Why Was the 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend Important?

One of the most overlooked parts of the War of 1812 is the Creek War in the south. The major Battle of Horseshoe Bend between Creek warriors and the United States militia was extremely important and held great significance in subsequent years.

The British overwhelmingly relied upon their Native American allies to help fight the United States in the War of 1812. The Creek Nation was split in their support of the British. Some from the Upper Creek Nation, known as the “Red Sticks,” chose to fight against the United States.

Others from the Lower Creek Nation that had assimilated more into American culture fought with the United States. Ultimately, the Creek War was a Civil War between the two Creek factions. The United States intervened when American settlers were attacked and killed by a war party led by Red Stick Chief William Weatherford.

The Creek War was important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was because it thrust General Andrew Jackson into the national spotlight. Jackson’s important victory at the penultimate Battle of Horseshoe Bend virtually ended the Creek War.

The defeat led to a treaty where the Creek were forced to give up nearly 21 million acres of land across the southern United States and had significant repercussions for all Native American nations in the following decades.

The War of 1812 and the Creek War

The Creek (Muscogee) Nation was a powerful entity that spanned across a huge amount of territory from western Georgia into modern-day Alabama and Mississippi. Like many Native American nations at the time, they faced a decision on whether to stick to their native ways or attempt to assimilate into American culture.

This caused a massive rift in Creek society, with factions emerging along each side. The Lower Creeks generally favored assimilation and adopted western values. Many, but not all, Upper Creeks opposed assimilation and wanted to maintain their culture.

Those that opposed assimilation were called “Red Sticks,” so named after the color of the hatch-like clubs they carried into battle. The Red Sticks actively refused to allow settlers into their territory and fought back against the wave of westward expansion.1

When the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh visited the Creek and other southern nations in 1811-1812, he spoke of a plan to unite all the Native American nations in an uprising against the encroaching United States who could not be trusted.

Battle of Horseshoe Bend sketch

While the Cherokee, Choctow, and Chickasaws all declined the offer of a confederacy, the Red Sticks faction of the Creek eagerly took the call.2

At first the Red Sticks made war upon their own, attacking those that favored peaceful relations with the United States. Eventually, the United States was dragged into the fighting after a local militia unit was defeated at the Battle of Burnt Corn in July 1813.

The Red Sticks escalated tensions in late August 1813 when they defeated American forces at Fort Mims. In the aftermath of the battle, the Red Sticks indiscriminately killed men, women, and children, some 500 total in the massacre.

When word spread of the Fort Mims massacre a large militia was called to defeat the Red Stick threat. Then-reserve General Andrew Jackson was tasked with leading the troops and defeating the Red Sticks.3

Summary of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend

After waging a winter war on the Creeks to mixed results, Jackson’s scouts discovered a large contingent of Red Sticks located at a bend in the Tallapoosa River in the spring of 1814.

Located there was a well-fortified Creek village known as Tohopeka, where over 1,000 Red Stick warriors and their families lived. Jackson sensed an opportunity for a decisive battle and marched nearly sixty miles through Creek territory arriving at the end of March.

By this time Jackson’s troops had been reinforced with fresh Tennessee militia troops, a US army regiment, and native allies from “friendly” Creeks and Cherokee warriors.

Before leaving he executed one militia soldier for disobedience and mutiny in hopes of hardening the resolve of the notoriously unreliable militia. It was the first execution of a militiaman since the American Revolution.1

Upon arriving at Horseshoe Bend, Jackson split his forces sending one across the river to encircle the village while the main contingent waged a frontal assault on the fortifications. With this maneuver Jackson essentially trapped the Red Sticks and prevented their escape across the river.

Horseshoe_bend_map

The Creek warriors were confident in their defenses even when their primary leader Chief William Weatherford departed the day before battle to help his pregnant wife.1

Despite the Red Sticks’ confidence, the Battle of Horseshoe Bend was an important, resounding victory for the United States. The Creeks were outnumbered, outgunned, and had nowhere to retreat.

After the US troops breached the fortifications, hand-to-hand fighting occurred throughout the village with the militia fixing bayonets. The battle turned into a slaughter as the Red Sticks offered no quarter and expected none for themselves.

