Sherman in the Swamp

William Techumseh Sherman, young officer

I would like to add a little footnote to Tom DiLorenzo’s recent treatment of General William Tecumseh Sherman and the Indians. This “footnote” is actually a “prequel” to Sherman’s famous “march” through Georgia and South Carolina, during the late Unpleasantness, and his later Indian-fighting activities after that not very “civil” war. It is my duty as a patriotic Floridian to describe this part of the Sherman saga and, anyway, it helps us better understand his attitude toward warfare.

I refer of course to Sherman’s unhappy days in the subtropics, 1840–1841. Of course putting those days — which added up to just under a year and a half — in context requires me to say a few things about the Second Seminole War (1835–1842). Now, as far back as the American Revolution, American leaders coveted Florida — then under British rule. This was for obvious reasons of political geography. Alas, it was not to be, and the Treaty of Paris (1783), which concluded the Revolutionary War, saw Florida handed back to Spain, after twenty years of British rule.

By this time, secessionist elements of the Creek nation, the Seminoles, had established a presence in Florida. Already present, too, were backcountry Scots-Irish frontiersmen, chiefly from Georgia, who had infiltrated down into northern Florida in increasing numbers. These were “los crackeres,” whom the outgoing Spanish Governor, Don Vicente Manuel de Zéspedes y Velasco, described in a memo to his successor in 1790. He could only compare these hardy Anglo-Celtic intruders to the nomadic Berbers, just across the water from Spain.1

Sundry forces were in play, that sealed Florida’s political fate. One was the constant leakage of runaway slaves into Florida. These runaways, who “went Indian,” represented a loss of property to planters, but also menaced the system of slavery by their bad example.

The Spanish administration in Florida was not up to solving the problems of escaping slaves and cross-border raids by Seminoles to the satisfaction of the United States. As the Seminoles saw it, they had never ceded any lands by treaty, whatever the Creeks might have done or said. The US and Spain might imagine that some kind of line ran through the lands that Seminoles occupied, but this did not matter much to the latter. Soon enough, General Andrew Jackson, under color of orders to punish raiders, effectively expelled Spanish power from Florida in 1817–1818, in what is called the First Seminole War.

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State under President James Monroe, wrote a famous White Paper justifying Jackson’s actions — a paper in which handled the truth with great economy. To regularize the international situation, Adams negotiated the Adams-Onís, or Transcontinental Treaty, concluded in 1822. Leaving the vexatious matter of Texas to one side, he secured Spain’s agreement with respect to the boundaries of the Louisiana Territory, thereby giving the US a wide window on the Pacific. This was urgent to those like Adams who were already looking ahead to American domination of the China trade.2

Osceola, The Black Drink

The Seminole Mode of Production
With Florida safely in US hands, settlers trickled in, mostly from nearby states, and a cotton and plantation economy sprang up in formerly undeveloped central areas. This was the rise of Middle Florida. Under the territorial government, the usual causal suspects — land speculators with political pull, less-than-honest government contractors, and the like — did their thing, though perhaps no more than on any frontier of expansion.3

Of course the Indians remained. In addition, territorial government was not a cure-all for the problem of slaves running off to live with Indians under some relation of dependency.

George Kos writes:

“Blacks living with the Seminoles became a point of contention for whites because the Seminole system of slavery was not as harsh or rigid as the Anglo-American system…. A Seminole was more a patron than a master, for the Seminole slave system was akin to tenant farming.”4

Kenneth Wiggins Porter writes:

“The Negroes lived in separate villages of well-built houses, raised crops of corn, sweet potatoes, other vegetables, and even cotton, and possessed herds of livestock; their masters, or rather protectors, never presumed to meddle with any of this property so long as they received a reasonable u2018tribute’ at harvest and butchering time.”5

Major General Edmund Pendleton Gaines characterized this population as the Seminoles’ “black vassals and allies.”6

Whatever the exact nature of these relations of production (so to speak), the “Indian Negroes” evidently saw themselves as freer, when living alongside the Seminoles, than in their former location. It is a case of what an Austrian School economist would call demonstrated preference.

No one was getting rich in the Seminole territories by hunting, fishing, and small-scale agriculture, although some parties — as far down the Gulf Coast as Pine Island — had a kind of informal free trade relationship with Havana. From the standpoint of wealth, no one had much reason to envy the Seminoles their way of life. Some did want their lands, however.

