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December 2012, Week 3

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Mon, 17 Dec 2012 00:35:53 -0500
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An Historic Christmas Eve Battle For Freedom - A 
Lesson For Today
William Loren Katz*
December 15, 2012
Published by Portside

This Christmas Eve 2012 marks the 175th anniversary of
an heroic battle for self-rule and liberty by a daring
band of American freedom fighters traditionally ignored
by school courses, texts and teachers. On the northeast
corner of Florida's Lake Okeechobee 380 to 480 members
of the multicultural Seminole nation under the command
of Wild Cat, and John Horse, his African Seminole
second-in-command, prepared to face down invading
colonial armies twice their size led by US Colonel
Zachary Taylor, a Louisiana slaveholder and career
soldier, building a reputation as an "Indian killer"
that would land him in the White House as 12th President
of the United States. His Seminole foes, with a history
of armed resistance to foreign domination, were
defending their sovereignty and land.

US slavery lay at the heart of US policy that day. Its
Constitution embraced and protected slavery, and granted
southern planters additional electoral power because
they owned Africans. Until 1860 slave owners sat in the
White House two thirds of the time, constituted two
thirds of Speakers of the House of Representatives, two
thirds of Presidents of the U.S.Senate and 20 of the 35
U.S. Supreme Court Justices.  Slaveholders were
supported by northern merchants, trade partners
and "dough face" politicians. Federal officials dared not
challenge slaveholders.

Around the time 55 white patriots in Philadelphia donned
white wigs and wrote a Declaration of Independence, the
Seminole nation, seeking to escape persecution under the
Creeks, sought independence by fleeing south to Florida.
Africans who had earlier escaped bondage in Georgia,
Alabama and the Carolinas and found refuge in Florida
welcomed them.

The African runaways instructed Seminoles in tropical
methods of rice cultivation they learned in Senegambia
and Sierra Leone. On this basis the two peoples forged
an unbreakable agricultural and military alliance and
multicultural nation.

Florida's independent and successful Black Seminole
communities did more than refute most pro-slavery
arguments.They also made Florida a beacon that could
attract southern runaways, and offered escapees a haven.
Slaveholder posses began to invade Florida, and pro-
slavery legislators demanded US military action against
Spain.

Florida's armed multicultural communities consistently
fought off British slave-hunters, then US slave-
catchers, and large southern white incursions. Finally,
in 1811 President James Madison initiated covert US
actions to overthrow Seminole rule.

In 1816, General Andrew Jackson commanded General Gaines
to attack Florida's "Fort Negro" and "restore the stolen
negroes to their rightful owners." The new nation's
first large scale foreign invasion moved southward along
the Apalachicola River. US Army Colonel Clinch reported
to Washington:

  The American negroes had principally settled along the
  river and a number of them had left their fields and
  gone over to the Seminoles on hearing of our approach.
  Their cornfields extended nearly fifty miles up the
  river and their numbers were daily increasing.

When a heated cannon shot hit "Fort Negro's" ammunition
dump, the explosion killed most of its three hundred
defenders.

Then in rapid succession, Jackson invaded and claimed
Florida, the United States purchased it and dispatched
an army of occupation. But Seminole resistance continued
until 1858.

In June 1837 U. S. Major General Sidney Thomas Jesup, the
best informed US officer in Florida, described how
Seminole unity and strength posed clear and present
dangers to slaveholders:

  The two races, the negro and the Indian, are rapidly
  approximating; they are identical in interests and
  feelings. . . . Should the Indians remain in this
  territory the negroes among them will form a rallying
  point for runaway negroes from the adjacent states;
  and if they remove, the fastness of the country will be
  immediately occupied by negroes.

Six months later, on Christmas Eve, Colonel Taylor
ordered his armies -- 70 Delaware Indians, 180
Tennessee volunteers, and 800 US soldiers -- forward.
Seminole marksmen were perched in trees or hiding in the
tall grass. The first shot sent the Delaware fleeing.
Tennessee riflemen plunged ahead until a withering fire
brought down their commissioned officers and then their
noncommissioned officers. The Tennesseans fled.

Taylor then ordered his Sixth US Infantry, Fourth
Infantry and his own First Infantry Regiment forward.
But pinpoint fire brought down, he later reported,
"every officer, with one exception, as well as most of
the non-commissioned officers" and left "but four . . .
untouched." After a two and a half hour battle the
outnumbered Seminole forces fell back to their canoes
and escaped. On Christmas Day Colonel Taylor counted 26
U.S. dead and 112 wounded, seven dead for each slain
Seminole, and he had taken no prisoners.

Lake Okeechobee stands as the most decisive US defeat in
more than four decades of warfare in Florida. But after
his survivors limped back to Fort Gardner, Taylor
declared victory -- "the Indians were driven in every
direction" --and the US Army promoted him.

Lake Okeechobee was part of the disastrous Second
Seminole War that took 1500 US military lives, cost
Congress $40,000,000 (pre-Civil War dollars!) and left
thousands of soldiers wounded or dead of disease.
Seminole losses, particularly civilians, were
undoubtedly much higher.

Today the story of Lake Okeechobee largely remains
buried or worse. When President Taylor died in office,
Abraham Lincoln honored him at an Illinois memorial on
July 25, 1850. "He was never beaten," Lincoln said, and
pointed to Florida: ". . .in 1837 he fought and
conquered in the memorable Battle of Lake Okeechobee,
one of the most desperate struggles known to the annals
o fIndian warfare."

A century and a half later famous Harvard historian
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote in The Almanac of American
History: "Fighting in the Second Seminole War, General
Zachary Taylor defeats a group of Seminoles at
Okeechobee Swamp, Florida."

The United States needs to face its history and honor its
brave freedom fighters, all of them.

*William Loren Katz is the author of BLACK INDIANS: A
HIDDEN HERITAGE [2012 updated and expanded edition] and
forty other history books. His website is:
www.williamlkatz.com

[Many thanks to the author for submitting this article
to Portside.]

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