Those that attempted to retreat across the river were gunned down by the army troops and Native allies that encircled them from the rear. The allied Cherokee warriors played a vital role in the victory and the US may have even lost the battle without their support.2

At the end of the battle 557 Red Stick warriors were counted among the dead along with an estimated 300 or so at the bottom of the river killed while attempting to escape. Compared to the ~250-300 combined casualties between US forces and native allies, the Battle of Horseshoe Bend was a resounding victory for the United States.1

Why was the 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend Important?

The 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend was important as it virtually wiped out the Creek threat in the south and freed General Andrew Jackson and additional troops to be able to properly defend Louisiana in the important Battle of New Orleans.

After losing 900 warriors in a single day, the Red Sticks were virtually wiped out as a cohesive fighting force and scattered to avoid capture. Jackson did not truly believe the Red Stick threat was over and marched on several Red Stick villages only to find them abandoned.1

Battle of Horseshoe Bend 1814 important casualties chart

Over the subsequent months small bands of Red Sticks surrendered in groups. Even the primary Red Stick Chief William Weatherford surrendered directly to Jackson.

One of the most important features of the Battle Horseshoe Bend is that it led directly to the Treaty of Fort Jackson where the Creek ceded nearly 22 million acres of land to the United States.

This land was primarily in modern-day southern Georgia and central Alabama and of prime agricultural value. Combined with the cotton gin’s impact, the institution of slavery continued to expand throughout the south.

The Battle of Horseshoe Bend is oftentimes considered one of the greatest Native American battles considering the bravery and determination of the outmanned and outgunned Creek warriors.2

One is left to wonder how history may have been different had British aid in terms of guns, suppliers, and food arrived prior to the battle instead of afterwards. The better-supplied Creek warriors could have repelled the attack and tied up Jackson’s troops for much longer.1

Without Jackson’s support, the United States surely would have lost at New Orleans, and the Americans may not have secured as favorable terms as they did in the important Treaty of Ghent.

Significance of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend

The ultimate significance of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend is the tremendous impact it had on the fortunes of the southeastern Native American nations and upon the career of General Andrew Jackson.

The fortunes of both parties seemingly operated inversely and in tandem. As Jackson ascended to a political juggernaut, the Native American nations disproportionately suffered. 

The decisive American victory and subjugation of the Creek helped to prevent further Native American uprisings in the southeast in the immediate aftermath of the Creek War. It also helped to pave the way for the formation of two new slave states in Alabama and Mississippi.2

These slave states joined the Union more or less in pairs with “free” states such as Indiana and Illinois to help maintain the balance of power in the Senate. Tensions over free vs slave states boiled over, highlighted by the important Missouri Compromise of 1820.

Following the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Andrew Jackson was promoted from a reserve General to a Major General. His improbable victory at the Battle of New Orleans catapulted him into celebrity status and helped lead to a heightened period of nationalism across the US in the Era of Good Feelings.

Major General Andrew Jackson Creek War

Jackson would narrowly miss out on the Presidency in the election of 1824, though he eventually served two terms as President from 1829-1837.

Jackson’s election spelled doom for the southeastern Native American nations. Jackson pushed through the Indian Removal Act in 1830 and dubiously forced Native American nations to sign treaties ceding all the lands east of the Mississippi River such as in the Treaty of New Echota.

The Native American removal led to the horrifying Trail of Tears where thousands of natives perished on their forced march west. If there was a loser following the War of 1812, it was not the British or US, but Native American nations.

The Cherokee chief Junaluska is reported to have said that he would have killed Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend had he known he would eventually drive them from their lands.1

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To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.

Sources

1) Kanon, Thomas. “‘A SLOW, LABORIOUS SLAUGHTER’: THE BATTLE OF HORSESHOE BEND.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 1, Tennessee Historical Society, 1999, pp. 2–15, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42627446.

2) Blackmun, Ora. “The Crack of Doom in the Mountains.” Western North Carolina: Its Mountains and Its People to 1880, Appalachian State University, 1977, pp. 241–60, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1xp3mp5.21.

3) Black, Jason Edward. “Memories of the Alabama Creek War, 1813-1814: U.S. Governmental and Native Identities at the Horseshoe Bend National Military Park.” American Indian Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 2, University of Nebraska Press, 2009, pp. 200–29, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25487928.

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