On the Fringe of Fame
Virginia, Florida, and War
RICHARD RETURNED to Virginia in 1834, his vision full of the wonders of his year in the West. He was still angry about the AWOL charges and the official indifference towards his great adventure. One comfort was his family; promptly sine months after his return, his first son, Richard Bland III, was born at Fort Monroe.
He settled into the tedium of artillery practice and training recruits, Charles Latrobe describes the recruits as "either of the scum of the population of the older states, or of the worthless German, English and Irish immigrants. . . . Degraded indeed . . . the class of men whom the young officer must toil to bring into sober subordination."1
The men were difficult to recruit, and there were many desertions. Discipline was severe; far sleeping on duty a soldier was shot, and many grades of lesser punishments were meted out, including the shaving of heads and eyebrows and lashes from a cat-o-nine tails.
Not deterred by his recent AWOL experience nor the fact that he had been back in harness only two months, Richard managed to wangle ten days leave in January to go to Philadelphia on important business, probably connected with the missing will of his uncle Zaccheus Collins.2 He soon asked for an extension of his leave and again, in September, we find him on furlough.
1835 was, on the whole, an unhappy year for the out-of-step soldier with "a bodily injury,"3 and a court-martial added to his woes. The court-martial seems to have been the result of a hotheaded altercation with another officer about public quarters at Fortress Monroe, and this silly controversy resulted in Richard's being censured by the court. Far from quieting him, it aroused him to a fever pitch: his honor had been assaulted and he had to vindicate himself. Writing his kinsman Roger Jones, the Adjutant General, he asked for various documents, "to be used officially by me in my appeal to the President (through the Corn. Gen.) from the injurious, unjust and unlawful censure (as I conceive) of the Commanding Genads except one connecting Fort King with Tampa Bay. Innumerable swamps, dense hammocks and palmetto thickets, where the 1,660 Indian warriors and their 250 Negro slaves could hide, made military strategy impossible. For weeks on end, no Indian would be seen anywhere, then suddenly they would ambush an unsuspecting company of soldiers, only to vanish again. The discouraged, blundering troops were playing a hopeless game of blind hide-and-seek with elusive Seminoles, Mickasukies, Tallahassees, and Creeks who knew the country well. The Army had no maps and could find few guides, and often the troops had no idea what sort of terrain lay ahead as they started on a long, exhausting march.
Richard had received orders in September 1835 ordering him to Fort King, but as he had asked for deferment because of "a bodily injury," he missed the first skirmishes and massacres.
The Withlacoochee seemed to be a focal point, and February 27 found General Gaines besieged by Indians on the river bank. General Scott, the newly appointed commander of the Florida Army, set forth from the East Coast for the labyrinth of the Withlacoochee Cove with provisions and men to assist General Gaines; another column of men converging from a different direction. The expedition, however, was a disappointment, as the Indians failed to materialize; Richard was one of the few to see action.
By General Scott, I was assigned to the command of the storming party to force his passage of the Withlacoochee, and the Indians having dispersed and declined to give battle at the crossing, to the command of the rear guard to cover his movement. On that occasion my command was the only portion of his army under fire, and for this conduct I received the commendations of the General in presence of the Army, and was placed in command of a batallion of six companies to operate upon his flanks during the march.6
Spearhead or flanks, there was little difference on that uneventful march. The Indians remained invisible, and the Army's frustration increased, apace. General Scott, defending in court the reasons for his delay in fighting the Indians, listed the lack of bridges, insufficient transportation, deficient supply of hard bread and bacon, and the lack of forage for horses. The troops were still wearing winter uniforms in the unbearable heat of April. They were ill from eating "unleavened dough partially fried with pork" and from drinking water which was "tepid, besides being filled with vegetable matter and animalculea."7
Disease and fever were rampant. As one reads the list of the 1,466 soldiers who died in the Florida War, one is appalled at the causes of death. Over and over again occur the words typhus, intermittent fever, remittent fever, bilious fever, dysentery, chronic diarrhea, yellow fever, and tetanus. Many soldiers were drowned crossing the rivers; only a small percentage died from wounds or in battle.8
So the war was destined to make slow progress, although Army reinforcements were called upon, and the neighboring states sent their militia. The only visible achievement seemed to be the go forts and stockades and 480 miles of road laboriously built by the weary soldiers.
