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Gaines on the Withlacoochee

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I pulled eight books off my shelf that are recorded, eyewitness accounts of the beginning of the Second Seminole War. Amazingly, of these first-hand eyewitnesses, most of them were with General Gaines and tell about the burial of Major Dade and the siege on the Withlacoochee. I think that says a lot for the quality and level of literacy of the officers of the Army and state militias at the time. Coincidentally, two of the eight that were not with Gaines were surgeons, Bemrose and Motte.

General Edmund Gaines was one of the officers who gained fame in the War of 1812 along with Winfield Scott, and both ended the war as Generals. But their professional rivalry and disdain for each other prevented either of them from becoming commanding general of the U.S. Army. They were two totally opposites in styles of leadership and how they thought military operations should be conducted. It is obvious that Gaines was better suited for the warfare and peace negotiations with the Seminoles than Scott.

A portrait of General Gaines in the collection of the Ah-tah-thi-ki Museum.

By far, the most interesting account of Gaines' siege on the Withlacoochee is by Lt. Henry Prince, "Amidst a Storm of Bullets." Prince's journal was compiled from a series of letters found in an attic up north about 30 years ago. His writings give a more personable account of the war, and he probably never intended to have them published as a book during his lifetime because of his candid remarks. Many of his observations about the events during the war I have seen nowhere else.

Prince's description of Dade's Battleground is different, and he also mentions that Major Dade and a few of they officers were found with their clothes stripped off.

On the 27th of February 1836, Gaines' command reached the Withlacoochee and prepared to cross. The Seminoles started firing on them, and by the 28th the command constructed the breastwork where they would be held up for the next week while under siege.

On the 29th of February the command continued to sustain heavy fire. General Gaines is said to have lost his one good tooth from a spent musket ball. Prince records that there is a white man among the Indians. We have always wondered who is the mystery person with the Indians: Spaniard? Creek Indian? White settler? Or reenactor who traveled back in time?

On March 1st the Indians stopped while some engaged in great speeches among themselves while Lt. Prince said that he heard every word. I would guess that they were speaking the ceremonial language that I have head reference too recently; that is used when giving great speeches.

The fighting had a lull for a day, when things started up the next (March 3rd) when General Gaines decided to fire off a few rounds of artillery. Although heavy firing, no casualties are reported among the soldiers. Probably the most interesting thing recorded during the siege happened this day, when Prince says that there are many Indians dressed as soldiers in great coats, shell jackets, trousers, and even forage caps who try to get among the infantry and surprise and confuse them. Are they wearing clothing taken from Major Dade's men?

The provisions of the soldiers run out, and corn is denied to the horses and given to the men instead to make into soup. It seems ironic that the soldiers were eating soffkee! And when the corn ran out, they started to butcher and cook the horses.

Finally on March 6th, the Indians and the soldiers decided to parlay to end the siege. Both sides were tired of the fight. Gaines was very diplomatic in working out a truce with the Indians and agreed not to antagonize them or cross the river and invade their towns. The war could have ended there if the rest of the government had agreed to the cease-fire.

Then General Scott arrived into the theater and ruined the peace that had been created. Scott and Gaines had been rivals who had been quarreling since the War of 1812. Scott considered Gaines an interloper and spoiler of his plans to end the war, and refused to have help sent to Gaines when Gaines was held up on the Withlacoochee. An ensuing battle of ranks between Gaines and Scott went all the way to Washington and involved a lot of legal action, but both men came out of it with their military careers unscathed.
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