Military Subjects:  War of 1812


The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 9: May 2008



Hell Comes To Horseshoe Bend

By John A. Tures

A Decisive Day In Alabama

On the morning of 27 March 1814, the fate of two nations hung in the balance.  The American Nation and its army led by General Andrew Jackson advanced upon the Creek Nation stronghold at Horseshoe Bend, in Central Alabama.  Nearly 2,000 American soldiers and allies assaulted the Creek position, defended by 900 warriors protecting nearly 300 women and children.[1]  By the end of the day, nearly every Creek combatant was killed or wounded in the struggle, with a death toll estimated at 800 warriors,[2] while Americans lost only a little more than fifty fighters.[3]  This battle represented the highest number of Indian casualties in any conflict between the United States and Native Americans, including village massacres.  As a result, the United States gained 20 million acres in modern-day Alabama and Georgia to its territory,[4] and neutralized a British ally on its Southern flank.  At the same time, the victory helped prepare Andrew Jackson for his triumph at New Orleans, and eventually the White House, fulfilling writer Thomas P. Abernathy's statement that such victories "created a president, a party, and a tradition."[5]  Meanwhile, the broken Creeks were eventually either expelled to the Oklahoma territory during Jackson's Presidency[6] or fled to Florida to join the Seminole tribe.[7]

What led to such a devastating defeat for the Creek Nation and an overwhelming triumph for the United States forces and their own allies?  In order to determine the answer, I formulate several theories that might account for the success of the Americans and failure of the Creeks; from these general theories, a set of testable hypotheses were derived, evaluated by the historical record from battle participants as well as learned scholars.  Such findings are then evaluated in the context of modern-day asymmetric warfare for relevant lessons for today's fighters.

Battlefield Detectives and Conflict Scene Investigations (CSIs)

The process by which such research is conducted is titled "Conflict Scene Investigations" or CSI.  The methods are analogous to those adopted by David Wason's Battlefield Detectives and the accompanying major television series from Granada Television Production. Wason's tactics are summed up in the following quote.

"Battlefield Detectives is about detective work.  Land battles usually leave some kind of scar on the landscape, from visible wounds of terrible trench warfare to the slugs and bullets of Little Bighorn…And for battles which seem to have left no physical evidence at all, modern science can still suggest solutions to historic puzzles.  We can learn a lot from these fields of death.  Filled with horror they may have been, they form a sort of punctuation mark in history – specific points in time where kings and leaders and ordinary people lived and died in the same place.  They left evidence behind, in their bones and their weapons, their orders and records.  With the aid of new sciences like geomatics and oceanography, and old sciences like physics and psychiatry, Battlefield Detectives sheds new light on old history."[8]

Though the two are highly similar in approach, the key difference between CSI research and Battlefield Detectives involves the type of sciences employed.  Whereas Wason and his team are archaeologists and military scientists, digging at the remnants of fields or reenacting weapons tests, CSI utilizes more of the scholarly record to conduct its hypothesis tests.  Neither is seen as a "better" method so much as a different means of arriving at results about the outcome of a given conflict.  Such CSI research may either complement or possibly contradict the lessons learned in Battlefield Detectives.

Theories and Hypotheses

In order to answer the research question of why the Americans were able to soundly defeat the Creek Nation, one begins with the development of several theories.  Monroe contends, "Science starts and ends with theories…the term theory…could be defined as a set of empirical generalizations about a topic.  A theory consists of very general statements about how some phenomenon, such as… [how] the outbreak of war occurs."[9]  In this section, several theories are advanced from general research about how battles are fought and why some forces are able to prevail over others.  These include troop size, terrain factors, weaponry and firepower, health and morale of the fighters, the unity or diversity of the opposing forces, and the tactical conduct of the combatants.

But while theories have a utility in their application to a wide range of scenarios and situations, they are limited in the vagueness.  As Monroe points out "[T]heories are too general to test directly because they make statements about the relationship between abstract concepts…that are complex and not directly observable.  To actually investigate the empirical applicability of a theory, it must be brought down to more specific terms.  Testing hypotheses does this.  A hypothesis is simply an empirical statement derived from a theory."[10]  Monroe goes on to point out that because the hypothesis is derived from the theory, empirical support for the hypothesis can bolster confidence in the theory, just as a rejection of the hypothesis can undermine backing for the theory.  "Hypotheses are those answers to our research questions that seem to be the most promising on the basis of theory and past research."[11]

Combatant Size of Forces

The subject of the size of opposing forces as a key determinant in conflict is a well-established debate among scholars of international relations.  Many are no doubt familiar with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's proposition that a balance of power precipitates peace; wars result from an imbalance between opposing sides.[12]  But Kissinger's research, steeped in historical tradition, was challenged by the empirical findings of A. F. K. Organski who discovered that a preponderance of power was more conducive to peace; combat generally occurred between countries of roughly evenly-matched armies.[13]  Though the debate continues over measurement of power and system satisfaction,[14] it would be illustrative for the research question at hand if such findings were relevant at the battle level of analysis, and Native American conflicts in general.

The power disparity theory appears in Wason's writings on "the Custer Myth" in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.  "The largest American Indian force ever to have been assembled had taken on the 7th Cavalry.  And the Indians won…Deep in the isolated Black Hills of the Northern Plains, Custer and his men were surprised by a powerful and savage enemy armed with bow and arrows, lances, tomahawks and clubs.  Thousands attacked the column of weary men and horses…A heroic defence took place on Custer Hill as the Colonel and his men fought to the death against an overwhelming foe."[15]

Clearly the 210 men in Custer's battalion were simply overrun by the estimated 1,500 Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne Indians.[16]  Wason also observes how Custer divided his original force of 600 cavalrymen into several disparate units and badly underestimated the Indian numbers.[17]  But such an explanation fails to explain how such superior forces are employed in the destruction of an opponent. 

Carter Malkasian provides a comparison and contrast between the strategies of attrition and maneuver.  Long derided as "an attempt to bleed the enemy white in a series of unimaginative and costly battles,"[18] attrition is actually "the gradual and piecemeal destruction of the enemy's military capability, which is a basic element of warfare.  Tactically, it merely required killing the enemy—directly or indirectly, rather than more involved objectives, such as capturing terrain, effecting a breakthrough, or enacting an encirclement," according to Malkasian.[19]  Maneuver, on the other hand, "seeks to cause enemy armed forces to collapse by placing them in a disadvantageous position on the battlefield.  In contrast to frontal assaults or cautious advances, daring and mobile operations seize the initiative and attack the enemy where least expected."[20]  Attrition is also interpreted as hitting the enemy at its strong points, while maneuver opts for attacks upon the weak spots.

Having a bigger force enables the numerically superior side to press his or her advantage with either strategy.  An attrition strategy enables the stronger forces to use size to kill more of the enemy.  Larger forces can more easily engage in flanking maneuvers to provide an encirclement or achieving some form of breakthrough against a weak position or unreinforced point. 

Sweet examines the issue of military ratios in the context of given weaponry.  "If both sides enjoy the same qualitative factors (morale, skill, training, experience, exhaustion, hunger), an infantry assault conducted in the open by march-to-melee requires two-to-one superiority against muskets, but seven-to-one against rifles….What does it not mean?  It does not mean that attackers in earlier times had the advantage over defenders.  A force ratio greater than one has always been necessary.  The rifle simply worsens the force ratio needed for certain assaults."[21]  In other words, an attack by ratios lacking such superiority is bound to fail.

Therefore, I make the theoretical argument the side that enjoys a numerical superiority in combatants is more likely, on average, to win the battle.  From this, I derive the hypothesis that numerical superiority enabled America to defeat the Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.  The relationship between the variables is positive; as the number of fighters increase for one side, so does the chance of victory over the opposing side.

Weapons of War

As Sweet points out earlier, the type of weaponry employed by defenders (and also attackers in his overall analysis) plays a role in the success or failure of the other's military tactics.[22]  Therefore, it is useful to note the importance of the weapons each side chooses to employ in battle.

One dimension of weapons is the study of the arms race.  Political scientist David Ziegler notes two types of arms races: qualitative and quantitative.  As Ziegler writes "A technological (or qualitative) race differs from a quantitative arms race in that each side tries to introduce new and superior weapons.  The emphasis is not on more but better."[23]  Raudzens concurs, contending "there are ongoing preoccupations of military planners and commanders with increases in firepower and its antidotes."[24]  This is not to imply that the Americans and Creeks engaged in an "arms race" per se, but it provides a useful dichotomy for thinking about the role of weapons as a decisive edge in battle.

