Back | Next

Chapter 3

March 27, 1814
The Battle of the Horseshoe Bend

The next time Sam Houston encountered Andrew Jackson, the general was hollering again, but this time Sam couldn't make out the words.

First, because Jackson wasn't the only one hollering. So were a thousand Red Stick warriors hemmed in behind their barricade on a horseshoe bend in the Tallapoosa, with about two and a half thousand white soldiers and militiamen facing them.

Secondly, because the hostile Creeks trapped behind their own fortifications were beating war drums. Lots of war drums, from the sound they were making.

And, thirdly, because up close, even two cannons make an incredible racket.

It was late morning when Sam and his superior officer, Major Lemuel Montgomery, came up the rise where the general had set up his field headquarters. Topping the rise, Sam saw the two cannons Jackson had hauled with him across the wilderness positioned atop a small hill overlooking the fortifications the Red Sticks had erected. Sam had been in the army long enough now to recognize the cannons as a six-pounder and a three-pounder.

Field guns. No more, and the three-pounder was something of a lightweight, at that. Nevertheless, Sam had been hearing the racket they made ever since the Thirty-ninth Infantry had arrived at the battlefield and had taken up their position. The Thirty-ninth was at one end of a field that sloped down toward the other end, which was closed off by the Creek fortifications. Now that he was close enough, he could see that the guns hadn't done any damage worth talking about to the enemy's fieldworks.

He wasn't really surprised, though, getting his first good look at those fortifications. The Red Sticks had had months to prepare for this attack, and obviously they hadn't wasted the time. The barricade they'd put up across the neck of the peninsula was impressive. Very, very impressive.

Moments later Montgomery and Houston were just a few feet away from Jackson. Seeing them, the general waved his hand in the direction of the fortifications. The nearest part of the wall stood less than a hundred yards from the position Jackson had taken on the hill. The farthest part of it, Sam estimated, was another three hundred yards distant.

"Have you ever seen anything like it, Lemuel?" Jackson demanded. His tone was half angry; the other half contained grudging respect. "Tarnation, who would have thought those savages would come up with something this well made?"

Jackson's blue eyes flitted to Sam, and a sarcastic little smile came to his lips. "Begging the ensign's pardon."

Sam decided to ignore the remark. Truth be told, he wasn't any too fond of the Red Sticks himself. He didn't consider them savages, as such, the way most white people did. But they'd certainly behaved savagely since they'd organized themselves in response to the religious preaching of Tecumseh's brother, the prophet Tenskwatawa. That had been true even before the massacre at Fort Mims.

Sam frowned as he studied the fortifications. The breastwork that the Red Sticks had erected across the neck of the peninsula consisted of heavy timber—solid logs, most of it—laid in a wall ranging anywhere from five to eight feet tall. The solidity of the structure made it effectively impervious to the small cannons Jackson had with him. The double row of firing ports and the zigzag design of it gave the defenders the ability to bring enfilade fire on anyone advancing across the open field that stretched in front.

True, as was almost invariably the case in Indian wars, the Creek warriors were poorly supplied with guns. They were probably just as poorly supplied with ammunition. But, with those fortifications, even the bows with which most of the Red Sticks would be armed could be devastating.

Houston could see Major Montgomery's face tightening, the way a man's will when he's arriving at a very unpleasant conclusion.

"We'll have to try a frontal assault, then, General."

Jackson nodded. "I'm afraid so. I'd hoped the cannons..." He waved that thought away impatiently. "I'll need to rely on you and your regulars, Lemuel. Pass the word to Colonel Williams to get ready."

"Yes, sir." Montgomery winced slightly, as the six-pounder went off again, just a few feet away. "How soon?"

"I'm not sure, yet." Jackson took off his hat and ran long, bony fingers through his hair. Because his left arm was still in a sling, he had to use the same right hand that was holding the hat. The result was to dishevel his stiff, sandy-gray hair all the more.

