From here you can see the field through which Jackson's army attacked the Red Sticks.
Some of the more important events in Tennessee history didn't happen in Tennessee. On March 27, 1814, an army led by Andrew Jackson and consisting of, among others, nearly 2,000 volunteer soldiers from Tennessee, attacked a Creek stronghold in what is now Tallapoosa County, Alabama. The victory by Jackson's army at Horseshoe Bend spelled the end to the Creek nation's power east of the Mississippi River and resulted in the annexation of 23 million acres of land for the United States. It also resulted in immediate fame for Jackson and was his first major step toward the presidency.
So why did the Battle of Horseshoe Bend take place?
It happened during the War of 1812 -- in which the British encouraged Native Americans to fight against the United States. It happened a couple of years after the Shawnee chief Tecumseh came south and encouraged other Native American tribes to fight against whites. And it occurred at a time when the American government was trying to "civilize" Native American tribes and to blaze a new road through Creek territory -- steps many Creeks objected to.
An artist's depiction of the Battle of Fort Mims
Not all of the Creeks took up arms against the American Army in 1813 and 1814. Those that did are referred to as Red Sticks, and starting in February 1813 there were several military engagements between the Red Sticks and Americans. Prior to Horseshoe Bend, the best known of these took place at Fort Mims, near Mobile, Alabama, in August 1813. At Fort Mims an army of about 1,000 Red Sticks killed an estimated 250 settlers -- among them women and children. "Remember Fort Mims" thus became the rallying cry for Americans who came to fight the Creeks.
Horseshoe Bend from above. The highway you see, crossing the Tallapoosa River, was obviously not there in 1814.
By March 1814 the Red Sticks, led by a warrior named Menawa, had set up a stronghold near a Creek town called Tohopeka. Surrounded on the west, south and east by the Tallapoosa River, and protected on the north by a long log barricade, Menawa's thousand warriors believed their defenses to be more than adequate. But only about a third of them possessed muskets; the rest were armed with bows, arrows, tomahawks and warclubs.
Jackson's army of 3,300 men consisted of several parts: regular army soldiers comprising the 39th regiment of the U.S. Infantry; militia from Tennessee; 500 Cherokee warriors; and about 100 Creek warriors opposed to the Red Sticks. Jackson decided to blast the log barricade using the two small cannons in his army's possession, then to attack the barricade with the infantry. If and when the Creeks tried to retreat across the river, they would be met by sharpshooters from Tennessee, commanded by General John Coffee, and by the Cherokee warriors.
General Jackson, wary of deserters and undiscipined soldiers, told his men in advance that he would not tolerate disobedience. "Any officer or soldier who flies before the enemy without being compelled to do so by superior force and actual necessity shall suffer death," he told his men in advance of the battle.
A diorama of the infantry attacking the barricade at Horseshoe Bend
Things didn't, however, go according to plans.
At 10:30 a.m., Jackson's cannons opened fire. For nearly two hours, shells landed on or near the barricade and did not appear to blast holes in it, as Jackson had hoped they would.
But as soon as they heard the cannon fire, the Cherokee and Creek warriors allied to the Americans decided to cross the river and attack on their own, which they did with considerable success. General Jackson only became aware of this when he saw smoke rising from the burning Tohopeka village. Jackson then ordered his infantry to attack the barricade on foot.
Fighting was fierce; most of it hand-to-hand. "Arrows, spears and balls were flying," one participant later wrote, "swords and tomahawks were gleaming in the sun." One of the first Americans killed in this charge was Major Lemuel Montgomery. His tombstone, shown here, is the only marked grave on the battlefield.
Creek warriors at the barricade were soon overwhelmed and those that weren't killed immediately retreated -- some to protect their village from the Cherokee attack that had come from the rear and some to get away from the American assault in the front. The battle soon deteriorated into a slaughter. Many Creek warriors found it impossible to defend their village and, unwilling to surrender, tried to cross the Tallapoosa River. Practically all of them who tried to cross the river were shot by Coffee's sharpshooters from Tennessee. So many died crossing the river, in fact, that the river is said to have been red with blood.
Artifacts from the battle can be seen at the visitors center.
Today we estimate that about 800 Creeks died -- the largest death toll for Native Americans in a single battle in American history. On the American side, 26 men were killed, while 18 Cherokees and five Creeks who fought for the Americans also died.
A few months later, in August 1814, the Creeks signed what is known as the Treaty of Fort Jackson, ceding much of what is now central and southern Alabama and southern Georgia to the American nation.
This gun is stationed about where the American army had its cannon on the day of the battle.
Now for a few points of interest about this battle:
* Practically none of the Creek warriors surrendered, but chose to fight to the death. Many Creek women and children in the village of Tohopeka did surrender, however, and most of them were later transferred to an encampment in Huntsville, Alabama.
* The American army apparently left the dead Creek warriors, unburied, on the battlefield, and buried their own dead (other than Major Montgomery) in the Tallapoosa River.
* Among the Americans who attacked the Creek barricade that day was a young officer named Sam Houston. He fought on in spite of the fact that he was hit by an arrow in his thigh, then was hit twice by bullets. Houston was later elected governor of two states: Tennessee and Texas.
* During the Indian Removal of 1830s, many Cherokees bitterly recalled how Cherokee warriors fought with Andrew Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. There is no question that the Cherokees played an important part in the battle. However, there is no written evidence that Cherokee warrior and chief Junaluska saved Jackson's life at Horseshoe Bend (nevertheless, some people still believe that Junaluska did). During the battle, Jackson was not believed to be in any personal danger, and remained in a safe place directing his army.
* Coffee County is named for General John Coffee.
It's a long drive from Tennessee to Horseshoe Bend National Military Park, which is near Alexander City, Alabama. If you can't visit Horseshoe Bend, there is another way bring the battle to your classroom, and that is to get a copy of a DVD that illustrates the battle. To do so, call the park at 256-234-7111.