in the Swamp
Joseph R. Stromberg
FLORIDA IN THE EMPIRE
would like to add a little footnote to Tom
treatment of General William Tecumseh Sherman and the Indians.
This "footnote" is actually a "prequel" to
Sherman’s famous "march" through Georgia and South Carolina,
during the late Unpleasantness, and his later Indian-fighting activities
after that not very "civil" war. It is my duty as a patriotic
Floridian to describe this part of the Sherman saga and, anyway,
it helps us better understand his attitude toward warfare.
refer of course to Sherman’s unhappy days in the subtropics,
1840–1841. Of course putting those days – which added up to just
under a year and a half – in context requires me to say a few things
about the Second Seminole War (1835–1842). Now, as far back as
the American Revolution, American leaders coveted Florida – then
under British rule. This was for obvious reasons of political geography.
Alas, it was not to be, and the Treaty of Paris (1783), which concluded
the Revolutionary War, saw Florida handed back to Spain, after
twenty years of British rule.
By this time, secessionist
elements of the Creek nation, the Seminoles, had established
a presence in Florida. Already present, too, were
backcountry Scots-Irish frontiersmen, chiefly from Georgia, who
had infiltrated down into northern Florida in increasing numbers.
These were "los crackeres," whom the outgoing
Spanish Governor, Don Vicente Manuel de Zéspedes y Velasco,
described in a memo to his successor in 1790. He could only compare
these hardy Anglo-Celtic intruders to the nomadic Berbers, just
across the water from Spain.1
Sundry forces were
in play, that sealed Florida’s political fate.
One was the constant leakage of runaway slaves into Florida. These
runaways, who "went Indian," represented a loss of property
to planters, but also menaced the system of slavery by their bad
Spanish administration in Florida was not up to solving the problems
of escaping slaves and cross-border raids by Seminoles
to the satisfaction of the United States. As the Seminoles saw
it, they had never ceded any lands by treaty, whatever the Creeks
might have done or said. The US and Spain might imagine that some
kind of line ran through the lands that Seminoles occupied, but
this did not matter much to the latter. Soon enough, General Andrew
Jackson, under color of orders to punish raiders, effectively expelled
Spanish power from Florida in 1817–1818, in what is called the
First Seminole War.
John Quincy Adams,
Secretary of State under President James Monroe, wrote a famous
White Paper justifying Jackson’s actions – a paper
in which handled the truth with great economy. To regularize the
international situation, Adams negotiated the Adams-Onís,
or Transcontinental Treaty, concluded in 1822. Leaving the vexatious
matter of Texas to one side, he secured Spain’s agreement with
respect to the boundaries of the Louisiana Territory, thereby giving
the US a wide window on the Pacific. This was urgent to those like
Adams who were already looking ahead to American domination of
the China trade.2
THE SEMINOLE MODE OF PRODUCTION
With Florida safely
in US hands, settlers trickled in, mostly from nearby states,
and a cotton and plantation economy sprang
up in formerly undeveloped central areas. This was the rise of
Middle Florida. Under the territorial government, the usual causal
suspects – land speculators with political pull, less-than-honest
government contractors, and the like – did their thing, though
perhaps no more than on any frontier of expansion.3
Of course the Indians remained. In addition, territorial government
was not a cure-all for the problem of slaves running off to live
with Indians under some relation of dependency.
George Kos writes:
"Blacks living with the Seminoles became a point of contention
for whites because the Seminole system of slavery was not as harsh
or rigid as the Anglo-American system…. A Seminole was more a patron
than a master, for the Seminole slave system was akin to tenant
Kenneth Wiggins Porter writes:
"The Negroes lived in separate villages of well-built houses,
raised crops of corn, sweet potatoes, other vegetables, and even
cotton, and possessed herds of livestock; their masters, or rather
protectors, never presumed to meddle with any of this property
so long as they received a reasonable ‘tribute’ at harvest and
Major General Edmund
Pendleton Gaines characterized this population as the Seminoles’ "black vassals and allies."6
Whatever the exact
nature of these relations of production (so to speak), the "Indian Negroes" evidently
saw themselves as freer, when living alongside the Seminoles,
than in their former
location. It is a case of what an Austrian School economist would
call demonstrated preference.
No one was getting
rich in the Seminole territories by hunting, fishing, and small-scale
agriculture, although some parties – as
far down the Gulf Coast as Pine Island – had a kind of informal
free trade relationship with Havana. From the standpoint of wealth,
no one had much reason to envy the Seminoles their way of life.
