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The Creek War of 1813 and 1814|
Chapter 8: The Battle of Burnt Corn
by Halbert, H. S. and Ball, T. H.
|From the letter of General James Wilkinson, much of which has been quoted in a preceding chapter, we learn that more than three hundred hostile Creeks, under the Prophet Francis, were camped, on the 25th of June, at the Holy Ground. General Wilkinson writes: "The last information received of their doings was on Wednesday [the 23d of June], by Ward's wife, who has been forced from him with her children. She reported that the party, thus encamped, were about to move down the river to break up the half-breed settlements, and those of the citizens in the fork of the rivers." While this was, no doubt, the real and ultimate design of the hostile Creeks, it was first necessary to put themselves on a thorough war footing by procuring supplies of arms and ammunition from Pensacola. With this object in view, at some period in the early part of July, a party of Creeks, comprising a portion, if not all, of the hostile camp at the Holy Ground, with many pack-horses, took up the line of march for Pensacola. This party was under the command of Peter McQueen, at the head of the Tallassee warriors, with Jim Boy, as principal war chief, commanding the Atossees,* [* Pickett in his narrative has here evidently made a slip writing Autaugas for Atossees. H. S. H.] and Josiah Francis, commanding the Alibamos. Pickett gives the entire force as amounting to three hundred and fifty warriors; Colonel Carson, in a letter to General Claiborne, estimates them at three hundred; but General Woodward, in his Reminiscences, simply states that their numbers have been greatly overrated. "On their way," writes Pickett, "they beat and drove off every Indian that would not take the war-talk. "On their arrival at Burnt Corn Spring, situated at the crossing of the Federal and the Pensacola roads, they burned the house and corncrib of James Cornells, seized his wife and carried her with them to Pensacola, where she was sold to Madame Baronne, a French lady, for a blanket. A man, named Marlowe, living with Cornells, was also carried prisoner to Pensacola. Cornells, it seems, was absent from home, at the time of this outrage. We hear of him, soon afterwards, at Jackson, on the Tombigbee, "mounted on a fast-flying grey horse," bringing to the settlers the tidings of Creek hostilities.
The perilous condition of the southern frontier at this period, the early part of July, is well portrayed in the following passages from Pickett: "The inhabitants of the Tombigbee and the Tensaw had constantly petitioned the Governor for an army to repel the Creeks, whose attacks they hourly expected. But General Flournoy, who had succeeded Wilkinson in command, refused to send away of the regular or volunteer troops. The British fleet was seen off the coast, from which supplies, arms, ammunition, and Indian emissaries, were sent to Pensacola and other Spanish ports in Florida. Everything foreboded the extermination of the Americans in Alabama, who were the most isolated and defenceless people imaginable."
When Colonel Joseph Carson, commanding at Fort Stoddart, was informed that the above mentioned force of Creek warriors had gone to Pensacola, he despatched David Tate and William Pierce to the town to ascertain the intentions of the Creeks and whether Governor Manique would grant them a supply of ammunition. The information gained by these spies and reported on their respective returns, all summed up, was that the Creeks, on their arrival in Pensacola, had called upon the Governor and presented him a letter from a British general in Canada. This letter had been given to Little Warrior when he was in Canada and at his death was saved by his nephew and afterwards given to Josiah Francis, The Creeks, whether right or wrong, supposed that this letter requested or authorized the Governor to supply them with ammunition. The Governor, in reply, assured them that it was merely a letter of recommendation, and at first refused to comply with their demands. He, however, appointed another meeting for them, and the Creeks, in the meanwhile, made every exertion to procure powder and lead by private purchase. According to Tate's information, which he received from some of the prisoners whom the Creeks had brought down with them, their language breathed out vengeance against the white people and they dropped some hints of attacking the Tensaw settlers on their return. The Creeks finally succeeded in their negotiation with the Governor, who issued an order supplying them with three hundred pounds of powder and a proportionate quantity of lead. To obtain this large supply, McQueen handed the Governor a list of the towns ready to take up arms, making four thousand eight hundred warriors. Even this large amount of ammunition was not satisfactory to the Creeks; they demanded more, but it seems that Manique yielded no further to their demands. The Creeks now openly declared that they were going to war against the Americans; that on their return to the nation they would be joined by seven hundred warriors at the Whet Stone Hill,* [* The hill on which the present town of Lownsoro is situated.] where they would distribute their ammunition and then return against the Tombigbee settlers. They now held their war-dance, an action equivalent to a formal declaration of war.
