an anchor cable on the Essex , and with his ship drifting out to sea, Porter began to run the blockade until the wind tore down his main-topmast. With the Essex still in neutral waters, the British men-of-war Phoebe and Cherub took advantage of the superior range of their long guns and leisurely lobbed cannonballs at it. Powerless to resist or escape, Porter ordered the Essex abandoned.
More than half of Porter’s crew were reported to be dead, wounded, or missing. Among those who were captured was a twelve-yearold midshipman named David Farragut, a favorite of Porter, who, as an admiral in the U.S. Navy a half-century later, would become one of the heroes of the Civil War.