C&I talks with award-winning author Peters Cozzens regarding his recent book about Andrew Jackson, the Creek Indians, and the epic war for the American South.
Peter Cozzens has enjoyed a career of remarkable achievement. From four years’ service as a captain in the U.S. Army, he went on to serve for 30 years as a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. State Department, with tours throughout Latin America.
In addition to his day job, Cozzens has indulged his passion for American history by researching and writing 18 equally remarkable books on the Civil War and the American West. Students of his work are likely familiar with his classic and award-winning The Earth Is Weeping, which chronicles the Indian Wars of the West beginning with Red Cloud’s War in 1866 and has been translated widely, including in Russian and Chinese editions. His next book went on to research and analyze the life and career of one of the most remarkable American Indians, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh, and his brother the prophet Tenskwatawa, who together assembled the greatest alliance of tribes in North America.
Cozzens has now completed a trilogy of books on American Indian history. His latest volume is a brilliant account of a less readily recognized but even more significant episode in American history. A Brutal Reckoning: Andrew Jackson, The Creek Indians, and the Epic War for the American South is a thoughtful and ultimately disturbing examination of the Creek Indian War of 1813 – 1814. It is without a doubt the best and most thorough history of this conflict.
It all began as a civil war within the Creek Nation over American encroachment. Within a month, the militant Red Stick faction attacked Fort Mims, north of Mobile, Alabama, and managed to transform this initially internecine struggle into a desperate war against the United States government. A large portion of the Creek Nation opposed the radical Red Sticks and, along with several other tribes, sided with the government against them.
At the time of the Red Stick uprising, the United States was also engaged in a fierce struggle with Great Britain in the War of 1812. Thus the rebellious tribesmen solicited and received military aid from the English. The conflict would seesaw throughout the Southeast until 1814, when Gen. Andrew Jackson confronted the Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, inflicting severe losses and bringing the war to a sanguinary close. For as much significance as this entire episode holds for American history, surprisingly little has been written about the Creek War. That has now been remedied.
C&I recently had the opportunity to talk with Cozzens about A Brutal Reckoning.
Battle of Horseshoe Bend (Tohopeka), Creek War, present-day southern Alabama, 1814 (Courtesy of New York Library, Digital Gallery).
C&I: The background of Creek history and culture is superb and wonderfully sophisticated. How did you go about gathering the research for your opening chapters? It must have posed a great challenge, especially considering travel restrictions during the COVID pandemic.
Peter Cozzens: In reality, COVID proved a blessing in disguise. I had completed all my archival research with one important exception, that being a visit to the Spanish colonial archives in Seville, Spain. My Spanish wife and I had traveled to Spain annually for years to visit her family and were looking forward to going to Seville when COVID hit. I thought that would thwart me, but I discovered that the Newberry Library in Chicago had Spanish-language photocopies of all the material I needed. With my research concluded and not much else to do during COVID, I threw myself into my writing and completed the manuscript a year ahead of schedule—something I doubt I’ll ever accomplish again.
C&I: American Indian society and intertribal/intratribal relations in the Southeast—not to mention relationships with white society and culture—appear to have been very complex. How did this help to precipitate the conflict?
Cozzens: They were complex indeed. Four comparatively large tribes dominated the Deep South: the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and the Creeks, with the latter in possession of what is today Alabama and western Georgia as late as 1813. The Creeks themselves were a loose confederation of villages—I call their “nation” a “rope of sand” in my book. They frequently made war on the Choctaws and the Chickasaws, which meant they couldn’t count on their help in a showdown with the United States. The Cherokees and Creeks had a more amicable relationship, but by the time of the Creek War, the Cherokee Nation was boxed in by the whites. The Cherokees had no choice but to ally themselves with the Americans against the “hostile” Creeks (Red Sticks). These varied relationships didn’t necessarily precipitate the conflict, but they made it much tougher for the Red Sticks to stand a chance of prevailing.
C&I: Although referred to as the Creek War, only the Upper Creek went to war against the United States while the Lower Creek sided with the U.S. government. Also allied to the U.S. were the Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Choctaw tribes. Was this in effect an outgrowth of a civil war within the Indian nations?
