The conflicts in which our young nation won much of the Deep South were immensely important, but are largely forgotten today.
Editor’s Note: One of the most respected historians of the Civil War and Indian conflicts and winner of the Gilder Lehrman Prize for Military History, Peter Cozzens has written 17 books and just published the third volume of his trilogy about the Indian wars in the American West, the Old Northwest (America’s Heartland), and the Old South. Portions of this essay appeared in his recently published A Brutal Reckoning: Andrew Jackson, the Creek Indians, and the Epic War for the American South.
The War of 1812 was going badly for the United States in the summer of 1813. British forces menaced the Eastern Seaboard and had repelled American attempts to seize Canada. There were rumors of planned Indian uprisings west of the Appalachians, perhaps abetted by the British. Those reports would soon prove true, and the horrific combat and colossal betrayals would end up largely eradicating the Indian presence in the Deep South.
This critical chapter in America’s past is largely forgotten today, but was of immense consequence for the future United States. No other Indian conflict in our nation’s history so changed the complexion of American society as did the Creek War. A dispute that began as a Creek civil war became a ruthless struggle of the Native population against American expansion, erupting in the midst of the War of 1812.
Not only was the Creek War the most pitiless clash between American Indians and whites in U.S. history, but the defeat of the Red Sticks — as those opposed to American encroachment were known because of the red war clubs they carried — also cost the entire Creek people as well as the neighboring Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Cherokee nations their homelands. The collapse of Red Stick resistance in 1814 led inexorably to the Indian Trail of Tears two decades later, which opened Alabama, much of Mississippi, and portions of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee to white settlement. That in turn gave rise to the Cotton Kingdom, without which there would have been no casus belli for the American Civil War.'
Massacre at Fort Mims
The threats of Indian attacks in the summer of 1813 led local militias throughout Alabama to construct wooden stockades and blockhouses near settlements, and many white families sought relative protection in the fortifications. On August 30, at the hastily constructed Fort Mims about fifty miles north of Mobile, Private Nehemiah Page of the Mississippi Territory Volunteers woke with a hangover in his tent as first light washed the eastern sky above the forest. As drummers beat reveille into Page's throbbing skull, everywhere he looked there were people – four hundred men, women, and children packed inside the one-and-a-quarter-acre stockade. Private Page had gotten drunk the night before to celebrate the completion of the fort's only blockhouse. It was not much of an achievement, but it provided as good an excuse as any for the twenty-eight-year-old militiaman and his comrades to drink.
Page negotiated the teeming settlers, slaves, and scampering dogs on his way to roll call, then fell into a straggling line of 146 volunteers and local militiamen. Slapping at swarming mosquitoes, he declared himself present. Afterward Page staggered outside the open eastern gate and dropped down to sleep in one of Sam Mims's stables. There were no drills scheduled and no patrolling or regular sentry duties.