In the case of quantitative weapons, one would examine whether or not one side had more of a given weapon.  For example, did the Americans or Indians have more guns?  After all, in the "Custer Myth" Wason[25] writes about, it was not just about who had more fighters, but how well armed they were.  In his evaluation of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Wason observes "By using modern crime laboratory firearms identification techniques, it was possible to discover that a minimum number of 415 guns were used by the Indians…these were hardly the tomahawks and arrows beloved in depictions of the Wild West."[26]  Clearly, this helped the warriors quantitatively outnumber the guns of the 210 men in Custer's divided force.

But there's a qualitative component as well to Custer's Last Stand.  "The Indians had access to the latest technology – and it was more suitable weaponry than the Cavalry's," Wason writes.[27]  Wason cites firearms experts Douglas Scott and Mark Bohaty, who find that the Cavalry's single-shot Springfield carbine, though more effective at longer ranges, was "outgunned" by the shorter-range rapid-fire Henry repeating rifle.[28]  "Mark Bohaty has no doubt that the Indians could fire five to six shots for every one that the Cavalry could manage.  ‘The weapon made the difference.  The amount of firepower that the Indians had, and the types of weapon that they had, were the key in their defeating the U.S. Cavalry in that particular battle – no question about it."[29]

Perhaps the success of the American forces can therefore be found in the quantity and quality of the weaponry.  In addition to "having more guns," the weapons employed by Jackson's army may also have been of a greater quality.  For example, it was established at the time that some muskets (percussion muskets) were superior to other types (flintlocks), according to Major-General B. P. Hughes.[30]  But muskets themselves do not always rate as an effective weapon at anything but relatively close range.  Hughes cited Colonel Hanger from 1814, who stated "(Brown Bess)…will strike a figure of a man at 80 yards – it may even be at 100, but a soldier must be very unfortunate indeed who shall be wounded by a common musket at 150 yards provided his antagonist aims at him: and as to firing at a man at 200 yards with a common musket you may as well fire at the moon and have the same hope of hitting your object."[31]

However, rifles were available that were capable of hitting the enemy at much longer ranges.  "The British Baker's rifle was ‘deadly in the hands of troops up to 200 yards, dangerous between 200 and 300 yards in the hands of a marksman."[32]  Not only was it more accurate, but also had more than double the effective range.  Raudzens writes of the destruction of Loyalist Army of Major Patrick Ferguson and its muskets by the superior rifles of the "Overmountain Men" during the Battle of King's Mountain during the American Revolutionary War.[33]  Sweet goes to far as to conclude, "the change in tactics (from marches and musket fire volleys) was forced by the invention of the military rifle."[34]

Furthermore, artillery capable of killing several combatants at a single time or penetrating defensive positions were available to the Americans during the War of 1812.[35]  Hart calculates the greater distance that cannon and artillery had upon maximum ranges of firepower.[36]  In addition to length of reach, casualties from such devastating weapons increased.  "There are records of as many as forty men having been killed by a single shot at a range of 600 to 800 yards, all having been in the line of fire at the time."[37]

It can therefore be concluded the side that enjoys a numerical superiority in weapons is more likely, on average, to win the battle.  From this, I derive the hypothesis that numerical superiority in guns enabled America to defeat the Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.  Also, I theorize the side that enjoys technological superiority in weapons is more likely, on average to win the battle.  From this, I derive the hypothesis that possession of better guns enabled America to defeat the Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.  The first hypothesis presumes that the Americans had more guns than the Creeks did, while second hypothesis indicates that a better musket, a rifle or cannon helped turn the tide of the battle in favor of the American soldier.  The relationship between the variables is positive; the greater the superiority in quantity and quality of weapons, the increased chances for victory.

The Lay of the Land

Geographic terrain can also play an important role in determining a battle's winner and loser.  Where areas have few impediments, combatants can move relatively easily and engage each other on relatively favorable terms, enabling the adoption of sophisticated battle plans.  As Tsouras discusses in his World War II case, West Europe "was a decent theater of war for a self-respecting soldier.  The transportation and communication systems were dense and well developed…The land itself had been tamed into well-tended contours that facilitated military operations.  The forests were carefully cut back, almost cultivated, so well-kept were they…and the theater was literally drenched in the resources that would support war."[38]

Tsouras contrasted this with the Russian theater of operations, where the land and the weather conspired to make the German advances far more difficult than they had been in France, Holland and Belgium.  "The advancing columns ate up the distances, but the land before them laid a constant supply of new distance.  The survivors remembered the endless dusty plains of summer that never seemed to end, and the forests and swamps that swallowed up divisions.  Then the rains came and turned the land into thick, sucking glue.  And when the frosts came to make the roads passable, they paused only briefly before plunging the thermometer so far down that oil turned viscous, machinery broke and weapons froze.  And the men died of the cold or were crippled by frostbite…The German solider needed little imagination to think he was fighting in hell."[39]

Given that the terrain and climate in both cases either worked for or against the attacking German army, it is illustrative to consider how such factors apply to the Horseshoe Bend case.  Given that the American army was on the offensive and prevailed in the conflict, it seems likely that the Alabama location was favorable to General Jackson's advance.  Furthermore, it is possible that the geography of the battle site, as well as the conditions, must have had had the Creeks at a disadvantage.

Therefore, I theorize that geography has an impact on the outcome of battles.  In particular, I derive the hypothesis that the terrain and climate were favorable to the Americans and unfavorable to the Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.  The relationship is again positive; the more favorable the terrain and climate were to one side, the greater the chances of victory by that side against their opponents in battle.

The Health and Morale of the Fighters

Given the brutal nature of a military campaign and any fighting that ensues, the health and morale of the men and women who engage in battles is seen by some as critical as ensuring that the basic needs of food, water and weapons are available to those who must battle their opponents.  Dr. T. Graham Balfour writes an extensive report concerning the health of military personnel, ranging from issues of sanitary conditions and living space, to diet, education and recreation.[40]

Brigadier General James A. Ulio recognizes the importance of military morale for soldiers.  "There is a certain kind of morale that is distinctly military….military morale is that conditioned quality, in the individual soldier and in the unit command, which holds the soldier, holds the unit, to the performance of duty despite every opposing force or influence."[41]  Ulio points out that morale is not about sating or starving.  "Morale is established, in so far as comfort and privation are concerned, when the soldier knows his own strength of purpose to be proof against the softening of the one and the attrition of the other."[42]  In fact, Ulio cites General George C. Marshall as saying "I would change Napoleon's axiom of the ratio of morale to material from three to one to six to one."[43]

But how do such factors play a role in smaller conflicts less grand in scale than Napoleonic Wars or World War II?  In researching the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Battlefield Detectives staff found that health factors were a key issue in the outcome of the massacre.  Relying on the expertise of forensic anthropologist Professor Pete Willey, researchers "discovered that Custer's force were not the fit young men of the romantic paintings or the later Hollywood legend.  Most had dental disease, four showed evidence of trauma brought on by horse riding, many had back problems and joint problems – surprising given the young age of the soldiers.  One trooper had a congenital defect of the lower spine.  These were men who spent long hours in the saddle.  Using army medical records to supplement the archaeology, they discovered that the men of the 7th Cavalry had been treated in 1,721 instances with 76 different diseases."[44]  Furthermore, on the day of June 25, 1876, Willey found "the troopers were ‘in terrible shape that morning in June – they'd ridden all night long; they'd been riding from Fort Abraham Lincoln since May.  They hadn't had any rest, their backs were hurting, and their teeth were aching.  They were in bad shape."[45]

Soldiers with physical ailments clearly seem unprepared for fighting, and are more likely to stumble into an ambush.  Fighters who lack the morale that Ulio discussed concerning the "strength of purpose" are unlikely to have their heart in the battle as much as a motivated foe would have.  And as Ulio and Marshall imply, morale can overcome deprivation and outweigh even material support for the hardened fighter.  Therefore, I theorize the side that is in superior health and morale is more likely, on average, to win the battle.  From this, I conclude the hypothesis that superior health and morale enabled America to defeat the Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.  The relationship between the variables is positive, meaning that the greater the physical health and morale by one side over another, the greater the likelihood that side will prevail in battle.

