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Slave Exiles

"Exiles of Florida"


The Troops along the Florida frontier become active -The Exiles on Suwanee and Withlacoochee prepare for War–General Gaines's representation of their numbers -Depredations committed during the Spring and Summer of 1817-Massacre of Lieutenant Scott and his party–Its Effect upon the Country–Congress not consulted as to this War–General Gaines authorized to invade Florida–General Jackson ordered to the Field–Mr. Monroe assumes the Duties of President–His Cabinet–Character of Congress–Public Sentiment in regard to discussion of Subjects connected with Slavery-General Jackson concentrates his Army at Fort Scott-Proceeds to Mickasukie–Battle–Destruction of the Town–Marches to St. Marks–Indian Chiefs decoyed on board a Vessel–Hanged by order of General Jackson–The Army moves upon Suwanee–Its Situation–Exiles prepare for a decisive Battle–Severe Conflict–General Jackson takes the Town–Captures Indian Women and Children–Burns the Villages of that region–Returns to Pensacola–Capture and Trial of Arbuthnot and Ambrister–Their Execution–Invasion of Florida condemned by some of our Statesmen, and vindicated by others.

The nation having been precipitated into war (1816), the Officers of Government, and the army, at once became active in carrying it on. Orders were sent to General Gaines, exhorting him to vigilance, caution and promptitude. He was on the southern frontier of Georgia, where it was naturally supposed the first blow, in retaliation for the massacre of Blount's Fort, would fall. His scouts were constantly on the alert, his outposts strengthened, and his troops kept in readiness for action.

The Seminole Indians had lost some thirty men, who bad intermarried with the Exiles, and were in the fort at the time of the massacre. They entertain the opinion that the souls of their murdered friends are never at rest while their blood remains unavenged; nor could it be supposed that the Exiles would feel no desire to visit retributive justice upon the murderers of their friends. Long did this desire continue, in the minds of the surviving Exiles, until, many years subsequently, their vengeance was satiated, their hands were stained, and their garments saturated, in the blood of our troops.

The surviving Exiles had their principal remaining settlements upon the Suwanee and Withlacoochee rivers, and in the Mickasukie towns. These settlements were on fertile lands, and were now relied upon to furnish provisions for their support during hostilities. Savages are usually impetuous; but the Exiles were more deliberate. Colonel Clinch had returned to Georgia; Sailing-Master Loomis was at Mobile Bay, and no circumstances demanded immediate action. They gathered their crops, obtained arms and ammunition from British and Spanish merchants, and made every preparation for hostilities. During the summer and autumn of 1816, General Gaines reported slight depredations on the frontiers of Georgia, but in February, 1817, be reported that larger bodies of Indians were collecting in some of their villages; and in one of his letters he stated that seven hundred negroes were collected at Suwanee, and were being daily drilled to the use of arms. This number of fighting men would indicate a larger population of Exiles than is warranted by subsequent information.

During the Spring and Summer, both parties were in a state of preparation-of constant readiness for war. A few predatory excursions to the frontier settlements, marked the action of the Indians and Exiles, while the army, under General Gaines, often sent parties into the Indian country, without any important incident or effect. The first effective blow was struck in November. A boat was ascending the Appalachicola river, with supplies for Fort Scott, under the escort of a Lieutenant and forty men, in company with a number of women and Children. Information of this fact was communicated to the Exiles and Indians resident at Mickasukie, and a band of warriors at once hastened to intercept them. They succeeded in drawing them into ambush, a few miles below the mouth of Flint River, and the Lieutenant, and all his men but six, and all the children, and all the women but one, were massacred on the spot. Six soldiers escaped, and one woman was spared and taken to Suwanee as a prisoner. Here she was kept by the Exiles through the winter, and treated with great kindness, residing in their families and sharing their hospitality. She had thus an opportunity of learning their condition, and the state of civilization to which they had attained, as well as their desire to be at peace with mankind, in order to enjoy their own rights and liberties.