Such was the information brought by the spies from Pensacola, and their evidence clearly shows that the disaffected section of the Creek Confederacy was now committed to open war against the Americans. No other construction can be placed upon the words and actions of the agents or representatives of this disaffected section,--the hostile party in Pensacola. We may conjecture that this party left Pensacola about the twenty-fourth of July, but, as will be noticed hereafter, it seems that it was only a part of the force, mainly under the command of Jim Boy that took up the line of march, while the greater party, from some cause, tarried a while longer in Pensacola.
A slight incident here, perhaps, is worthy of being placed on record to the credit of Jim Boy. While in Pensacola the Creeks met with Zachariah McGirth a man well known in the Creek nation. Some of the Creeks wished to kill him. But Jim Boy interposed and said that the man or men that harmed McGirth should be put to death
In the meanwhile, the inhabitants of the Tombigbee and the Tensaw were in a state of great alarm. Many had abandoned their farms and taken refuge in the forts situated along the Tombigbee and the Alabama. Judge Toulmin, writing from Fort Stoddart, the twenty-third of July, says, "The people have been fleeing all night." This brief sentence clearly reveals the alarm and anxiety pervading the Alabama frontier at this period.
Upon the report of the spies from Pensacola relative to the action of Governor Manique and the Creeks, Colonel James Caller, of Washington County, the senior militia officer on the frontier, forthwith ordered out the militia. A force was soon embodied and enrolled under his command. Colonel Caller resolved to intercept the Creeks on their return and capture their ammunition. His command, at first, consisted of three small companies, two from St. Stephens, commanded respectively by Captains Baily Heard and Benjamin Smoot, and one company from Washington County, commanded by Captain David Cartwright. With this force Colonel Caller crossed the Tombigbee at St. Stephens, Sunday, July 25th; thence passing through the town of Jackson, he marched to Fort Glass, where he made a short halt. At this place he was reinforced by accompany under Captain Sam Dale, with Lieutenant Walter G. Creagh as second in command. Another force had also joined him in the expedition commanded by William McGrew, Robert Callier, and William Bradberry. The whole party were well mounted and carried their own rifles and shot guns, of every size and description. Captain Dale carried a double barrel shot gun--an unusual weapon in that day. An eye-witness has described Colonel Caller at Fort Glass as wearing a calico hunting shirt, a high bell-crowned hat and top boots and riding a large fine bay horse. Leaving Fort Glass, the party bivouacked the ensuing night at Sizemore's ferry, on the west bank of the Alabama River. The next morning they crossed the river, the horses swimming by the side of the canoes. This occupied several hours. They now marched in a southeastern direction to the cowpens of David Tate, where a halt was made. Here Colonel Caller received another reinforcement, a company from Tensaw and Little River, commanded by the brave half-breed, Captain Dixon Bailey. The whole force, composed of white men, half-breeds and friendly Indians, now numbered one hundred and eighty men, rank and file, in six small companies. From the cow-pens they marched to the intersection of the Wolf-trail and the Pensacola road, at or near the site of the present village of Belleville, in Conecuh County, where they camped for the night. The next morning, the twenty seventh of July the command was reorganized. William McGrew was chosen Lieutenant Colonel, and Zachariah Phillips, McFarlan, Wood, and Jourdan were elected to the rank of Major. It is stated that this unusual number of field officers was made to satisfy military aspirations. The command now took up the line of march down the Pensacola road, which here ran, and still runs, parallel with Burnt Corn Creek. About eleven o'clock the spies returned at a rapid rate and reported that they had found the enemy encamped near Burnt Corn Creek, a few miles in their advance, and that they were busily engaged in cooking and eating. A consultation of the officers immediately took place, and it was decided to take the Creeks by surprise. The troops were thrown into three divisions, Captain Smoot in front of the right, Captain Bailey in front of the centre, and Captain Dale in front of the left.