Unity of Fighting Forces

In addition to having a healthy fighting force with high spirits, it would also help if the combatants were unified as a "team."  Scholars have written about the importance of unity in a coalition.  Gaubatz contends that alliance commitments are more durable between democracies, enabling them to last longer on average,[46] an important finding confirmed by Reed.[47]  Levy examines the diversionary theory of conflict, where "in-group" cohesion is so valued that conflict is initiated with an "out-group" just to achieve such unity.[48]

The presence of divisions or defections from one side to the other could be costly to a fighting force, even if it possesses superior numbers of troops, weapons, health and morale.  The group that had "changed sides" may provide valuable intelligence or skills that could affect the outcome of the battle.  It can therefore be ventured that the side that has greater unity and less disunity within its ranks is more likely, on average, to win the battle.  From this, a hypothesis may be derived which states America won the Battle of Horseshoe Bend because the Creek Indians were less unified.  The relationship between the variables is positive, which indicates that the greater the level of unity for one side, the greater the chances that side will prevail in a military contest.

"Tactics of Treatment"

The preceding theories may explain how one side or another prevailed in the war, but not necessarily the reason for the great disparity in casualties.  Perhaps an emphasis on tactics employed by both sides might illustrate a rationale for how one group was able to completely overwhelm the opposing forces.

Some studies of tactics look at the military decisions taken by soldiers or Native Americans, such as the decision of Custer's 7th Cavalry to deploy in a "skirmish line,"[49] which eventually disintegrated.  But another interpretation can look at how both sides fought each other from a political science, rather than military science outlook.  This perspective requires a historical approach, illustrating a brief moment of the Peloponnesian War between the Greek City States of Athens and Sparta.  Greek historian Thucydides documents the tale of the Athenian army coming across the small town of Melos.[50]  The larger force of Athenians demands the surrender and alliance with the Melians, who refuse, wishing to remain neutral.  The smaller band relies upon several arguments, ranging from the likelihood of a Spartan alliance with the besieged Melians, as well as justice in the form of the Greek gods taking the side of the hapless underdog.  Thucydides cites the Melians as saying "You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal.  But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust, and that what we want in power will be made up by the alliance of the Lacedaemonians (Spartans), who are bound, if only for very shame, to come to the aid of their kindred.  Our confidence, therefore, after all is not so utterly irrational."[51]

The Athenians brush aside the case from Melos, contending that justice and the fortune of war smiles upon the stronger side, and that the Spartans wouldn't risk sticking their necks out for the surrounded Melians.  As Thucydides writes of the Athenian argument "Then you do not adopt the view that expediency goes with security, while justice and honour cannot be followed without danger, and danger the Lacedaemonians generally court as little as possible."[52]  As if to prove their point, the Athenians massacre the Melians.  Thucydides records the sad events.  "The Melians surrendered discretion to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves."[53]

Political scientists have identified the Melian argument as an example of idealist theory, where justice, fair play and allies helping each other dominate the international system (with a few exceptions, of course).  Those who adopt idealism choose to "play by the rules" in terms of good treatment for noncombatants, offering quarter and taking prisoners, and treating one's foe with honor.  These "ideals" are the desired ends in any conflict.  As Kant claimed in 1795 "When we see the attachment of savages to their lawless freedom, preferring ceaseless combat to subjection to a lawful constraint which they might establish, and thus preferring senseless freedom to rational freedom, we regard it with deep contempt as barbarity, rudeness, and a brutish degradation of humanity."[54]  Anything less than rational law is judged to be inhumane.

In contrast to idealism, there is realism, which more closely reflects the Athenian argument.  For realists, "might makes right," and "abstract principles" cannot be achieved in real life."  Therefore, there should be no specific "rules" that a country must be bound to when war breaks out, short of the acquisition of power.  In other words, any means necessary are employed to achieve victory in battle.  As Thomas Hobbes ventures in 1651 "In such a war nothing is unjust.  To this war of every man, against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust.  The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place.  Where there is not common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice.  Force and fraud, are in war the two cardinal virtues."[55]

These theories from international relations are relevant for explaining not only the outcome of the battle, but the disparity in casualties.  Perhaps the reason for the 16:1 ratio in casualties between the Creeks and the American fighters is that the latter employed the tactics of realism, as opposed to idealism.  Should this have occurred, the warriors, wounded, and noncombatants would have been slaughtered, with no quarter offered or taken.  Such actions would resemble the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne inflicted an estimated 4:1 casualty ratio.  According to Battlefield Detectives, many of the 7th Cavalry victims were dispatched after they were wounded, with blunt-force trauma.[56]  No prisoners were taken among the losers on that day in 1876.  A similar fate most likely befell the defeated Creeks in 1814; had idealism guided the actions of that day, many more warriors, women and children would have been captured and humanely treated.  Therefore, I advance the theory the side that has employed realist tactics is more likely, on average, to win the battle.  From this, a hypothesis may be derived which states America won the Battle of Horseshoe Bend because they practiced realist actions against the Creek Indians.  Correspondingly, the more realist the tactics of one side, the increased chances it will prevail, indicating a positive relationship between the variables. 

Theory and Hypothesis Review

To this point, I have offered theories that examine the role of superior numbers in combat, superior quantity and quality of weapons, geographic terrain and climate, health and morale, combatant unity, and the tactics of both sides have played in the outcomes of battles and wars. 

From each theory, a hypothesis is derived that applies such conjectures to the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.  Each argument claims to offer the better explanation for why the forces of the United States were able to prevail so completely against the Creek Indians in that exchange.  In the next section, I test these hypotheses using evidence from historical documents and the writings of scholars and experts familiar with the case.  From this, it is hoped that not only can the author learn about why one side prevailed, but to assess how such lessons apply to modern-day asymmetric warfare.

Hypothesis Test Results

Along the banks of the Tallapoosa River, in a place the Indians called "Tohopeka," the Creek Chief Menawa, or "Great Warrior" faced the forces of General Andrew Jackson, nicknamed "Old Hickory."  The resulting battle in 1814 resulted in more Indian casualties than any other battle between the United States and those known today as "Native Americans."  What led the contest between the two sides to result in such a lopsided outcome?  In this section, I test a series of hypotheses ventured concerning the number of combatants, the weapons they used, the location of the battle, the attitude of the fighters, the presence or absence of unity among the two sides, and the tactics employed by the Creeks and Americans.  The findings are based upon published accounts and scholarly analyses of the battle.

Combatant Number Test

Earlier, I theorized that the number of combatants was the key difference maker.  Having a superior amount of soldiers enables the leader to wage more effective strategies of attrition (killing as many of the enemy soldiers as possible) or maneuver (encircle or flank the enemy, capture a strategic location, hold territory, etc.).  While Jackson appeared to adopt a hybrid of both strategies, it is still safe to say that such an option would not have been made available to him without his preponderance of military men.

On the morning of the battle, Jackson sent his second-in-command, John Coffee around the Tallapoosa River, in order to cut off the enemy's retreat.  With Coffee went 700 mounted soldiers and 600 Indian allies (most of them Cherokees, but a few "friendly Creeks" participated) to encircle the enemy position.[57]  Several hours later, Jackson used his remaining 2,000 soldiers to successfully storm the barricade, leading to victory in the battle.[58]

Some of Coffee's men and the Indians crossed the river; the latter group became occupied with stealing Creek canoes, cutting off the escape route for the Red Sticks.  The Indian allies even fired into Creek positions from the rear.  "However, without assistance from the infantry, which constituted the main body of the army, they could not hope for complete success.  And that force was blocked by the sturdy log wall…".[59]  As for Jackson's assault "[t]hough short of duration, the assault was costly."[60]  After the stronghold fell, "[t]hey broke and ran.  Those who chose the river were picked off by sharpshooters."[61] 

Clearly, Coffee's men and Indian allies could harass, but not defeat the Red Sticks.  And without the encirclement on the Tallapoosa River, many Creeks would have escaped after the barricade fell via their canoes.  The storming or the flanking could not have succeeded without the generous disparity in manpower that Jackson and his side enjoyed.

Weaponry Tests

Tests of the hypotheses concerning weapons, on the other hand, produced mixed results.  While the United States forces possessed "superior firepower" in the form of artillery, neither this nor having a better gun carried the day for Jackson's forces.  The ratio of guns to bows and arrows, as well as the greater effectiveness of the former, however, is another story.

Quality of Weapons

As noted in the theory section, artillery is seen has having not only a greater range of fire, but an increased ability to kill the opponent in greater numbers.  General Jackson did have possession of two cannons on the day of the battle.  One cannon at Horseshoe Bend was a 3-pounder; the other was a 6-pounder.[62]  Jackson deployed these nearly 80 yards from the Creek barricade.  Holland describes this fortification "as from five to eight logs high, with two ranges of loopholes.  The work, moreover, was arranged in such a way that any attacking force would be exposed to a cross-fire while the defenders could not be enfiladed."[63]  For two hours, Jackson pounded away at the wooden shield.  "But [t]he sturdy log wall that had taken the shelling by the two little guns without effect," forcing Jackson to change tactics and order the assault that killed or wounded more than 100 men and several of his officers.[64]  Among the 107 wounded, about 80 perished after the conflict.[65]  Clearly, artillery did not carry the day at Tohopeka.

