home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

the second seminole war

9 june 2018

The Second Seminole War and the Limits of American Aggression, by C.S. Monaco, is a strong contribution to American history, in the current paradigm of settler-colonial studies. Broadly speaking, there are two types of colonies: ones where a small outsider elite leverages locals to work for the interests of the colonial power, and settler states, where incomers simply deport, or kill, the locals, and build a new community on cleared ground. The British Raj in India is an example of the former; the United States, of the latter.

Historian Alfred Crosby influentially noted (197) that standard colonialism historically prevailed in the tropics, while settler colonialism was the rule in temperate zones that resembled Europe more closely in terms of geography and climate. Europeans were more likely to succeed at Euro-forming temperate parts of the world, and more likely to want to do so. In this equation, Florida was an anomaly. It lies in a no-man's land, between tropical colonies where the Spanish ruled large indigenous populations, and the American South from which Anglo-Americans methodically deported Indians westward. As Monaco observes, Americans sometimes had a notion that they could move Indians out of Florida and settle the peninsula as profitably as they'd done with Virginia and the Carolinas. But mosquitoes, malaria, heat, moisture – and the Seminole indigenes – made the settler-colonial project extremely difficult south of Tallahassee.

The Second Seminole War is officially considered to have raged between 1835 and 1842, up and down the Florida peninsula. As the existence of First and Third Seminole Wars might suggest, completely hemming the conflict into frameworks of time and space can be difficult. After the U.S. began to encroach on Florida in the 1810s, pressure from Anglo settlers was continuous, and armed resistance from the locals ebbed and flowed over the next decades.

Monaco locates the second and most controversial of these flows, the 1835-42 conflict, squarely within the context of settler colonialism. This was in no sense a disagreement between neighbors, or a clash between competing cultures over common turf (as received historiography would often have it). It was a relentless project of removal and deportation. The Seminoles used arms and terror to resist – they were not harmonious pacifists by any means – but if it had not been for the determination of Americans to clear the peninsula for settlers, there would have been no Seminole Wars.

What made the Second War controversial was that the Indians won nearly all the battles. American troop operations in 1835 tended to consist of marching units out into unfamiliar swamps, where they were mowed down by Seminole warriors. In 1836, the impossible Winfield Scott, at the same time the most brilliant and the most insufferable of all great generals, decided to lead an elaborate converging pincer movement on Seminole strongholds. When he sprung his carefully calibrated trap, he found that the Seminoles had simply disappeared.

Clearly, the Second Seminole War was a classic insurgency, not a Napoleonic chess game. Later American commanders, including Zachary Taylor, William Harney, and William Worth (as in "Fort") gradually gave up on the strategy of engaging Seminole units out in the muddy wilderness. Instead, they enticed Seminole leaders to parleys and then kidnapped and deported them; sent out search-and-destroy missions to reduce native numbers via attrition; and (particularly commander Walker Armistead) conducted total warfare by "destroying Seminole villages as well as their verdant crops" (129). Ultimately, there were millions of Americans intent on extending imperial power southwards, and only a few thousand Seminoles – and fewer Seminoles all the time.

Not that this total war of attrition was free from political consequences in Washington and elsewhere. Many career officers deplored the standard duplicity of American negotiators. Skepticism over the "blood and treasure" cost of the war foreshadowed later civilian doubts over Vietnam and Iraq. In a bizarre presage of 21st-century fake-news clickbait stories, a few dogs acquired by Zachary Taylor for the purpose of tracking morphed into a ravening canine unit to be unleashed on the natives, and northern liberals "sincerely believed that frenzied packs of bloodhounds would soon eviscerate all the Seminoles" (184).

Monaco argues that liberal opposition to the war ultimately shared the same philosophies and aims as those of Indian-removal advocates. Seminole sympathizers tended to romanticize warriors (especially the legendary Osceola) but at the same time distinctly to "other" them and treat them as last-of-the-Mohicans types. In a weird turn, northern abolitionists even discredited the Seminoles' proven military ability, preferring (for their own romantic ends) to see the Seminole armies as instead being dominated by the Indians' African-American slaves.

Despite the decimation of the Seminoles in Florida, including mass deportations to Oklahoma during the 1830s and '40s, the community was never fully defeated. Four to five thousand Seminoles still live in Florida, descendants of people who simply retreated further into the Everglades every time the U.S. declared victory in another Seminole War.

If there's a single flaw in this admirable book, it's the lack of maps. There are only a couple, and they're uselessly cropped to show local theaters of battle without much context. Monaco at times refers in passing to the names of rivers, but unless you are a native of central Florida (and one who pays attention to rivers!) you will be quickly disoriented. Perhaps this just mirrors the disorientation of American field commanders themselves.

Monaco writes with fascinating ecological insight, keenly critical revisions of standard ideas, access to newly discovered documentary sources, and a commendable sense that he is writing about perception and rhetoric as much as about (sometimes unascertainable) fact. The Second Seminole War is a book with strong relevance to any number of fields (military history, American Indian history, the politics and racial issues of the antebellum period, and settler-colonial studies generally).

Monaco, C.S. The Second Seminole War and the Limits of American Aggression. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. E 83.835 .M66