Some did want their lands, however.
In addition, armed
clashes occurred between Indians and settlers from time to time,
and sorting out the right and wrong of those
would take a long time. To make matters worse, runaway slaves had
friends and relations working on plantations, which added to planters’ headaches.
Uniquely in US history, here was a frontier where slaves could
escape to friends and allies – a circumstance which undermined
the peculiar institution itself.
These problems soon
intersected with Indian Removal – a policy
meditated upon as far back as Thomas Jefferson’s administrations,
and which was now going forward under President Jackson, the old
Indian-fighter. US Indian agents urged sundry "treaties" upon
Seminole leaders in 1833. As happened in many such situations,
large numbers of Indians denied that those signing the agreements
had spoken for them. While a majority of Seminoles were in fact "removed" to
the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), a sizeable minority of militants
chose to stand and fight. Allied with them were the "Indian
Negroes" who had little choice but to fight, given the alternatives.
There is no space here to sketch in detail the Second Seminole
War, which broke out in 1835. Suffice it to say that settlements
were raided and innocents killed on either side, with small numbers
of Seminoles and Indian Negroes able to tie up large numbers of
regular US troops and territorial militia. It was not a big war,
by any standard, but it proved very expensive for the US taxpayer.
SHERMAN IN THE WANING WAR
We come now to Lieutenant Sherman, who served in the last phase
of the war, arriving at St. Augustine in October 1840, and then
going on to Fort Pierce. From this small outpost, the unit with
which Sherman served would patrol up and down the coast, raiding
inland when they found signs of Indians. Fights were small-scale,
and captives would be sent to St. Augustine.
Sherman soon came to
despise the local militia, which was "‘good
for nothing’ except to protect their homes and immediate surroundings."7
This is typical of regulars, who never seem to realize that this
is precisely what militias are for. On the other hand, Sherman
was no dummy when it came to grasping the war’s origins. As he
put it, US Indian wars followed a pattern: "A treaty for removal
is formed by a few who represent themselves as the whole; the time
comes, and none present themselves. The Government orders force
to be used; the troops in the territory commence, but are so few
that they all get massacred. The cowardly inhabitants, instead
of rallying, desert their homes and sound the alarm-call for assistance.
An army supposed to be strong enough is sent, seeks and encounters
the enemy at a place selected by the latter, gets a few hundred
killed. The Indians retreat, scatter, and are safe. This may be
repeated ad infinitum."8
This was a good summary;
Sherman was getting the hang of guerrilla warfare. With commanders
and tactics being changed repeatedly around
him, Sherman persevered in his part of the war. His unit, he bragged, "had
caught more Indians and destroyed more property in a fair method
than the rest of the army."9 One might well believe him.
Jane F. Lancaster writes, "Sherman gradually developed
his own ideas about war. He thought that the War Department should
fill Florida with troops, declare martial law, and fight to exterminate
the enemy. According to Sherman, this was the most economical plan.
The ‘present method will not do,’ he declared. ‘Experience has
shown it – persons who have not seen this country should not blame
concludes that "Sherman also learned the difficulties
associated with using volunteer armies and with invading a country
and destroying resources to defeat the enemy."11 Indeed
he did. The notions of total war appropriate to Indian wars stayed
with him in his big war and afterwards. There is some kind of post-colonial
theme in here, but I will leave it alone.
winning the war on "the most economical plan," war
against the other side’s means of subsistence – I think we have
seen these themes played out in more than one US war.
UNSATISFACTORY OUTCOMES FOR SOME
Such were the lessons
Sherman – seconded by Max Boot, had he been
there – took from this little war. What lessons might we take from
it? There seem to be several.
One might be: don’t seize a province before you can populate it
with settlers who will defend it themselves. (This was the basis
of Lincoln’s famous objections to the Mexican War: conquest of
those territories was premature.) Another might be: sort
out the other side’s system of representation before you conjure
up any "treaties" allegedly binding on all of them. Don’t
get drawn into a war with guerrillas unless you don’t mind running
up enormous costs. In Florida, a couple thousand insurgents (at
the most) exploited favorable terrain and held down US forces for
seven years of sporadic fighting and raiding, all at a cost of
twenty million dollars, back when that was real money.
