RIVER FIGHTS: The Early Days

The purpose of the United States Navy is to defend America’s shores; the best way of doing that is by prosecuting war in the other fellow’s backyard.  American sea power achieves its greatest advantage by keeping an enemy’s main force away from America’s shore.  Our Navy controls the oceans for America’s use; it denies to our every foe access to the oceans and skies.  The enemy’s coastline is America’s naval frontier.  Our history over the past few hundred years tells us that our Navy’s strategy has worked out quite well for the American people.

The U. S. Navy is no one-trick pony and naval warfare isn’t confined to vast oceans or hostile coastlines.  Whether projecting naval power at sea, in the air, or ashore, the Navy is prepared to employ the full spectrum of its arsenal: surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships, naval guns, sophisticated aircraft, missiles, and shallow draft watercraft.  And then, whenever our enemies need a real ass­-kicking, the Navy asks for a handful of Marines.

Our understanding of the past helps us to better serve the future.  Naval technology in our early days was somewhat limited to ships of the line, cutters, barges, experimental submarines, and small boats (craft suited to rivers and estuaries).  Today we refer to combat operations on rivers as “Riverine Warfare,” and the US Navy has been doing this since the Revolutionary War.  In the modern day, watercraft intended for this purpose is designed and constructed for a specific operational environment.  In earlier times, watercraft used for riverine operations involved whatever was readily available at the time. 

Revolutionary War

The first significant example of riverine operations occurred on Lake Champlain in 1775-76.  Lake Champlain is a 136-mile long lake with connecting waterways north into Canada and southward toward New York City.  They were waterways that offered a prime invasion route to early settlements and colonies and involved a bitter struggle through the end of the War of 1812.  Our revolutionary-period leaders understood that the British would attempt to separate New England from other colonies by controlling Lake Champlain waterways.  Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold seized Ticonderoga on 19 May 1775 and Crown Point a few days later.  These were audacious operations that provided American patriots with badly needed cannon and munitions.

Arnold made a bold move to control Lake Champlain.  He hastily armed a captured schooner, pressed north to St. John’s on the Richelieu River, and in a pre-dawn riverine raid, surprised the British garrison.  He captured a 70-ton British sloop, seized numerous small boats, and helped himself to military stores, provisions, and arms before returning to Lake Champlain.  In one  stroke, the Americans had gained control of Lake Champlain, which thwarted British plans for their upcoming campaign season.

Arnold’s success at St. John’s was followed up with failure at Quebec, which precipitated the American evacuation of that city.  British and American interests initiated a vigorous ship/boat-building effort on Lake Champlain.  In the British mind, control of Lake Champlain had not been finally settled, but they did look upon Arnold as someone who needed their close attention.  For the British to utilize the Lake Champlain-Lake George-Hudson River highway to split the colonies, they had to first dispose of Arnold’s naval force.

From their base at St. John’s, the British rapidly constructed 29 vessels (some had been built in England and assembled in St. John’s).  The British squadron included Inflexible, Maria, Carleton, Thunderer, Loyal Convert, twenty gunboats, and four long boats.  Under Captain Thomas Pringle, the squadron commander, were 670 well-trained sailors and Marines.  In total, Pringle commanded 89 6-24-pound cannon.

The arms race of 1776 was on.  Spurred by the restless driving force of Benedict Arnold, the Americans sought to keep pace with the British at their Skenesborough shipyard, near the southern end of Lake Champlain.  They worked with scant resources, green timber, and a hastily assembled force of carpenters.  Drawing on his own experience as a sailor and his newly acquired knowledge of the waters in which he would fight, Arnold prepared specifications for a new type of gondola particularly suited to his task.  He wanted a small vessel of light construction that would be fast and agile under sail and oar. He hoped to offset the disadvantages of restricted waters with greater maneuverability against the slow moving, deeper draft British ships whose strength he could not match.

