Poetry of the Seminole War

In 1817 General Andrew Jackson invaded the Spanish-claimed territory of la Florida, initiating a decades-long conflict known as the Seminole Wars. The actual cost has been estimated between forty and sixty million dollars, making the Seminole Wars the most expensive of the Indian Wars in the United States.

OsceolaDisputing the alleged execution of the Treaty of Payne’s Landing, the Seminoles refused to relocate, prompting the start of the Second Seminole War in 1835. As the second conflict unfolded, a young war party leader named Osceola emerged as both a sound military tactician, and dynamic leader. Feared, and hated by his U.S. Army counterparts, Osceola’s fame grew. He became a wartime advisor to primary Seminole Chief Micanopy, but was deceptively captured under the auspice of peace talks, and summarily died on January 30, 1838. Granted permission from the Seminoles, Dr. Frederick Weedon severed Osceola’s head, and embalmed it with the intention of making a death mask.

This collection of wartime poetry, by three anonymous authors and a little-known fourth by Walt Whitman, provides insight into the emotions on both sides of the conflict. The sentiments emoted are raw, offering a glimpse of wartime perceptions.

Edited by Jon C. Lee, University of South Florida St. Petersburg

Suggested Reading

Meltzer, Milton. Hunted Like a Wolf: The Story of The Seminole War. Sarasota: Pineapple, 1972. Print.

Missal, John, and Mary Lou Missal. This Miserable Pride of a Soldier: The Letters and Journals of Col. William S. Foster in the Second Seminole War. Tampa: U Tampa P, 2005. Print.

Missal, John, and Mary Lou Missall. This Torn Land, Poetry of the Second Seminole War. Tampa: U Tampa P, 2009. Print.

 

[Josephine.] ‘Osceola.’ Published in The Hudson River Chronicle (Sing-Sing, NY) on 4 April 1838, after the death of Osceola on 30 January of that year, during the Second Seminole War. The author, “Josephine,” is unidentified.

Chief of the pale arid lofty brow,

Thou eagle of thy race,

We miss thee in the forest now,

We miss thee in the chase.

Warrior true, why comest thou not

We look for thy return—

Still In this calm sequestered spot

Our council fires burn.

They burn, but not as when ye went

To seek the Pale Pace camp;

The fading brands are almost spent,

The air is chill and damp.

A gloom is on the Everglades,

On streamlet, flow’r, and tree;

Spirits mean sighing through the shades

A sad lament for thee.

A cloud is on our souls, 0 Chief!

We dream of thee in chains;

We see thee die in ling’ring grief,

Far from thy native plains.

We know our fears are false and vain—

The Pale Face chief is brave:

He’d scorn to fling so foul a stain

On the broad folds that wave

Triumphantly above his head,

His country’s pride and boast,

Left by Columbia’s martyred dead,

Pure as their own bright host.

 

Great Spirit! O watch o’er thy child!

Why hidest thou thy face?

Remember that thou once hast smiled

On our abandoned race.

Thus through the night the watching chief

Sighed to the list’ning air

A dirge of mingled hope and grief,

Of agony and prayer.

And, Osceola, where art thou—

Bird of the wild-wood free—

White chief, and sage, and prophet, bow

Beneath the council tree!

Where sentries pace with equal tread

The guard-room’s narrow round,

Drooping o’er hopes forever fled,

The captive chief lay bound.

Not many suns have sank to rest

Since that sad night of gloom;

Yet hast thou found on earth’s soft breast,

Brave Seminole, a tomb.

Thy lofty spirit loathed the chain

That fettered it to life;

And Heaven that weeps its children’s pain,

In mercy closed the strife.

Away beyond death’s darksome sea

The hunting grounds are fair,

And far from wrongs and tyranny,

Thy tribe shalt meet thee there.

 

[Anonymous.] ‘OSEOLA’ [sic]. Published in the Waldo Patriot (Belfast, ME) on 23 March 1838, less than sixty days after the Seminole leader’s death, and reprinted in the New-York Gazette. Interestingly, the date noted at the close of the poem is 6 February 1838, just one week after Osceola’s death.

There is a romance in the history of this savage chieftain, not a little heightened by the circumstances under which he died. The poet pencil of Catlin has invested it with an interest little less vivid than the written description of the scene of Oseola’s dying days. We think the following verses, sent to us yesterday, full worthy of the subject, and the gifted individual from whom we received them.

The tempest is hush’d, and the Eagle is dead!

His thunderbolts fly, and his wings clap no more!

The plumes that to war and to victory led,

Forever he folded on Marano’s[i] shore.

 

Beneath the deep shade of a mute willow only,

O’er the warrior’s relics pale liberty weeps;

And a letterless stone, mid those barrens so lonely,

Alone marks the spot where the Seminole sleeps.

 

The ancients of Egypt entwin’d round the dead

The papyrus that bright immortality gave;

By a far distant age the memorial is read,

And a far distant nation bends over his grave.

 

Oh! had we the art, we might frame such a spell,

As the damps of the sepulchre never could tame;

And the symbols of faith, valor, honor should tell,

OSEOLA, thy virtues, thy deeds, and thy fame.

 

Yes! to long after times would a sword with a heart,

The story unfold of thy worth and thy power;

Thy name, Oseola, itself might depart,

But a record so noble, no time could devour.

 

But, warrior and chief! thou art laid in the dust,

Embalm’d in the tears of the nation ye sway’d,

The proudest of titles that perfume might trust,

Which years upon years shall behold undecay’d.

 

Immortal with man, when mausoleums are rotten;

While genius and valor still honor’d shall be,

Thou shalt need not the praise of the earthly forgotten,

Thy fame is impressed on the hearts of the free!

 

Barren isle! thou dost hold in thy sea-beaten bosom

His ashes—be proud of the treasure that’s there!