Cozzens: The divide between Upper and Lower Creeks wasn’t quite that clean. Some Lower Creeks joined the Red Sticks (as the Upper Creek “hostiles” were known). A few Upper Creek villages sought refuge among the Cherokees rather than fight the United States. You’re correct in suggesting that the alliances that the Choctaw and the Chickasaw, who controlled most of modern Mississippi, made with the United States stemmed from their long history of periodic warfare with the Creeks, as well as a lack of American interest in their land up to that time.
C&I: There were a number of competing interests in the region — Spanish, French, British, and American. How did they combine to impact the political and military situation?
Cozzens: In the early decades of American colonial history, the Creeks maintained a policy of strict neutrality when it came to the competing imperial interests. That policy was no longer tenable after the American Revolution. The best the Creeks could hope for was to keep acquisitive American settlers at bay while hoping vainly that a badly weakened Spain, with a tenuous grip on her East and West Florida possessions, could somehow thwart American expansionism. With the outbreak of the War of 1812, the Red Sticks expected that the British would send troops to the Gulf Coast to reinforce them. They did, but only after Andrew Jackson had effectively ended the conflict at Horseshoe Bend. British military aid, which was possible only after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, came a year too late for the Red Sticks.
C&I: Several of the principal actors in the unfolding drama were, one might say, unique in their backgrounds and motivations. Who, in your opinion, were the prime movers in this story and why?
Cozzens: On the Creek side, the prime movers—that is to say, those who precipitated first the Creek Civil War and later the war against the United States—were a fascinating mixed lot. Many were mixed-blood children of white Scots-Irish traders of Tory tendencies and Creek mothers of distinguished lineage (Creek society was matrilineal). They had anglicized names like Paddy Walsh, William Weatherford, and Josiah Francis. They shared a general suspicion of United States government policy, which they rightly deemed intrusive, as well as a fondness for Great Britain as a potential savior. On the American side, land-hungry white leaders such as Tennessee’s governor Willie Blount, Georgia governor David Mitchell, and the white and mixed-race residents who lived on the western fringe of the Creek Confederacy (the so-called Tensaw region) also exacerbated tensions through their disdain for Creek claims to the land. The prime movers on the white side were Andrew Jackson and Governor Willie Blount, the Tennessee legislature, and the territorial government of Mississippi and state government of Georgia.
C&I: What role did the Shawnee leader Tecumseh play in the drama?
Cozzens: He stirred up a pot of simmering anti-American feeling among the Upper Creeks. His purpose in visiting the Creeks in 1811, as well as the other Southern tribes, was to try to drum up support for his Great Lakes-region pan-Indian alliance. He failed to attract many followers from any of the Southern tribes, but he and an emissary he left behind named Seekaboo did inspire a nascent nativist, prophetic movement among the Upper Creeks. Tecumseh also gave the future Red Sticks a false hope of timely support from the British and from Tecumseh’s alliance.
C&I: The war is sometimes referred to as the Red Stick War. What is the significance of the term Red Stick?
Cozzens: Red sticks were traditional Creek war clubs, painted red, which Red Stick prophets imbued with spiritual powers. For the rank and file, the clubs became a combination of talisman and effective close-combat weapon of war.
C&I: How did America's preoccupation with the war against Great Britain affect operations in the South?
Cozzens: An excellent question. The administration of President James Madison was absorbed with the northern and eastern fronts of the War of 1812. The war was going badly for the United States, and the governors of the Mississippi Territory and the states of Tennessee and Georgia were left largely to handle the Red Stick uprising as best they could. The Madison administration didn’t seem to grasp the real danger that they could lose the Gulf Coast region, particularly after Mississippi and Georgia forces quit the war with the Red Sticks still in firm control of most of Alabama.
C&I: From Burnt Corn Creek to Fort Mims and on up to Horseshoe Bend, this was an especially sanguinary affair. Why was this the case and how does it compare with subsequent campaigns against American Indians?
Cozzens: The Creek War was indeed a bloody and brutal struggle, even by the sanguinary standards of white and Native American conflict. Ironically, the Red Sticks precipitated the atrocities at Fort Mims, not necessarily to kill and mutilate whites but rather to inflict agony on their own mixed-blood kin who had had the temerity to ally themselves with the whites. With a few notable exceptions, such as Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, subsequent white-Indian conflicts in the West and also in the Midwest were not as savage as the Creek War. Both sides in the Creek War, I must add, committed atrocities.