Nor was this conflict an example of the rifle's superiority to the musket, as was demonstrated at earlier frontier battles like King's Mountain.  Hickey writes "[r]ifles, on the other hand, played a somewhat greater role because they were widely held in the West, and volunteer militia sometimes brought these weapons into the field.  Their role, however, was overrated."[66]  As noted before, the rifle was certainly more accurate and effective at longer distances, but it had some weaknesses as compared to the musket.  "But the rifle was harder to use and maintain in the field.  Unlike the musket, which used a pre-made cartridge, rifles often used a finer grade of powder (and sometimes two grades—one for the pan and one for the barrel chamber) and an individually cast ball.  Not only did the rifle take longer to load, but it was also less reliable because its grooved barrel was more likely to foul," according to Hickey.[67]  Jensen also contends that the rifle was more brittle than the musket and therefore more apt to be damaged in hand-to-hand combat.[68]  Though prized for its positive attributes, such rifles were also harder to construct, thus more rarely found in battles from the War of 1812.[69]  As a result, "Even in the West, regular troops were armed mainly with muskets."[70]  This appears to be the case at Horseshoe Bend as well.[71]

Quantity of Weapons

Even though Americans could not cite a cannon or rifle advantage over their Creek counterparts, they could still prevail in a contest of guns against traditional Indian weapons.  The bow and arrow, for example, made up a majority of the weapons the Creeks fought with.  According to John K. Mahon in the book The War of 1812, the 4,000 Red Sticks who fought in the Creek War were armed with perhaps 1,000 guns.[72]  Elting's account roughly concurs; "Possibly only one Creek warrior out of every three owned a firearm, and a good many of these were in poor condition; most Creek would have to depend on bows and arrows and war clubs."[73]  This is not because the Creeks chose their traditional bow and arrow.  According to Braund, the Creeks had been trading deerskins for guns for more than one hundred years.  The gun had become central to the Creek culture, as a rite of passage into adulthood, in addition to hunting and making war.[74]  Yet the Creeks had become dependent upon the South Carolina and Georgian traders, and had little means of restocking their weaponry when hostilities broke out.[75]  In fact, the first battle of the conflict occurred at Burnt Corn Creek, where White Creeks ambushed "Red Creeks" who had gone to Pensacola to obtain guns and ammunition from the Spanish (and possibly the British) in 1813.[76]

So the Creeks were forced to make do with the bow and arrow.  Jensen claims that the Indians had grown to view such a weapon as a "child's toy," more suitable for youngsters fighting game.[77]  Braund writes of a growing disdain for traditional weapons thanks to the deerskin trade for manufactured weapons like guns.[78]  And while the Battlefield Detectives team pronounced the bow and arrow to be the superior weapon to the musket due to a higher and stealthier rate of fire in the episode "Native American Wars: The Apache," there were some strong liabilities for such a weapon.[79]  First, Evans found that "[w]ith a bow pulling 20 pounds, it gave good accuracy up to 30 feet, fair accuracy up to 50 feet, and with a bow pulling 35 pounds, it gave good accuracy to over 60 feet.[80]  This is well short of the distances of accuracy reported for the musket.  "Under ideal conditions, the musket was accurate up to 100 yards, and a lucky shot could be lethal at 200 or even 300 yards."[81] 

Though muskets were still prone to misfires and inaccuracies, there was still another factor that made the Springfield Model 1795 superior to the Creek bow and arrow: its stopping power.  According to Jensen the bow and arrow was used more to maim the enemy, until the disabled foe could be dispatched by a hand weapon like a tomahawk or club.[82]  But such tactics pale in comparison to the United States soldiers' volley fire.  Furthermore, the Creeks did not adopt the disciplined firing tactics adopted by their enemies.  Mahon quotes Major-General Cocke as observing arrows "form a very principal part of the enemy's arms for warfare, every man having a bow with a bundle of arrows, which is used after the first fire with the gun, until a leisure time for loading offers."[83]

In the heat of combat, a single musket shot at Horseshoe Bend must have been all the Red Sticks could muster once the barricade had been breached by the American regulars.  At that point, another deadly weapon could be employed in hand-to-hand combat that the Indians had no answer for: the bayonet.  Hickey writes of the success adopted by some militia using the bayonet against the Creeks in close fighting.[84]  Tebbel and Jennison reinforce this with their words "The Creeks fought with consummate bravery, but their clubs and tomahawks could scarcely prevail against American bayonets at close quarters."[85]  The Creeks may not have lost to a better gun (the rifle) or stronger firepower (the cannon), but they were clearly outgunned on 27 March 1814.  The sheer quantity of muskets (and their bayonets) that Jackson's forces could bring to bear against the fewer guns the Creeks could muster may have played a key role in the outcome of the battle.

Geography Tests

The geography of a battle site can play a critical role in the outcome of a conflict.  Hickey cites a scholar who proclaimed, "Nature, not yet subdued by man, interposed stupendous obstacles" during the War of 1812.[86]  Hickey goes on to document the difficulty of moving goods across poorly constructed roads and trails.  Much of this is influenced not only by the land itself, but the impact of the weather upon such area, where rain and melting snow could turn to slush and mud, trapping heavy wagons."[87]  Waterways offered a better means of movement, but were such options available in the Creek campaign?  Did such geographic factors play a decisive role in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend?


Getting to the battle site seemed to represent the greatest impact of the terrain upon Jackson's men.  According to Holland "From his base of supply at Fort Deposit at the southernmost dip of the Tennessee [River] he would cut a military road to the Coosa River."[88]  This meant that waterways did play a role in the movement of Jackson's army, as well as the need to cut his way through some inhospitable territory.  While the Tennessean leader seemed able to use his iron will conduct a successful forced march of his fighters, supplies were a different matter.  Andrist details the struggles Jackson had with keeping his army well-supplied,[89] a logistical problem that Hickey reminds his readers.[90]  And Elting argues that Jackson's lack of supplies was because "the river was too low for cargo craft."[91]

While the terrain hampered Jackson's campaign of 1813 and early 1814, there is no indication that the location of the battle site dictated the outcome of the battle.  The Red Sticks did choose an excellent defensive site that could be protected by their log barricade.  Any infantry charge would have to go across an open plain, in full view of the wall defenders, making it easier to pick off the attackers.  So the Creeks could have used terrain to their favor, perhaps even forcing an American withdrawal.  But they did not, due to a geographic oversight.  Few, if any of Chief Menawa's warriors were deployed along the Tallapoosa River to protect the fleet of canoes that would serve as the escape route.[92]

As a result of the blunder, some of Coffee's men and their Cherokee allies were able to slip across the river and capture those canoes, cutting off the Creek fighters.[93]  Even worse for the Red Sticks, some of the Cherokees "occupied some high ground in [the] rear of the breastwork, from which they could take its defenders under fire."[94]  Holland also writes that the Cherokees could also burn the village itself, and deal "heavy execution" to the Creeks caught in the crossfire, which was the signal for Jackson's men to deliver their decisive assault.[95]  Furthermore, Coffee, the Cherokees and the Creek allies were able to pick off many Red Sticks trying to swim the Tallapoosa to safety.  As Holland observes in his article "The deadly accuracy of Coffee's riflemen, encompassing the bend and posted on the small island, ‘did great execution.'  Three of Coffee's officers stationed in the best positions for observing that particular matter, made a joint statement after the battle: ‘We are of opinion that , among the killed of the enemy, there was, from two hundred and fifty to three hundred, killed and sunk, or was [sic] thrown into the river, by their friends.'"[96]

Had the Creek chiefs done a better job of protecting their rear on that fateful March day, they most likely would have easily sniped Coffee's men and the Cherokees swimming across the river or stealing the canoes.  While the Creeks would have remained surrounded, they would not have been caught in the crossfire at the barricade, which would have dramatically increased Jackson's losses in his assault.  So the terrain could have worked to the advantage of Chief Menawa's men, had they fully exploited their advantage.