This massacre was regarded by the country as a most barbarous and wanton sacrifice of human life. The newspapers blazoned it forth as an exhibition of savage barbarity. The deep indignation of the people was invoked against the Seminoles, who were represented as alone responsible for the murder of Lieutenant Scott, and his men. Probably nine-tenths of the Editors, thus assailing the Seminoles, were not aware of the atrocious sacrifice of human life at "Blount's Fort," in July of the previous year. Even the President of the United States, in his Message (March 25), relating to these hostile movements of the Seminoles, during the previous year, declared "The hostilities of this Tribe were unprovoked," as though the record of the massacre at "Blount's Fort" had been erased from the records of the moral Universe. Notwithstanding our army had, in a time of profound peace, invaded the Spanish Territory, marched sixty miles into its interior, opened a cannonade upon "Blount's Fort," blown it up, with an unprecedented massacre, in which both Seminole Indians and negroes were slain, and two of their principal men given over to barbarous torture; yet, the President, in his Message, as if to falsify the history of current events, declared that "as almost the whole of this Tribe inhabit the country within the limits of -Florida, Spain was bound, by the Treaty of 1795 to restrain them from committing depredations against the Unite States." Such were the efforts made to misrepresent facts, in relation to the first Seminole War. With its commencement, the people had nothing to do; they were not consulted, nor were their Representatives in Congress permitted to exercise any influence over the subject. The correspondence between General Gaines and the Secretary of War, in regard to the occupation of the fort by the Exiles, had commenced on the fourteenth of May, 1815. It was continued while Congress was in session, in 1815 and 1816, but no facts in regard to the plan of destroying it, and entering upon a war, for the purpose of murdering or enslaving the Exiles, had been communicated to Congress or the public.

Orders were now issued to General Gaines, authorizing him to carry the war into Florida, for the purpose of punishing the Seminoles. General Jackson was ordered to take the field, in person, with power to call on the States of Tennessee and Georgia for such militia as he might deem necessary, for the due prosecution of the war; and the most formidable arrangements were made for carrying on hostilities upon a large scale.

Mr. Monroe had assumed the duties of President in March, 1817. He had appointed Hon. John Quincy Adams Secretary of State, at the commencement of his administration; but the office of Secretary of War was not filled by a permanent appointment, for some months, in consequence of Governor Shelby's refusal to accept it, on account of his advanced age. It was finally conferred on Hon. John C. Calhoun, who, through his entire official life, was distinguished for his devotion to the institution of Slavery; and this war having been entered upon for the support Of that institution, it may well be supposed that he exerted his utmost energies for its vigorous prosecution.

The fifteenth Congress assembled in December, 1817. Most of the members from the free States had not enjoyed the advantages of having served long in that body. They afterwards showed themselves able men; but the business of legislation requires experience, industry, and a perfect knowledge of the past action of government. This cannot be obtained in one session, nor in one Congress; it can only be gathered by the labors of an active life. It is, therefore, not surprising that Congress granted to the War Department whatever funds the President required to carry on the war.

It is not our province to applaud, or condemn, public men; but history represents no member of the fifteenth Congress as having proclaimed the cause of this war, or the atrocious massacre which characterized its commencement. On the contrary, those who spoke on the subject, represented it as entirely owing to the Indian murders on the frontiers of Georgia, and to the massacre of Lieutenant Scott and his men. There was great delicacy exhibited, and had been for many years previously, in regard to the agitation of any question touching the institution of Slavery; and the people of the free and slave States appeared to feel that silence on that subject was obligatory upon every citizen who desired a continuance of the Union. These circumstances rendered it easy for the Administration to prosecute the war, with whatever force they deemed necessary for the speedy subjection of Indians and Exiles.

On entering the field of active service, General Jackson called on the State of Tennessee for two thousand troops. He repaired to Harford, on the Ockmulgee, where a body of volunteers, from Georgia, had already assembled, and organizing them, he requested the aid of the Creek Indians also. They readily volunteered, under the command of their chief, McIntosh, ready to share in the honors and dangers of the approaching campaign. With the Georgia volunteers and Creek Indians, General Jackson marched to Fort Scott, where he was joined by about one thousand regular troops.

With this force, be moved upon the Mickasukie towns, situated near the Lake of that name, some thirty miles south of the line of Georgia. It was the nearest place at which the Exiles had settled in considerable numbers. There were several small villages in the vicinity of this Lake, inhabited almost entirely by blacks. A large quantity of provisions had been stored there. There were several Seminole towns between Mickasukie Lake and Tallahassee, on the west.

The Exiles appear to have viewed the approach of General Jackson with coolness and firmness. They had evidently calculated the result with perfect accuracy. Their women and children were removed to places of safety, and their herds of cattle were driven beyond the reach of the invading army; and some of their Indian allies followed the example thus set them by the Exiles; yet others were not equally careful in calculating future events.