April found Richard in a detachment of regulars under the command of Major Julius F. Heileman of the 2nd Artillery. Across the flat swampy land they struggled, past hammocks where giant oak trees, dogwood, and redbud were festooned with gray veils of Spanish moss. At times they cut their way through the sharp swords of palmetto thickets and forded swollen streams, dark brown with humus, avoiding the slithering of water moccasins and other reptiles. The heat and humidity were oppressive. Nearly every day there was a shattering thunderstorm which left the ground steaming and soggy. Clouds of gnats and mosquitos added to their discomfort. The miles between Fort King (near Tampa) and Micanopy (just south of today's Gainesville) seemed an endless nightmare.
Towards the first of May, they were garrisoned at the Fort Defiance stockade near Micanopy. These frontier forts were spartan in their simplicity, consisting of a stockade and small barracks with two rooms, one for prisoners and the other for the guard. The simple stockade was surrounded by a small town, and probably because the town offered the promise of plunder it became a magnet, drawing the angry Indians.
On May 21, Richard was in command of Fort Micanopy. Suddenly the peaceful night was disturbed by an Indian attack.
At 11 o'clock last night the fort was attacked by Indians in force from 50 to 100. The firing commenced and continued at the distance (varying) from 100 to 300 yards, the East and North fronts being assailed nearly at the same moments from the Hammock and woods. My fire was reserved for upward of half an hour hoping thereby to induce the Indians to make some bolder disposition or movement which would enable me to attack to advantage by a sally, failing in this expectation and my force being reduced to twenty-eight soldiers by the absence of the detachment which marched to Fort Drane this morning, [Fort Drane was strategically located on General Clinch's large sugar plantation, Auld Lang Syne.] and not wishing to subject my men to further exposure to random shots which were frequently falling amongst them, I deemed it prudent to disperse the enemy which was opposite by a few well directed discharges of musketry.
The Indians retired to the Tuscaville Hammock burning in their flight the house of Mr. Savery and it is to be feared robbing that of Col. Humphreys (distant about 250 yards from the fort) and capturing twenty-eight Negroes and his stock. During the attack about five hundred rounds were delivered by the Indians, many balls falling within the Fort & a number striking the pickets a few passing through the space between the pickets.9
Richard wrote this report hurriedly, so that it could be sent by the "Express" which left before daylight. By the light of a hot morning's sun he went over the ground of die night's skirmish and found that he had "considerably underestimated their force." "In the field alone adjacent to Col. Humphrey's house there were seventy-two distinct tracks."
Richard discovered that there had been, as he phrased it, "agitation for some days" among the "Negroes" at Micanopy. The Indians had plotted to capture the slaves. One of these women told Lee about this, in spite of the fact that she had been "threatened with death" if she betrayed the plan. She had learned about the plot from Negro slaves who belonged to the Indians. She also warned that "a body of two hundred and fifty Indians headed by Jumper was secreted in the hammock not more than three hundred yards from Wanton's house" and "that they declared it to be the intention of the Indians to attempt to carry this post as soon as they safely dispose of the Negroes, and should they fail to accomplish this purpose, to burn and destroy all the property around."10
Richard ended his second report with a request for a piece, which Major Heilman brought, with reinforcements, to the fort a few days later. Richard knew that the Indians were well armed and ready to attack, because two of Colonel Humphrey's "ox-wagons," loaded with guns, had been captured by the Indians on the 21st, only eight miles from the fort.
The Indian war party was led by two formidable leaders. Jumper, one of the chiefs whose name had been deleted by General Thompson, was about forty years, old, active, brave, and known as a great talker. Hiding in the hammock with him was Oseola, or As-se-se-he-ho-lar, also called Powell or Black Drink, who was considered to be the guiding spirit of the Florida chiefs. Born in Georgia in 1804, his English father and Creek mother had separated when he was very young, and he had moved to Okefenoke Swamp and then to the hammock near Fort King, where he lived with the Seminoles. Now thirty-two, he was independent and undiplomatic, ridiculing the superstitions of the Indians, but winning their admiration by his intuitive decisiveness. He felt undaunted and invincible after his successful liquidation of the hated Indian agent, Thompson, and gloated over the apparent impotence of the Army. This warrior, who would elude the American Amy until he was treacherously captured under a flag of truce, would face Richard under the torrid rays of the Florida sun.
Major Heileman, who subsequently died from the effects of "over-exertion" during this battle, gives us an eyewitness report of the encounter between his 75 soldiers and more than 150 Indians on June 9th.