As the descriptions of the Burnt Corn battle ground given by Meek and Pickett are somewhat vague and inaccurate, a more correct account of the topography, gained from personal observation, is here given to the reader. Burnt Corn Creek, near which the battle was fought, runs southward for several hundred yards, then making an abrupt bend, runs southeastward for half a mile or more. Right at the elbow of the bend is the crossing of the old Pensacola road. The low pine barren enclosed in this bend--not a peninsula as called by Pickett--is enveloped by a semicircular range of hills, which extends from the creek bank on the south some half a mile below the crossing, and terminates on the west at the bank, some three hundred yards above the crossing. This western terminus is now locally known as the Bluff Landing. The Pensacola road from the crossing runs northward some two hundred yards, then turning runs eastward half a mile, making a continuous and gradual ascent up the slope of the hills, and then again turns northward. The spring, now known as Cooper's Spring, is situated about half a mile nearly east of the crossing, and about one hundred and fifty yards south of the road. It gushes forth at the base of a steep hill and is the fountain head of a small reed-brake branch, which empties into the creek about two hundred yards below the crossing. The hill, at the base of which the spring is situated, is about the centre of the semicircular range of hills which envelops the pine barren. About sixty yards northwest of the spring, between the spring and the road, is a comparatively level spot of land, about an acre in extent. This spot, we conjecture, was the Creek camp, or at least where the main body was encamped, as it is the only place immediately near the spring suitable for a camp. The hill here rises steep and abruptly to the northeast, and a hostile force could well approach and charge down this hill within close gunshot of the camp before being seen. This locality famed as the battle ground of Burnt Corn is in Escambia County, one-half a mile from the line of Conecuh County, on the north.
As reported by the scouts, the Creek camp was near the spring, and their pack-horses were grazing around them. No rumor of the foe's advance had reached their ears; all were careless, off their guard and enjoying themselves, for good cheer was in the Muscogee camp. Their martial spirits, as we may well imagine, were not now stirred by thoughts of war and bloodshed, but were concentrated on the more peaceful delights of cooking and feasting, the pleasures of the pot, the kettle, and the bowl.
The Burnt Corn battlefield was in the unorganized part of Mississippi Territory (in the Indian country proper) in the year 1818. Monroe county organized in 1815, included Burnt Corn. In 1818 the same locality was in Conecuh county established that year. Now it seems, it is in Escambia county, established in 1868 although Brewer, writing in 1872 still places the battle ground of Burnt Corn in Conecuh. (The following cut will give some idea of the locality).
Colonel Callers troops, as we may conjecture, must have turned to the left, off the road, perhaps near the Red Hollow, about a mile distant from the spring, and thence approached the Creek camp from the northeast and east, as from the nature of the country this was the only route they could have taken so as to surprise the Red Stick camp.* [* The hostile Creeks were often called Red Sticks because their war-clubs were invariably painted red. "Red Stick" was considered an honorable appellation, and as such it will occasionally be used in this work. "Red Stick War" is the name by which the War of 1813 is still known among the Creeks of the Indian Territory. H. S. H.] The troops moved cautiously and silently onward until they reached the rear of the hill that overlooked the Creek camp. Here, Pickett says, they dismounted; but Meek says the main body dismounted; yet neither Pickett nor Meek makes any statement as to the disposition of their horses--whether they were tied or were consigned to the care of a guard, or whether each trooper, as he dismounted, left his horse to shift for himself. From the fact that many of the horses fell into the hands of the enemy, one is led to the conjecture that no regular system was employed, but that every man did that which was right in his own eyes. After dismounting, the troops moved silently to the crest of the hill, whence they made a rapid charge down its slope and opened fire upon the Creek camp, as the red warriors stood, sat, or reclined in scattered groups over the ground. The Creeks, though startled by this sudden and unexpected onset, quickly sprang to arms, returned the fire, and for several minutes bravely withstood the charge of the whites, then gave way and retreated in wild confusion to the creek. Early in the fight a Creek woman and a negro man were slain. It is stated that the latter, who was busily engaged in cooking, had ample time to make his escape, but being a slave and non-combatant he doubtless apprehended no danger from the whites. A portion of the troops pursued the Indians to the creek--Meek says they even drove them across the creek into a reed-brake beyond--but we think this latter statement exceedingly doubtful. While these were performing this soldierly duty, the more numerous party devoted their energies to capturing and leading off the pack-horses. This led to a disastrous reverse. The Creeks in the cane and reed-brakes soon saw the demoralization of the greater part of the whites and the fewness of the assailants confronting them. They rallied, and, with guns, tomahawks and war clubs, rushed forth from the swamp, and with the fiercest cries of vengeance charged upon their foes and drove them headlong before them. Colonel Caller acted bravely, but unable to restore order, he commanded the troops to fall back to the hill so as to secure a stronger position and there to renew the battle. The plundering party, misconstruing this order, and seeing the fighting portion of the troops falling back before the enemy, were now seized with a panic, and fled in wild confusion, still, however, notwithstanding their terror, driving their horses before them, some even mounting their prizes so as to more quickly escape from the fatal field. In vain did Colonel Caller, Captain Bailey and other officers endeavor to rally them and persuade them to make a stand against the foe. Terror and avarice proved more potent than pride and patriotism, and the panic-stricken throng surged to the rear. Only about eighty fighting men now remained, and these had taken a stand in the open woods at the foot of the hill. Commanded by Captains Dale, Bailey, and Smoot, they fought with laudable courage for an hour or more under the fire poured upon them by McQueen's warriors from the cover of the thick and sheltering reeds. The battle may now be briefly described as "a series of charges and retreats, irregular skirmishes and frequent close and violent encounters of individuals and scattered squads." It was noticed that the Creek marksmanship was inferior to that of the Americans. It was in the fight at the foot of the hill that Captain Dale was wounded by a rifle ball, which struck him in the left side, glanced around and lodged near the back bone. The captain continued to fight as long as his strength permitted, and then threw aside his double barrel into the top of a fallen tree. This gun, we may here state, Dale recovered after the war from an Indian, at Fort Barancas. About the same time that Dale was wounded, Elijah Glass, a twin brother of David Glass, was slain. He was standing behind another soldier, who was in a stooping position, when a rifle ball struck him fatally in the upper part of the breast.
