Referred to as the "forgotten conflict," the War of 1812 has been one of the least commemorated wars in American history. This lack of appreciation is due, in part, to the complicated issues surrounding the war's causation, such as impressment of American sailors, violations against the nation's maritime rights, territorial expansion, party politics, national honor, concerns over Indian depredations, and economic considerations, among others. With relatively light American casualties and ostensibly little to show for at the war's end, the War of 1812 has been neglected and misunderstood by the American public for nearly two hundred years.
When the United States declared war on Great Britain in June 1812, Tennessee was a fledgling state in the nation's backcountry. Yet Tennesseans would play a prominent role during the conflict, both politically and militarily. For example, Felix Grundy and George Washington Campbell, War Hawk congressmen from Tennessee, provided the political rhetoric in getting the war declared. On the battlefield, Andrew Jackson led the army of Tennessee militia and volunteers through the Creek War and, later, at the climactic battle against the British forces at New Orleans. Other notable Tennesseans, such as Sam Houston and David Crockett, participated in the war as soldiers.
While it is difficult to ascertain exactly how many Tennesseans participated in the War of 1812, it would be safe to assume that up to 20,000 men served at one time or another during the conflict. Most these men served as volunteers or in the militia, while others saw action in the U.S. Regular Army.
This call for troops in 1812 shows the primary opponent of most of the Tennessee Volunteers: not the British, but the Native Americans. Tennesseans fought alongside and were close allies with certain Native American tribes and factions, but native contributions tended to be overlooked in the greater conflict and in the treaty ending the war.
For most Tennesseans, in fact, it was the Creek War of 1813-1814 that was the War of 1812. The hostile element of the Creek Indian nation, in reaction to white encroachment on Creek land and culture, fomented an internal crisis within the Creek nation that spilled over into the nearby Anglo-American settlements. The massacre at Ft. Mims (near present-day Mobile, Alabama) in late August 1813 activated Tennessee's punitive measures that led to the Creek War (1813-1814) — a war disastrous for the Creek nation, which suffered thousands of casualties and the loss of much of their territory.
As volunteers and members of local militia, many Tennessean soldiers both distrusted and feared Native Americans and disliked British intervention and aggression in America. Many were also motivated by the opportunity for adventure, a chance to get away from domestic life, and a sense of patriotic duty. Upon enlistment, soldiers elected their officers, usually the wealthiest and most popular men among them.
A View of Colonel Johnson’s Engagement
Penelope Johnson Allen Cherokee Collection
The Creek War
As the leader of the hostile Creek federation, Tecumseh distributed small bundles of red-painted sticks to his followers, telling them to throw away a stick every morning and whenever they saw a comet. Once they had thrown away all the sticks, it would be time to attack. The use of these sticks and red war clubs by the hostile factions of the Creeks gave rise to the term “Red Sticks,” by which the upper Creeks came to be known. Tecumseh died in the Battle of the Thames, and Colonel Richard M. Johnson (depicted here) was popularly credited with killing him. Johnson used this reputation to his advantage, later becoming Vice President under Martin Van Buren.
By December 1813, after the victories won by the Tennessee Volunteer armies at the Battle of Talladega in November 1813, General Andrew Jackson faced a mutiny by his volunteers regarding their enlistment periods. The problem originated with troops having volunteered for a one-year period at the time of The Natchez Expedition. Jackson felt that time not spent in the field should not apply to the year’s enlistment, but the volunteers felt otherwise, insisting that the enlistment period should include all time spent away from home. The conflict evolved into hostilities and ended with courts-martial for a considerable number of men. By the time Jackson received 900 raw recruits on January 14, 1814, he was down to a force of 103 men. Jackson fought the Battles of Emuckfaw and Enotachopo Creek a week later on January 22-24, 1814.
The Battle of Horseshoe Bend
This decisive battle effectively ended the Creek War. The map, drawn by an aide to Jackson, shows Jackson's attack on the Creeks. From an original force of around 1000, only 200 Creeks escaped, along with their badly wounded chief, Menawa, to take refuge with the Seminole tribe in Florida. In his report, Jackson comments on the effectiveness of the militiamen.
