A Seminole War Attack in Calhoun County

by Dale Cox

The Battle of Ocheesee Bluff was a massive Native American attack against U.S. supply ships on the Apalachicola River in Florida. Lasting from December 15-29, 1817, it was the longest continuous engagement of the First Seminole War. 

The site of the battle was a twisting section of the river between Ocheesee Bluff in what is now Calhoun County and today’s Torreya State Park across the river in Liberty County. Led by the Prophet Josiah Francis (Hillis Hadjo), an estimated 800-1,200 Red Stick Creek, Seminole, Lower Creek, Miccosukee, Yuchi and maroon (Black Seminole) warriors fought from positions on both banks of the Apalachicola.

The target was a small convoy of two U.S. ships making their was up the river with supplies for Fort Scott, an important frontier post on the lower Flint River in what is now Decatur County, Georgia. The vessels carried ammunition, regimental clothing, iron and other needed items for the 4th and 7th U.S. Infantry Regiments. The ships were ocean-going schooners and the trip upriver was slow and laborious.

Native American and maroon warriors fired from Ocheesee Bluff during the battle, raining lead shot down on the U.S. supply ships.

Known for his role in the Creek War of 1813-184, the Prophet knew that the key to defeating better armed U.S. forces was to cut off their supplies. He selected the battle site because it was well-suited for this purpose.

As the river flows into the area from the north (see map at the bottom of this page), it rounds a sharp bend before straightening to some degree along the stretch from Ocheesee Bluff down to Rock Bluff. It then rounds a second sharp bend. The heights on the east bank (Torreya State Park) provided a spectacular view of the entire scene, while Ocheesee Bluff on the west side was elevated just enough to let the Native American gunmen fire down into the ships. Once the vessels entered the stretch between the two bends, they would be trapped with small arms fire coming from all four directions.

The Prophet Francis painted this self-portrait during visit to Great Britain in 1815-1817.
British Museum

Complicating the situation for the sailors was the fact that they could only move upstream by warping. This means that the ships were sailed on a zigzag course to allow their sails to catch just enough wind to push them forward. Once trapped off Ocheesee Bluff, they would not be able to continue the zigzag course due to heavy gunfire from both banks.

Maj. Peter Muhlenberg commanded the 150 U.S. soldiers assigned to protect the two ships, as well as another 40 men aboard a keelboat sent down from Fort Scott to assist in his upriver voyage. Although he had been cautioned to be extremely vigilant, the major failed to take the warning seriously. His inattention allowed the ships to be taken by surprise when the Prophet’s forces opened fire on December 15, 1817:

On Monday morning the transports were attacked by Indians from both sides of the river with a heavy fire of small arms. We returned their fire, the firing has continued ever since. We have lost two men killed and thirteen wounded, most of them severely. Whether we have injured them any I am not able to say. We are now compelled to remain here, as it is impossible for us to carry out a warp, as a man cannot shew himself above the bulwarks without being fired on. [I]

One of the severely wounded men died during the next few days. Since Muhlenberg’s men could not approach shore to bury their dead, the slain soldiers were likely slipped overboard into the chilly waters of the Apalachicola.

The site of the Battle of Ocheesee Bluff as seen from the heights at Torreya State Park.

Unable to move in any direction, the ships dropped anchor in midstream as Muhlenberg and his men returned fire as best they could. The two vessels – and possibly the keelboat as well – were armed with at least swivel guns for their defense. These small cannon were undoubtedly employed as much as possible, but their fire was insufficient to drive off the Prophet’s army.

The scene was chaotic. War cries, shouts and orders filled the air, as did the rattle of musket and rifle fire and the occasional boom of a swivel gun. The sound of lead balls striking the bulwarks and masts of the vessels was constant, as were the groans and cries of the wounded soldiers:

…I can assure you that our present situation is not the most Pleasant not knowing how soon or whether we are to receive succor from above, the wounded are but in a bad situation owing to the vessels being much crowded, and it is impossible to make them any ways comfortable on board. Not having other means to communicate to you, I am compelled to dispatch the keal boat with instructions to make the best of his way to Fort Scott. I hope to hear from you soon with instructions how I am to proceed in my present situation. [II]

The only vessel able to break free from the trap was the keelboat, which had been fortified with planking so men could pull its oars without exposing themselves to enemy fire. With the two large ships unable to move, Muhlenberg ordered Capt. J.J. Clinch to run the keelboat upstream to Fort Scott with a plea for help. It took the captain and his men three days to reach the fort and they arrived to find that the troops there had problems of their own.

This historic live oak at Ocheesee Landing may have been a small tree during the
Battle of Ocheesee Bluff. It is thought to be 200 years old.