The battle now at last began to bear hard upon the Americans. Two-thirds of the command were in full retreat, and no alternative lay before the fighting portion but to abandon the field, which they did in the greatest disorder. Many of them had lost their horses, some of which had been appropriated by the fugitives, and others, in some manner, had fallen into the hands of the enemy, among these, the horses belonging to Colonel Caller and Major Wood. The troops now fled in all directions. Some succeeded in reaching and mounting their own horses; others mounted the first horses they came to; in some cases, in their eagerness to escape, two mounting the same horse; while others actually ran off afoot. It was a disgraceful rout.
"After all these had left the field," writes Pickett, "three young men were found, still fighting by themselves on one side of the peninsula, [bend,] and keeping at bay some savages who were concealed in the cane. They were Lieutenant Patrick May, a private named Ambrose Miles, and Lieutenant Girard W. Creagh. A warrior presented his tall form. May and the savage discharged their guns at each other. The Indian fell dead in the cane; his fire, however, had shattered the Lieutenant's piece near the lock. Resolving, also to retreat, these intrepid men made a rapid rush for their horses, when Creagh, brought to the ground by the effects of a wound which he received in the hip, cried out "Save me, Lieutenant, or I am gone". May instantly raised him up, bore him off on his back, and placed him in the saddle, while Miles held the bridle reins. A rapid retreat saved their lives. Reaching the top of the hill, they saw Lieutenant Bradberry, bleeding with his wounds, and endeavoring to rally some of his men." This was the last effort made to stem the tide of disaster.
Two young men were slain in the battle, _____ Ballard and Elijah Glass, both it is believed, being members of Dale's company. Ballard had fought with great bravery. Just before the final retreat, he was wounded in the hip. He was able to walk, but not fast enough to reach his horse, which in the meantime, had been appropriated by one of the fugitives. A few of the soldiers returned and successively made efforts to mount Ballard behind them on their horses, but the Indians pressed them so closely that this could not be done. Ballard told them to leave him to his fate and not to risk their own lives in attempting to save him. At last the Indians reached him, and for some moments, he held them at bay, fighting desperately with the butt of his musket, but he was soon overpowered and slain. Several Indians now sprang forward, scalped him and began to beat him with their war clubs. Two of the retreating soldiers, David Glass and Lenoir, saw this. Glass was afoot, Lenoir mounted. "Is your gun loaded," asked Glass of Lenoir. "Yes," was the reply. "Then shoot those Indians that are beating that man yonder." Lenoir hesitating, Glass quickly spoke, "Then lend me your gun." Exchanging guns, Glass then advanced a few paces and fired at two or three of the Indians whose heads happened to be in a line, and at the discharge one of them fell, as Glass supposed, slain or wounded. This was the last shot fired in the battle of Burnt Corn, which had lasted from about midday until about three o'clock in the afternoon.
The Creeks pursued the whites nearly a mile in the open woods and nothing but their inability to overtake them saved the fugitives from a general slaughter. Pickett writes: "The retreat continued all night in the most irregular manner, and the trail was lined from one end to the other with small squads, and sometimes one man by himself. The wounded travelled slowly, and often stopped to rest." Such was the result of the battle of Burnt Corn, the first engagement in the long and bloody Creek War. Most of the Creek pack-horses, about two hundred pounds of powder and some lead was all the success the Americans could claim from this engagement. Their loss was two men killed, Ballard and Glass. Fifteen were wounded, Captain Sam. Dale, Lieutenant G. W. Creagh, Lieutenant William Bradberry, shot in the calf of the leg; Armstrong, wounded in the thigh; Jack Henry, wounded in the knee; Robert Lewis, Alexander Hollinger, William Baldwin, and seven others whose names have not been preserved.