Micanopy June 10th, 1836
General—I have the honor to report, that yesterday morning a party of Indians, estimated at one hundred and fifty or two hundred, made their appearance in front of this place, at the distance of about three-quarters of a mile. Their object was evidently to draw us out; and not having any disposition to balk their views, I directed Captain Lee to take his company and skirt a hammock on the right of this post and gain the left of the enemy. At the same time I directed Lieutenant Wheelock to move with the dragoons, and make a corresponding movement on the left; and Lieutenant Humphreys, with a detachment of D and E companies of 2nd U.S. Artillery, to move across a field in front, holding a six-pounder, with a few men, in reserve.
The promptitude with which my orders were complied with, brought the three detachments immediately in contact with the enemy. Seeing the heavy fire of the enemy, I became at once satisfied they were treble our numbers, and immediately moved forward with the six-pounder. . . . [Hearing that the enemy was attacking his rear, he moved the gun back and then forward, again, when he found that he was not being attacked there.]
After an hour and twenty minutes hard fighting under a boiling sun, our troops returned, having driven the Indians two miles into their strongholds. The gallantry and good conduct of both officers and men, is beyond all recommendation I am able to bestow; and it is with deep regret that I report Captain Lee, 3rd Artillery, severely, but not dangerously wounded. He was shot early in the action, but directed his men to push forward which they did manfully.11
Richard wrote a more complete account of this to General Call after the death of Major Heileman.
I then proceeded with my immediate command [19 men of company I 3rd Artillery and a brave volunteer teamster named More Black] by a route concealed from the observation of the enemy, and after marching about half a mile obliquely to the right, to the point of a small Hammock near Tuscavilla Lake, unexpectedly found that the opposite extremity of this Hammock, about 300 yards from my position, was occupied by a large body of Indians—just at this time Lieut. Humphreys . . . arrived with a detachment of 25 men . . . I directed him to make a circuit to the left around the Hammock which order he promptly obeyed, and had not proceeded more than 250 yards before he found himself in contact with the enemy's left. The Dragoons led by their intrepid and gallant commander Lieut. Wheelock, whose untimely death we have recently been called upon to mourn, were now warmly engaged with the enemy's right charging on horseback and delivering their fire without dismounting. The Indians retreating before them. Having delivered the first fire, they reloaded on their ground, charged and fired again, and so on until the enemy was forced into the Tuscavilla Hammock, their stronghold. . . .
Having given Lieut. Humphreys his orders, I proceeded to enter the hammock, moving in an oblique direction towards the rear of the enemy. The trees being sparce [sic] and the undergrowth not sufficiently thick in many places to conceal my men, I was obliged to move with great caution and celerity. I soon found myself in the enemy's rear, at the distance of about 150 yards. I continued to move on until I reached the extreme verge of the Hammock, being at that time about 20 paces in front of my company. It now became necessary to examine more particularly the position of the enemy, in order to attack him, to the best advantage. I, therefore, crept forward about 10 or 12 paces upon a small knoll and found myself in full view of about 50 Indians, as many were being concealed behind the brow of a small hill, the nearest about 20 and the furthest about 70 yards off. Their backs were towards me, and they were eagerly and intently observing the movements of the troops commanded by Lieutenants Wheelock and Humphreys. The dragoons under Lieut. Wheelock having a few moments previously, became warmly engaged. I remained several seconds in this position, my men still advancing, during which time I observed two Indians, whom I supposed to be chiefs, from their earnest conversation and gestures, which induced me to believe they intended to make a movement to the rear of Lieutenants Humphreys and Wheelock, from whom they were as yet entirely concealed. My men had now arrived at the verge of the hammock and I only required about five paces more to enable me to pour a volley amongst them before their knowing of my presents [sic] when we were unfortunately discovered. Being in advance of my men and on elevated land, and my dress being somewhat conspicuous, I soon became a general mark. Instantly I gave the command to charge, raising my rifle and flashed it at one of the supposed chiefs. The scene of panic and confusion which ensued on the part of the Indians baffles all description. Some fired at me without taking aim—some fled without firing at all and some took to trees. My company was now clear of the bushes and charging handsomely, throwing in shots wherever a good opportunity offered. Myself leading about 12 paces in advance, I had proceeded only a few steps when I felt a terrible concussion against my shoulder, a great difficulty in breathing and was seized with bleeding at the mouth. I found that I was badly wounded: But having strength to keep my feet, determined to lead the charge as long as I could stand. I turned to my men, observed to them I was wounded and ordered them to push ahead. I had scarcely resumed my front and advanced three or four paces when I was brought to the ground by a severe wound through the thigh, given by an Indian who was about 20 yards distant behind a tree. Sergeant Hall, my orderly Sergeant, came and asked whether he should have me carried from the field, I told him no, to charge with every man. It was not necessary to repeat the order—the men sprang forward at the words. As the rear of the company was about passing me, one of my Sergeants and several of my men came and urged me to be removed to a safer place—I ordered them to leave me where I was, and charge. One of them asked me to lend him my rifle, and in a moment more I found myself alone.
