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The Seminole War

James D. Elderkin, 4th U.S. Infantry


In 1841, the Fourth United States Infantry was ordered to Florida to take part in that war. From Fort Gibson we went to New Orleans. There we took a steamer, which landed us at Tampa Bay, where we remained about two months, and then took up our line of march in our first campaign in the Florida war.

I am inclined to think if our boys who were engaged in the recent little affair with Spain could taste a bit of our Florida experience they would think their recent war experience was quite a pleasant picnic in comparison. Let it be remembered, at that early day, Florida was, for the most part, a howling wilderness, and indescribable in its wild yet horrible and beautiful grandure. For the most part, it was a succession of swamps, ridges, lagoons and low hills, called hummocks. The timber land, except for a trail here and there, was an impenetrable jungle. Especially was this the case in the swamps, where the mighty cypress often from four to five feet in diameter, raised its giant head high above the dense and tangled thorn-clad vine and shrubbery beneath, as if its mighty foliage was not enough to shut out the sunlight, each limb being hung heavy with Spanish moss, shutting out every ray of light, bringing the gloom of night over a trail beset with thorns, rattlesnakes and deadly moccasins gliding over your feet and ready to strike if trod upon.

Not only this, but every leaf seemed to bear some poisonous insect as dangerous as the serpents under foot, and still more dangerous than all the rest, the cunning redskins had slowly retreated before the United States army; for this war had been going on for years, and they had penetrated the jungles deep, and here and there cleared the hummocks of timber and built themselves comfortable homes from the bark of the cypress tree; and they defended those homes with that fury that only men driven to desperation can do. Concealing themselves under the dense foliage, covered with Spanish moss, they were undiscernable until they revealed their position by a rifle shot. This, of course, was often too late for some poor comrade who was pushing his way determindly through the tangle, and with death lurking on every hand. Wherever there had chanced to be a clearing of some daring settler's once happy home, now nothing remained but blackened ruins, a standing chimney or, perchance, here and there an orange grove, laden with fruit, as it peeped above the tangled underbrush, seemingly arising to strangle every relic of civilized man.

The night was made hideous by the howl of wolves, the scream of the panther, the bull-like bellow of the alligator and the dismal cry of the loon, interspersed here and there by the sweet notes of the whippoorwill, or the song of the American nightingale, that most beautiful of all songsters, the mocking bird. (The mocking bird often sings in the night.)

All of these sounds, whether dismal or sweet, were heeded with the greatest precaution, as it might be real or might be the signal of a wily savage to his cohorts to join in an onslaught that would end in a massacre or death-struggle of extermination for one side or the other.

Wherever clearings were found, or the higher ground lessened the density of the foliage, the graceful magnolia spread her beautiful branches of velvet leaves and magnificent blossoms, which ladened the air with perfume so sweet and heavy that it could be scented miles away; and high among the branches carroled the sweetest songsters man ever heard as they flitted from limb to limb under the glorious sunlight overhead, as if to emphasize to man that a glowing picture of hell and heaven might exist on earth before his very eyes.

The above is a weak attempt to describe the awful grandeur of Florida in those terrible times of savage warfare.

It was in 1841 we went to Florida, where we remained for one year. Of all my experience of hardships in three wars that which I experienced in Florida was the worst.

We left Tampa Bay and took our line of march to the Everglades. We were accompanied by our wagons bearing provisions and camp equipage as far as it was possible for wagons to go, then they were left behind and pack mules substituted to carry the absolute necessities, which was chiefly powder and lead and some extra rations of hardtack and pork. We were soon compelled to abandon our mules and load ourselves down with ammunition and provisions. With this tremendous load of ammunition equipments and five days' rations of pork and hardtack, we wallowed through the brier and bush and mud and water day after day.

We, of course, had no tents, and when the storms appeared to be likely to be too heavy we cut down palm trees and used the branches to build shelter, while we used the cabbage-like top for food to stretch out our rations as far as possible, and only for that, I think, we should have starved. Though there was not much neutriment to it, it furnished the bulk, so we did not feel so gaunt. The palm was cut in small pieces and boiled as you would boil cabbage, though it did not require so much boiling as cabbage.

We had a number of Indian guides, who followed the trail of the Indians as unerringly as a hound would follow a deer. They were always in advance until they noticed the water ran roily, knowing thereby the retreating Indians were near, when the Indian scouts would drop to the rear and we were pushed to the front to give battle.

Our first engagement will forever remain as fresh in my memory as the day it occurred.

We were about to enter the fight when Capt. L---, of Company I, whom I have mentioned before, was suddenly taken sick. As he was not liked at all, the boys would have it that he showed the white feather. Eight men were detailed to take him back to the depot where we left the mules. This was done by constructing a stretcher by binding a blanket on two poles and leaving the ends of the poles projecting out for handles, two men carrying him some distance, when they would be relieved by two other, and so on. We were now fully fifty miles in the heart of the great cypress swamp. Sergt. Douain and ten men were detailed to take the advance. I chanced to be one of those men, Sergeant Douain taking the lead and I following. We had not advanced far when the sergeant was shot and killed. He was the first man killed in that campaign. He was a member of my company. We were marching in the water knee deep when we were fired upon. Though we lost several men, not an indian could be seen. We pushed on to the dry land as fast as possible, but when we got there the Indians had concluded to retreat farther into the wilderness. We followed them some distance, and then returned to the island, where we buried our dead by carrying them out into deep water and driving stakes over them to keep the bodies down so in case the Indians did come back they could not find them and mutilate the bodies.

James D. Elderkin. Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes of a Soldier of Three Wars, as Written by Himself. (Detroit: 1899), pp. 16-22.


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