In addition, armed clashes occurred between Indians and settlers from time to time, and sorting out the right and wrong of those would take a long time. To make matters worse, runaway slaves had friends and relations working on plantations, which added to planters’ headaches. Uniquely in US history, here was a frontier where slaves could escape to friends and allies — a circumstance which undermined the peculiar institution itself.

These problems soon intersected with Indian Removal — a policy meditated upon as far back as Thomas Jefferson’s administrations, and which was now going forward under President Jackson, the old Indian-fighter. US Indian agents urged sundry “treaties” upon Seminole leaders in 1833. As happened in many such situations, large numbers of Indians denied that those signing the agreements had spoken for them. While a majority of Seminoles were in fact “removed” to the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), a sizeable minority of militants chose to stand and fight. Allied with them were the “Indian Negroes” who had little choice but to fight, given the alternatives.

There is no space here to sketch in detail the Second Seminole War, which broke out in 1835. Suffice it to say that settlements were raided and innocents killed on either side, with small numbers of Seminoles and Indian Negroes able to tie up large numbers of regular US troops and territorial militia. It was not a big war, by any standard, but it proved very expensive for the US taxpayer.

Sherman in the Waning War
We come now to Lieutenant Sherman, who served in the last phase of the war, arriving at St. Augustine in October 1840, and then going on to Fort Pierce. From this small outpost, the unit with which Sherman served would patrol up and down the coast, raiding inland when they found signs of Indians. Fights were small-scale, and captives would be sent to St. Augustine.

Sherman soon came to despise the local militia, which was “good for nothing’ except to protect their homes and immediate surroundings.”7 This is typical of regulars, who never seem to realize that this is precisely what militias are for. On the other hand, Sherman was no dummy when it came to grasping the war’s origins. As he put it, US Indian wars followed a pattern: “A treaty for removal is formed by a few who represent themselves as the whole; the time comes, and none present themselves. The Government orders force to be used; the troops in the territory commence, but are so few that they all get massacred. The cowardly inhabitants, instead of rallying, desert their homes and sound the alarm-call for assistance. An army supposed to be strong enough is sent, seeks and encounters the enemy at a place selected by the latter, gets a few hundred killed. The Indians retreat, scatter, and are safe. This may be repeated ad infinitum.”8

This was a good summary; Sherman was getting the hang of guerrilla warfare. With commanders and tactics being changed repeatedly around him, Sherman persevered in his part of the war. His unit, he bragged, “had caught more Indians and destroyed more property in a fair method than the rest of the army.”9 One might well believe him.

As Jane F. Lancaster writes, “Sherman gradually developed his own ideas about war. He thought that the War Department should fill Florida with troops, declare martial law, and fight to exterminate the enemy. According to Sherman, this was the most economical plan. The u2018present method will not do,’ he declared. Experience has shown it — persons who have not seen this country should not blame the army….10

Lancaster concludes that “Sherman also learned the difficulties associated with using volunteer armies and with invading a country and destroying resources to defeat the enemy.”11 Indeed he did. The notions of total war appropriate to Indian wars stayed with him in his big war and afterwards. There is some kind of post-colonial theme in here, but I will leave it alone.

Counter-insurgency, winning the war on “the most economical plan,” war against the other side’s means of subsistence — I think we have seen these themes played out in more than one US war.

Unsatisfactory Outcomes for Some
Such were the lessons Sherman — seconded by Max Boot, had he been there — took from this little war. What lessons might we take from it? There seem to be several.

One might be: don’t seize a province before you can populate it with settlers who will defend it themselves. (This was the basis of Lincoln’s famous objections to the Mexican War: conquest of those territories was premature.) Another might be: sort out the other side’s system of representation before you conjure up any “treaties” allegedly binding on all of them. Don’t get drawn into a war with guerrillas unless you don’t mind running up enormous costs. In Florida, a couple thousand insurgents (at the most) exploited favorable terrain and held down US forces for seven years of sporadic fighting and raiding, all at a cost of twenty million dollars, back when that was real money.