In all, Arnold fought fifteen American vessels, including the sloop Enterprise, the schooners Royal Savage, Revenge, and Liberty, eight of his newly designed gondolas, and three galleys.  He manned his squadron with 500 men from troops made available to him by General Philip Schuyler and from whatever was available from along waterfront taverns. With pitch still oozing out from the planking in his ships, Arnold, now a brigadier general, set a northward course.  On 10 October, Arnold stationed his flotilla west of Valcour Island where the water was deep enough for passage yet narrow enough to limit British access.  Pringle’s main failure was in conducting a proper reconnaissance of the area, so his fleet sailed past Valcour Island under a strong north wind, which required that he return direction from a leeward position.  The battle raged for most of the afternoon.  Arnold expended 75% of his munitions and his ships were badly cut up.  Taking advantage of the north wind and a foggy night, Arnold slipped through the anchored British ships and escaped.  By the 13th, British ships began to overhaul Arnolds fleet, or ran them aground.  Arnold managed to escape to Ticonderoga with six ships and the loss of (an estimated) 80 men.

Having regained control of Lake Champlain, the British quickly seized Crown Point.  General Horatio Gates and Arnold prepared to defend Ticonderoga but the British instead returned to Canada and went into winter quarters.  Circumstantially, Arnold had been thoroughly beaten on the “inland sea” but had scored a strategic victory.  A British advance southward was delayed for another year and the Continental Army had additional time to build its strength.

During the War of 1812, restricted naval warfare was again seen on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain.  This strategy also focused on inland waterways.  Initially, the British controlled the Great Lakes, which facilitated their capture of Detroit and the invasion of Ohio.  In September 1812, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, USN took command of the lakes along the Erie-Ontario frontier in order to thwart a British invasion from that direction.  Both sides strengthened their positions.  Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry, USN assumed command of all naval activity on Lake Erie, under the direction of Commodore Chauncey from Lake Ontario.  Commanding British naval forces was Commodore R. H. Barclay, RN operating on Lake Erie.  Barclay and Perry both began vigorous ship-building programs; neither side could well afford men or supplies, so corners were cut whenever possible.  Barclay had an advantage over Perry in ships, but through remarkable leadership and effort, Perry closed that gap.

On 10 September 1813, Perry joined Barclay in a desperate battle.  Perry had nine ships to Barclay’s six and an advantage in weight of broadside.  Barclay’s guns had a greater range, however, and Perry was always in danger of being destroyed.  In fact, Perry’s star came very close to setting on Lake Erie.  One of his two heavy ships failed to close with the British, rendering Perry’s flagship Lawrence a shamble.  Decks ran red with blood; 80% of his crew became casualties; defeat seemed inevitable—but not to Master Commandant Perry.  Embarking with a courageous boat crew, he rowed across the shot-splashed water, boarded the uninjured Niagara issued his orders, and steered the ship to victory.  Within a few short months, Perry had assembled a fleet, gave the United States control of Lake Erie, the upper lakes, all adjacent territory, and guaranteed to the United States its freedom of movement on these vital waterways.  Through Perry’s efforts, the United States also laid claim to the Northwest Territory.

Commodore Joshua Barney distinguished himself during the War of 1812, as well.  See also: The Intrepid Commodore.

In the defense of New Orleans, Commodore Daniel T. Patterson demonstrated keen insight and raw courage against attacking British ships.  Patterson correctly predicted that the British would assault New Orleans rather than Mobile and further, that their advance would be along the shortest route, through Lake Borgne and Lake Ponchartrain.  He deployed a riverine force of five gunboats, two tenders, and his two largest ships as a means of forcing the British to delay their arrival in New Orleans.  In doing so, he gave General Andrew Jackson time to complete his defensive works in Chalmette.  See also: At Chalmette, 1815.

The shoreline of the modern United States is 12,383 miles.  Even in America’s early days, the US shoreline was a considerable distance to protect and control.  Before and after the War of 1812, buccaneers, filibusters, and other intruders plagued the United States.  Using longboats, the Navy hunted down pirates through coastal estuaries, Caribbean inlets and lagoons, or waging guerrilla war against hostile Indians.  Their mission took sailors and Marines into the dank and dangerous swamps and bayous of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  Whether employing large ships, ironclads, tin cans, rafts, or canoes, the Navy proved time and again that it had flexibility and adaptability in riverine operations, which has become part of the Navy’s proud heritage. 