The Creek loss is not positively known. Colonel Carson, in a letter to General Claiborne, written a few days after the battle, states that from the best information it was ten or twelve killed and eight or nine wounded.
As to the numbers engaged at Burnt Corn, we know that the American force numbered one hundred and eighty. General Woodward, in his Reminiscences, states, on the authority of Jim Boy, that the Creek force was two-thirds less. He writes. "Jim Boy said that the war had not fairly broke out, and that they never thought of being attacked; that he did not start [from Pensacola] with a hundred men, and all of those he did start with were not in the fight. I have heard Jim tell it often that if the whites had not stopped to gather up the pack horses, and had pursued the Indians a little further, they, the Indians, would have quit and gone off. But the Indians discovered the very great confusion the whites were in searching for plunder, and they fired a few guns from the creek swamp, and a general stampede was the result. McGirth always corroborated Jim Boy's statement as to the number of Indians in the Burnt Corn battle."
The above, perhaps, may be regarded, in some measure, as the Creek version of Burnt Corn. If possession of the battlefield may be considered a claim to victory, then Burnt Corn may well be regarded a Creek victory.
After the battle, a part of the Red Sticks retraced their steps to Pensacola for more military supplies, and a part returned to the nation. Their antagonists, Colonel Caller's troopers, were never reorganized after the battle. They returned home, in scattered bands, by various routes, and each man mustered himself out of service. About seventy of them on the retreat collected together at Sizemore's Ferry, where, for a while, they had much difficulty in making their horses swim the river. David Glass finally plunged into the stream and managed to turn the horses' heads towards the other shore. After the horses had all landed on the further bank, the men crossed over in canoes.
Colonel Caller and Major Wood, as we have related, both lost their horses at Burnt Corn. As the fugitives shifted, every man for himself, these two officers were left in the rear. They soon became bewildered and lost their way in the forest, and as they did not return with the other soldiers, their friends became very apprehensive as to their safety. "When General Claiborne arrived in the country, he wrote to Bailey, Tate, and Moniac, urging them to hunt for these unfortunate men. They were afterwards found, starved almost to death, and bereft of their senses." When found, Colonel Caller had on nothing but his shirt and drawers. After the war, the Colonel, with some difficulty, recovered his fine horse from the Creeks. But Major Wood was not so fortunate.
Colonel J. F. H. Claiborne, in his "Life of Sam Dale," writes: "Colonel Caller was long a conspicuous man in the politics of Mississippi Territory, often representing Washington County in the legislature. No one who knew Caller and Wood intimately doubted their courage; but the disaster of Burnt Corn brought down on them much scurrility. Major Wood, who was as sensitive as brave, bad not the fortitude to despise the scorn of the world, and sought forgetfulness, as too many men often do, in habitual intemperance."
The battle of Burnt Corn, on the whole, was damaging to the prestige of American prowess. For many years its participants had to endure the ridicule of their neighbors and friends; for it was not considered creditable to any one to claim that he had been a soldier in the Burnt Corn battle.
It should here be stated that at the time of its occurrence many of the citizens of Washington County censured Colonel Caller severely for this expedition and believed that he acted too hastily in the matter. They believed that, while putting themselves on a war footing, it would have been better to have made use of conciliatory measures towards the Creeks; that they thereby might have overruled them and perhaps averted hostilities. But this attack by Colonel Caller maddened them and converted numbers of hesitating and neutral warriors into deadly foes, and the massacre at Fort Mims was the result.
In writing the history of the Burnt Corn expedition, the writer has drawn his materials from the following sources: Pickett's History of Alabama, Meek's Romantic Passages of Southwestern History, General Thomas Woodward's Reminiscences of the Creek or Muscogee Indians, letters of Judge Toulmin and Colonel Carson, addressed to General Claiborne, published in the Alabama Historical Reporter of June, 1880, and a letter from Colonel Carson to General Claiborne, published in Claiborne's "Life of Sam Dale."
In addition to the above sources must be added conversations with the late Rev. Josiah Allen, of Jasper County, Mississippi, who, perhaps, was the last survivor of Capt. Sam Dale's company. Mr. Allen was not in the Burnt Corn expedition, but was intimately associated with many of the participants in the battle, from whom he derived a number of incidents and other minor facts, which have been incorporated in this narrative
The description of the battle ground, as has been stated, is the result of personal observation. H. S. H.