oddity was that, given the extensive coastline, the Navy played
an important role in this Indian war, in a kind of microscopic
preview of Vietnam.12
lesson might well be to have political goals that are consistent
another. That was a real problem in the Second
Seminole War. In this war, the short-run interests of settler-planters
had to be sacrificed to larger goals. General Thomas S. Jesup cut
the Gordian knot in this way: to encourage "Indian Negroes" to
surrender, he had to certify them as "property" of the
Seminoles – to be sent west. Planters able to prove claims of ownership
received federal money in lieu of their servants. This was a bit
irregular, but it worked well enough.13
for the Seminoles who refused to go west, they won effective
freedom to live in
the lower half of the state. Despite persistent
efforts to remove them, including another small war in the 1850s,
a minority of Seminoles retreated further into the swamps and "rivers" (where
alligators live and where, somewhat later, Mr. Watson14 was
famously killed) and outlasted all their foes except for the climate
Whether or not the EPA can get them for living in wetlands, I cannot
the end of the war, General Walker K. Armistead complained of
the ingratitude of the white Floridians. On the other hand,
many of the latter were glad enough to see the Army go.15
A BIG PICTURE ALMOST TOO BIG TO CONTEMPLATE
to the beginning of the whole business – Jackson’s seizure
of Florida and John Quincy Adams’s rationalization of it – William
Earl Weeks writes that "the executive branch of the government
emerged from the Monroe presidency with substantially greater power
than was envisioned by the framers of the Constitution. The expansion
of presidential power represented by Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase
was augmented considerably during Monroe’s two terms. In several
key respects it can be said that Monroe’s administration marked
the birth of the ‘Imperial Presidency.’"16
acquiesced in Monroe’s and Adams’s forward policies and
the "de facto military conquest of Florida definitively established
that undeclared war would be a foreign policy tool available to
the president." No later president "seriously believed
that the international state system could be based on any foundation
other than force and violence." War thus became "a central
part of the national mythology and an indispensable cultural bonding
agent" – interwoven with the messianic themes of "virtue,
mission, and destiny."17
Anyone who is looking
for the decisive turn toward full executive freedom to make undeclared
war need not wait for the Mexican affair.
Florida was first. And there it was that Sherman had time to reflect
on the characteristic methods of such wars, when he wasn’t otherwise
busy, raising chickens and catching green turtles at Fort Pierce.
One could brood a bit
on this, but all this institutional drift and other strife did
at least make possible that wonderful fiddle
Orange Blossom Special," once the locomotive
of history took material form. That’s worth a little something.
- James A. Lewis, "Cracker – Spanish
Florida Style," Florida Historical Quarterly, 63: 2 (October
1984), pp. 184-204.
William Earl Weeks, John Quincy Adams
and American Global Empire (Lexington: University Press
of Kentucky, 1992), pp. 127-145. For a rather caustic account,
see Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian
Hating and Empire Building (New York: Schocken Books, 1990),
- See Canter Brown, Jr., "The
Florida Crisis of 1826-1827 and the Second Seminole War," Florida
Historical Quarterly, 73: 4 (April 1995), esp. pp. 421-428.
- George Kos, "Blacks
and the Seminole Removal Debate, 1821-1835," Florida Historical Quarterly,
68: 1 (July 1989), p. 58.
- Kenneth Wiggins Porter, "Negroes
and the Seminole War," Journal of Southern History, 30:
4 (November 1964), p. 428.
- Jane F. Lancaster, "William Tecumseh
Sherman’s Introduction to War, 1840-1842: Lesson for Action," Florida
Historical Quarterly, 72: 1 (July 1993), pp. 65-66.
this comparison, see Charlton W. Tebeau and William F. Marina, A History of Florida, 3rd edition
(Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1999), p. 154,
as well as the whole chapter (11): "The Wars of Indian Removal," pp.
- On Jesup’s pragmatic solution, see Porter, "Negroes
and the Seminole War," pp. 444-446.
Matthiessen, Killing Mister Watson (New
York: Random House, 1990).
- James M. Denham, "‘Some Prefer the
Seminoles’: Violence and Disorder Among Soldiers and Settlers
in the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842," Florida Historical
Quarterly, 70: 1 (July 1991), pp. 38-54.
- Weeks, John Quincy Adams, p. 181.
Joseph R. Stromberg [send him
mail] is holder of the JoAnn B. Rothbard Chair in History at
the Ludwig von Mises Institute
and a columnist for LewRockwell.com
© 2003 LewRockwell.com