Richard wrote his report with stoic terseness saying nothing about the hour of pain and anxiety, lying wounded and defenseless, while the battle raged on without him. The solicitude of his Sergeant, urging him to move to a safer place, followed by the callousness of the departing rear guard, who borrowed Richard's rifle, did not surprise him. The battle came first, and every man and every rifle would push forward.
Having remained in this situation upwards of an hour and the battle being over, my orderly Sergeant with several men returned, and informed me that the enemy was entirely driven off and silenced. . . . The engagement lasted about an hour and a quarter. The Indian force is supposed to have been at least 250, ours, you will observe, amounted to but 70 men, exclusive of those with the field piece, which arrived upon the field first at the close of the action.12
These few minutes of battle left Richard with two serious wounds; the one in the area of his lungs was to be a detriment the rest of his life. He was incapacitated and had to lie with the other wounded men at Mr. Center's house near the town, but considered himself to be nominally in command of the fort after Major Heileman's death.
By July, Richard was well enough to travel to Fortress Monroe, Virginia, accompanied by a private from the First Artillery who served as his nurse. His return was that of a conquering hero, as Major Heileman's report had been printed in that widely read organ, Niles Register, in July. Here he remained on duty until he visited Washington the first of October. "Thence after having undergone a painful surgical operation rendered necessary by my wounds; by advice from my surgeon I proceeded to the highlands of Virginia, and returned to Washington about the Middle of October, when I reported in Person to the President and Secretary of War."13
October 18, 1836, was his great day, his shining hour of glory. On October 18 he received his brevet majority from the hands of Old Hickory himself and General Cass. Niles Register reported his receiving the brevet "for gallantry and good conduct,"14 and congratulations came flooding in. For a few weeks he soared on the wings of fame, before humdrum Army routine pinioned him. Instead of an exciting job commensurate with his honors, in November he was sent to Little Rock, Arkansas, to select a site for an arsenal. The rising cost of labor during the construction of the arsenal resulted in new frustrations for Lee.
The smallness of the appropriation for the construction of the Little Rock Arsenal, the difficulty of procuring merchandise and the extravagant wages demanded (the price of an ordinary workman being from three to four dollars per day) makes it necessary for me to request to furnished with a few enlisted rough mechanics, to be rated as laborers of Ordnance.
Richard was provided with two carpenters and one brick layer because Little Rock was considered to be a bastion against the "large body of Indians on the South Western Frontier."15
His health continued to be precarious, and in February 1837, he wrote from Bayou Sara, 140 miles north of New Orleans, that he had "been detained three weeks by the surgeon, having been obliged to submit to having my wound in the back opened twice and bone extracted," and added, "my lungs have been considered rather in a critical state but are now supposed to be safe."16 He asked for duty at Pensacola, as he hoped that this climate would be less damp, but his request was not granted.
Shuttling between Little Rock, New Smyrna, Fort Warren, St. Augustine, and Fort Milton in 1837, Richard was acutely interested in following the laborious progress of the Florida War. When General Scott was called before a Court of Inquiry to explain the delays in war, Richard expected a summons to testify, but was disappointed. He and General Scott had quarrelled, and Lee suspected that the general distrusted him.
" I have been expecting a summons before the Court of Inquiry but suppose General Scott thinks me too much his enemy to do him justice."17
Dreading another summer at Little Rock, Richard wrote in the spring of 1838, requesting four months' leave.