Foul weather, like inhospitable terrain, can foul up a military leader's plans.  Yet there is no indication that rain, scorching heat, or any other inclement weather hampered either the forces from Tennessee, or the Creeks in Alabama.  According to Jensen, "climate did not play a decisive role in the conflict."[97]

But there is a way that the weather may have played a role in the high death toll among Indians on 27 March 1814.  As Tebbel and Jennison tell us "Jackson could not know that what was inspiring the Creeks to extraordinary valor was their conviction that the Great Spirit would give them victory, a belief supported by the medicine men who moved among them at the height of the battle and promised the tide would turn when a cloud appeared in the sky as a sign to them.  In the lull that occurred as Jackson made his surrender offer, a cloud did appear.  A great cry went up from the Creeks and renewed the battle with inspired fury.  But the cloud meant no more than a brief shower."[98]  Thus, climate did play a role, but not in a geographic sense that would facilitate or hamper logistics.  It played a role in the morale and ideology of the Red Creeks, however.

Health and Morale Tests

As noted in the previous test, enthusiasm of the fighters may have played a role in the outcome of the battle.  For the United States forces, it seems that the soldiers were not always in perfect health during the campaign.  Andrist reports that before the Battle of Talladega General Jackson "set out at once even though ill with dysentery and in considerable pain."[99]  It is likely that others under his command had similar afflictions, given the difficulty of supplies keeping up with the army.[100]  "Old Hickory" had insisted he would push forward, even if his men had to live "off of acorns," which may have accounted for some of the American health problems.[101]  In fact, as the campaign continued, Jackson's condition was so bad that at Fort Strother, "[h]e was now in constant agony from dysentery, which had grown so much worse that it left his stomach weakened for the rest of his life."[102]  After the battle, Jackson reported to the Secretary of War that his force had been reduced considerably by sickness after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.[103]

In addition to concerns about health, the United States forces also had to deal with low morale among their own fighters.  Often, the lack of supplies contributed to this throughout the War of 1812.  As Hickey writes "armies march on their stomachs, and if they are not adequately fed or supplied with clothing, equipment, or other necessities, morale is likely to plummet, impairing fighting effectiveness."[104]

At Fort Strother (in modern-day Central Alabama), Jackson had to agree to withdraw to Tennessee to keep his mean from performing a mutiny.  Yet even when supplies arrived, the men had lost their taste for combat.  According to Andrist "when Jackson gave the order to march back to Fort Strother, the men stood sullenly where they were, and one company started moving toward home.  Jackson galloped his horse in front of the company and snatched a musket from a soldier.  He leveled the weapon at the mutinous men, and his blue eyes were cold as he announced he would kill the first man who took another step toward Tennessee.  After a tense minute, the would-be mutineers turned around and began moving the other way.  Jackson handed the musket back to its owner, who remarked quietly, ‘Shucks, General, it couldn't shoot anyhow.'  Someone checked the gun; it was in such bad condition that it could not be fired."[105]  Tebbel and Jennison tell a similar tale.[106]

Though the conclusion of the story had a humorous twist, there was nothing funny about Jackson's precarious situation.  When the enlistment period ended, hundreds left his service.  "Only 130 veterans were left by the time the eight hundred recruits came into camp."[107]  Such problems continued to plague Jackson during the entire campaign.  According to Elting, Jackson needed to arrest his second-in-command (Major-General Cocke) for mutiny, as well as a militia brigadier general.[108]  "And, to the utter astonishment of the entire army, a militia private was shot for mutiny."[109]

Though heavily reinforced by the start of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, morale remained an issue among the American forces.  On the morning of 27 March 1814, Jackson ordered "Any officer or soldier who flies before the enemy without being compelled to do so by superior force…shall suffer death."[110]  Clearly, "Old Hickory" was so concerned that his men would not fight that such an extreme order had to be given.  Morale did not seem to play a positive role on the American side in this conflict.

For the Creeks, it was a different story.  Elting describes the Red Sticks as "undoubtedly overconfident" at Horseshoe Bend, as a result of several victories (against Jackson's second-in-command John Coffee near the Tallapoosa River, at Enotachopco Creek, and against the Georgia militia at Tuckaubatchee).[111]  Holland writes that Jackson's men were "hailed with a challenge to the combat from this strong wall," that defended Tohopeka.[112]

As for concerns about health, few accounts speak of Creeks being decimated by the traditional communicable illnesses that ravaged other tribes of Native Americans.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that they had a long standing history of trade with Anglo-Americans that Braund discusses.[113]  Yet she characterizes the Creeks as warriors of "disease, depopulation and displacement."[114]  How is this possible?  According to this scholar, "the greatest evil produced by the trade was the uncontrolled traffic in rum that contributed to the growing menace of alcoholism among a people who had no social prohibitions on drunkenness."[115]  Could this have contributed to Creek overconfidence at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend?  Academics do not note the direct link, though drinking did hamper the Creek social order somewhat.[116]  Nevertheless, the Creeks certainly displayed a stronger morale on the day of the conflict, and lacked many of the ailments that afflicted their American enemies.

Combatant Unity Tests

The Creeks may have held the edge over the American forces in terms of health and morale, but were they a more unified bunch of fighters?  Scholars don't seem to think so.  Elting writes of the Civil War that emerged between the "White" Creeks (primarily of Lower Creek towns) that preferred the lifestyle and practices of the Americans (ranging from property ownership to adoption of modern goods) and the "Red" Creeks.[117]  Consisting of 29 of the 34 Upper Creek towns, these "Red Sticks" chose traditional practices, aligning themselves with Tecumseh's war against the whites (in fact, the Shawnee leader actually visited the Creeks and encouraged their actions), according to Elting.[118] 

Elting and others write of the great divide between the White and Red Creeks.[119]  During these conflicts, both sides killed would ambush and kill each other.  White Creek Chiefs and their police were assassinated by Red Sticks, leading to retaliation at Burnt Corn Creek, where White Creeks attacked a party of Red Creeks.[120]  The fighting at Fort Mims seemed to involve more White Creeks than whites.[121]  In fact, Holland claims that 100 of Jackson's Indian allies at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend were White Creeks.[122]  Hickey finds their role invaluable to the American cause.  "Andrew Jackson prevailed in the climatic Battle of Horseshoe Bend at least in part because he had a sizeable number of Indian allies on his side."[123]

But there was more to the story of Indian divisions than the White Creek vs. Red Creek "Civil War."  Saunt discusses "the emergence of extreme material inequality between poor and wealthy Indians."[124]  This economic dichotomy is played out in the competing sides of conflict.  "On one side, Redsticks, as they called themselves, opposed the recent emergence of a powerful and privileged Creek elite.  Inspired by Tecumseh and by a number of Muskogee prophets, they sought to restore a time when their communities were not driven by political and economic inequalities, when the produce of a woman's farm and the labor of a man's hunt sustained every Creek household.  On the other side, Creek leaders and their adherents defended the seductive wealth and power that came from adopting Euro-American traditions such as slavery, market exchange, and coercive government."[125]

The issues of government and the lack of unity among Creeks are also found in an article by Hassig.  "At the town level, the miko and his councilors determined whether or not war should be declared….[R]arely was even a single town unanimous over the question of whether or not to go to war, much less the entire confederacy."[126]  This decentralized form of administration among the Creek was played out on a Nation-level.  "[I]t must be remembered that unanimity among the Creeks was a rare occurrence.  Not only were the towns seldom unanimous, but…[t]here was little pantribal political unity."[127]  Nevertheless, his account finds the age of the individual and town location as stronger factors for determining Red Stick participation than social structural divisions.[128]

Why were the Creeks so divided?  In his review of J. Leitch Wright's book Creeks and Seminoles (1986), Ball describes the Creeks as "a study in Indian diversity."[129]  He claims "The word ‘Creek' (those who live where there are many creeks) is English in origin, and became a term of convenience applied to Indians who were not Cherokee, Choctaw, or Chickasaw."[130]  Therefore, the "Creek tribe" would be constituted by outsiders as a way of lumping disparate groups of Indians together, later finding ways to similarly divide a group that was never really unified to suit their purposes.  For example, Ball points out "Creeks, like Seminoles, required translators to communicate among themselves as well as with non-Indians."[131]  When such a group does not even have a common language, it is difficult to conclude that they were a unified unit.  "The Muscogulges' (Wright's name for Creeks and Seminoles) eclectic cultural history compounded the complexities of their politics under imperial pressure."[132]

So the Creeks were certainly weakened by a lack of tribal unity, economic disparities, politics, and even ethnolinguistic fractionalization.  But how unified were their foes?  As documented earlier, Jackson's forces suffered from internal divisions, as evidenced by the arrest of Cocke (commander of the East Tennessee militia) for mutiny.[133]  But the problems exceeded the actions of a single man.  According to Elting, "the crowning difficulty was the American militia system, with its elected officers, consequent lack of discipline, and short terms of service, along with the everlasting politicking among senior officers in search of future political advancement and the two-strange-dogs relationship between militia from different states."[134]  Differences played a role in the disproportionate number of casualties suffered by "who had fought and won the battle," according to Elting.[135]  More members of the 39th Infantry (regulars) and Indian allies (Cherokee and White Creek) made up most of the casualties, while the raw militia hung back, incurring few losses.[136]  Though hardly a monolithic fighting force however, Jackson's forces seemed far more unified than even the Creeks at Tohopeka.