Then he gestured with the hat toward the Tallapoosa. The river wasn't far off, but it couldn't be seen through the heavily forested area. This late in March, this far south, most of the trees already had foliage on them.

"I sent Coffee and his cavalry and all of the Cherokees to ford the Tallapoosa two miles away, then circle around to the other side of the river. Mainly, I just wanted to make sure the Red Sticks were trapped. I intend to crush them here, once and for all, and I don't want any of them escaping. But..."

He clamped the hat back on his head. "John's an energetic officer. He may be able to distract their attention with a diversion of some kind. So let's wait another hour and a half. In the meantime, I'll keep peppering them with cannon fire. Even if it doesn't look to be doing any good, that should keep their attention fixed on us, instead of the riverbank."

Montgomery pulled out a watch. "That'd be half-past noon, General. I'll tell the colonel."

Jackson nodded. Montgomery squared his shoulders. "I'll lead the assault myself."

The general nodded again. Then, abruptly, he stuck out his hand. "Take care, Lemuel." There was quite a bit of warmth in his tone. Houston had heard that Jackson and the major had been personal friends since before the war started.

To his surprise, after Jackson finished shaking hands with Montgomery, the general thrust his hand at Sam. "And you, as well, Ensign Houston. I will rely upon you to carry forward if... anything untoward happens to Major Montgomery."

Jackson's grip was firm. Sam hoped the same was true of his own. "I will, sir. You can count on it."

He even managed not to wince when another cannon went off. Fortunately, it was only the three-pounder.

Slowly, The Ridge moved a branch, just enough to afford him a good view of the opposite bank of the Tallapoosa. Behind him and spread out on both sides, hidden in the forest, hundreds of Cherokee warriors crouched. General Coffee and his cavalry were somewhere farther back, having agreed to follow The Ridge's advice and stay well out of sight of whatever Red Sticks might be watching the river.

In theory, Jackson's Cherokee allies were led by their chief, Gideon Morgan, to whom the Americans had given the rank of colonel. But that was mainly due to Morgan's fluency with the English language. In practice, as the campaign against the Red Sticks had unfolded, it was The Ridge who'd come to be the central war leader, and the one whom General Coffee relied upon. The Ridge had started the campaign with the lowly American rank of lieutenant, but now he was a major.

Observing nothing on the other side except a line of beached Creek canoes, The Ridge examined the river itself for a moment. The muddy waters of the Tallapoosa were moving fairly quickly, but he didn't think it would be impossible to swim across. Not even difficult, really, since the distance wasn't that great.

He went back to studying the opposite bank, with the patience of a hunter.

Nothing. There might well be some warriors in the vicinity, but it was becoming obvious the Red Sticks hadn't thought to place a guard on the river.

He wasn't surprised. He could hear the sounds of fighting off in the distance, and had been hearing them for quite some time. By now, the Red Stick warriors would be concentrated at or near the fortifications that stretched across the neck of the peninsula, hundreds of yards away from the river's curve. The terrain directly opposite The Ridge's location was flat, once the riverbank itself was surmounted, and it wasn't as heavily forested as most of the region.

Somewhere in the distance he thought he could see the high ground that was reported to form the center of the peninsula, and he was pretty sure the Creek village itself would be located at the foot of it. That area would be guarded, but the river itself wasn't being watched. Not closely, at least.

Moving slowly again, The Ridge let the branch slide back into position, no more abruptly than if it had been moved by the wind. Then, he turned his head and considered the Cherokees who were clustered nearby.

He dismissed John Ross without even a thought. The youngster seemed stalwart enough, but had no real experience in this sort of fighting. The Americans had made him an adjutant, and had given him the rank of a second lieutenant. But, again, that had been mostly due to his familiarity with English. For something like this, The Ridge wanted a more experienced man. Besides, it would take a good swimmer, and The Ridge had no idea how well Ross could handle himself in the water.