For pilgrims for ages shall scatter the blossom,

Till thy deserts smile lovely, thy rocks become fair!

February 6th, 1838

 

[H.] ‘To the memory of Lieutenant John W. S. McNeil, of the United States Army, who fell in an engagement with the Seminole Indians, near St. Augustine, Florida, September 10, 1837. ‘ The following, from the New-Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette (19 May 1842), was presumably written by a family member or loved one but not published until five years after the referenced date of McNeil’s death. The later date corresponds with the conclusion of the Second Seminole War.

In that wild land drench’d by our bravest blood,

Poured out in torrents like the Autumn rain,

Of all the young and gallant multitude

Whose bunts whitened many a fatal plain,

 

Repose no nobler relics of the slain

Than thine, McNeil, the generous, mild, and brave!

Why should we mourn his early fate in vain?

Far he has gone into a glorious grave,

 

Wet by the grateful tears of those be died to save.

And when the turf was laid upon his breast,

His country’s cannon thunder’d o’er his head

A requiem fitting for the Soldier’s rest—

 

There sleeps he on his glory-mantled bed

Among is nation’s unforgotten dead;

Fain would I rest where he is sleeping now!

The patriot’s life-blood for his country shed

 

Blooms up afresh in the perennial glow

Of laurels twined by Fame around his glittering brow.

The generous dame that burned within his soul

Was lit by nature: at a kindred fire:

 

Sprung from a race that never brook’d control,

Rightly to glorious deeds he might aspire,

The high-born offspring of a noble sire!

And site who, with a mother’s untold grim;

 

Yearns o’er his early tomb with vain d-sire,

War daughter of New Hampshire’s bravest chief,

Late gather’d to his rest like the o’erripened sheaf.

And as the Spartan ma’rons search’d of yore

 

The bodies of their sons in battle slain,

And when they found the mortal wounds before,

Knew they fell bravely, and in gladsom train,

Exulting bore them from the bloody plain,

 

With proud though bitter joy; so now may they

Lament his loss with no complaining strain—

Though pierced, he sank out through the well-fought day,

Till Victory’s joyous shout wafted his soul away!

May 3, 1842

H.

Lieutenant McNeil was the son of General John McNeil of Boston, Massachusetts, and grandson on his mother’s side, of the late Gen. Benjamin Pierce of Hillsborough, New Hampshire. He was born on the Island of Mackinaw, Michigan Territory, February 17, 1317. He remained several years with his parents at Chicago, Illinois, while his father was commandant of the United States troops at that station. In 1824 he returned with his parents to New England – was educated at West Point – spent some time in the office of the Hon. Franklin Pierce, at Hillsborough, New Hampshire, and entered the United States Army in the spring of 1836, as Lieutenant at a company in the 2d regiment of Dragoons. He recruited through the summer, and in the following winter was ordered to Florida. He continued in the service, and was out in several skirmishes till the fall of 1837, when he fell in a fight with the Seminole Indians on the morning of September 10.

The circumstances of that encounter were these. General Hernandes on the 7th set out on an expedition from headquarters, at Picolata, in the vicinity of St. Augustine, against a body of Indians that had taken a position about sixty miles to the southwest. In the absence of their superior officers, the command of the battalion, under the direction of General Hernandes, was given to Lieutenants McNeil and Peyton. On the evening of the 9th the battalion approached the Indians, who occupied a position deemed almost impregnable by reason of a swamp and thicket that surrounded them. The battalion halted till dawn of day, (Sabbath morning,) when the attack was made in two columns, commanded severally by Lieutenants McNeil and Peyton. The savages had time to give but one fire before they were surrounded and taken. While McNeil was advancing at the head of his column, he saw their chief, Uchee Billy, level his rifle at him; and at the moment he drew his pistol, the rifle or the chief was discharged, the bullet passing through his pistol-hand and taking effect in the abdomen. McNeil remained on the field through the action; and when the Indians were secured, he was carried on a litter to the camp, about ten miles distance. The next day the battalion set out for St. Augustine, but McNeil died on the way, Monday night at 10 o’clock. His remains were carried to St Augustine, and buried with the honors of war; after which the officers of the army met and passed resolutions expressive or their sense of his character as a soldier and as a man. Though only about twenty years of age when he fell, he was as bravo an officer as ever commanded troops. Had he lived, and circumstances concurred, there is every reason for believing that he would have worthily emulated the bravery and generalship of his distinguished father.

 

Walt Whitman, “Osceola.” The following first appeared in Munyon’s Illustrated World (April 1890) then in the 1891-1892 “deathbed” edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman explains the origins of this elegy: “When I was nearly grown to manhood in Brooklyn, New York, (middle of 1838,) I met one of the return’d U.S. Marines from Fort Moultrie, S.C., and had long talks with him—learn’d the occurrence below described—death of Osceola. The latter was a young, brave, leading Seminole in the Florida war of that time—was surrender’d to our troops, imprison’d and literally died of “a broken heart,” at Fort Moultrie. He sicken’d of his confinement—the doctor and officers made every allowance and kindness possible for him; then the close ….”

WHEN his hour for death had come,

He slowly rais’d himself from the bed on the floor,

Drew on his war-dress, shirt, leggings, and girdled the belt around his waist,

Call’d for vermilion paint (his looking-glass was held before him,)

Painted half his face and neck, his wrists, and back-hands.

Put the scalp-knife carefully in his belt—then lying down, resting a moment,

Rose again, half sitting, smiled, gave in silence his extended hand to each and all,

Sank faintly low to the floor (tightly grasping the tomahawk handle,)

Fix’d his look on wife and little children—the last:

(And here a line in memory of his name and death.)


 

[i]Sullivan’s Island.