Tactics Tests

The final argument to be tested is the assertion that the tactics employed by both sides played a role not only in the victory, but the disparity in casualties.  Certainly war is a difficult matter to refine or make humane.  But the American war with the Creek appeared to be highly bitter indeed. 

Creek Actions

According to Elting, "Little Warrior (a Creek chief of rising importance) and six warriors "joined Tecumseh and took part in the River Raisin massacre….the River Raisin slaughter had infected these Creek with a lust to kill.  On their way home in early February, they paused just north of the Ohio River to butcher two unsuspecting white families, then went on across Chickasaw territory bragging of their exploits and flaunting their scalps and booty they had taken.  One would boast that he had grown fat eating white men's flesh."[137]

After the failed ambush of the Red Sticks at Burnt Corn Creek, Chief Red Eagle (William Weatherford, who was ironically 7/8ths white) led an attack on Fort Mims in Alabama in 1813.  Only 20 escaped from of a garrison of 557 militiamen and civilians.[138]  "For the rest, there was death and mutilation."[139]  And Tebbel and Jennison add "Those who were too frightened to come out and face the Indians were burned alive…Men, women and children were hacked to death unmercifully.  It was a scene of frightful brutality."[140]  Even if many were White Creeks or half-bloods, it enraged the United States and led to Jackson's campaign that decimated the Creeks.  The continued conduct of the Creeks even shocked their allies overseas.  According to Hickey "The British were equally powerless to stop the Creek Red Sticks in the Old Southwest from eating their American prisoners."[141]

But Creeks did not foment, nor wish for, such atrocities in all instances.  Tebbel and Jennison describe Weatherford as "aghast" at the violence and that his braves were "beyond his control."[142]  In the moments following the loss at Horseshoe Bend, a white woman (Polly Jones) who had been captured by the Red Creeks at Fort Mims was liberated, along with several African-Americans seized in the same conflict,[143] showing that not all captives were tortured and killed after the massacre in 1813.  Later, after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Weatherford chose to willingly give himself up.  "I am come to give myself up," Weatherford told his rival in April of 1814.  "Dispose of me as you please….I have nothing to request…[for] myself…But I beg you to send for the women and children of the war party, who have been driven to the woods without an ear of corn…They never did any harm.  But kill me, if the white people want it done."[144]

American Actions

At the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, there were moments where General Jackson and his men made attempts to limit the brutality of the conflict.  Elting claims that offers for surrender to the Creeks were spurned.[145]  Andrist's account says, "twice Jackson called on them to surrender, but they refused and fought until they died."[146]  Holland writes that the warriors "disdained surrender."[147]  In Tebbel and Jennison's account Jackson "offered to protect those who surrendered…at the midpoint of the bloody afternoon."[148]  But that was when the fateful cloud emerged, a prearranged signal for victory promised by the Creek prophets, which led the fighters to continue their struggle.  Both authors, along with Elting list a Creek last stand at a small stronghold, where Red Sticks rejected offers of surrender.[149]  All were killed when flaming arrows destroyed their log structure.[150]

Not all agree with these accounts.  As Hickey tells it "Americans reciprocated in kind, rarely taking warriors as prisoners, sometimes slaying women and children, and often appropriating human trophies to celebrate success on the battlefield.  In 1814, for example, Creek warriors in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend did not seek quarter, nor did Jackson offer any.  Instead, the Indians were hunted down and killed."[151]

Hickey opens up a second debate, about the treatment of non-combatants in this conflict.  Holland quotes Jackson's account of the battle to Tennessee Governor "Willie" Blount "I lament…that two or three women and children were killed by accident."[152]  Tebbel and Jennison go further than that, noting that "Jackson held the charge [assault on the barricades] until the Creek women and children were led safely across the river out of range."[153]  Elting disputes Jackson's account, calling it "what must have been one of the understatements of the century."[154]  Regardless of how many civilians died, all agree that hundreds of women and children were taken prisoner.[155]  While some were spirited away by the Cherokees, the rest were taken by White Creeks to a camp near modern-day Huntsville, Alabama, where General Jackson ordered the officer "You will keep them together in the neighborhood of Huntsville, or in the town, until further ordered, and call on the contractor for provisions for them—you will cause them to be humanely treated."[156]

The accounts on the day of the Horseshoe Bend battle may differ on details, but few can dispute a tragedy which the year before.  Known as "the Hillabee Massacre," it may provide an equally compelling reason why most Creeks fought to the death, moreso than any other factor noted in this analysis.  On 18 November 1813, the forces of General James White, acting on the orders of Major-General Cocke, killed many warriors and burned the Hillabee towns.[157]  What Cocke did not know, or ignored, was the fact that the Hillabees had already begun negotiations of peace with Jackson.  As a result, many Hillabees refused to surrender again, and evidence shows that several were present at Tohopeka the following year.[158]  It is likely that these men told others about the consequences of giving in to the Whites, even if Jackson and his men had not been responsible for the massacre.

Some might point out that there were moments where Americans provided kinder treatment of their Creek foes.  During the meeting with Weatherford, Jackson offered his defeated enemy a brandy, and they exchanged promises.  Jackson would feed the hungry Creek noncombatants, while Weatherford would try and talk Red Sticks into surrender.[159]  And General Jackson's own account of meeting with the Red Stick leader is as such "Weatherford has been with me, and I did not confine him.  He will be with me again in a few days….We will overtake those who have fled and make them sensible there is no more safety in flight than in resistance.  They must supplicate peace if they would enjoy it."[160]

This promise of aid is also under dispute.  Saunt claims that Jackson's offer to sell land ceded to him in the Treaty of Fort Jackson "‘to clothe their poor naked women and children'" as an example of "false magnanimity."[161]  Worse yet was the price the Creeks had to pay in the Treaty of Fort Jackson, signed on 9 August 1814.  Millions of acres of land, roughly half of all Creek lands were granted to the United States in modern-day Alabama and Georgia.[162]  Though one of articles dealt with American obligations to supply the Indians until their own crops could be replenished, the loss of land devastated all Creeks, Red and White.[163]  According to Ball "The Creeks allied with Jackson were nonetheless regarded as members of a Creek [N]ation after battle.  When peace was negotiated, the Creek [N]ation was made to cede half its lands, including towns and hunting grounds of Indians who fought alongside Jackson….Their reward for alliance was insult and injury."[164]  Elting documents that the Creeks "protested vainly" against such an injustice,[165] however, Saunt tempers this by showing the true motives of White Creek chiefs.  "Big Warrior (a White Creek chief) and his cohort not once asked that its shortcomings be redressed.  Their real concern, as events reveal, was the promised compensation for lost or damaged property."[166]  Whatever the Creeks wanted was irrelevant, as most were deported to Oklahoma (along with Jackson's Cherokee allies from the Battle of Horseshoe Bend) as mandated by the Indian Removal Act, which occurred during Jackson's Presidency.[167]

What can be made of this hypothesis test?  The first lesson is that the accounts differ considerably.  It is unclear whether Jackson made offers of surrender, or whether women and children were purposefully harmed, Jackson's intentions toward supplying the Creek people who surrendered, or what Creek leaders really wanted out of the controversial Treaty of Fort Jackson.  Some of this may be attributable to the "fog of war" or difficulties associated with archival research.  But there have been consistently documented atrocities, such as the Creek massacre at Fort Mims and Cocke's massacre of the Hillabees. 

The second lesson is that there may have been some episodes of good words and will, such as the account of Jackson's exchange with William Weatherford, where adversaries put aside their hostility and engaged in mutual cooperation.  But these pale in comparison to the killings as well as the forced removal of Indian tribes, even those that fought with Americans at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.  In other words, there may well have been many instances of idealism practiced by Americans and Creeks alike.  But the horrors of massacres and the brutal retaliations that follow demonstrate that the preponderance of evidence leans toward the perpetration of realist tactics against combatants and non-combatants alike. 