The Pirates

Pirates had long infested the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, fueled in no small measure by the rapid growth of American commerce.  In the early 1820s, pirates attacked merchant ships nearly 3,000 times.  The associated financial losses were staggering; murder, arson, and torture were commonly inflicted upon American seamen.  Commodore James Biddle, USN, took on the pirates, filibusters, and free-booters.  In command of the West Indies Squadron, Biddle mounted raids in open longboats, manned by sailors for days at a time in burning sun or raging storm.  He reached into uncharted bays, inlets, and small but treacherous rivers—to locate, close with, and destroy the buccaneer menace.

Biddle utilized his heavy ships as the backbone of his riverine force and as sea-going bases for smaller craft.  This strategy steadily reduced piracy through such stellar efforts of Lieutenant James Ramage, USN and Lieutenant McKeever, who commanded the Navy’s first steamship to see combat action on the high seas, USS Sea Gull.  McKeever levelled the pirate base at Matanzas, Cuba in April 1825.  When buccaneers realized that their occupation was becoming less profitable and increasingly hazardous, they started looking around for other work.

Swamp Wars

Between 1836-42, Seminole and Creek Indian wars in the Florida Everglades produced a conflict uncannily like that waged in Southeast Asia 125 years later.  In 1830[1], the US Congress passed the Indian Removal Act to remove Florida tribes to reservation lands west of the Mississippi River.  Shockingly, many of these Indians refused to cooperate with the Congress.  Unsurprisingly, a band of Seminoles attacked and massacred a US Army detachment under the command of Major Francis Dade.  The event occurred in Tampa in December 1835.  Almost immediately, the US government moved more soldiers into Florida and Commodore A. J. Dallas’ West Indies Squadron landed parties of Marines and seamen to add weight to the military presence there.

The frustration of fighting a shadowy enemy who was completely at home in the swampy wilderness and rivers in West Florida prompted the Army to ask for naval assistance delivering supplies, establishing communications, and mounting operations along the Chattahoochee River.  One of the first naval units assigned was led by Passed Midshipman[2] J. T. McLaughlin.  In addition to his duties, McLaughlin served as Aide-de-Camp to Lieutenant Colonel A. C. W. Fanning.  McLaughlin was seriously wounded by Indians at Fort Mellon in February 1837.

As the pace of war quickened, the Navy’s riverine force grew.  The Navy purchased three small schooners in 1839, which operated in the coastal inlets to chart the water, harass the Indians, and protect civilian settlements.  In addition, McLaughlin, then a lieutenant, commanded many flat-bottomed boats, plantation canoes, and sharp-ended bateaux which he used to penetrate the Everglade Swamps.  In effect, McLaughlin commanded the “mosquito fleet,” a mixture of vessels manned by around 600 sailors, soldiers, and Marines.

Sources:

  1. Affield, W. Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boat’s Cox’n’s Memory of Vietnam. Hawthorne Petal Press, 2012.
  2. S. Army Field Manual 31-75: Riverine Warfare. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Army, 1971
  3. Friedman, N. US Small Combatants.
  4. Fulton, W. B. Vietnam Studies: Riverine Operations, 1966-1969.  Washington: Department of the Army, 1985
  5. Joiner, G. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
  6. Marolda, E. J. Riverine Warfare: U. S. Navy Operations on Inland Waters.  Annapolis: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2006
  7. Rowlands, K. Riverine Warfare: Naval War College Review, Vol 71, No. 1. Art. 5., Annapolis: Naval War College, 2018

Endnotes:

[1] In 1830, Democrats controlled the US House of Representatives.  Another shocker.

[2] In the 19th century, this term was used to describe a midshipman who had passed the examination for appointment to ensign but was waiting for a vacancy in that grade.  A passed midshipman was also occasionally referred to as a “sub-lieutenant,” but neither of these were ever official naval ranks.

