Reprinted with permission from The Alexander City Outlook
On Friday, I trod where Andrew Jackson once did.
I saw from his vantage point where the Red Stick Creek Indians – armed only with war clubs, bows and arrows, knives, spears and tomahawks – constructed an earthen barricade to protect themselves from Jackson’s encroaching Tennessee Militia.
I stood in almost a direct east-west line with where the Red Stick barricade had stood and imagined what Jackson had described the Creeks had impressively built in what were then woods thick with pine, oak and hickory.
“It is impossible to conceive a situation more eligible for defense than the one they had chosen and the skill which they manifested in their breastwork was really astonishing,” Jackson wrote later. “It extended across the point in such a direction as that a force approaching would be exposed to a double fire, while they lay entirely safe behind it. It would have been impossible to have raked it with cannon to any advantage …”
Later, I stood inside the horseshoe of horseshoe bend, just north of the Tallapoosa River where the tiny Red Stick village of Tohopeka once stood. Creek women and children were encamped there at the time of the battle – a battle that, according to one of the militiamen who was there, turned so savagely vicious that the water of the Tallapoosa River turned red with the blood of the dead and injured for several hours.
I saw all of this within a comfortable 30 minute ride from Alex City. Horseshoe Bend National Military Park is built on land collected from Alabama Power Co. and the state of Alabama that was once slated to be a part of Lake Martin. And as I rode through the park, it was impossible not to think about the human lives that converged there, fighting for reasons that probably only their leaders truly understood, but willing to pay the ultimate price for their respective ways of life.
The Americans were at war with the British again (the War of 1812) and the Creeks had split into factions. One of those factions was the Red Sticks, who were resistant to European-American encroachment and were taking advantage of the U.S. federal troops engagement elsewhere.
The Red Sticks were fresh off wins at Burnt Corn in present-day Escambia County and Fort Mims – about 35 miles north of present-day Mobile on the eastern bank of the Alabama River – where the Red Sticks killed more than 500 militia, settlers, slaves and Creeks loyal to the Americans, taking 250 scalps in the process. I’m sure the Tennessee militiamen of Jackson and his brother-in-law John Coffee were aware of this, which would have surely been enough to raise their dander.
The U.S. forces, in the form of Jackson’s Tennessee militia, got their revenge at Horseshoe Bend, with Jackson’s 3,300 militiamen attacking Chief Menawa’s 1,000 Red Stick warriors. With the Creeks depending on their fortified barricade, the militiamen surrounded them, Jackson’s forces to the north and Coffee’s to the south, just on the other side of the river. The attack began in the morning at about 10:30 a.m. and was later described for posterity.
“Just after 10:30 a.m., Jackson launched his attack as Red Stick prophets – reportedly dressed in a ‘fantastic manner’ – danced and prayed. By dusk, most Red Sticks lay dead.”
The dead included the Red Stick forces and the innocent women and children of Tohopeka.
Today, more than 200 years later, the water that went red with blood that day still roars around the oxbow that is forever known as Horseshoe Bend. The woods that run alongside the river and border the open field which the Red Sticks’ barricade once spread across echo with the spirited Southern accents of the Tennessee militia and the war hoops of the Red Stick Creeks.
It is eerie to stand on the banks of the river, imagining the fierce heat of the battle that was waged there. It’s eerier still to realize that final breaths were likely drawn feet from where I stood.
More than anything, it is awe-inspiring to stand on a battlefield where blood was shed to make this country what it is today, to bring about the independence, liberty and freedom that we celebrate on this July 4 weekend.
The hero of Horseshoe Bend, Andrew Jackson once said, “No one need think the world can be ruled without blood. The civil sword shall and must be red and bloody.”