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4 Mr. Rhea’s Missing Letter and the First Seminole War David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler In March 1818, Major General Andrew Jackson, commander of the Southern Department of the United States Army, invaded Spanish Florida. He had instructions from President James Monroe’s War Department to chastise Florida ’s Seminole Indians who had raided the Georgia and Alabama Territory and others who had attacked the U.S. Army ascending the Apalachicola River toward southwestern Georgia. Most Seminoles fled before Jackson’s army: a collection of regulars, Tennessee and Georgia militia, and allied Creek Indians. Jackson consequently found few Indians to fight. Instead, he led his army to St. Marks, a Spanish fort on the Gulf of Mexico. After forcing the small Spanish garrison to surrender, Jackson headed east to destroy Seminole villages near the Suwannee River. Seminoles there fought rearguard actions to help noncombatants to escape, but Jackson burned their towns and food stores before returning to St. Marks. After a brief rest, he headed west to occupy Pensacola, the Spanish capital of West Florida. From start to finish, it took Jackson about eight weeks to eliminate Spanish control of West Florida and raise the American flag in its capital. He had killed a few dozen Seminoles, razed villages, appropriated livestock, destroyed food stores, executed two British subjects, and taken possession of Spanish forts as well as His Most Catholic Majesty’s provincial capital. As he returned to his home near Nashville , he sent reports about these remarkable exploits to the War Department, but disturbing rumors about them had already reached the government. The administration was not pleased; in fact, by the time Jackson’s official reports arrived, it was in a state of rising panic. Contemporaries called Jackson’s two-month invasion of Florida the Seminole War, an event later dubbed the First Seminole War to distinguish it from subsequent conflicts with those Indians, but despite its name, it had little to do with Indians. Their role as casus belli would soon become a relatively minor part of the violent storm Jackson’s invasion caused at home and abroad. Spain 104 / David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler understandably protested it, and Jackson’s killing of British subjects was likely to excite London. In the United States, nobody could dispute that Jackson at least had mounted his campaign under the authority of his government, but his behavior in Florida had been nothing short of astonishing. In fact, Monroe ’s administration grimly weighed the meaning of the assaults on Spanish forts and Pensacola, projects not only beyond the scope of Jackson’s orders but explicitly prohibited by them. Quite obviously Jackson had made war on a foreign power without congressional approval. Congress was sure to bristle on that basis alone, and as Monroe’s cabinet struggled to frame a response that would placate foreign and domestic critics, it was hectored by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, incensed by Jackson’s rank insubordination. Jackson insisted that he had done nothing wrong. His orders, to his thinking , had not barred him from attacking Spaniards if restoring peace to the Florida border required it. Of course, Jackson’s thinking on this matter was filtered through the prism of his egocentrism, allowing him to interpret his orders as he saw fit, even if that interpretation was directly contradictory to what those orders had said. In the months following the invasion, Jackson’s imperturbable denial of the facts, his unassailable popularity as the Hero of New Orleans, and his legendary temper were enough to see him through the controversy , and he stuck to his story about the ambiguity of his orders through it all. It is important to keep that in mind when weighing what happened thirteen years later when, in the midst of political battles, he radically changed his defense: not only had his orders not forbidden his attack on Spanish posts, he claimed, but President Monroe had explicitly authorized him to do so. The prism of his egocentrism was again bending the truth to shape it as he saw fit, recasting a series of events that unfolded in the Florida wilderness as he had made war on Spaniards, Seminoles, and Creek refugees. His behavior at first caused a constitutional crisis, and finally it transformed the entire affair into an ugly political squabble. The story of how all this occurred is as complicated as the consequences were profound. Andrew Jackson’s role in the story started with the Creek War...


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MARC Record
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