Gone to Fight the Indians —Part II

At the outbreak of the Second Seminole War, the Commanding General of the U. S. Army was Major General Alexander Macomb. There were only four other flag officers serving at the time: Brigadier Generals Edmund P. Gaines, Winfield Scott, Thomas Jesup, and Zachary Taylor.

The first American commander of the Seminole War was Winfield Scott. Scott initiated a conventional military strategy against the Seminoles; Napoleonic style maneuvers typical of Army doctrine at the time. With three converging columns, Scott marched on the main Seminole camp near present-day Lake Apopka. The Seminoles responded by scattering into the Florida swamps and resolved themselves never again to mass in one place.

Scott’s ineffectiveness early in the war was likely the result of public quarreling with General Gaines over Macomb’s appointment; Scott simply could not focus. Neither could Scott negotiate with the Seminoles. Not bargaining from a position of strength, the Seminoles saw no basis to relinquish their hit and run resistance strategy.

BrigGen Thomas S. Jesup
BrigGen Thomas S. Jesup

Brigadier General Jesup, however, proved to be a more effective field commander. Having successfully suppressed a Creek uprising in western Georgia, Jesup realized that the only way the Americans could defeat the Indians was to employ unconventional tactics. He mustered a force of 9,000 men (half of whom were regular army) and a battalion of Marines consisting of 38 officers, 400 enlisted men. Jesup organized the Army of the South into two brigades. On January 8, 1837, Jesup gave Colonel Henderson command of the Second Brigade. To Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Miller he gave responsibility to guard convoys moving between Tampa Bay and the Army depot at Fort King (near present-day Ocala, Florida).

General Jesup directed his commanders to begin a series of search and destroy operations that soon produced a positive result. Over time, Jesup was able to wear the Indians down with small attacks that threatened their families and their sources of supply. It was an effective counter to Osceola’s hit and run strategy.

On January 23, 1837 near Lake Apopka, a detachment of Captain John Harris’ company of horse Marines engaged a large body of Seminoles; the Indians quickly disengaged into the thick underbrush. Five days later, Colonel Henderson led a force into the Swamp to locate and engage the main body of Indians. When allied Indians made contact with the Seminoles, Henderson set in a line of Marine and Army marksmen along the Hatchee-Lustee River. Allied Indians and Seminole engaged in a lively exchange of fire, and when the fire slackened among the Seminoles, Henderson knew the enemy had begun their withdrawal. Captain Harris aggressively attacked across the 20-yard wide river. Mounted Marines captured some women and children; also taken were one hundred packhorses, and 1,400 head of cattle. The warriors escaped, taking their dead and wounded with them.

Having lost their families and food supply, Seminole warriors sued for a parley in March 1838. Several chiefs consented to a truce and relocation to the Arkansas Territory; they signed an armistice on March 6, 1838 agreeing to assemble at Fort Brooke for removal. Every indication was that the war was over, except that Osceola and Arpiucki (a.k.a. Sam Jones) did not come in. Henderson received promotion to Brevet Brigadier General, the first Marine Corps officer to hold general officer rank; Captain Harris received advancement to Brevet Major. Henderson returned to Washington in May leaving the command of 189 Marines at Tampa Bay to Brevet Lieutenant colonel Miller. According to the agreement, Seminoles began to assemble at Tampa Bay; everyone was convinced the war was over. It was not.

Late at night on June 2, 1838, Osceola led warriors into a poorly guarded encampment outside Fort Brooke, captured the compliant chiefs and their followers (numbering around 700 Seminole), and forced them to un-surrender. The war began anew —and continued for another five years. Osceola’s refusal to surrender led General Jesup to employ unconventional negotiations. In October 1838, Osceola and Coeehajo agreed to parley with General Jesup under a flag of truce. During the meeting, Jesup seized both men and took them into captivity. Osceola died of Malaria at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina three months later; he was just 33-years-old. Some sectors criticized Jesup for his un-gentlemanly tactics, but it did result in removing Billy Powell from his position as a revered Seminole leader.

