Manataka American Indian Council


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Excerpt from The Horseshoe Colonel©
The Battle of Horseshoe Bend

by Alex F. Brandau III


In the winter of 1813-14 ill winds were blowing. Andrew Jackson and some of the Tennessee State Militia had stubbornly remained at Camp Strother in Central Alabama ostensibly in pursuit of finishing the Creek War begun the previous fall. It had been a brutal winter; abandoned by other units and starving, the remaining 75 men were eating “roots and acorns” and desperately needed rescue.

The Creek Indians had wintered at Tohopeka, a bend in the Tallapoosa River to the south of the Tennesseans. With several hundred warriors behind log barricades, they were safe from attack by Mad Jackson, as they called him. They firmly believed that all Jackson wanted was their lands, and they refused to give it up.

Jackson was desperate; both he and the Tennessee Governor had petitioned Military District Six General Pinckney. They wanted a newly-formed Regiment of US Regular Infantry – the 39th, encamped in Knoxville where they had been trained and had become professional soldiers. General Flournoy, at the Seventh Military District in New Orleans wanted them too.


Flournoy was a Georgian and he wanted to return there; he wished Col. John Williams (portrait left), their commander to be promoted to Brigadier General and given control of the District and to live there. He knew that if needed, Col. Williams could get more soldiers from Tennessee as he had done with the East Tennessee Volunteers in 1813. New Orleans was critical in the defense of the Mississippi River; if it fell to the British in this War of 1812, the English fleet could sail up the river and spread havoc upon the entire center of the frontier. Secretary of War John Armstrong promised the 39th to Flournoy, and General Flournoy had issued orders for the 39th to proceed to New Orleans.

Col. Williams obeyed those orders and put his soldiers on the march South in early January. Unbeknownst to him, a mission begun by his brother, brother-in-law, and Luke Lea would change all that. Judge Hugh Lawson White, his brother-in-law, had heard of the Militia’s peril and ventured with the other two men through the wilderness from the safety of Knoxville to Ft. Strother. The conditions of the soldiers was so bad that they hastened to catch Col. Williams while enroute and advised him that he must rescue Jackson.

Orders in the Regular Army are Orders; if you break them you can be shot! John Williams kept repeating his situation to the three men who pleaded with him that cold night in January. Jackson had said he needed them to “uphold the honor of the state.” After an all night deliberation, Williams wrote Secretary of War Armstrong of his intent to at least resupply the soldiers at Ft. Strother; while enroute he received another set of orders from General Pinckney in Georgia to go to Jackson’s aid. Williams now had two sets of orders…. one to proceed to New Orleans and one from a General not in his chain of command to stay and help Jackson. He could not obey both of them. Williams advised General Jackson, of that dilemma as soon as he merged with them and virtually saved their lives. The 39th sat in limbo at Ft. Strother until March and as late as six days before the battle, Gen. Flournoy was still writing the Secretary of War awaiting the 39th.

Thus began one of the greatest lies ever told by the United States of America. The appearance of Col. Williams’ splendid troops added military discipline to a very bad and deteriorating situation. Soon other units began returning to the Creek War and a sizeable gathering of soldiers grew. Many court martials were held to restore discipline to the untrained militia that had gone home for the winter. Jackson was in a very bad temper. He was still recuperating from a shoulder wound in a drunken brawl the previous Fall with the Benton brothers. (thank goodness Col. Thomas Hart Benton of the 39th was not in attendance at the time.) Col. Williams and General Flournoy wanted the 39th to carry out their original order and to continue to New Orleans. Eventually that order came, but due to the red tape and indecision of Secretary of War Armstrong and President Madison, it became a moot decision, and on March 27th, the combined forces attacked the Creek Nation and forever changed history at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.

Col. Williams was a highly-educated military historian and son of a Revolutionary War patriot. No doubt his father had trained him as such and he had served in the American Army previously attaining the rank of Captain. At thirty-five, he was a splendid specimen of a man; six feet tall and head of the finest troops in the entire Southeast. Stuck as he was with Jackson, he made the best of the situation and helped plan the attack on Horseshoe Bend, but there was a serious disturbance in the 39th. Shortly before their departure from Ft. Strother, General Jackson had accused a young Militia private, John Wood, of disobeying an officer and mutiny. Gen. Jackson stated he had once been pardoned for mutiny (a lie because he hadn’t previously been there) and that he would not pardon him again. Pvt Wood had been excused to return to his campfire to eat when Major Camp ordered him to pick up littered chicken bones. The Private could not obey the orders of the Major and disobey the order he was still under for the guard.