My general health being remarkably good, I am most reluctantly compelled to refer to the disabilities arising from my wounds. My leg after severe exercise becomes stiff, sore and spasmodic, so much so as to disqualify me from marching on foot. The wound through my chest continues open and to exfoliate, frequently assuming a very unhealthy character. It is the opinion of my medical advisors that I may yet be obliged to submit to removal of the carious done by an operation. They all concur in opinion that my recovery depends upon the strength of my constitution and the preservation of my general health and that I should incur a great risk by spending the summer in this climate.18
Instead of being granted leave, Richard was switched to the Subsistence Department in July; the Army realized that open wounds would not thrive in the Third Artillery and Ordnance Department. In the place of gun and munitions, he would now be concerned with pork and flour. Wounds or no wounds, Richard was still involved in the tortuous vicissitudes of the Florida War.
In the dosing campaign of the Florida War, I served under General Worth, as his chief of Subsistence, District Quartermaster, and by special assignment commandant of Cedar Keys. During that campaign, at my own suggestion, I explored the hammhocks from St. Marks (St. Augustine) to the head of navigation on the Suwanee, and from the month of the Withlacoochee to the head of the Homasassa river in search of the localities of Indians, and the most practicable modes of approach and on one important occasion offered myself as hostage to enable the General to effect an interview with some hostile chiefs.
At the termination of the Florida War I was the only officer of the General's Staff whom General Worth proposed to nominate for a brevet. Considering this an unmerited and invidious distinction at my own request my name was withheld.19
Thirty years later, Richard claimed in his autobiographical sketch that during the campaigns with Generals Clinch, Scott, and Governor Call he had seen more active service, explored more hammocks, planned and executed more adventures, had been more frequently under fire, and lost more men than any other officer who served in those armies.20
Whether this was exaggerated or not, who would gainsay that Richard had experienced more than his share of adventure in that expensive war which, when it finally terminated in 1842, had cost his country $20,000,000 and the lives of nearly 1,500 soldiers.
1. Latrobe, op. cit., Vol. 11, p. 319.
2. For Zaccheus Collins see page . . . Also letter in National Archives from R. B. Lee to General Jones, February 1, 1835.
3. Lee, R. B. Letter to General Jones, September 10, 1835, refers to a "bodily injury" the nature of which is described by the Surgeon General in a lost enclosure.
4. Letter from R. B. Lee to General Jones in National Archives, October 1835. Adjutant General Roger Jones was a distant cousin married to one of Richard's first cousins and brother of Commodore Thomas Catesby Jones, U.S.N. Many of Richard's letters to Jones carried personal messages to "Cousin Mary Anne" and "the Children." The Court Martial papers were removed from the records of the War Department by Van Buren and cannot be found.
5. Ninety-four treaties were made between 1829–37.
6. Autobiographical Sketch, op. cit. Lee, R. B. Letter to General Jones, September 10, 1835, National Archives, asks whether he can delay reporting to Fort King until after frost because he is afraid of recurrence of a fever which he had had for 18 months in 1824, and because of a "bodily injury."
7. Sprague, John T., The Origin, Progress and Conclusion of the Florida War, New York, 1848, p. 141.
8. Sprague, op. cit. Table of casualties.
9. Lee, R. B. Letter to Lieutenant Colonel Bankhead, Commander right wing, Army of Florida, May 21, 1836, National Archives.
10. Lee, R. B. Letter to Lieutenant Colonel Bankhead, May 22, 1836, National Archives.
Niles Register, July 2, 1836, p. 306.
Lee, R. B. Letter to General Call, Commander in Chief, Army of Florida, July 12, 1836, National Archives.
13. Lee, R. B, Letter to Secretary of War, William Wilkins, St. Louis, February 26, 1844, National Archives, Record Group 94.
14. Niles Register, op. cit., October 22, 1836, p. 117. This brevet rank was recommended in General R. K. Call's letter to the Secretary of War, July 21,1838, National Archives. "It appears to me both from the report of Jam. Heileman and Capt. Lee, that the latter officer and the two surviving Lieutenants who acted under his orders are equally entitled to this distinction. I would therefore respectfully suggest the propriety as well as the justice of conferring brevets on Capt. Lee, Lieut. Humphreys and Lieut. Talcott for the gallantry and bravery with which they fought on that occasion. This just reward for their services would have a happy effect on the future operations of the army."
15. Lee, R. B. Letter to Colonel Bomford, Chief of Ordnance, September 12, 1837, National Archives.
16. Lee, R. B. Letter to General R. Jones, February 14, 1837, National Archives.
17. Lee, R. B. Letter to General R. Jones, February 14, 1832, National Archives.
18. Lee, R. B. Letter to Colonel Bomford, May 26, 1838, National Archives.
19. Autobiographical Sketch, op. cit.
Return to Fringe of Fame