Meanwhile, the Americans continued to use unconventional tactics against the hostiles. Brigadier General Walter Armistead destroyed 500 acres of Seminole crops. In another instance, Colonel Harvey had his men dress as Seminole warriors as a means of entrapping hostiles. Harvey also received $55,000 from the US Congress to bribe Seminole chiefs to bring in their bands. Braves were paid $500.00 to surrender; their wives $100.00.

In the summer of 1838, the Navy put together a special landing force consisting of small ships and dugout canoes. They called it a Mosquito Fleet. It gradually increased it strength to 652 men, which included 130 Marines. The fleet based at Tea Table Key; its mission to interdict gun smugglers from Cuba in their attempt to funnel arms and ammunition to the hostile Seminoles. Schooners patrolled off shore, barges ranged close in to shore, and canoes patrolled estuaries.

BrigGen William J. Worth
BrigGen William J. Worth

In 1841, the Seminole War was costing the US government $1.1 million annually. By this time, Brigadier General William Jenkins Worth led the war effort in South Florida. He viewed the cost of continuing the war irresponsible and convinced the Congress to leave remaining Seminoles in peace if they stayed in the southwest part of south Florida. Those left in Florida included bands led by Holata Mico (Billy Bowlegs), Arpicochi, Chipco, and the black Seminole leader Kunta Kinte [1]. The black Seminoles were especially determined to keep fighting; their point of view being that dying was better than enslavement. Well, the United States of America had had enough of the Seminole War but now that the American Army had caught the tiger, the tiger was not letting go. The Seminole Wars continued for another 40 years and the last Native Americans living in the Everglades never surrendered. Between 1835 and 1842, the US lost 1,466 men to combat or disease. Sixty-one Marines died in the conflict.

Sources

  1. Harper Encyclopedia of Military History, 1933
  2. American Military History, Army Historical Series, 2013
  3. Dictionary of Wars, Anchor books, 1987
  4. D. Burzynski, The First Leathernecks: A Combat History of the US Marines, 2013
  5. D. Ekardt, U. S. Marines in the Second Creek and Second Seminole Wars, 2013

[1] Just kidding; his name was Thlochlo Tusternuggee (Tiger Tail)

Gone to Fight the Indians —Part I

Trail of Tears
Trail of Tears

It all began innocently enough, as most things do that come out of our nation’s capital. The words even sound reasonable and benevolent: An Act to provide for an exchange of land with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the river Mississippi. The construction of nice sounding words is what lawyers and lawmakers do for a living.

Early in the Nineteenth Century, the Mississippi Territory mostly belonged to the Creek Indian Confederacy. This native population lived in towns, which became significant political and tribal cultural centers were equally important to the personal identity of the people who lived in those towns. The Creek Nation consisted of two primary divisions: those known as the Upper Creek, who occupied territories along the Coosa, Alabama, and Tallapoosa Rivers in central Alabama, and the Lower Creek who lived in the areas along the lower Chattahoochee, Ocmulgee, and Flint Rivers in Southwestern Georgia. These areas generally corresponded to the upper and lower trade routes that connected the Creeks with South Carolina. Although confederated, it was a loose alliance with each tribal town governing itself. The alliance was more important during time of war or during political negotiations with encroaching colonial settlements.

The Removal Act of 1830 came almost as a second shoe to drop following the Red Stick War, fought between 1813 and 1814. Also known as the Creek Indian War, the essence of this conflict was a civil war that occurred mostly in Alabama and along the Gulf Coast. The Red Stick faction deeply resented the federal government’s meddling in Indian affairs, while the Lower Creek factions benefitted from trade with the Americans and sided with them against the traditionalists. A third group of Muscogee existed: the Creeks who ran away. In the Creek language, the word for runaway is simanooli. Today we call these Muscogee Indians, Seminoles.

What makes the Creek Indian War complex is the number of factions and agents involved. An abbreviated version of this was:

• Upper Creek militancy resisting American territorial and cultural encroachments;
• Obstinacy among the Lower Creek, who favored white civilization;
• Foolishness among federal bureaucrats meddling in matters that did not concern them; and
• British and Spanish agents who kept the Indians agitated.