These tactics may not have explained necessarily who won at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.  But they do account for why so many Creeks died in battle.  Expecting death upon surrender, based upon the lesson of the Hillabees, most warriors fought to the death.  And eager to avenge Creek atrocities at the Battle of Fort Mims, most soldiers were willing to provide that death.

Conclusion: From Tohopeka to Tora Bora

At this point in the analysis, it is useful to take stock of which factors played an important role in the outcome of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, and those that did not.  Evidence shows that the quality of the weapons did not matter so much, in terms of artillery preeminence, or a rifle's superiority to the musket.  But weapons did matter in the sense that General Jackson's forces appear to have "outgunned" his Creek adversaries.  Desiring, yet possessing fewer muskets than the Americans, a sizeable number of Red Sticks had to make do with a weapon they had grown to disdain somewhat: the bow-and-arrow.

Neither the geographic location of the fight, nor the weather on that March day in 1814 played a role that directly benefitted the American forces.  Creek losses from being caught in the crossfire as well as retreating were not attributable to bad ground so much as bad planning.  And while the weather did not dampen the gunpowder or scorch the defenders, prophets interpreted the presence of a cloud as a sign to disdain surrender and continue the hopeless struggle.  Though the outcome was not in doubt at that time, it may have contributed to the higher body count among the Creeks.

Just as the cloud and drizzle raised, rather than dampened the spirits of the Red Sticks, so too did issues of health and morale benefit the Creeks in this fight, rather than the Americans.  In fact, supply problems and threats of mutiny show that such a factor nearly cost the Americans the campaign even before the battle was fought.  Clearly these factors did not determine the outcome of the fight in favor of General Jackson's men.

But there were elements of battles that General Jackson was able to turn to his advantage on that fateful day.  Having a favorable ratio of soldiers to warriors allowed the Tennessean to flank the enemy, cut off their escape route, and still have enough men to storm the barricades.  As noted earlier, having more muskets (and bayonets to outreach the Creek war club) also played into the hands of the American forces. 

Other factors contributed to the success of the American side.  The gap between Americans (regulars and militia) as well as their Indian allies (Cherokees and "White" Creeks) was not as great as those ironically faced by Red Sticks at Tohopeka.  Lacking a common identity, as well as a common language, Creeks seemed highly disorganized as an Indian Nation, fighting as much within their tribe as with their enemies abroad.  The final factor that not only may have influenced the battle outcome, but the vast disparity in casualties, were the tactics used by both sides.  Reports were made of honorable conduct by each side, but these are both disputed and dwarfed by the greater levels of atrocities waged against each other.  However, it was General Jackson who was able to use these "realist" actions to his advantage, inspiring his troops to "exterminate" the enemy in revenge for the Fort Mims massacre.[168]  More of Jackson's Machiavellian methods emerged after the Horseshoe Bend hostilities, when all Creeks (including his White Creek cronies) were punished by the Treaty of Fort Jackson, and later the Indian Removal Acts, which not only "ethnically cleansed" the Southeast United States of his former White Creek friends, but his Cherokee allies as well, paving the way for an American "Manifest Destiny."  A political "realist" would have certainly been pleased with "Old Hickory."

Now that the lessons of Horseshoe Bend are clear, how are they relevant for combat today?  It is important to note that today's conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the "War on Terrorism" have more in common with America's clashes with the Native Americans, as opposed to the large-scale warfare of the World Wars in the 20th Century, or the "set piece battles" of the 18th and 19th Century.  Such conflicts not only differ in scale, but in scope, given that the fighting in the Creek War of 1813 and 1814 resembles more of today's asymmetric warfare, where the line between combatant and non-combatant is blurred in terms of targets.

For today's students of asymmetric warfare, the Battle of Horseshoe Bend has some lessons to teach us.  Weaponry and morale need not always be superior; better firepower may not carry the day, and the enemy may be more motivated to fight.  Nor must the terrain be clearly favorable to one side to facilitate a successful operation.  Such shortcomings can be overcome with superior numbers, in terms of fighters and simply more of a "regular" type weapon or equipment of the day, as opposed to the latest fancy piece of technology.  If gaps in the enemy's level of unity can be exploited, employing disparate members of the opposing force as scouts and fighters for your side can be invaluable.  Finally, repugnant as they may seem in polite circles, evidence shows that the employment of realist tactics where idealism is infeasible or rejected by the other side can carry the day.

Imagine if the situation were not Tohopeka, but Tora Bora several years ago.  A highly motivated al-Qaeda force waits in a geographically secure location in Afghanistan.  But instead of the oft-criticized U.S. military operation in Eastern Shura, imagine if a modern-day General Jackson had been in charge.  What if he surrounded enemy positions (instead of exposing a Pakistani escape route) to prevent retreat, effectively employed some recruited local Pashtun or warlord allies (rather than subcontracting the duties to Northern Alliance fighters or exiles lacking the respect of nearby residents), and assaulted the al-Qaeda position with well-armed soldiers in those caves, instead of relying on some "shock-and-awe" bombardment?[169]  Like Jackson in March of 1814, American casualties would have been higher, but most of enemy would not have escaped to fight another day, and the current War on Terrorism might have claimed its most prized adversary.

About the Author:

John A. Tures is an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia.  He holds the following degrees: BA in Communications and Political Science (Trinity University, San Antonio, TX), MS in International Studies (Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI) and Ph.D in Political Science (Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL).  He has published articles in International Studies Quarterly, Journal of Peace Research, Journal of American Studies, Journal of Conflict, Security and DevelopmentWhitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations, Journal of International and Area Studies, Peace and Conflict Monitor, Online Journal for Peace and Conflict Resolution, American Diplomacy, Middle East Journal, East European Quarterly, New Balkan Politics, Cato Journal, Journal for Private Enterprise, Journal for Applied Global Research, as well as research monographs for the United States Government, the University of Georgia, and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Berlin, Germany.


[1] Andrist, Ralph K. Andrew Jackson: Soldier and Statesman. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co. Inc., 1963, 58; Tebbel, John and Keith Jennison. The American Indian Wars. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2006, 175.

[2] Andrist, Jackson, p.61; Holland, James W. Victory at the Horseshoe Bend. Fort Washington, PA: Eastern National, 2004, 27.

[3] Elting, John R. Amateurs to Arms!  A Military History of the War of 1812. Chapel Hill, NC: Da Capo Press, 1995, 173.

[4] Holland, Victory, 5.

[5] Holland, Victory, 46.

[6] Tebbel and Jennison, Wars, 209.

[7] Tebbel and Jennison, Wars, 185.

[8] Wason, David. Battlefield Detectives. London: Granada Media Group Ltd., 2003, 10.

[9] Monroe, Alan D. Essentials of Political Research. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000, 17.

[10] Monroe, Essentials, 17-8.

[11] Monroe, Essentials, 19.

[12] Kissinger, Henry. The White House Years. Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Co., 1979.

[13] Organski, A. F. K. World Politics. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958.

[14] Kim, Woosang. 'Power Parity, Alliance and War from 1648 to 1975', in Kugler, Jacek and Douglas Lemke, (Eds.), Parity and War. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1996, 93-4.

[15] Wason, Battlefield, 180-1.

[16] Wason, Battlefield, 180.

[17] Wason, Battlefield, 217.

[18] Malkasian, Carter.  'Toward a Better Understanding of Attrition: The Korean and Vietnam Wars', The Journal of Military History, 68 (July 2004), 911.

[19] Malkasian, Toward, 913.

[20] Malkasian, Toward, 914.

[21] Sweet, Frank W. 'Evolution of Infantry Assault Tactics, 1850-1918', American Military University: unpublished manuscript, 1997, 2.

[22] Sweet, 'Evolution'.

[23] Ziegler, David W. War, Peace and International Politics, 8th. Edition. New York: Longman, 2000, 225.

[24] Raudzens, George. 'War-Winning Weapons: The Measurement of Technological Determinism in Military History', The Journal of Military History, 54 (October 1990), 403.

[25] Wason, Battlefield, 200.

[26] Wason, Battlefield, 200.

[27] Wason, Battlefield, 200.

[28] Wason, Battlefield, 201-2.

[29] Wason, Battlefield, 202-3.

[30] Hughes, Major-General B. P. Firepower: Weapons Effectiveness on the Battlefield, 1630-1850. London: Purnell Book Services, 1974, 27-9.

[31] Hughes, Firepower, 27-9.