One oddity was that, given the extensive coastline, the Navy played an important role in this Indian war, in a kind of microscopic preview of Vietnam.12

Another lesson might well be to have political goals that are consistent with one another. That was a real problem in the Second Seminole War. In this war, the short-run interests of settler-planters had to be sacrificed to larger goals. General Thomas S. Jesup cut the Gordian knot in this way: to encourage “Indian Negroes” to surrender, he had to certify them as “property” of the Seminoles — to be sent west. Planters able to prove claims of ownership received federal money in lieu of their servants. This was a bit irregular, but it worked well enough.13

General Walker K. Armistead

As for the Seminoles who refused to go west, they won effective freedom to live in the lower half of the state. Despite persistent efforts to remove them, including another small war in the 1850s, a minority of Seminoles retreated further into the swamps and “rivers” (where alligators live and where, somewhat later, Mr. Watson14 was famously killed) and outlasted all their foes except for the climate itself. Whether or not the EPA can get them for living in wetlands, I cannot say.

At the end of the war, General Walker K. Armistead complained of the ingratitude of the white Floridians. On the other hand, many of the latter were glad enough to see the Army go.15

A Big Picture Almost Too Big to Contemplate
Recurring to the beginning of the whole business — Jackson’s seizure of Florida and John Quincy Adams’s rationalization of it — William Earl Weeks writes that “the executive branch of the government emerged from the Monroe presidency with substantially greater power than was envisioned by the framers of the Constitution. The expansion of presidential power represented by Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase was augmented considerably during Monroe’s two terms. In several key respects it can be said that Monroe’s administration marked the birth of the Imperial Presidency.'”16

Congress acquiesced in Monroe’s and Adams’s forward policies and the “de facto military conquest of Florida definitively established that undeclared war would be a foreign policy tool available to the president.” No later president “seriously believed that the international state system could be based on any foundation other than force and violence.” War thus became “a central part of the national mythology and an indispensable cultural bonding agent” — interwoven with the messianic themes of “virtue, mission, and destiny.”17

Native Americans Have Sherman to Thank for Their Exile

Anyone who is looking for the decisive turn toward full executive freedom to make undeclared war need not wait for the Mexican affair. Florida was first. And there it was that Sherman had time to reflect on the characteristic methods of such wars, when he wasn’t otherwise busy, raising chickens and catching green turtles at Fort Pierce.

One could brood a bit on this, but all this institutional drift and other strife did at least make possible that wonderful fiddle tune, “The Orange Blossom Special,” once the locomotive of history took material form. That’s worth a little something.


1. James A. Lewis, “Cracker — Spanish Florida Style,” Florida Historical Quarterly, 63: 2 (October 1984), pp. 184-204.

2. See William Earl Weeks, John Quincy Adams and American Global Empire (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992), pp. 127-145. For a rather caustic account, see Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building (New York: Schocken Books, 1990), pp. 103-116.

3. See Canter Brown, Jr., “The Florida Crisis of 1826-1827 and the Second Seminole War,” Florida Historical Quarterly, 73: 4 (April 1995), esp. pp. 421-428.

4. George Kos, “Blacks and the Seminole Removal Debate, 1821-1835,” Florida Historical Quarterly, 68: 1 (July 1989), p. 58.

5. Kenneth Wiggins Porter, “Negroes and the Seminole War,” Journal of Southern History, 30: 4 (November 1964), p. 428.

6. Quoted, ibid.

7. Jane F. Lancaster, “William Tecumseh Sherman’s Introduction to War, 1840-1842: Lesson for Action,” Florida Historical Quarterly, 72: 1 (July 1993), pp. 65-66.

8. Ibid., p. 65.

9. Ibid., p. 69.

10. Ibid., p. 62.

11. Ibid., p. 72.

12. For this comparison, see Charlton W. Tebeau and William F. Marina, A History of Florida, 3rd edition (Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1999), p. 154, as well as the whole chapter (11): “The Wars of Indian Removal,” pp. 137-156.

13. On Jesup’s pragmatic solution, see Porter, “Negroes and the Seminole War,” pp. 444-446.

14. Peter Matthiessen, Killing Mister Watson (New York: Random House, 1990).

15. James M. Denham, “u2018Some Prefer the Seminoles’: Violence and Disorder Among Soldiers and Settlers in the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842,” Florida Historical Quarterly, 70: 1 (July 1991), pp. 38-54.

16. Weeks, John Quincy Adams, p. 181.

17. Ibid., pp. 181-184.

Written by Joseph R. Stromberg for Lew Rockwell ~ February 21, 2003

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