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Sunday Favorites: Battle at Dade

Part 2


When we last spoke, a group of approximately 100 men had spent their first night in Seminole territory. They were journeying from Fort Brooke to Fort King to aid a group of settlers who were concerned for their safety due to tensions between settlers and Seminole Indians. To assist them on their journey, an interpreter named Louie Pacheco had joined their party.

Read Part One Here.

It was Captain George Washington Gardiner, the predecessor of Major Francis Langhorne Dade, who assisted Pacheco in catching up to the group. Despite being the commanding officer, Gardiner respectfully deferred to Dade's leadership out of gratitude. Dade had facilitated the opportunity for Gardiner to send his sick wife on a ship to Key West for medical care, according to historian Frank Laumer in his 1976 presentation to the Manatee County Historical Society.

On the second day, they made significant progress, covering a total distance of 15 miles. That evening, they camped near the entrance of what is now known as Hillsborough State Park. Once again, they were hounded by Native Americans during the night, This strategy of continuous harassment likely aimed to prevent them from getting sufficient rest, hindering their ability to effectively defend themselves when battle was at hand.  

The fourth day, they pressed on to the Withlacoochee River, crossed it, and approached the area that is now the intersection of highways 301 and 50, where they camped for the night. Meanwhile, back at Fort Brooke, the outlook for the troop's success was growing increasingly bleak. They had been anticipating reinforcements from two additional companies, which would have doubled their number and potentially changed the course of the battle. However, the following day brought disappointing news for Major Dade as he received a letter indicating that the reinforcements had been delayed. The letter expressed hope of sending horses, Native Americans, and ammunition, but inadvertently sealed the fate of Dade’s men within the envelope.

As morning broke on December 28, the troop was stretched out in a long column, spanning about half a mile. This was the sixth day of their journey, and the part was located just south of present-day Bushnell, a small town once named “Massacre” after the bloody scene that would ensue.

Laumer describes the soldier formation of a double column of men on foot with mounted officers on horseback and advance guard positioned ahead of the main command.

“They had crossed through the rivers and through the bogs, through the heavily wooded land where the Indians could, they anticipate, have surprised them and made a good showing. But now they were in high land, and only two days from Fort King,” Laumer said.

It was drizzling rain, and with the threat of attack decreasing, Major Dade thought it a good opportunity for a pep talk. He rode ahead of the advanced guard and said a few encouraging words.

“Have a good heart. In a few days, we'll be in Fort King, and you shall have three days off and keep Christmas gaily,” were his final words.

A single rifle shot rang out through the gloom, echoing across the plateau and Dade slumped forward, his beard touching the horse, before his lifeless body fell to the side. He’d been shot through the heart and was dead before he reached the ground. The following paragraphs are scenes described in Laumer’s book, “Massacre.

The moments that followed were likely flashes of terror, as 180 Seminole Indians emerged from the sawgrass, overtaking the weary soldiers with ease. Their concealed position allowed them to encircle the U.S. troops without detection, enabling them to pick off their targets from a distance as the soldiers scrambled to ready their rifles. In stark contrast, the natives seamlessly vanished back into the sawgrass after each attack, reappearing with loaded rifles to continue their assault. This relentless cycle of ambush went on for hours.

The officers were targeted first, followed by the rest of the troops. By noon the Seminoles began to withdraw. With only one man wounded, they had emerged victorious. Once the gunfire subsided, Capt. Gardiner ordered all the men still standing to fell three large trees for cover and gather all the wounded men and weapons and move them to cover behind the barricade.

The Seminoles watched the situation unfold and, in turn, changed their plans. Rather than departing the scene as originally intended, they gathered into one large group. If the soldiers weren’t willing to officially surrender, the Seminoles saw an opportunity to eliminate every man left standing, now conveniently grouped in one location.

As the 20 remaining marred and injured men fired rifles from behind the barricade, a few stayed to fire a cannon with no protection. Everyone that fired the cannon was shot down, but Gardiner threatened to kill any soldier that abandoned his post.

“You will die at the discharge of your duty or my hand!” he screamed.

And once more the cannon fired out, but that was the last round. Captain Gardiner was shot four times. According to Laumer, his final words were “I can give you no more orders, my lads, do your best.”

When Gardiner fell, the gunfire stopped. Two Seminoles stepped over the barricade to assess the situation. They treated their enemy with respect, honoring the dead and dying with dignity. They searched for weapons, collecting pistols, muskets, and sabers. However, when they checked the ammunition pouches of the fallen soldiers, they found nothing. The soldiers had fought until they had no more ammunition left.

One man, Joseph Wilson, used his last strength to jump to his feet and swing the butt of his gun into the skull of one of the Seminoles, then took off running. He, of course, was shot down by a bewildered group of Seminoles. Their only casualty occurred after the battle was over.

According to the essay “Dade’s Battle”, authored Erika Heredia and Maria Julia Cabail, with editing and additional materials by Scot French, only three men made it back to Fort Brooke to tell the tale of what happened. Privates Ransom Clarke, John Thomas, and Joseph Sprague made it back to Fort Brooke alive. Louie Pacheco, the interpreter, also made it back alive. He would spend the rest of his life defending his loyalty as many blamed him for the attack.

In the end, the bravery of Major Dade, Captain Gardiner, and their men was matched only by the unwavering determination of the Seminole warriors. The aftermath of the battle serves as a reminder of the human cost of conflict and the importance of mutual respect and dignity even amid violence.


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  • Carolannfelts

    Wonderful writing as usual on our Florida history!

    Thank you!

    Friday, May 3 Report this