“WE SHOT THEM LIKE DOGS”

ELEVEN DAYS AFTER THE MASSACRE at Fort Mims, David Crockett saddled his horse and rode the ten miles from his home, Kentuck, to the town of Winchester.1 Men from throughout the county gathered in the village square to join the campaign against the hostile Creeks.

Only the day before, far to the north of Tennessee, American Captain Oliver Hazard Perry had led his fleet of ten warships to victory over a British squadron in the three-hour Battle of Lake Erie. As the smoke began to clear, Perry sent General William Henry Harrison a hastily scribbled message: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”2 On the Tennessee frontier, no such boast could be made.

“There had been no war among us for so long, that but few, who were not too old to bear arms, knew anything about the business,” Crockett wrote of that day.

I, for one, had often thought about war, and had often heard it described; and I did verily believe in my own mind, that I couldn’t fight in that way at all; but after my experience convinced me that this was all a notion. For when I heard of the mischief which was done at the fort [Fort Mims], I instantly felt like going, and I had none of the dread of dying that I expected to feel. 3

Polly Crockett did not share her husband’s feelings or his point of view about the prospects of combat. Like any dutiful wife, even one somewhat hardened by frontier life, she feared for David’s safety but also fretted about the prospects of being left alone with three small children. Before he rode off for the muster in Winchester, Polly, perhaps not fully aware of her husband’s determination, begged him not to go to war.

“I reasoned the case with her as well as I could, and told her, that if every man would wait till his wife got willing for him to go to war, there would be no fighting done, until we would all be killed in our own houses; that I was able to go as any man in the world; and that I believed it was a duty I owed to my country.”

Crockett was not certain if his rationalization for going off to war satisfied Polly or not. But she could tell that he “was bent on it,” so she cried some more and then went back to her work. “The truth is,” Crockett admitted, “my dander was up, and nothing but war could bring it right again.”

At the muster in Winchester Square, vivid descriptions of the atrocities at Fort Mims circulated the crowd, and a young local lawyer, Francis Jones, addressed the men with a speech that thoroughly aroused Crockett and his friends. Afterward, Jones announced he was forming a company of volunteers and asked anyone willing to take up arms and go after the Red Sticks to step forward. “I believe I was about the second or third man that step’d out; but on marching up and down the regiment a few times we found we had a large company.”4

It appears that a celebration following the first muster got out of hand, and the recently built log jailhouse was burned to the ground during the night.5 Nevertheless, the blaze did not stop the business of war from moving forward. Jones was elected captain of the company—called Francis Jones’s Company of Mounted Riflemen—and Crockett was listed on the muster roll with the rank of private.6 Captain Jones appreciated Private Crockett’s ability with a rifle, and apparently the respect between them was mutual.

Jones was one of fourteen captains from nine Tennessee counties, including Franklin, assigned to the Second Regiment of Volunteer Mounted Riflemen. Under the command of Colonel Newton Cannon, along with Colonel John Alcorn’s regiment, the unit was part of General John Coffee’s brigade.7 When it soon became clear that most of the young men would be marching off to battle, those men who were more than forty-five years old, many of them veterans of the Revolutionary War, formed a home guard company and called themselves the Revolutionary Volunteers of Franklin County. They pledged to look after the families and property of the younger men and to protect the honor of the state and nation against any disaffected persons, “if any such there should be amongst us.”8

At the summit of the state’s military chain of command stood the resolute Andrew Jackson. Immediately after the Fort Mims massacre, Jackson was appointed to lead the 2,500-member Army of West Tennessee, while Major General John Cocke commanded the Army of East Tennessee—making a statewide force of 5,000 troops authorized by the state legislature.9 Jackson would assume control of the entire force when the two groups converged in northern Mississippi Territory before proceeding due south to cut a wide and bloody swath through the heart of the Creeks’ land. Jackson welcomed the orders.

After serving as a delegate to the state’s first constitutional convention and as Tennessee’s first congressman in 1796, Jackson was elected to the U.S. Senate, only to later find a job more to his liking as a superior court judge back home in Tennessee. He spent six years on the bench and was mostly remembered as a good judge who rendered swift rulings, never allowed a backlog of cases, and liked wearing a judicial gown in his courtroom, a sign of respect for his position. He enjoyed traveling the state, staying in boardinghouses and taverns, holding court, and punishing felons of all stripes. In 1802 shortly after his famous confrontation with Russell Bean, the thirty-five-year-old Jackson—already a scarred combat veteran—was elected major general of the Tennessee militia.10