Another large Native American force attacked Fort Hughes at today’s Bainbridge, Georgia, on the same day as the attack on the supply ships at Ocheesee Bluff. Other warriors ringed Fort Scott itself, sniping at anyone who dared look over the stockade walls. [III]

Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle, who commanded Fort Scott, was under considerable stress and sent back word for Maj. Muhlenberg to do his best:

I am making some alteration in the boat Captain Clinch came in which I think will render her safe and convenient in carrying forward a kedge by which means you will have it in your power to progress a little every day and should the wind be favorable I shall have hopes of your reaching this in eight or ten days, but should it take longer it cannot be avoided as I have not the means of doing more for you at present. I have a large keel boat on the stocks which I think I can have in readiness for service in about sixteen days. This boat will be of sufficient size to carry three or four hundred barrels and will be made perfectly safe from injury from small arms. [IV]

Arbuckle did send down 15 days rations of meat and bread along with some soap and liquor, but gave not even a hint that he might move with troops to break the siege at Ocheesee Bluff. He asked Muhlenberg to fire a cannon every morning at sunrise and every evening at sunset so he would be able to estimate the progress of the ships. The booms of the guns would also help him find the ships should his own situation change. 

The lieutenant colonel expressed sympathy for the wounded men on board the ships: 

I very much wish your wounded men were here and should you not be able to arrive soon you may find most advisable to send them up by the boat and independent of this consideration I am fearfull there is not a sufficient quantity of iron here to finish the keel boat. Therefore should you be able to spare the boat with safety, send it up in eight days with your wounded & five or six hundred weight of iron. [V]

In addition to the soldiers and sailors, there may also have been women and children aboard the two ships. Seven women and four children were earlier placed aboard a keelboat under Lt. Richard W. Scott for passage up to Fort Scott, but only one remained alive. The others were killed in the attack on the lieutenant’s boat at today’s Chattahoochee, Florida, on November 30, 1817. Whether additional women and children were still aboard the supply ships is not known. [VI]

The Battle of Ocheesee Bluff settled into a stalemate. The Prophet Francis and his warriors could not get close enough to storm the ships. Their volleys of musket and rifle fire, however, prevented the men aboard the vessels from even showing their heads above the bulwarks. 

Blue Heron (Farris Powell) portrays a Red Stick warrior of the First Seminole War era.

The keelboat made it back down to the supply ships early on the morning of December 19, 1817. Muhlenberg was not happy to find that only 18 privates, one corporal and one sergeant had returned with it, half the number it was designed to hold:  

…I was in hopes you would have been able to afford some relief to the command, as our situation demanded that something should have been done immediately, that we are not able to progress is evident, as we have the enemy on both sides of the river and therefore impracticable to carry out a warp, had we not heard from you by the keel boat this morning, it was decided that we should have attempted to return to the bay this morning. [VII]

The Prophet continued his attack on the supply ships and the size of his army was growing. The U.S. attacks on Fowltown four weeks earlier had driven many previously neutral towns into the conflict. Warriors from towns including Ekanachatte (Red Ground), Attapulgas, Tallahassee Talofa, Tellmochesses, Ocheesee Talofa and others now joined the fight alongside men from Fowltown, Miccosukee, Suwannee Old Town and the Red Stick towns. The maroons or Black Seminoles of Nero’s Town also turned out.  Other than the men of Iola (Blunt’s Town) and Choconicla (Yellow Hair’s town), virtually every community south of the American line had joined the fight against the soldiers.

I can assure you that our present situation is not the most Pleasant not knowing how soon or whether we are to receive succor from above, the wounded are but in a bad situation owing to the vessels being much crowded, and it is impossible to make them any ways comfortable on board.

Soldiers of the 7th U.S. Infantry Living History Association demonstrate the weapons and uniforms worn by U.S. troops during the First Seminole War.

The firepower of the Native American army was impressive, but the presence of so many warriors on the Apalachicola caused a severe drain on supplies.  Ammunition and provisions were dwindling but Francis kept up the fight: 

Frustrated by Arbuckle’s failure to send help, Maj. Muhlenberg threatened to retreat:

…I shall now dispatch the keel boat under the command of Lieut. Gray and try to retain our present position until the night of the 21st. In case we should not hear from you or be reinforced by land we shall make the attempt to reach the Bay. Further particulars I refer you to Lieut. Gray. [VIII]

Lt. Gray left the supply ships aboard the keelboat on the morning of December 19, 1817, slipped the siege and started upriver for Fort Scott. The mission did little good. Fort Scott was now completely surrounded and under siege. An unidentified officer there fretted over the situation in a letter home:

Our situation is really an alarming one. An enemy around us of treble our force, and but 20 days provisions. How we are to be relieved I know not. Major Muhlenburg has two schooners about 30 miles below – the Indians and Negroes all around him, keeping up a constant fire; some of his men have been killed and wounded, and the rest left entirely to the mercy of the winds, for they cannot move in any other way. [IX]

The situation did not improve for Maj. Muhlenberg and the men on the supply ships until the morning of Christmas Eve. The keelboat made it to Fort Scott and back down to Ocheesee Bluff in the intervening five days:

…The Indians still continue to annoy us, but I do not think they are in such force as they were the three first days that we were attacked. Our situation at Present is a tolerable secure one, and we shall retain it as long as it is practicable. I have dispatched the keel boat under the command Lieut. Wilson with all the iron that was on board, and a quantity of fixed ammunition. It would be advisable when the keel boat returns to send down a small boat or two as in case of movement they would be very much wanting as we have non that we can do anything with. Our boat was lost the first day – the other so much injured that it is with difficulty she can be kept a float, it will also be necessary that the keel boat should be loaded with wood on her return to this place. [X]

The wood that Muhlenberg requested was needed to strengthen the sides of the ships to better protect soldiers and crew from the rifle and musket fire of the warriors. The iron that he reported sending up on the keelboat under Lt. Wilson was needed at Fort Scott where construction of a larger keelboat was hampered by a lack of iron for use in making nails and spikes.

The authentic keelboat Aux Arc, crewed by members of the Early Arkansaw Reenactors Association, is a good example of the keelboat that traveled back and forth between the trapped supply ships and Fort Scott.

The major’s observation that the size of the Native American force seemed to be diminishing was accurate. The Prophet Francis had maintained his attack on the supply ships for ten days so far, but his supplies were all but exhausted. He started sending warriors home to their towns where they could be fed, believing that he could resume the war in full force when Bahamian traders Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert Ambrister delivered on their promises to deliver shipments of arms and ammunition.

The supply ships  made progress in the days after Christmas and finally broke free of the S-shaped channel at Ocheesee Bluff. Francis and the remnants of his army shadowed them, keeping up their fire until the morning of December 29, 1817. The final shots from the riverbanks rang out that morning as the boats reached present-day Chattahoochee and came within sight of the forks of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers. 

The swivel gun aboard the keelboat Aux Arc.

Muhlenberg ordered that two shots be fired from his swivel guns to let Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle at Fort Scott know the battle was over:

Two guns in quick succession have been heard reported this morning, from which I conclude you are at or near the mouth of the Flint. Should my information on this subject be correct, you will inform me to night by one of the Boats of your positions and of that of the Indians, should they still continue to annoy you, of their increased or decreased numbers, as far as your opportunity will present you to judge. [XI]

The ships reached Fort Scott on December 30, 1817, ending the long suffering of Maj. Muhlenberg and his men. The Battle of Ocheesee Bluff lasted fourteen days and was the longest continuous engagement of the Seminole Wars. 

The best places to see the battlefield are Torreya State Park, 2767 NW Torreya Park Rd, Bristol, Florida and Ocheesee Landing at the east end of Ocheesee Landing Road off FL-69 between Blountstown and Grand Ridge, Florida. There is no interpretation yet about the engagement at either location, but both provide outstanding views of the river where the battle was fought.

[I] Maj. Peter Muhlenberg to Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle, Dec. 16, 1817, Adjutant General, Letters Received, National Archives.

[II] Ibid.

[III] For an account of the attacks on Fort Hughes and Fort Scott, please see Dale Cox and Rachael Conrad, Fort Scott, Fort Hughes & Camp Recovery: Three 19th Century Military Sites in Southwest Georgia, Old Kitchen Books, 2016.

[IV] Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle to Maj. Peter Muhlenberg, Dec. 18, 1817, Adjutant General, Letters Received, National Archives.

[V] Ibid.

[VI] For the story of the attack on Lt. Scott’s vessel, please see Dale Cox, The Scott Massacre of 1817, Old Kitchen Books, 2013.

[VII] Maj. Peter Muhlenberg to Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle, Dec. 19, 1817, Adjutant General, Letters Received, National Archives.

[VIII] Ibid.

[IX] Unidentified officer to a friend, Dec. 20, 1817, published in the Alexandria Gazette, February 12, 1818, page 2.

[X] Maj. Peter Muhlenberg to Lt.  Col. Matthew Arbuckle, Dec. 24, 1817, Adjutant General, Letters Received, National Archives.

[XI] Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle to Maj. Peter Muhlenberg, Dec. 29, 1817, Adjutant General, Letters Received, National Archives.