In 1830, the Indian Removal Act had the support of non-Native people in the south who were eager to gain access to lands inhabited by the civilized tribes. Georgia, the largest state at that time, was engaged in a very contentious jurisdictional dispute with the Cherokee people. President Jackson sought to resolve this dispute by removing the Indians from their ancestral lands. There was also significant opposition to the Indian Removal Act: Christian missionaries protested the legislation—notably Jeremiah Evarts, and joining him was New Jersey Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen and Tennessee Congressman David Crockett.

The wording of the act strongly suggested that Indian removal was a voluntary process: an exchange of land carries with it the connotation that there would be some discussion, negotiation, and a fair swap. It was none of these things. The federal government put great pressure on Native leaders to sign removal treaties, but nearly everyone associated with the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, Wyandot, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Shawnee, and Lenape tribes understood that eventually, whites would send them to a new location. Jackson’s landslide victory in 1832 was the “go” signal.

The first removal treaty was the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek on September 27, 1830; Choctaw Indians in Mississippi ceded land east of the river in exchange for payment and land in the west. In 1835, the Treaty of New Echota resulted in the removal of the Cherokee. The remaining tribes decided they would not leave without a fight; the Seminoles were no longer running away. To assist the Seminole in their resistance were the Black Seminole, or fugitive slaves living among the Seminole people.

Brevet Brigadier General Archibald Henderson, Commandant of the Marine Corps
Brevet BrigGen Archibald Henderson Commandant of the Marine Corps

During the summer of 1835, Archibald Henderson marched a battalion of United States Marines south to confront Native Americans who decided they would rather fight than switch. It was a long walk; by the time the Marines arrived in southern Alabama, the Creek refusal to relocate to western lands was already resolved. Rather than locating, closing with, and destroying highly agitated Indians, the Marines patrolled the border of Georgia and Alabama on foot and by steamboat. In October, Henderson’s battalion joined with that of Lieutenant Colonel William H. Freeman at Fort Brooke, Florida. Henderson reorganized his force into a regiment of six companies, the strength of which was more than half that of the entire Marine Corps in 1835. Augmenting the Marines were 750 Creek Indian Volunteers. Henderson detailed Marine Corps officers to command some of the Native forces.

Colonel Henderson could not know that he and his Marines would participate in the longest and most costly of all Indian conflicts in the history of the United States. For seven years (1835-1942), eight different generals fought a frustrating war against an elusive adversary, aided by inhospitable terrain, hot, humid weather, and insect borne disease. Concentrating superior modern firepower and discipline against an enemy with no flanks, no lines of communication, no political or industrial bases proved an impossible task for such notable men as Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor.

Opposing America’s finest generals was Billy Powell (1804-1838), a man of mixed Creek-Scotch-Irish-English parentage. Billy’s mother raised him as a Creek Indian. Following their defeat in 1814, Billy’s mother took him south into Florida along with other Red Stick refugees. We know him today as Osceola, the influential leader of the Florida Seminole and one of the southern Creek who decided not to abide by the terms of a treaty negotiated with the United States government.

The Seminole’s first demonstration against forcible relocation was the massacre of a column of 110 soldiers led by Brevet Major Francis Dade on December 28, 1835. There were three survivors to the attack, but Seminoles killed one of those the next day. Of the two remaining survivors, one had no clear memory or understanding of what had transpired. What we know of the event we learned from one solitary survivor. The Second Seminole War was the result of this massacre along with an order to round up and kill every hostile.

Not everyone agreed with this policy: Major Ethan Allen Hitchcock participated in the search for and discovery of the remains of Major Dade’s company. In his journal he wrote about that discovery and his opposition to US policy: “The government is in the wrong, and this is the chief cause of the persevering opposition of the Indians, who have nobly defended their country against our attempt to enforce a fraudulent treaty. The natives used every means to avoid war, but were forced into it by the tyranny of our government.”

Continued Next Week