Now a flinty forty-six-year old, Jackson was recovering from bullet wounds recently received during a sword and gun fight on a Nashville street. The fracas resulted from a running disagreement between Jackson and his own aide-de-camp, protégé, and future U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and the latter’s brother, Jesse.11 Despite a serious infection in his left shoulder and doctors threatening to take one of his arms, Jackson persevered. When word of the debacle at Fort Mims first reached Jackson, by then convalescing at his home, the Hermitage, he responded vehemently. “Brave Tennesseans!” he intoned. “Your frontier is threatened with invasion by the savage foe. Already they advance towards your frontier with their scalping knives unsheathed, to butcher your wives, your children, and your helpless babes. Time is not to be lost.”12

Such exhortations were not lost on Private David Crockett, who could not have agreed more—time was not to be lost. Crockett bid farewell to Polly and his children on September 20 and rode off to join his company and begin what he had been promised would be only a ninety-day enlistment. “Expecting to be gone only a short time, I took no more clothing with me than I supposed would be necessary, so that if I got into an Indian battle, I might not be pestered with any unnecessary plunder, to prevent my having a fair shake with them.”

From Winchester, the mounted volunteers, led by Captain Jones, crossed the border into Mississippi Territory. They rode to the town of Beaty’s Spring, just south of Huntsville, camping there for several days, waiting for other troops to form up and join them. On October 6, Major John H. Gibson asked Captain Jones to provide two men to take part in a scouting mission into the Creek territory on the other side of the Tennessee River. Gibson told Jones that he wanted good woodsmen who were “best with a rifle.”13Although the other men would complain about losing such a good provider, Jones knew the ideal candidate was Crockett. He told Major Gibson that Crockett was his man.

“I willingly engaged to go with him, and asked him to let me choose my own mate to go with me, which he said I might do,” Crockett related. David picked George Russell, the son of Major William Russell, the veteran settler Crockett knew from back home on Boiling Fork.14When Crockett called eighteen-year-old George Russell forward, however, Gibson seemed displeased with the choice and said that he was looking for a man, not a boy. “I must confess I was a little nettled at this,” wrote Crockett, “for I know’d George Russell, and I know’d there was no mistake in him; and I didn’t think that courage ought to be measured by the beard, for fear a goat would have the preference over a man. I told the major he was on the wrong scent; that Russell could go as far as he could, and I must have him along.” Gibson reluctantly went along with Crockett’s choice.

The next morning the scouting party, made up of Major Gibson, Crockett, Russell, and ten others, left camp and crossed the Tennessee River at Ditto’s Landing. They went deep into unfamiliar country and after a day or so divided into two separate parties. Crockett and the five others riding with him encountered mixed-blood settlers and friendly Creeks wearing white plumes or deer tails in their hair, a scheme devised by General Jackson to let his men know which Indians were friendly and which were the enemy Red Sticks.15

When the scouts came across a lone Indian runner, he told them that he had seen a large war party crossing the Coosa River headed toward General Jackson and his troops. Crockett and his men raced by the light of the moon to Colonel Coffee’s new camp back at Ditto’s Landing on the south side of the Tennessee River. A breathless Crockett reported to the colonel with news of the enemy war party, but Coffee did not seem to give it much credence. Coffee’s reaction did not sit well with Crockett, but the next day, when Major Gibson finally showed up with his party, Crockett again told Coffee the story he had related the night before. This time Coffee accepted the junior officer’s report about the enemy party and quickly issued orders for countermeasures to be taken. “When I made my report, it wasn’t believed, because I was no officer,” lamented Crockett. “I was no great man, but just a poor soldier.”16 This incident in the field influenced the way he viewed commissioned military officers from that time on.

An account of life at Camp Coffee in mid-October 1813, which was written just prior to the Civil War, presents an interesting description of Crockett:

There they were, twenty-five hundred of them, in the pleasant autumn weather, upon a high bluff overlooking the beautiful Tennessee, all in high spirits, eager to be led against the enemy. There were jovial souls among them. David Crockett, then the peerless bear-hunter of the West…was there with his rifle and hunting shirt, the merriest of the merry, keeping the camp alive with his quaint conceits and marvelous narratives. He had a hereditary right to be there, for both his grandparents had been murdered by the Creeks, and other relatives carried into long captivity by them…. No man ever enjoyed a greater degree of personal popularity than did David Crockett while with the army; and his success in political life is mainly attributable to that fact. David met with many messmates, who spoke of him with the affection of a brother, and from them I have heard many anecdotes, which convince me how much goodness of heart he really possessed. He not infrequently would lay out his own money to buy a blanket for a suffering soldier; and never did he own a dollar which was not at the service of the first friend who called for it. Blessed with a memory, which never forgot any thing, he seemed merely a depository of anecdote; while at the same time, to invent, when at a loss, was as easy as to narrate those, which he had already heard. These qualities made him the rallying point for fun with his messmates, and served to give him the notoriety which he now possesses.17

Those times spent “overlooking the beautiful Tennessee, all in high spirits” were brief for Crockett and his comrades. Most of the time they stayed in the field, snooping for Red Sticks, pillaging Indian dwellings, and building temporary stockades. While on mounted patrol, countless times they forded the Tennessee and the Coosa, as well as many other rivers and creeks. The volunteers traversed ancient Indian trails, such as the Black Warriors’ Path, beginning at Melton’s Bluff not far from land that Jackson owned.

