An historical preface to the Second Seminole War
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The Second Seminole War was not only the country's largest, most costly Indian
war,* it also featured the largest and most successful slave
rebellion in U.S. history.** Despite these facts -- or perhaps because of them -- the country has always maintained a curious amnesia toward the conflict.
Americans have had good reasons to forget the Second Seminole War. It was the only confrontation prior to Vietnam that the U.S. did not definitively win. As with Vietnam, the conflict failed to garner popular support. Even the leading U.S. officers came to believe that the country was in the wrong, the enemy in the right. Finally, as an uprising that prominently featured rebellious blacks, the war was an affront to the South. Southern landowners, politicians, and historians saw no advantage in admitting that upwards of 1,000 black maroons and slaves had risen against the oppressor, with 500 of them ultimately fighting the country to a virtual
Like the First Seminole War, the Second was classified historically as an Indian conflict. Undoubtedly Seminole Indians made up the majority of the enemy and held key leadership positions. Yet the principal actors on all sides -- U.S., Native American, and black -- expressed the belief at the time that one of the central causes of the war was the status of the blacks. U.S. officers also expressed a common perception that black warriors were the hardest fighters.
We have no reason to doubt their reasoning today. To do so, and to portray the war as mainly a conflict between Native Americans and whites, would be to deny history, while unconsciously accepting the beliefs of a slaveholding tradition that sought to minimize the power of African Americans, especially rebellious ones.
The definitive account, John Mahon's History of the Second Seminole
War, is by no means a denial of history. Mahon writes of the black participation, and he incorporates the role of Seminole Negro interpreters, warriors, and guides into his book. Mahon accounts especially well for the actions of U.S. officers. His balanced presentation of action, character, and social context is a model of military history. For all its fine qualities, however, Mahon's book never fully accounts for the strategic importance of blacks in the conflict. For one thing, Mahon gives readers only a passing idea that a major slave rebellion took place during the war. He completely fails either to notice or mention that the largest rebellion in U.S. history took place in Florida from
1835-38, right smack in the middle of the war that he is chronicling. (In fairness to Mahon, leading scholars of African American studies from John Hope Franklin to Eugene Genovese have also failed to notice this.) Mahon also understates the strategic importance of the Black Seminoles within the "Indian" conflict known as the Second Seminole War. Black warriors were present in nearly all of the major battles of the war, but this is only one measure of their relevance. A more revealing fact is that not a single major battle took place after the Black Seminoles surrendered in 1838. In contrast to Mahon's depiction of the war as one coherent conflict, this suggests that the war was in essence two conflicts -- a joint black-Indian uprising from 1835-38 and a lingering series of Indian harassments and smaller border conflicts from 1838-42.
The following highly condensed treatment concentrates on the phase from 1835-38. This treatment could not have been written without the benefit of Mahon's fine history, but it offers a more pronounced depiction of the black role in the war.
Sprague Origin 19, 526-53, Mahon 122-23, Giddings Exiles 310-16, Porter Black 106-7, Statistics of US War Veterans.
Part 2, War: l
* The financial cost of the war, estimated at between 40 and 60 million dollars, is one measure of its size. Casualties are another. Army casualties numbered over 1500, plus militia casualties that were never calculated but probably equaled or exceeded these numbers. In comparison, Army losses from all of the Western Indian wars totaled approximately 2000. The Revolutionary War (1775-1782) and the War of 1812 (1812-1815) offer two more comparisons, with the caveat that it is difficult to compare statistics on early American conflicts, since non-battle deaths were not isolated. Soldier deaths from the Revolutionary War totaled 4,435, and from the War of 1812, 2,260.
** For facts on the slave rebellion, see the on this site or, for a quick overview, the comparing major U.S. rebellions.
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