The job of a soldier anywhere in the world is to break things and kill people. The Dade Massacre is a textbook example of this unwritten rule. The ambush is the best tactic for achieving a victory and a legitimate military strategy, used throughout the history of warfare. In this confrontation, the Seminole Indians decided to fight against relocation from their home in Florida by the U.S. Government.
The year was 1835 and war could erupt at any moment. Some of the Seminole clans had a dispute with the U.S. Government over the terms of the Treaty of Payne’s Landing in 1832, a treaty with the United States that would mean every member of the tribe, man, woman and child, would have to move to a reservation west of the Mississippi River.
“In 1835, many clans within Florida did not wish to leave as in accordance with the treaties, which they believed were signed under duress. The blacks that were affiliated with the Seminoles as free men were worried about their freedom if removal was to take place. The tribes and their black allies started to prepare for armed resistance against the pending relocation.”
General Duncan L. Clinch, commander of Florida operations, decided to augment the American troops at Fort King, near Ocala, in preparation of the coming hostilities. On December 16, he ordered a force to proceed there from Fort Brooke, 130 miles to the south at Tampa Bay.
Captain G. Gardiner was picked to lead the 110-man contingent, which consisted of one company from the 2nd Regiment U.S. Artillery and one company from the 3rd Regiment. However, Gardiner’s wife became ill and Major Francis L. Dade volunteered to take his place. A short time later, though, some friends offered to take Mrs. Gardiner with them to Key West, giving the captain another opportunity to join the mission, which, unfortunately, he took.
Major Dade, meanwhile, made a major blunder when he hired Louis Pacheco, a black slave owned by a Spanish woman living in the Tampa Bay area, to act as a guide. Pacheco was an intelligent man who could read and write plus speak four languages. But as a slave, he knew that he would be aiding those who sought to recapture his fellow slaves, those who had fled to Florida and a better life.
Although the Indians did own slaves, their condition fell somewhere between servitude and freedom. Many of the escapees from across the Florida border in Georgia had lived in the Sunshine State for decades. They and their descendants stayed in their own villages, spoke the Seminole language, and established a new culture. Some of them intermarried with the Indians, These blacks were known as Maroons, a term meaning free Negroes. More recent escapees from the southern states were referred to as slaves.
So the choice for Louis Pacheco was easy. He became a spy for the Indians and their Maroon allies, keeping them informed about the Army’s destination, time of departure, and route of travel. He even suggested a good spot for an ambush in a field of pine trees just a few miles west of the Great Wahoo Swamp (near Okahumka).
The U.S. relief column set out from Fort Brooke on December 25 and after three days had advanced 61 miles to the north. On the morning of December 28, the soldiers resumed their march, heading into that chosen field of pines and their destiny. The Indians were led by Chiefs Micanopy, Alligator and Jumper. The Indians, meanwhile had hidden themselves among the pine trees and saw palmettos along the trail. They maintained their silence until the Americans entered the killing zone. The soldiers “had their muskets inside their greatcoats or on the wagons to keep moisture from the weapons…” making it impossible to respond quickly to a surprise attack. At least 180 Seminoles and their Maroon Allies waited for the Americans to enter the zone.
According to Private Ransom Clark, one of three who survived the attack, the initial volley of fire killed Major Dade and half his force. The survivors returned fire, including some rounds with the six-pounder (field gun). The Indians withdrew and did not resume the battle for an hour, giving the defenders time to build a triangular log breastwork for protection.
The second attack began and the Indians, half of them on horseback, charged “like devils, yelling and whooping in such a manner that the report of the rifles were barely perceptible.” Private Clark added that there were many Maroons advancing with their allies and they “were more savage than the Seminoles.”
“Louis Pacheco, Major Dade’s guide, had separated himself from the troops just before reaching the place which he well knew had been selected for the attack, and had joined the Indians and Maroons as soon as their position was disclosed. For two years after the defeat of Major Dade’s command, he was an aid to Coacoochee, also known as Wild Cat. Together they fought battles throughout Florida before surrendering to General Jessup. The two were then sent, along with a group of other captured Seminoles, to a reservation in the western country. (1)
Private Clark, who received several wounds, lay inside the log barricade until nine that night. When the Indians departed, he made his way to Fort Brook and arrived three days later. Two other soldiers also reached the fort but died from their wounds.
In George A, McCall’s Letters From The Frontiers, an Indian, who was at the breastworks as the battle came to an end, said he noticed one soldier still standing. The young officer, later identified as Lieutenant W.E. Bassinger, moved toward the Indians as they entered, offering his sword in surrender. One of the attackers, however, would have known of it. He raised his rifle and shot the soldier, killing him.
On February 20, a relief column, commanded by General Edmund Gaines, arrived at the site. The soldiers, horses, plus the oxen that pulled the cannon, lay where they fell. The general ordered the dead troops buried in a common grave. The cannon was retrieved from a pond and planted in the upright position as a marker.
McCall, who had accompanied the general and received a first-hand account of the tragedy from Private Clark at the site, was moved by the bravery and coolness under fire displayed by the men. He wrote:
“The picture of those brave men lying thus in their sky-blue clothing, which had scarcely faded, was such as can never be effaced from my memory. ‘
In the seventh year after the Dade Masacre, the last battle of the costly Second Seminole War was fought on April 9, 1842. The engagement took place near the Great Wahoo Swamp at Pilaklakha, former town of Chief Micanopah, one of the leaders at the ambush of Major Dade’s force.
The site of this Seminole defeat was only a few miles east of that field of pines where it all began.
(1) Red Patriots: the story of the Seminoles, Chapter VI, p.62, Charles H. Coe, 1898.
On January 1, 2011, the Dade Battlefield Historic State Park will put on a reenactment of the battle that started the Second Seminole War. For more info, call (352) 793-3581. The site is located at 7200 County Road 603 Bushnell, Florida 33513
Filed under: Florida's Other History