With Colonel Coffee, soon to be made a brigadier general, in the lead, Crockett and the hundreds of other Tennessee Volunteers followed the trail to the confluence of the Mulberry and Sipsey forks of the Black Warrior River, where they burned down Black Warrior Town after first looting the Creeks’ stores of corn, beans, and dried beef. The food did not last them long, and the men did not seem to forage well, so again Colonel Coffee gave Crockett permission to find some game.

“I turned aside to hunt, and had not gone far when I found a deer that had just been killed and skinned, and his flesh was still warm and smoking,” Crockett wrote of that hunting trip. “From this I was sure that the Indian who killed it had been gone only a few minutes; and though I was never much in favour of one hunter stealing from another, yet meat was so scarce in camp, that I thought I must go in for it. So I took up the deer on my horse before me, and carried it on till night. I could have sold it for almost any price I would have asked; but this wasn’t my rule, neither in peace nor war. Whenever I had any thing, and saw a fellow being suffering, I was more anxious to relieve him than to benefit myself. And this is one of the true secrets of my being a poor man to this day.”

Crockett distributed the deer meat to his grateful friends, who had long grown tired of eating mostly parched corn. A short time later, he flushed a gang of feral hogs from a canebrake and quickly shot one in its tracks. Some other militiamen were close by and heard the commotion. “In a few minutes, the guns began to roar, as bad as if the whole army had been in an Indian battle,” Crockett recalled. He shouldered his dead hog back to camp and when he got there found many other hogs and “a fine fat cow.”18 That evening, and for several more to come, no one went to sleep hungry.

By November 1, 1813, Brig. Gen. Coffee and his brigade of cavalry and mounted riflemen established a new camp on the Coosa River. The following day, Coffee ordered nine hundred mounted dragoons and some seventy Cherokee warrior allies to attack and destroy the nearby Creek village of Tallushatchee, where a large number of Red Sticks were known to be living. Crockett rode in the ranks of the attack force.19 On the morning of November 3, the sleeping village was completely encircled by troops, and, at one hour after sunrise, the attack was launched. Coffee’s surprise attack worked. Although the Creeks fought with great valor, the American force overpowered and viciously killed as many as possible, including men, women, and children. It was a sight that Crockett never forgot. His descriptions of the horrific scene at Tallushatchee are some of the most harrowing in his entire Narrative. Crockett wrote of seeing as many as forty-six Creek warriors seek cover in a house.

We pursued them until we got near the house, when we saw a squaw sitting in the door, and she placed her feet against the bow she had in her hand, and then took an arrow, and raising her feet, she drew with all her might, and let fly at us, and she killed a man…. his death so enraged us all, that she was fired on, and had at least twenty balls blown through her. This was the first man I ever saw killed with a bow and arrow. We now shot them like dogs; and then set the house on fire, and burned it up with the forty-six warriors in it. I recollect seeing a boy who was shot down near the house. His arm and thigh were broken, and he was so near the burning house that the grease was stewing out of him. In this situation he was still trying to crawl along; but not a murmur escaped him, though he was only about twelve years old. So sullen is the Indian, when his dander is up, that he had sooner die than make a noise, or ask for quarters.

From the start of the assault until the last Red Stick was slaughtered, at least 186 Creeks were killed and about 84 more taken prisoner, mostly women and children. The total losses from Brig. Gen. Coffee’s brigade were 5 men killed and 41 wounded.20

After burning down the town, Coffee’s brigade returned to the camp at Ten Islands, where General Jackson had arrived and was there to greet them. Besides words of praise for their victory, Jackson had little else to offer the weary men. The contractors hired to feed the army failed to deliver fresh provisions, and the troops had eaten only half rations for several days. Hoping to find some overlooked food caches, the tired and famished troopers returned to the destroyed Creek village the next day. The scene sickened Crockett.

Many of the carcasses of the Indians were still to be seen. They looked very awful, for the burning had not entirely consumed them, but gave them a terrible appearance, at least what remained of them. It was, somehow or other, found out that the house had a potato cellar under it, and an immediate examination was made, for we were all hungry as wolves. We found a fine chance of potatoes in it, and hunger compelled us to eat them, though I had rather not, if I could have helped it, for the oil of the Indians we had burned up on the day before had run down on them and they looked like they had been stewed with fat meat.

Crockett’s descriptions of the scene at Tallushatchee show him repulsed by the slaughter. The story, as he told it, unfolds without sentiment or hyperbole. The details and facts speak for themselves but are far from colorless. And that is what would be expected from any good storyteller, even one horrified by what he had witnessed.

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