Up Jackson Creek Without a Paddle

Jackson boots currier and ives
Andrew Jackson, invoking the power of Gandalf to battle his foe. Photo Credit: Currier and Ives

By late 1814, as the British began to shift their forces for a broad assault across the south, it’s time we take a step back and catch up with what had been happening in the region, and introduce one of the most formidable men the United States has ever produced.

Andrew Jackson had never liked the British. Captured along with his brother Robert by raiding cavalry during the revolutionary war, 15 year old Andrew was ordered by an officer to polish the man’s boots. Jackson, already certain no one could tell him what to do, told the officer where he could put his boots. The officer in question was apparently the wrong person to refuse, and he drew his saber and hacked at the teens. Andrew recovered, but his brother Robert died in British as a result of the horrible conditions in British captivity. Jackson would bear the scars, both mental and physical, for the rest of his life. They hardened him, molding him into a bristling, driven, thin skinned, and scarily competent soldier, statesmen, and lawyer.[1]

His tender side was only seen by his wife Rachel, who he had wooed in the midst of her own messy divorce with an abusive husband. By 1794 they were living together, sometime before the formal end of Rachel’s actual marriage. Naturally the scandal of their relationship led to some snide remarks, and just as naturally, Jackson made a point of shooting any would be comedian stone dead. In one duel with a notorious marksman named Charles Dickinson in 1806, Jackson was shot, remained standing, misfired, then reloaded and shot Dickinson through the heart. Only after he was certain the man was dead did Jackson collapse from the bullet in his chest, grimly noting “I would have fired the same way if that bullet had gone through my brain”.[2] Though his only military experience with war was as victim and fighting in a few tribal skirmishes, Jackson knew the British were coming, and he would be damned if he missed a chance to kill them.

James Wilkinson Charles Wilson Peale
James Wilkinson, doing his best impression of an innocent cherub. Photo Credit: Charles Wilson Peale

At the start of the war Jackson, already a Major General of the Tennessee militia, leveraged his own assets to train and supply a small company. Marching south Jackson hoped to take part in the reconquest of Mobile, Alabama and into Spanish Florida, under the command of a Revolutionary War veteran named James Wilkinson. As luck would have it though, in addition to being a veteran of the ill-fated Canadian invasion, James Wilkinson was also known as Agent 13, a professional spy for the Spanish empire.[3] Needless to say, in no hurry to stab his meal ticket, Wilkinson diddled around for the majority of 1813 then shrugged his shoulders and disbanded the army.

Jackson was told to go home. While he lay recovering from a brief illness, Jackson received word of the massacre at Fort Mims by the Red Sticks, and he abruptly changed course. Jackson swung hard into William Weatherford and his Creek warriors, and by early 1814 the Red Sticks were in full retreat. Rewarded with fresh regular troops, as well as support from the more collaborative Creeks, Jackson finally cornered Weatherford’s forces at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama. While Jackson was careful to preserve his alliance with the allied Creeks, in his private letters to his nominal superior General Pinckney there was no mistaking the bloodthirst, “I must destroy those deluded victims doomed to destruction by their own savage conduct…I have on all occasions preserved the scalps of my killed”.[4] Horseshoe Bend on March 27th 1814 showed that his men shared his dark enthusiasm.

Horseshoe Bend new York Public Library
Horseshoe Bend. No one bothered to capture the more children massacre moments that immediately followed. Photo Credit: New York Public Library

The Creeks had built a small fort along the river bend, blocking off the one angle of approach with a strong log wall. The position was good, and after an artillery barrage failed to crack the wall, Jackson directed his Creek allies to swim along the river and attack the flank while his men charged the wall. While the fighting was vicious,[5] eventually the Red Sticks were overwhelmed. Of the thousand or so defenders, less than 200 escaped the resulting massacre as Jackson’s men slaughtered the men, women, and children of Horseshoe Bend. In keeping with Tecumseh’s fate, some of Jackson’s militiamen cut strips of skin to make bridle reins. A pile of severed noses was used to count the slain.

Surprisingly though, when Weatherford came to surrender in person, Jackson didn’t actually leap from behind the table and rip out the Creek’s throat with his teeth. Instead, the two spoke briefly, Jackson praised the chief’s skills, clapped him on the back, and then let him go.[6] Forever pragmatic about the tools he used to achieve his ends, Jackson coopted Weatherford to spread his terms of the “peace” of Fort Jackson to the Creek, regardless of which side of the war they had fought on. In an ominous foreshadow of the Trail of Tears, Jackson overrode an earlier and more lenient ceasefire, informed both factions of the Creek War that they were to immediately cede more than 22 million acres of land to the United States. Those who didn’t like the deal could only pray it was not altered further. By the time the British were sailing around to launch their thrust into the south, Jackson was ready for them, and bristling with anticipation at the battle to come.

[1] In spite of no legal training to speak of, and a nasty habit of violating treaties and property law, Jackson still found himself serving as a Judge on the Tennessee Supreme Court of from 1798-1804. Less than two years after leaving office, he shot a man in a duel.

[2] Albright. In fairness to his contemporaries, his conduct and the whole “murder” thing made him something of a social albatross after this incident.

[3] This little nugget of information didn’t come out til the 20th Century, but it would have surprised none of his contemporaries. Wilkinson was more or less a professional troll, alternately scheming against George Washington, then with Aaron Burr, then against Aaron Burr, then more or less switching to a paid informant for Spain for the rest of his life.

[4] Takaki, R. (1993). A Different Mirror:

[5] Texas statesman Sam Houston and quixotic adventurer Davey Crockett both fought in this battle, the former taking an arrow to the knee.

[6] Weatherford was probably one of the only Creek to survive the war with a measure of success. He would die as a modestly wealthy plantation owner in 1824.

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