Neither Indians nor negroes bad made these towns their general rendezvous; nor did they expect a decisive battle to occur at that point; yet they prepared to meet General Jackson, and his army, in a becoming manner. Most of their forces were collected prior to the arrival of our troops. In making the requisite dispositions for battle, the Indians were formed in one body, and the negroes in another each being under their respective chiefs.

General Jackson encountered the allied forces at some little distance from the Mickasukie towns, April first. The battle was of short duration. The Indians soon fled. The Exiles fought with greater obstinacy. Their fire was so fatal that a reinforcement was ordered to that part of the field, and the Exiles were driven from their position, leaving twelve of their number dead upon the field.

In his official report of this battle, General Jackson insisted that British officers had drilled the negroes, and British traders had furnished them ammunition. He also reported that be burned more than three hundred dwellings, and obtained a supply of provisions and cattle for his army.

The Exiles, generally, retreated to Suwanee, and the Indians continued to hang around the American army, watching its movements. General Jackson, however, directed his course towards St. Marks, a Spanish fort, situated on the river of that name, some fifty miles southwest of Mickasukie Lake.

The American army reached St. Marks on the seventh of April, and remained there several days. One of the American vessels lying in Appalachicola Bay, hoisted British colors, in order to decoy some Indians who were looking at them from the shore. Two of the "Red Stick" band ventured on board; they were said to be chiefs, and in alliance with the Seminoles. General Jackson ordered them to be hanged, without trial or ceremony, justifying the act by charging them with having participated in the massacre of Lieutenant Scott and his party, during the previous autumn, apparently unconscious that, by his own orders, two hundred and seventy people, including innocent children and women, had been most wantonly and barbarously murdered at the fort on Appalachicola, and that Lieutenant Scott and thirty men were murdered in retaliation for that act, according to savage warfare. He appears to have felt it due to offended justice, that these men should die for being suspected of participating in that act of retaliation. In all these cases, the most assiduous efforts were exerted to misrepresent the real state of facts.

The time occupied in the approach and capture of Fort St. Marks, gave to the Exiles and Indians full opportunity to concentrate their forces at Suwanee. It constituted the most populous settlement of the Exiles, after the destruction of that upon the Appalachicola. It was regarded as their stronghold. Surrounded by swamps, it was approached only through narrow defiles, which rendered it difficult for an army to reach it. Here many of the Exiles bad been born and reared to manhood. Here were their homes, their firesides. Here their chief, Nero, resided; and here they concentrated their whole force. They bad removed their women and children, their provisions and cattle, to Places of safety, and coolly awaited the approach of General Jackson's army.[1]

Scouting parties were, however, sent out to harass his advance guard, and delay his approach, and render it more difficult; but notwithstanding these obstacles, the army steadily advanced, and on the nineteenth of April reached the "Old Town" of "Suwanee," and found the allied forces in order of battle, prepared to contest the field. The Indians were again formed on the right, and the Exiles constituted the left wing, bringing them in conflict with the right wing of General Jackson's forces.

With the Exiles, there was no alternative other than war or slavery; and they greatly preferred death upon the battle field, to chains and the scourge. We may well suppose they would fight with some degree of desperation, under such circumstances; and the battle of Suwanee gave evidence of their devotion to freedom. They met the disciplined troops, who constituted General Jackson's army, with firmness and gallantry.[2]

At the commencement, their fire was so fatal that the right Wing Of the American army faltered, and ceasing to advance, gave signs of falling back. But the left wing, opposed to the Indians, made a successful charge; the Indians gave way, and the reserve was suddenly brought into action to sustain the right wing, when a general charge was ordered, and the Exiles were compelled to fall back.[3]

General Jackson, in his official report of this battle, refers to the desperation with which the negroes fought, and says they left many dead upon the field, but does not mention their number. He entered the town and set fire to the buildings, and burned all the villages in the vicinity. He also captured some three hundred Indian women and children, while those belonging to the Exiles had been carefully removed beyond the reach of the American army. This superior caution and provident care appears to mark the character of the Exiles in all their conduct; while the Indiana appear to have practised none of these precautions.

But the allied forces, defeated, and their warriors scattered in various directions, were pursued by McIntosh and his Creek warriors, who had accompanied General Jackson, until fearing the Seminoles might rally in force against them, they returned and again united with the American army.

This battle substantially closed the war of 1818. It had been commenced for the destruction of the Exiles; they had shared in its dangers, and by their energy and boldness, had given intensity to its conflicts. From the time they united in the expedition for the destruction of Lieutenant Scott and his party, in November, 1817, until the close of the battle of Suwanee, they had been active participants in every skirmish, and had uniformly displayed great firmness; bearing testimony to the truth of those historians who have awarded to the African race the merit of great physical courage.

