General Claiborne’s Offensive Begins
On a high limestone bluff overlooking the Alabama River, two hundred cabins and eighty wigwams provided a refuge for the Red Sticks after the Fort Mims massacre as well as a headquarters for Chief William Weatherford and other chiefs. In the center of the town stood a pole from which hundreds of scalps hung, trophies from Fort Mims’s dead.
Surrounded by the river, two creeks, a swamp and forests, not a single road or path led into it. Called Ecunchate (Ikanachaki) in the Creek language and the Holy Ground in the Americans’ English, Josiah Francis and his prophets did incantations over it, putting a magical barrier around it, they believed. They claimed it would protect them from every white man who dared set foot on its sacred soil. If only for a few months, the Holy Ground was a haven for them. It would soon become General Ferdinand Claiborne’s objective when he launched his offensive to avenge the massacre.
Holy Ground Battlefield Park, photo by Rivers Langley
When General Thomas Flournoy, commander of the Mississippi Territory’s Seventh Military District, ordered General Claiborne to march up the Alabama River to Weatherford’s Bluff, named for William Weatherford’s father Charles, Claiborne’s offensive started.
On November 17, Claiborne arrived at the bluff then crossed the Alabama on rafts, built another stockade (Fort Claiborne), and awaited reinforcements from Generals Floyd and Jackson. A small detachment of Choctaws under Pushmataha, who’d been given the rank of lieutenant colonel, accompanied him.
When Colonel Gilbert Russell’s Third U.S. Regiment arrived, Claiborne sought General Flournoy’s permission to advance against the Holy Ground. Although eager to attack it, many of his officers, respectfully, signed a petition in protest. The reasons they cited: no winter clothes, no shoes, no blankets, no roads. Eventually, however, Claiborne persuaded them to his way of thinking.
Sam Moniac, Weatherford’s brother-in-law who’d whacked Josiah Francis with Francis’s warclub months earlier, served as Claiborne’s guide. Due to Moniac’s service during the Creek War his son, David, would be accepted into West Point and become one of its first minority graduates.
On December 13, Claiborne resumed his march for eighty miles, built another stockade, and on December 22 headed deeper into the Creek nation. Upon spotting Claiborne’s army, Weatherford hastened back to the Holy Ground to prepare for the pending attack. Francis and some other Creeks fled at the news, reducing the number of Creeks and escaped slaves to defend the town.
The Battle of the Holy Ground
General Claiborne’s Tactics
Claiborne planned a three-pronged attack, each column with a different objective, and he sent a fourth force across the river to cut off the Red Sticks’ retreat. Of these three columns, only the right column under Colonel Joseph Carson engaged in major fighting. He was ordered to cross Holy Ground Creek and then attack the Holy Ground’s upper town. The left column, under Major Benjamin Smoot, had the objective of capturing the Holy Ground’s lower town while General Claiborne and Colonel Russell held the center in reserve. Major Cassel’s men, the fourth force, was assigned the job of cutting off the Red Sticks’ retreat.
William Weatherford’s Tactics
When Josiah Francis ran away, Weatherford assumed command. First, he ordered that the women and children be taken across the river in canoes to the safety of the thick woods. Many prophets argued with him and protested, insisting their magic barrier would protect them. Fortunately, Weatherford asserted his authority and got his way, and the noncombatants were rushed to safety.
Next, since he anticipated an attack would come across Holy Ground Creek, he set up an ambush. Warriors with rifles, he posted behind a stream bank while others hid behind a fallen tree to await the Americans. A third body of men, wielding bows and arrows, he placed in the rear.
William Weatherford Becomes a Legend
Colonel Carson’s troops made the major attack across Holy Ground Creek. At first, due to the Red Sticks’ withering barrage and stiff resistance, their advance was slow. Men fought from behind trees and stumps, arrows flew high and beyond them to no effect. When the troops finally flanked the Red Sticks, the warriors beat a retreat back toward their town, many having fallen to the soldiers’ bullets.
Weatherford raced to his swift steed Arrow, mounted him and found himself facing Carson’s men practically alone. Surrounded. No escape. He was going to be captured. He galloped to the riverbank, to a bluff about fifteen feet high. Pretty long way down into the river. Could he make it? He had no choice. It was either leaping into it or else being captured or killed.
He turned Arrow back and moved quickly up a hollow to give his powerful horse a good running start. Then he galloped back down and leaped off the bluff, diving into the river. Arrow surfaced and swam to the other side amidst musket balls splashing around them. Both Weatherford and Arrow made it to shore, out of the range of Carson’s troops, unhurt.
Claiborne’s army spent a cold Christmas Eve camped on Weatherford’s plantation, in his cornfield, dining on boiled acorns and parched corn—all the food they had. By January 14, the general’s army had dwindled to sixty volunteers, for the other soldiers’ enlistments had expired. In Weatherford’s house, a letter from the Spanish governor of Pensacola was found, congratulating him on the victory at Fort Mims and a suggestion that he attack Mobile — clear evidence of Spain’s role in the war. What this governor did not know, however, is that Weatherford could neither read nor write because he’d had no desire to ever learn.
Did Weatherford and Arrow Really Make Their Legendary Leap?
Some people have questioned whether Weatherford and Arrow actually made their famous leap. No historian has been able to disprove it and according to Benjamin W. Griffith, Jr., in his book McIntosh and Weatherford, Creek Indian Leaders, the consensus among eyewitnesses, such as Sam Moniac and Sam Dale, and most of those who knew Weatherford is that a leap did occur. Because this feat moved William Weatherford into Alabama legend, some accounts have exaggerated certain aspects of it, such as the height from which he and Arrow jumped. According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, fifteen feet is about the true height.
Griffith, Benjamin W. Jr. McIntosh and Weatherford, Creek Indian Leaders, Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 1988.
Pickett, Albert J. The History of Alabama. Republished by Birmingham Book & Magazine Co. of Birmingham, Alabama, 1962. Copyright 1878 by Mrs. Sarah S. Pickett.
Waselkov, Gregory A. A Conquering Spirit: Fort Mims and the Redstick War of 1813-1814. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.