Burying the men of Dade’s Command
by Dale Cox
The dead from the bloodiest U.S. defeat of the Seminole Wars lay unburied on the Dade Battlefield for nearly two months. It took that long for the military to organize a force large enough to penetrate to the site of the battle.
Dade and all but five men of his command were wiped out on December 28, 1835, when they walked into an ambush that they knew likely awaited them. An estimated 106 officers and enlisted men died. Only three soldiers – all badly wounded – and the African American interpreter Louis Pacheco survived. Another survivor was killed before he could reach Fort Brooke at Tampa.
The destruction of Dade’s command stunned U.S. authorities, especially when it was followed by the Seminole defeat of a much larger force under Bvt. Brig. Gen. Duncan Lamont Clinch on the Withlacoochee River three days later.
While the War Department tried to meet the emergency by sending the careful Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott south to Florida, an officer of an entirely different stripe marched to the sound of the guns. Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines arrived in Florida from Louisiana in February 1836 and drove north up the Fort King Road from Tampa Bay. He reached the scene of Dade’s defeat on February 20, 1836:
The force under your command which arrived at this post to-day from Tampa Bay, encamped on the 19th inst. on the ground occupied by Major Dade on the night of the 27th of December. He and his party were destroyed on the morning of the 28th of December, about four miles in advance of that position. He was advancing towards this post, and was attacked from the north, so that on the 20th inst. we came upon the rear of his battle ground about 9 o’clock in the morning. Our advanced guard had passed the ground without halting, when the general and his staff came upon one of the most appalling scenes that can be imagined. [I]
The above was written by Capt. Ethan Allen Hitchcock of the 1st U.S. Infantry. As the Acting Inspector General for the U.S. Army’s Western Department, it fell upon him to prepare the official report of the burial of Maj. Dade and his men.
Hitchcock explored the entire battlefield and concluded that the initial Seminole attack had been sprung from the north:
…[W]e found a cluster of bodies in the middle of the road. These were evidently the advanced guard, in the rear of which was the body of Major Dade; and to the right, that of Captain Fraser. . .These were all doubtless shot down by the first fire of the Indians, except, perhaps, Captain Fraser, who must, however, have fallen very early in the fight. [II]
The point in the Fort King Road where Dade, Fraser and the advanced guard died was about 200 yards up the road from the scene where most of the fighting took place. Here a second cluster of bodies was found, some in the road and others behind trees at the side of the road, a sign that survivors of the initial attack sought cover from the Native American fire.
All of these individuals died in the first part of the battle, a time during which survivors reported that the Seminole, Miccosukee and maroon (Black Seminole) warriors fired as many as fifteen volleys from the tall grass and palmetto bordering the road before they were visible to the soldiers.
About 30 men survived this initial onslaught and, taking advantage of a lull in the fighting, tried to throw up log breastworks to protect themselves. The soldiers of Gaines’s column found this flimsy fortification still intact:
…We then came to a small enclosure, made by felling trees in such a manner as to form a triangular breastwork for defence. Within the triangle, along the north and west faces of it, were about thirty bodies, mostly mere skeletons, although much of the clothing was left upon them. These were lying, almost every one of them, in precisely the same position they must have occupied during the fight, their heads next to the logs over which they had delivered their fire, and their bodies stretched with striking regularity parallel to each other. They had evidently been shot dead at their posts, and the Indians had not disturbed them, except by taking the scalps of most of them. [III]
The breastworks were no more than two or three logs high and the position of the bodies showed that the main attack on the fortification came from the north and west. Archaeologists later found piles of flattened rifle and musket balls marking the orientation of the logs.
Further back, in the road behind the triangular breastwork, the soldiers of Gaines’s command found a cart with the skeletons of two slain oxen still in their harnesses, several dead horses and some open and scattered boxes.
The grim task of collecting and burying the dead was carried out by Gen. Gaines and his men:
We had with us many of the personal friends of the officers of Major Dade’s command, and it is gratifying to be able to state that every officer was identified by undoubted evidence. They were buried; and the cannon, a six-pounder, that the Indians had thrown into a swamp, was recovered and placed vertically at the head of the grave, where it is to be hoped, it will long remain. The bodies of the non-commissioned officers and privates were buried in two graves, and it was found that every man was accounted for. [IV]
The bodies of Maj. Dade, seven of his officers, two non-commissioned officers and 96 privates were found and buried on the battlefield. The enlisted men were placed in two mass graves inside the triangular breastworks, while the officers were buried in a third grave just across the Fort King Road. The body of one survivor, killed by a Seminole warrior before he could make it back to Fort Brooke at Tampa Bay, was never found.
The dead rested in the mass graves on the Dade Battlefield until 1842 when they were taken up by the army and moved to what is now St. Augustine National Cemetery. They remain there in vaults under three stone pyramids with the remains of more than 1,000 other soldiers who died in the Second Seminole War.
Capt. Hitchcock’s report does not mention the presence of any Native American dead. Either no attention was paid to them or the attacking force left behind no bodies to deteriorate in the elements.
Halpatter Tustenuggee, called Alligator by the whites, later told Capt. John T. Sprague that total Seminole losses in the battle were 3 killed and 5 wounded. He said that one of those killed was “Jumper’s cousin.” An unidentified warrior, taken prisoner near Fort Brooke shortly after the battle, gave a slightly higher total of 7 killed and 13 wounded. He described how the cannonballs from Dade’s 6-pounder “broke legs, arms &c.” [V]
The soldiers under Gen. Gaines marched on from the battlefield and reached Fort King (today’s Ocala) on February 22, 1836. More time passed before another army command visited the battlefield.
The site of Dade’s defeat is preserved today at Dade Battlefield Historic State Park. This beautiful Florida state park includes a museum, monuments marking the spots where Maj. Dade and his officers fell, a reconstruction of the triangular breastwork, a preserved section of the original Fort King Road as well as a picnic area and other amenities.
The park is at 7200 CR 603; Bushnell, Florida. Entry is $3 per vehicle. It is a short drive off either I-75 or US 301. It is only about 20 minutes south of the intersection of I-75 and the Florida Turnpike. See the map below for directions.
The annual reenactment of the Dade Battle will take place on January 5 & 6, 2019, at the state park. Please click here for details.
[I] Capt. Ethan Allen Hitchcock, Acting Inspector General, to Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines, February 22, 1836, quoted in John T. Sprague, The Origin, Progress, and Conclusion of the Florida War, New York: Appleton, 1848, pp. 108-109.
[V] Statement of Halpatter Tustenuggee included in John T. Sprague, The Origin, Progress, and Conclusion of the Florida War, pp. 90-91; Capt. Francis Belton to Brevet Brig. Gen. Roger Jones, January 14, 1836, Adjutant General, Letters Received, National Archives.