Fort Moultrie – “On the grounds of this fort you’ll find the grave site of Chief Osceola, the Seminole Indian who died at Fort Moultrie and who is the inspiration for the Florida State university mascot. Free admission”.
That’s how the tourist guide pitches Fort Moultrie. (Charleston The Complete Guide to WhereSpring/Summer 2014, Where© Local Guides. Worldwide). Come see the grave of a man who became a mascot of a big Florida college. It’s pretty insulting if you know anything about Osceola.
I was in Charleston recently and picked up the guide at the Visitors Center. I wonder what the average tourist thinks when he looks at the entry. Does he know anything about Osceola? Does he wonder what he was doing at the fort?
Osceola was born in present day Alabama in 1804. He was mixed British and Creek background and called “Billy Powell” as a youth. In 1814 after Jackson defeated the Red Stick Creeks Osceola’s family became refugees and moved to live with the Seminole in present day Florida.
In 1830 President Jackson got Congress to pass the infamous Indian Removal Act whose purpose was to ethnically cleanse the entire eastern part of the U.S. Two years later some Seminole leaders signed a treaty agreeing to the removal, but the majority of Seminole refused to go along with it. Two years after that there was a meeting with Indian Agent George Wiley and some Seminole spoke in favor of accepting land west of the Mississippi. Osceola reacted in a way that brought him onto the pages of history. He stepped forth holding a knife and plunged it into the negotiating table saying, "The only treaty I will ever execute will be this!"
The next year, 1835, fighting broke out. Seminole bands destroyed a sugar plantation and liberated slaves who joined up with them. Osceola killed Indian Agent Wiley on December 28 and mounted his scalp on a pole.
On the same day, a large Seminole force wiped out a column of 108 American soldiers marching from Fort Brooke (Tampa) to the relief of Fort King. Several days later, the Seminoles repulsed an attack by 750 soldiers.
Osceola worked closely with the Black Seminoles, hundreds of descendants of run-away slaves. Seminoles and Black Seminoles went from plantation to plantation encouraging rebellion and starting the biggest slave rebellion in U.S. history. Over 400 Florida slaves took part and joined the fighting against U.S. troops. “Elegant in dress, handsome of face, passionate in nature and giant of ego, Osceola masterminded successful battles against five baffled U.S. generals”
The Second Seminole War “involved fifty-two thousand soldiers fighting against less than two thousand warriors. The army included the whole Marine Corps, all but one regiment of infantry, all of the artillery regiments, and a new regiment of Dragoons (formed just for service in Florida). This seven year war cost more than the American Revolution (estimates start at $20,000,000).”
It was a huge sum of money as the entire U.S. federal budget in 1836 was $25 million. The Battle of Okeechobee in December 1837 saw the Seminoles fight to a draw with a U.S. force three times its size. Dissatisfied with war’s progress, the commander on the U.S. side, Quartermaster General Thomas Jesup, decided to see if he could divide the Black Seminoles from their allies by offering the Blacks freedom. He didn’t think up the idea. Ex-President John Quincy Adams had advanced the view that rebellious slaves could be freed as an act of war (a doctrine Lincoln used two decades later). Jesup made the offer and the Black Seminoles agreed to the deal with hundreds going to Oklahoma.
The Seminoles were enormously weakened, but they fought on. The war didn’t end as much as peter out. The Seminoles withdrew into the Everglades. As the years passed the war grew more and more unpopular in the U.S. because of its expense and because its main advocates were slaveholders. They wanted the war as a way to capture Blacks and to forever dash hopes of their slaves that they could runaway to freedom in Florida. Fighting gradually stopped. No peace agreement was signed. In August 1842 the U.S. army just declared the war was over. By the end of the war there may have been only 300 Seminoles in Florida.
Osceola did not live to see the end of the war. In 1837 under a flag of truce he went to a meeting with U.S. soldiers outside of St. Augustine at a place called Moultrie Creek. Truce be damned, they grabbed him. He was imprisoned with a number of Black Seminoles at Fort Marion. There the army arranged for the well-known artist George Catlin to do his portrait. On November 29th Black Seminoles escaped, but Osceola was too sick to escape with them.
On January 1, 1838 they brought Osceola to Fort Moultrie, South Carolina. There he was treated as a celebrity. Editorials in Charleston papers talked about him as a “fallen hero”. “Men and women of society visited Osceola at the Fort, and even arranged for him to attend an evening at the theater.” He died of disease on January 30.
The grave of Osceola is indeed in the fort. Visitors will see a grave stone with the words “Osceola, Patriot and Warrior”. It’s surrounded by a low fence. A nearby plaque says Osceola was “perhaps Fort Moultrie’s most celebrated resident.” After he died America was suddenly hit by one of its romantic phases with Indians. “Briefly, a genuine Osceola fad seized the country. Before running its course, twenty-two towns, two lakes, two mountains, a state park and a national forest would bear the chief's name.”
Outrageously, not all of Osceola’s remains are in the grave. After he passed away a “death mask” was made of his face by an army doctor named Weedon. Then according to a 2004 article in “Archaeology” Weedon removed Osceola’s head from his corpse and had it embalmed. He kept it with his “collection” of Indian mementos. The collection was later given to a “Surgical and Pathological Museum” which eventually was destroyed in a fire. (Milanich, Jerald T. "Osceola's Head", Archaeology, January/February 2004)
It’s odd that Charleston, the Complete Guide to Where would list Osceola as the big tourist draw at Moultrie. The fort’s main contribution to history was made not in the 19th century, but in the 18th. In June of 1776 the British, tired of inconclusive forays against the revolutionists up north, thought they’d have an easy time by taking Charleston. Nine warships attacked the forts on Sullivan Island. Yet the British were defeated after a nine hour fight and withdrew. It was the first clear cut American victory in the war. The British didn’t take Charleston until 1780. Congress named the fort after its commander William Moultrie.
If you wonder about the coincidence that Osceola was captured at Moultrie Creek in Florida and died at Fort Moultrie in South Carolina you’ll find it of interest that the Florida creek was named after Thomas Moultrie, the brother of William! Thomas Moultrie had stayed loyal to the king during the revolution and became acting governor of Florida. For his pains he had a whole creek named after him.
In the 1800’s Moultrie became a federal fort. In 1861 after South Carolina’s secession its federal troops moved to Fort Sumter and to glory. They were bombarded by the rebels until they surrendered in the first violence of the Civil War. Moultrie, now in rebel hands, was attacked by Union forces, but never taken. Today there are lots of walls and canons there for tourists to enjoy.
Here’s my suggestion for rewriting the blub in the “Where” tourist booklet.
Fort Moultrie – Site of the first undisputed victory for the revolutionaries in the American Revolution. Seminole freedom fighter Osceola was imprisoned here until his death in 1838. His grave is on the grounds, though his body was mutilated before burial. Civil war fort. Free admission.
Stanley Heller is a semi-retired social studies schoolteacher, member of the New Haven Central Labor Council, host of “The Struggle” video news and executive director of the Middle East Crisis Committee.