[32] Hughes, Firepower, 29.

[33] Raudzens, 'War-Winning,’ 415.

[34] Sweet, 'Evolution'.

[35] US Army Field Artillery School. 'Right of the Line: A History of the American Field Artillery', Fort Sill, Oklahoma: unpublished manuscript, 1984.

[36] Hart, Hornell. 'Technological Acceleration and the Atomic Bomb', American Sociological Review, 11, 3 (June 1946), 288.

[37] Hughes, 'Firepower', 29.

[38] Tsouras, Peter G. Fighting In Hell. New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1995, 6.

[39] Tsouras, Fighting, 7.

40] Balfour, T. Graham. 'Comparative Health of Seamen and Soldiers', Journal of the Statistical Society, 35, 1 (March 1872), 1-2.

[41] Ulio, Brigadier General James A. 'Military Morale', The American Journal of Sociology, 47, 3 (November 1941), 321.

[42] Ulio, Morale, 324.

[43] Ulio, Morale, 330.

[44] Wason, Battlefield,, 198.

[45] Wason, Battlefield, 198.

[46] Gaubatz, Kurt Taylor. 'Democratic States and Commitment in International Relations', International Organization, 50 (1996), 109-39.

[47] Reed, William. 'Alliance Duration and Democracy: An Extension and Cross-Validation of Democratic States and Commitment in International Relations', American Journal of Political Science, 41, 3 (July 1997), 1072.

[48] Levy, Jack S. 'The Diversionary Theory of War: A Critique', in Midlarsky, Manus I., (Ed.), Handbook of War Studies. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1989, 260-261.

[49] Wason, Battlefield, 206-9.

[50] As cited in Betts, Richard K. Conflict After the Cold War, 3rd. Edition. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2008, 56.

[51] As cited in Betts, Conflict, 58.

[52] As cited in Betts, Conflict, 59.

[53] As cited in Betts, Conflict, 60.

[54] As cited in Betts, Conflict, 123.

[55] As cited in Betts, Conflict, 68.

[56] Wason, Battlefield.

[57] Holland, Victory, 22-3.

[58] Holland, Victory, 23.

[59] Holland, Victory, 24-5.

[60] Holland, Victory, 25.

[61] Tebbel and Jennison, Wars, 175.

[62] Holland, Victory, 23.

[63] Holland, Victory, 20.

[64] Elting, Amateurs, 172; Holland, Victory, 24-5.

[65] Elting, Amateurs, 173.

[66] Hickey, Donald R. Don't Give Up The Ship!  Myths of the War of 1812. Urbana, IL and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006, 225.

[67] Hickey, Myths, 240.

[68] Jensen, Ove. 'The Battle of Horseshoe Bend: An Interview', New Site, AL: National Park Service, 1 November 2007.

[69] Jensen, 'Interview'.

[70] Hickey, Myths, 240.

[71] Jensen, 'Interview'.

[72] Mahon, John K. The War of 1812. Chapel Hill, NC: Da Capo Press, 1991.

[73] Elting, Amateurs, 161.

[74] Braund, Kathryn E. Holland. 'Deerskins and Duffels: The Creek Indian Trade with Anglo-America, 1685-1815', in Kathryn E. Holland Braund, (Ed.), Indians of the Southeast, Lincoln, NE and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

[75] Braund, 'Deerskins'; Jensen, 'Interview'.

[76] Holland, Victory, 7.

[77] Jensen, 'Interview'.

[78] Braund, 'Deerskins'.

[79] Battlefield Detectives. 'Native American Wars: The Apache', Item Number: AAE-75898: Granada, ITV, 2006.

[80] Evans, Oren F. 'Probable Use of Stone Projectile Points', American Antiquity, 23, 1 (July 1957), 83-84.

[81] Hickey, Myths, 238.

[82] Jensen, 'Interview'.

[83] Mahon, 1812.

[84] Hickey, Myths, 245.

[85] Tebbel and Jennison, Wars, 175.

[86] Hickey, Myths, 245.

[87] Hickey, Myths, 245.

[88] Holland, Victory, 13.

[89] Andrist, Jackson, 54.

[90] Hickey, Myths, 245.

[91] Elting, Amateurs, 167.

[92] Tebbel and Jennison, Wars, 175. 

[93] Elting, Amateurs, p.172; Holland, Victory, p.23-4; Tebbel and Jennison, Wars, 175.

[94] Elting, Amateurs, 172.

[95] Holland, Victory, 24.

[96] Holland, Victory, 26.

[97] Jensen, 'Interview'.

[98] Tebbel and Jennison, Wars, 175-176.

[99] Andrist, Jackson, 56.

[100] Andrist, Jackson, 54.

[101] Elting, Amateurs, 167.

[102] Andrist, Jackson, 56.

[103] Holland, Victory, 29.

[104] Hickey, Myths, 245.

[105] Andrist, Jackson, 56-8.

[106] Tebbel and Jennison, Wars, 70.

[107] Andrist, Jackson, 58.

[108] Elting, Amateurs, 171.

[109] Elting, Amateurs, 172.

[110] Holland, Victory, 22; Tebbel and Jennison, Wars, 75.

[111] Elting, Amateurs, 170-2.

[112] Holland, Victory, 23.

[113] Braund, 'Deerskins'.

[114] Braund, 'Deerskins', 4.

[115] Braund, 'Deerskins'.

[116] Braund, 'Deerskins'. 

117] Elting, Amateurs, 162.

[118] Elting, Amateurs, 161, see also Hassig, Ross. 'Internal Conflict in the Creek War of 1813-1814', Ethnohistory, 21, 3 (Summer 1974), 251-71. 

[119] Elting, Amateurs, and others (Mahon, 1991; Holland, Victory; Tebbel and Jennison, Wars.

[120] Tebbel and Jennison, Wars, 67.

[121] Tebbel and Jennison, Wars, 67-8.

[122] Holland, Victory, 22.

[123] Hickey, Myths, 178.

[124] Saunt, Claudio. 'Taking Account of Property: Stratification Among the Creek Indians in the Early Nineteenth Century', William and Mary Quarterly, LVII, 4 (October 2000), 737.

[125] Saunt, Property, 733.

[126] Hassig, Internal, 254.

[127] Hassig, Internal, 254-5.

[128] Hassig, Internal, 251.

[129] Ball, Milner S. 'Tribal Diversities and American Response', Reviews in American History, 17, 1 (March 1989), 54.

[130] Ball, Tribal, 54-55.

[131] Ball, Tribal, 55

[132] Ball, Tribal, 55.

[133] Elting, Amateurs, 171.

[134] Elting, Amateurs, 166.

[135] Elting, Amateurs, 173.

[136] Elting, Amateurs, 173.

[137] Elting, Amateurs, 161.

[138] Elting, Amateurs, 164-165.

[139] Elting, Amateurs, 165.

[140] Tebbel and Jennison, Wars, 168-169.

[141] Hickey, Myths, 179.

[142] Tebbel and Jennison, Wars, 69.

[143] Holland, Victory, 29.

[144] Tebbel and Jennison, Wars; see also similar accounts from Andrist, Jackson, p.61; Elting, Amateurs, p.173; and Holland, Victory, 29.

[145] Elting, Amateurs, 173.

[146] Andrist, Jackson, 58.

[147] Holland, Victory, 26.

[148] Tebbel and Jennison, Wars, 175.

[149] Elting, Amateurs, 173.

[150] Tebbel and Jennison, Wars, 176.

[151] Hickey, Myths, 179-80.

[152] Holland, Victory, 27.

[153] Tebbel and Jennison, Wars, 175.

[154] Elting, Amateurs, 173.

[155] Elting, Amateurs, 173.

[156] Holland, Victory, 27.

[157] Holland, Victory, 15.

[158] Holland, Victory, 15.

[159] Andrist, Jackson; Elting, Amateurs; Holland, Victory; Tebbel and Jennison, Wars.

[160] Vermont Republican 'The Creek War: Official dispatch [sic] from Gen. Jackson to his Excellency Gov. Blount', 6 June 1814.

[161] Saunt, Property, 741-2.

[162] Holland, Victory, 36.

[163] Holland, Victory, 36.

[164] Ball, Tribal, 56.

[165] Elting, Amateurs, 174.

[166] Saunt, Property, 742.

[167] Andrist, Jackson, pp.129-130; Tebbel and Jennison, Wars, 21-33.

[168] Elting, Amateurs, 172.

[169] Smucker, Philip. 'How Bin Laden Got Away', Christian Science Monitor, 4 March 2002.


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