The war ended with the August 9, 1814, signing of the Treaty of Fort Jackson, which ceded 23 million acres of Creek land to the United State government. Chief Junaluska, the Cherokee ally who led 500 Native American men in support of the Americans and saved Jackson’s life during the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, later said, "If I had known that Jackson would drive us from our homes, I would have killed him at Horseshoe."
David "Davy" Crockett (1786-1836)
Although best known as an iconic American folk hero, David Crockett’s participation in the War of 1812 is little appreciated by most Americans today. After moving from East Tennessee in 1811, Crockett and his family settled in Franklin County at the time of the outbreak of the Creek War. Beginning in September 1813, he first served a three-month enlistment in the Second Regiment of Tennessee Volunteer Mounted Riflemen under Brigadier General John Coffee and his unit saw action at the battles of Tallushatchee and Talladega in November of that year. In September 1814, Crockett reenlisted for six months in Major William Russell’s Battalion of Volunteer Mounted Gunmen, where he served as a sergeant for the remainder of the war. The fact that Crockett was a non-commissioned officer revealed his ailities and his growing reputation and within his community.
The Battle of New Orleans
Although it was fought after the Treaty of Ghent had officially ended the War of 1812 on December 24, 1814, the Battle of New Orleans was nonetheless a decisive American victory. On December 28, 1814, British troops under General Edward Pakenham unsuccessfully tested the American earthworks (named "Line Jackson") twice. Pakenham cancelled an attack on New Year’s Day due to lack of ammunition, not knowing that the American troops on the left had broken and run after three hours of British artillery fire.
Jackson's orders after the
Dyas Collection, John Coffee Papers
The January 8, 1815 battle was a disaster for the British. After severe delays, 8,000 British troops finally attacked at daybreak, but the dense fog covering their approach lifted just as they came within range of the American artillery. Furthermore, Lt. Col. Thomas Mullins and his troops forgot the ladders and fascines with which they had intended to scale American earthworks. British General Keane was injured and Generals Pakenham, Gibbs, and Rennie were killed, leading to massive confusion on the field. The Americans suffered only 71 casualties for the day, while British casualties numbered more than 2,000.
The American people, not having expected a victory in the south, heard the news of the Battle of New Orleans in amazement and catapulted Andrew Jackson to national fame. The American victory did nothing to change the terms of the Treaty of Ghent, but it did insure that the British would follow the treaty's terms and not attempt to retain possession of land taken during the war.
Night Action on December 23rd
"By the Eternal they shall not sleep on our soil!" General Jackson was rumored to have said this as the British made camp outside New Orleans. Although the subsequent night battle ended in a British victory, British General John Keane became more cautious as a result. His delay in advancing to New Orleans gave Jackson and his men time to build and entrench themselves in massive earthworks.
The Death of General Pakenham
General Edward Pakenham died in the Battle of New Orleans while rallying the British troops near Line Jackson. An American artillery shell shattered his knee and killed his horse. As an aide helped him rise, he was shot again, this time in the arm. In spite of his injuries, he was mounting the horse of Major Duncan MacDougall to return to battle when a burst of grapeshot hit him in the spine, killing him. Pakenham had a reputation as an unpleasant man; when his body was returned to his home in Ireland in a cask of rum, a relative is rumored to have said, "The General has returned home in better spirits than he left."
General Jackson Addressing the Volunteers
Regarded as controversial even in his own time, Andrew Jackson was a transformative figure in the development of the United States. His victory in New Orleans catapulted him into national celebrity, and his election as President represented the first fruits of political involvement by the common man in America. Despite Jackson’s hotheaded personal reputation and his divisive decisions as President, he remains one of Tennessee’s most highly regarded military veterans.
John Coffee (1772-1833) was a merchant, land speculator, and military leader who participated in every one of the Tennessee battles during the Creek War and in the campaign at New Orleans. Previously Andrew Jackson’s business partner, Coffee became Jackson’s right-hand man during the war, advancing to the rank of Brigadier General. He was married to Mary Donelson, Rachel Jackson’s niece, and he detailed many of his wartime experiences in letters to her.