His eyes fell on The Whale. The man's name wasn't simply due to his size. The Ridge made a subtle summoning gesture with his head, and The Whale eased his way forward.

"Right across the river," The Ridge murmured. He slid aside a little so The Whale could take his own peek.

After carefully parting the branches and examining the canoes on the other side, The Whale grunted softly. "I'll take two men with me. Won't take long, so have everyone ready."

He turned away and softly called out two names. As the men rose from their crouch, The Whale led them a short distance upstream. They'd start their crossing far enough above the beached canoes that the current wouldn't sweep them right on past.

Then The Ridge glanced at John Ross again. If the youngster harbored any resentment because he hadn't been chosen for the task, there was no sign of it on his expression or in his posture. The Ridge was pleased, but not surprised. He'd already come to the conclusion that Ross was exceptionally levelheaded, and as such not subject to public bravado that infected most men his age.

There remained, of course, the question of Ross's courage. The American ensign wasn't the only young man in the group for whom this would be the first real test in battle. But there, too, The Ridge expected the young Cherokee to acquit himself well enough.

Well enough was all The Ridge asked for this day. The Cherokees already had enough warriors who had proven their fighting abilities. The Ridge himself was one of them. What they lacked were leaders who could negotiate their way through the tangled thicket of politics that confronted their nation in a world being swept over by a tide of white settlers.

He had high hopes for John Ross. Because of his background, Ross had a far greater familiarity with the subtleties of American customs than did most Cherokees. Certainly far more than The Ridge himself. The Ridge had never visited the home of the Ross family, near Lookout Mountain, but he had heard tales about it. The two-story log house was said to be full of books and maps and newspapers—even newspapers from England. John had been brought up in Cherokee country, in a Cherokee family, but as a boy he'd been tutored by a white man; and, as a youth, he had attended a white man's academy in Tennessee.

The value of such an education was unquestionable, in these difficult days. The proof of it was an even greater marvel than a two-story house full of books. John Ross had formed a business partnership with Timothy Meigs, the son of the well-known Indian agent Colonel Meigs. They had taken good advantage of the lucrative government contracts produced by the Americans' wars against the British and the Creeks. In the short few months before Ross had joined the Cherokee force that now fought alongside Jackson, he'd become a prosperous man, even as white men measured such things.

A Cherokee—not more than twenty-three years old—becoming wealthy from trading with white men! That was what the American missionaries called a "miracle."

As he ruminated, The Ridge listened for The Whale and his two companions. That was a waste of effort, really, since he knew full well that the men would perform their task soundlessly.

Sure enough, the first sign The Ridge got of their progress was the sight of the three warriors, coming down the river. The Whale and his companions, all of them expert swimmers, were crossing the stream without trying to fight the current, moving quickly, surely, and quietly.

"Get ready!" he hissed. The words were pitched in such a way that, while they wouldn't be heard by anyone across the river, they would alert all of the nearest Cherokee warriors. He could rely on them to pass the word along to the remaining hundreds crouched farther back in the forest.

That left only...

The Ridge hesitated. On the one hand, he wanted to observe the young man next to him under fire. On the other hand, it was also critical that the American cavalrymen didn't work at cross-purposes with what the Cherokee warriors were going to be doing. Once everyone started piling across the river, there was a serious risk that the allies would start killing one another in the midst of the chaos. White soldiers, even regulars, were notorious for not making fine distinctions between friendly and hostile Indians, especially once their blood was up.

Granted, most Indians didn't make fine distinctions between friendly and hostile whites, as well. But in situations like this one, the white soldiers had the advantage of wearing uniforms, which the Indians didn't.

For this campaign, it had been mutually agreed that all the Cherokees would wear two distinctive feathers and a deer tail in their headbands. The Ridge was hoping that would be enough to keep the American soldiers from firing on Cherokees by accident. Still, it would be smart to make sure that Coffee knew exactly what they were doing—and Ross was the obvious person to send as his liaison. The young Cherokee's English was fluent. More than fluent, really, since English was his native language.

