Eyewitnesses to Disaster

by Dale Cox

British military commanders expected their Gulf Coast Campaign to be a crowning achievement of the War of 1812. The objective, pure and simple, was conquest.

Treaty negotiations with the Americans were underway in Ghent, Belgium, and the King’s diplomats expected the anticipated peace would include an agreement that each side should maintain the lands it possessed on ratification. Having defended Canada and burned Washington, D.C., the British now concentrated on seizing and holding as much territory as possible.

The Prophet Josiah Francis, Peter McQueen, Thomas Perryman, Cappachimico and other Red Stick Creek, Seminole and Miccosukee chiefs witnessed the British defeat at New Orleans on January 8, 1815.

The three-pronged plan was simple:

  • The primary British army under Maj. Gen. Sir Edward Pakenham, the brother-in-law of the Duke of Wellington, was to land in Louisiana, take New Orleans and drive up the Mississippi River. 
  • A second force under Admiral Sir George Cockburn would seize Cumberland Island and St. Marys on the Georgia coast and then turn up the seaboard to Savannah.
  • A third army led by Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls would include British troops, Maroons (escaped slaves) organized and trained as a battalion of Colonial Marines and thousands of Seminole and Creek warriors. They were to advance from the Apalachicola River in Florida and strike against the George frontier, helping Cockburn to overwhelm the entire state.

Believing that Pakenham and his “heroes of Waterloo” would easily sweep aside American resistance and take New Orleans, the British decided to achieve a maximum diplomatic effect by inviting a group of important Seminole, Miccosukee and Red Stick Creek chiefs to witness the victory. Seeing the power of the Red Coat army on the move would inspire them to bring even more warriors into the coming campaign against Georgia.

Admiral Sir Alexander Inglis Cochrane (1758-1832), painted by Robert Field.
National Galleries of Scotland

The importance of this initiative was demonstrated in early December 1814 when Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane arrived in person at the mouth of the Apalachicola River.

His flagship, HMS Tonnant, was so big that it could not enter Apalachicola Bay. An 80-gun ship of the line, she was captured from the French at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. The ship dropped anchor in deep water well off East Pass and smaller vessels were sent into the bay to invite a group of important Native American leaders to come out and dine with the Admiral.

The Prophet Josiah Francis painted this self-portrait during a visit to Great Britain.
British Museum

Among these were the Prophet Josiah Francis, leader of the Red Stick movement that shook the Creek Nation in 1812-1814; Peter McQueen, another important Red Stick; Thomas Perryman, principal chief of the Seminoles, and Cappachimico (sometimes called Kenhajo or Kinhache), principal chief of the Miccosukees. [I]

The Seminoles, Miccosukees and Red Sticks were important allies of the British, but not all of Cochrane’s officers were impressed. Fleet Captain and executive officer Edward Codrington, for example, took a distinctly superior attitude to their Native American guests:

…We had the honour of these Majestic Beasts dining with us two days in the ‘Tonnant,’ and we are to be disgusted with a similar honour here to-day. All the body clothes they get they put on one over the other, except trowsers, which they consider as encumbrances it should seem in our way of using them, and they therefore tie them round their waists for the present, in order to convert them to leggings hereafter. [II]

The Tonnant (left) during her capture from the French by British forces at the Battle of Nile.
National Maritime Museum

 Its obvious racism aside, Codrington’s account does provide a fascinating description of an individual who likely was the Prophet Francis. U.S. reports from the Creek War of 1813-1814 mentioned that Red Stick prophets often wore the skins of dead birds on their heads. The British captain confirmed this:

…Some of them appeared in their own picturesque dresses at first, with the skin of a handsome plumed bird on the head and arms; the bird’s beak pointing down the forehead, the wings over the ears, and the tail down the poll. But they are now all in hats (some cocked, gold laced ones), and in jackets suck as are worn by the sergeants in the Guards, and they have the appearance of dressed-up apes. [III]

The chiefs agreed to accompany the British to New Orleans. Admiral Cochrane and others likely believed that the sight of Red Coat troops smashing the army of the American “hero of Horseshoe Bend” – Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson – would prove so impressive that all of the Southeastern nations would flock to their standard.

Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls as he appeared later in life after achieving the rank of general.
Royal Marine Barracks

 The chiefs were escorted by Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls of the Royal Marines on the voyage to the Louisiana coast. He brought them ashore to the British army camps and entertained them at his expense. [IV]

They were on hand as observers during the initial fighting between the British and Americans below New Orleans and witnessed Jackson’s stunning victory on January 8, 1815. One of those present – his name never given – later described the scene to Col. Benjamin Hawkins, the U.S. Agent for Indian Affairs:

An Indian I know a “Red Stick” Chief sent me word he was with the British in their battles against Jackson. “They were beaten in every battle by night and by day. Their large vessels could not come near the land. They sent their troops in barges who were attacked as they were landing, and at night after landing. He saw the decisive battle of the 8th. The Americans had double ditches which were not discovered till they got up to the first, the first who attempted to storm the works were driven back with great loss. A second attempt was made, which met a similar fate, when the Commander in Chief went forward with his best troops, who met a greater loss, he was killed and the next in command. The ground appeared to him covered with dead wounded and the British had many wounded who retreated in action or were carried off.” [V]

The chiefs and their interpreter, William Hambly, remained ashore in Louisiana until January 16 when they were taken aboard HMS Erebus for the trip back to the Apalachicola. 

Prospect Bluff, site of the British Post (later called the “Negro Fort), as seen from the Apalachicola River. The bluff was occupied by the British in 1814-1815.

They reached Apalachicola Bay on January 25 and were sent up to the British Post at Prospect Bluff – later the “Negro Fort” – 20 miles above present-day Apalachicola:

I have the honour of informing you, that after my arrival at the Entrance of the River Apalachicola I took the earliest opportunity of sending up to the Bluff the Indian Chiefs, and during the time they were on board I endeavoured to treat them with all the hospitality that the means I possessed would admit, shewing them the utmost attention and making them as they were pleased to express more than comfortable, and for which at parting their expressions of gratitude were pleasing to my feelings. I also took care that Provisions with wines & spirits as much as they thought necessary for their Voyage up the River was put up for them, and they requested, when I had the Honour of seeing you, that I should tender their thanks for your great condescension, civility and marked attention towards them. [VI]

The British did what they could to encourage the chiefs, but Jackson’s victory at New Orleans weighed heavily on their minds. William Hambly soon made his own peace with the Americans, as did William Perryman, the son of Seminole principal chief Thomas Perryman. Cappachimico verbally expressed his continued support of Great Britain, but kept most of his warriors close to their homes at Miccosukee in present-day Leon County, Florida.

Please click here to learn more about the action at New Orleans on January 1, 1815, one of the battles witnessed by the chiefs.

To learn more about the Prophet Francis, Peter McQueen, the Red Stick movement and the Creek War of 1813-1814, please watch this free documentary:

To learn more about British efforts on the Apalachicola River, please see Dale Cox’s book Nicolls’ Outpost: A War of 1812 Fort at Chattahoochee, Florida and watch this documentary from TwoEgg.TV:

[I] Certificate of Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls, enclosed in D.E. Bartholomew to Sir Alexander Cochrane, February 6, 1815, Cochrane Papers, University of West Florida.

[II] Capt. Edward Codrington, letter dated Dec. 14, 1814, in Memoir of the Life of Admiral Sir Edward Codrington (Abridged Edition), page 239.

[III] Ibid.

[IV] Certificate of Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls.

[V] Col. Benjamin Hawkins to Gov. Peter Early, February 12, 1815, Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Collection, University of Georgia Libraries.

[VI] D.E. Bartholomew to Sir Alexander Cochrane, February 6, 1815, Cochrane Papers, University of West Florida.