Portrait of planter, statesman, and Indian agent Benjamin Hawkins (1754 – 1818), teaching Creek Indians how to use a plow on his plantation along the Flint River in central Georgia (Painter unknown, 1805, Oil on canvas).
C&I: It appears that Jackson’s initial approach to the climactic battle at Horseshoe Bend was somewhat misguided at best. It seems like the initiative of his Cherokee allies was absolutely critical to winning the fight. Would this be an accurate assessment of the engagement, and if so, why did Jackson not acknowledge the contributions of the Cherokee?
Cozzens: You’re absolutely right. After Jackson’s artillery failed to dent the Red Stick defenses at Horseshoe Bend, he was at a loss what to do. His Cherokee allies took it upon themselves to row across the Tallapoosa River to capture Red Strick canoes and attack their vulnerable village from behind. That caused Red Stick warriors in large numbers to leave their barricade to reclaim their village, which in turn permitted Jackson to make what would otherwise have been a suicidal frontal assault. I think Jackson ignored the Cherokee contribution because he wanted the glory for himself and did not want to elevate the fighting potential of Indians, be they friend or enemy. Jackson’s principal infantry commander, however, freely acknowledged that the battle could not have been won without the Cherokee initiative.
C&I: Despite Jackson's overwhelming, if penultimate, victory at Horseshoe Bend, the Creek War was not over as many Red Sticks moved to attain an elusive alliance with British forces near New Orleans. …
Cozzens: That’s correct. Several thousand surviving Red Sticks crossed into Spanish West Florida, and many later settled among the Seminoles in East Florida. The British armed many of them and hoped to incorporate them as allies in their attempt to seize the Gulf Coast, but the effort came too late. The Red Sticks had lost some of their best leaders through death or capitulation, and their warriors found early British efforts along the Gulf Coast—such as a failed attack on the defenses of Mobile in which many Red Sticks died—singularly uninspiring.
C&I: Andrew Jackson comes across as a particularly complex and contradictory character. Certainly he did a good job prosecuting a war despite severe logistical problems and recalcitrance on the part of the U.S. government and regional officials, but he was not above betraying his American Indian allies and doing irreparable damage to their lives and property. In short, despite his general reputation, he appears to have had a particularly Machiavellian bent. What is your appraisal of Jackson’s motivations and performance?
Cozzens: Jackson is a hard man to fathom. Hatred of the British, rather than of the Indians, motivated Jackson during the Creek War itself. That hatred stemmed from his mistreatment at the hands of a sadistic British officer and then as a teenaged captive of the British in the American Revolution, as well as the death of his mother from disease while ministering to American prisoners. Above all, he feared an Indian alliance with the British and wanted to acquire Indian land as a Gulf Coast buffer. He also shared both the general white hunger for Indian lands and the prevailing Western sentiment that the best place for the Indians was beyond the Mississippi. Interesting, President Thomas Jefferson expressed similar sentiments to Jackson, then merely a justice in the Tennessee Supreme Court, in an 1803 letter.
C&I: Possibly the greatest significance of the conflict is the aftermath. The subsequent Indian Removal Act of 1830 affected not only the enemy combatants but all of the American Indians in the region. The result was likely one of the most shameful episodes in American history. Is there a specific lesson that we can take from this interlude?
Cozzens: It was shameful in the extreme. The expelled tribes—Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Cherokees, and some of the Seminoles—were well on their way to acculturation, or at least accommodation, with their white neighbors. A lust for their land and resources, made more palatable to wavering whites by racism, spurred the Indian expulsion. The lesson: American society should be large-minded enough to embrace those willing to pledge their allegiance to the nation.
Engraving of a painting depicting the massacre at Fort Mims on August 30, 1813 (Courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History).
This article appears in our January 2023 issue.
Lead Image: Interview between Gen. Jackson & Weatherford [the surrender of William Weatherford], by J.R. Chapin and W. Ridgeway, ca. 1859 (Courtesy of Virtue, Emmins & Co., Publishers. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library Congress, item 2012645372.