Major Camp yelled to Jackson’s tent that a man had mutinied. According to witnesses Jackson came running and ordered other soldiers to “shoot the damned rascal.” No one would fire. So, Wood was taken prisoner and put in irons with Major Camp stabbing at his back while he was paraded to the 39th’s camp. In that one month, the professional soldiers of the 39th became fond of Pvt. Wood.

Everyone knew the charges and accusations to be false. Major Camp was not a Commissioned Officer and Pvt. Wood had been and still was on guard duty. He could not obey the orders of the Major and disobey the order he was still under for the guard. Pvt. Wood was court-martialed and a man accused in courts-martial then had no defense. Jackson paced up and back behind the officers while they deliberated Wood’s fate. He wanted a scapegoat to set an example for his troops before they went into battle. The Officers of the 39th petitioned Jackson for clemency, but he denied it and made them shoot Wood the next morning. To deny a small favor to the men who might soon die for you is an unforgivable breach of military etiquette.
The armies assembled and General Jackson rode forward to the restrained Private. He read the General Orders that everyone knew to be not true. He later said he would have pardoned Wood, but that Wood had become belligerent, so he did not. Col. Williams, who was there, said he could not hear the conversation but that no one facing death is belligerent and that Wood cried loud and bitterly. Wood’s brother and father had dressed him for the firing squad and immediately went AWOL. They heard the shots ending John’s life. From that day forward, John Williams never had one ounce of respect for Andrew Jackson and neither did his men.

The assembled army left for the march to Horseshoe Bend. They arrived a few days later and camped the night before a few miles away. The Creeks had known of the whites’ movements and prepared to defend their defensive position. The next morning as the 39th lined up facing the barricade the Indian medicine men began chants to “stop the bullets” and promised the Creeks that a great victory would be theirs after a cloud appeared. They danced and chanted as they faced death while the friendly Cherokee positioned themselves across the river cutting off every means of escape. The Tennessee Legislature had given Jackson orders to “exterminate” the Creeks; he almost did.

Andrew Jackson ordered his one artillery cannon to fire upon the log barricade, but the logs were still green and were resilient enough to repel the balls. Unobserved by the Creeks, the Cherokee swam across the river, stole their canoes, and attacked the Creek homes and put them on fire. Jackson (perhaps seeing this from his position on a hill) ordered the 39th to attack. Col. Williams ordered the drum roll to begin and they began to march forward. Everyone there said the anxiety and tension produced was almost unbearable. As they came closer, the 39th split into groups and ran the final 200 yards to the barricade where fierce hand to hand fighting occurred through the portals in the walls.


©39th Regiment United States Infantry Flag by Alex F. Brandau III

No publishing or reprinting without expressed written permission.


Once that first soldier jumped on the barricade and into the midst of the Creeks it became a rout. The Indians fled for their lives and they were hunted down and slaughtered the rest of the day until darkness. Many atrocities occurred and Jackson ordered a body count the next day and had their noses cut off to identify those counted turning a grisly scene into a massacre. Over 800 Creeks died that day and the Creek war was over. It was the greatest loss of life in one day in any of the Indian battles. Andrew Jackson, the obscure, unknown militia general had his first major military victory. General Pinckney sent him on to history at New Orleans. The Creeks lost 23 million acres and were relocated to Oklahoma. They never mention

Tohopeka. In fact, they have no history prior to Oklahoma.

Col. Williams returned to Knoxville on recruiting duty and never returned. He gave up his military pursuits and became a US Senator in 1815. He was defeated for reelection in 1823 by the Jackson political forces and became our first diplomat to S. America. There he met Simone Bolivar and negotiated a treaty for a canal across Guatemala and tried to outlaw the slave trade (many years before the abolitionist movement began). Later is his life he became a proficient political commentator and wrote many anonymous election pamphlets against Jackson. He said he had been persecuted “worse than the devoted Jew” by Jackson. He spent his time helping the Cherokee in their battles in the Supreme Court and died on the way back to DC to try to prevent what became the Trail of Tears.

March 27, 2014 was the Bicentennial of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. I was there just to observe because I consider that ground holy. It was mentioned that Col. Williams led the 39th to victory and that without it Jackson would not likely have been at New Orleans nor elected President. Most people know little or none of these circumstances, but the truth of what really happened there will not be forgotten.




Battle of Horseshoe Bend Photo:

Horseshoe Bend Graphic:

39th Regiment Flag Graphic:  Alex F. Brandau III, Author

Portrait of Col. John Williams - Courtesy of the East Tennessee Historical Society, Knoxville.