Battleground, Five Miles Below New Orleans
20th January 1815
My Dear Wife,
The moment is pleasant (after many days fatigue and dangers, exposed in the face of an enemy) that the mind is at ease and turned to that domestic enjoyment that awaits me at home, —
I had not closed my letter to you more than one hour on the 23rd Dec. when I recd. orders to march my command to meet the enemy then already landed and within six miles of New Orleans. I had at that moment only 800 effective men, together with about 600 regulars and Orleans Militia, was the only disposeable force in readiness . . . we marched without loss of time, and about one hour after dark (a fine moonlight night) we met the enemy who had encamped, on the bank of the Mississippi in an open level field, — the right on the river, the open ground on the left, — the order of battle, the regulars and Orleans Militia attacked in front on the bank of the river, and my Brigade moved round on the left and attacked their main Columns on the Center, the Battle soon became general, — but just before we had formed, an armed schooner of ours had droped down the river and opened a fire on the enemy which drove them out from the river near a quarter of a mile, where we met them formed in line, my men behaved most gallantly on that occasion...
...after the enemy having lost upwards of four thousand men, they decamped and embarked on the night of the 18th Instant, under cover of a very thick fog that is common here — what their further intentions are we cannot say but believe they are tired of their company here, and is finally gone — thus the famous campaign against Orleans is at rest at present, and has thus far been marked with better fortune to the American arms than anything heretofore known...
farewell my love,
(Gen.) John Coffee
Seminole Wars: 1817-1818, 1835-1842,
After the Revolutionary War, tensions began to run high along the southern U.S. border with the Spanish territory of Florida. There were numerous skirmishes back and forth across the Georgia/Florida border between Americans and Seminole tribes, who had been allies with Great Britain during both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The Seminoles also harbored runaway slaves from the United States, and this led to numerous raids into Florida to capture them (raids that frequently captured free blacks as well). The Spanish, however, lacked the military might — and, frequently, the political will — to enforce their authority over the territory.
In November 1817, troops under General Edmund Gaines attempted to capture the Miccosukee chief Neamathla. A week later, the Miccosukee retaliated by attacking a supply convoy headed to Ft. Scott; thirty-five U.S. soldiers and six women were killed in the attack. Thus began the First Seminole War. President Monroe sent Andrew Jackson to carry out attacks against the Seminoles. On March 15, 1818, Jackson's troops entered Florida, and, over the next eleven weeks, they destroyed numerous Seminole villages and captured the Spanish settlements of St. Marks and Pensacola. Spain, realizing it could no longer control the territory, ceded Florida to the United States as part of the 1819 treaty ending the conflict in return for forgiveness of its debt to the U. S.
Private John Baty's request for compensation
Robert Whyte Papers
After the U. S. officially assumed control of Florida in 1821, the Seminoles were relocated to a four-million-acre reservation in central Florida by the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, which was signed in 1823. In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act to relocate Native Americans to lands west of the Mississippi River. In 1832, the Seminole leaderss were forced to sign the Treaty of Payne's Landing, in which they promised to relocate to the west. Most of the Seminoles rejected the treaty and refused to leave their homes. In December 1835, the simmering tensions erupted into open conflict. The Second Seminole War lasted until 1842 and was the longest, deadliest, and most expensive war carried out by the United States against Native Americans.
After the Second Seminole War, the remaining Seminoles were moved onto a reservation in southwest Florida, but encroachment by whites caused conflict to erupt once again in December 1855. The Third Seminole War lasted for another two-and-a-half years and ended in May 1858, when Chief Bowlegs agreed to emigrate with his followers.
Army Order No. 79, Second Seminole War
This 1838 order sent Alabama and Tennessee volunteers under the command of Major William Lauderdale to Florida. There they founded a series of outposts collectively named Ft. Lauderdale, the origin of the modern city.
"To the Sumner Volunteers"
Go! Sumner, Go! And quell the Savage Foe;
Cheer! Sumner, Cheer! Our with you Ye bear;
Ride! Sumner, Ride! To aid the Southrons ride;
Fight! Sumner, Fight! For Van Buren, nor for White;
Drive! Sumner, Drive! To Rocky Mountains drive:
Now homeward Sumner wend your way,
Section researched and written by Lucinda Kinsall, Library Assistant, Will Thomas, Archival Assistant, and Kate Williams, Archival Assistant.
Dr. Tom Kanon, Archivist, also contributed to the text for this section.