General Jackson appears to have spoken as little of the Exiles as duty would permit, when communicating with the Secretary of War; yet he was more free to complain of them in his correspondence with the Governor of Pensacola. In a letter to that officer, dated a few days after the battle of Suwanee, he says: "Negroes who have fled from their masters, citizens of the United States, have raised the tomahawk, and, in the character Of savage warrior have spared neither age nor sex. Helpless women have been massacred, and the cradle crimsoned with blood."

We can, at this day, scarcely believe that this eloquent description of savage barbarity was from the pen of a man whose order for the massacre of defenseless women and children, at the Fort on Appalachicola, bore date less than two years before writing this letter; nor can we readily comprehend the effrontery of him who thus attempted to justify the invasion of Florida, by reference to acts done by the Exiles long after the army under his command bad entered that territory, and committed the most atrocious outrages ever perpetrated by civilized men upon an unoffending people.

After the battle of Suwanee, General Jackson returned to St. Marks, being unable to follow the Indians and Exiles into the more southern portions of Florida. While at St. Marks, he ordered a court-martial, constituting General Gaines president, in order to try Arbuthnot and Ambrister. The history of their trial and execution is familiar to the reader. The first and principal charge against Ambrister was, that he excited the negroes and Indians to commit murder upon the people of the United States; the second charge was for supplying them with arms. On these charges he was convicted and executed. It was also alleged, that he was present at the battle of Suwanee; and some writers say he commanded the Exiles on that occasion, and had previously taught them military discipline.

In May, General Jackson issued an Address to his troops, declaring, the war at an end; and wrote the Executive, asking permission to retire to his home in Nashville, there being no further use for his services in the field.

The Exiles now returned to their homes. They bad full leisure to contemplate their situation. Many of their best men bad fallen. Nearly the entire population residing upon the Appalachicola River bad been massacred. Their villages at Mickasukie and Suwanee bad been burned; and it is probable that nearly one half of their entire population had been sacrificed, in this first war waged by the United State's for the murder and recapture of fugitive slaves.

The invasion of Florida by General Jackson was condemned by many public men, and was approved by others with equal ability. Even the then Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, in his correspondence with Don Onis, the Spanish Minister, defended the invasion with great ability. But in the discussions of this subject, we find no allusion to the massacre at "Blount's Fort;" [4] that appears to have been regarded as a subject of too delicate a nature for public scrutiny. In the alcoves of our National Library, we find many volumes of documents touching this war, embracing some thousands of pages, in which there is the strongest censure expressed against the Seminoles for provoking the war, and condemnation for the barbarous manner in which they conducted it; but we search them in vain to find any condemnation, by American statesmen, of the object for which the war was commenced, or the unprovoked and worse than savage massacre which marked its beginning.

[1]Monette says Arbuthnot sent word to the Negroes and Indians, notifying them of the approach of General Jackson; but the official report of that Officer shows that his advance guard was daily engaged in skirmishing with the Indians.[Back to Document]

[2]Vide General Jackson's Official Report of this battle, Ex. Doc. 175, 2d Session XVth Congress.[Back to Document]

[3]Williams, in his History of Florida, states that three hundred and forty Negroes again rallied after the first retreat, and fought their pursuers, until eighty of their number, were killed on the field. "Monette" also states the same fact; but General Jackson, In his Reports, evidently avoided; as far as possible, any notice of the Exiles, as a people. Indeed such was the policy of the Administration, and of its officers, and of all slaveholders. They then supposed, as they now do, that slavery must depend upon the supposed ignorance and stupidity of the colored people; and scarcely an instance can be found, where a slaveholder admits the slave to possess human intelligence or human feeling; indeed, to teach a slave to read the Scriptures, is regarded as an offense, in nearly every slave State, and punishable by fine and imprisonment.[Back to Document]

[4] Various names have been given this Fort. The author, having heretofore adopted that of "Blount's Fort," prefers to continue that name. It was equally known, however, and the "Negro Fort," and as "Fort Nichols."[Back to Document]

Excerpt from "The Exiles of Florida, or The Crimes Committed by Our Government Against the Maroons, Who Fled From South Carolina And Other Slave States, Seeking Protection Under Spanish Laws." by Joshua R. Giddings. Columbus, Ohio: Published by Follett, Foster, and Company. 1858.


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