So The Ridge arrived at his decision. "Find General Coffee and tell him we're crossing the river," he ordered Ross. "Do what you can to make sure the Americans don't start shooting at us, once they follow us across."

Ross's mouth quirked. "They're cavalrymen, don't forget. By the time they finally bring themselves to abandon their precious horses—since there's no way to get them across the river easily—it'll probably all be over, anyway."

The Ridge chuckled softly. There was quite a bit of truth to what Ross said, but...

"Do it anyway."

Ross hesitated. Just long enough, The Ridge understood, to make clear that he wasn't afraid to join the fight. It was very smoothly done, for such a young man. Then, moving not quite as quietly as an experienced warrior would have, Ross faded into the forest and was gone.

The Ridge turned his attention back across the river. The Whale and his companions had reached the canoes and were already sliding three of them into the water. They were big canoes, and they'd have only one man guiding each one. The current being what it was, they'd come across the river quite a ways farther down from his position. He did a quick estimate of where they'd land, rose from his crouch, and started heading that way.

His own movements, unlike those of Ross, were almost completely silent. That was simply long habit, so ingrained that The Ridge wasn't even conscious of it. The noise of the battle being waged somewhere on the other side of the small peninsula was such that even if he had set off an explosion on his side of the river, it probably wouldn't have been noticed.

Major Montgomery pulled out his watch.

"Fifteen minutes," he announced.

"We're ready, sir," stated Houston. The two officers were standing twenty yards in front of the arrayed lines of the Thirty-ninth Infantry, facing the enemy fortifications.

Montgomery took the time to move back and inspect the ranks himself. That wasn't because he doubted the ensign's assessment; it was simply because Montgomery had learned— largely from watching General Jackson—that soldiers were steadied by the immediate and visible presence of the officers who would lead them in an attack.

"God, I love regulars," the major murmured. Montgomery himself was only a "regular" in a purely formal sense. Still, even in his short military career, he'd come to share Jackson's distrust of militia volunteers.

Taken as individuals, militiamen were no different from regular soldiers. Better men, actually, in most ways. Certainly, as a rule, more successful men. The regular army was notorious for attracting vagabonds and drunkards to join its ranks, just for the sake of the steady pay and regular provisions; whereas militiamen were frequently respected members of their communities.

But even those members of the militias who weren't lawyers soon enough adopted a lawyerly view of their rights and obligations. That usually meant a keen sense of the right to leave the service the moment their short term of enlistment was up.

As he walked slowly down the well-formed ranks of the Thirty-ninth Infantry, here and there giving a soldier a careful inspection, Major Montgomery's lips twisted into a half-sarcastic little smile.

Regulars, God bless 'em.

Most of the men were armed with the older-style Model 1795 .69-caliber musket that Jackson had wanted for this campaign. The weapon wasn't as handy as the Model 1803 .54-caliber Harpers Ferry musket that was the standard issue for regulars, but it had the advantage of a fixed bayonet mount—and all the bayonets were fixed. Jackson believed in the value of cold steel.

They looked splendid, too, in their real uniforms with their high-collared blue coats and white trousers. Best of all, Jackson's quartermaster had somehow managed to finagle iron cap plates for the Thirty-ninth's tall headgear. The men would go into battle with their heads shining the regiment's name in the sunlight, instead of having to make do with painted imitations.

Vagabonds or not, when the time came these regular soldiers could be counted upon to do their duty, and do it well. Whatever coat of mail they might pass on to their offspring, assuming they knew who their bastards were in the first place, it might well include a half-empty bottle of whiskey as part of the insignia. Should, by all rights, for at least half of them. Still, there'd be no petticoats there. Not a one.

Montgomery came back forward to stand alongside Ensign Houston. He pulled out his watch again.

"Five minutes to go. And, yes, we're ready."

Back | Next