A Brutal Reckoning: Andrew Jackson, the Creek Indians, and the Epic War for the American South
- By Peter Cozzens
- 464 pp.
- Reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski
- April 28, 2023
An engrossing account of a little-remembered slaughter.
Amid its “second war of independence” against Britain in the War of 1812, America was simultaneously engaged in a diffuse and bloody conflict with a militant faction of Creek Indians. What became the Creek War of 1813-14 would catapult Andrew Jackson to military and political prominence while sowing the seeds of the infamous Trail of Tears that would follow two decades later. In A Brutal Reckoning, historian Peter Cozzens “restores the Creek confederacy to its rightful place among the great American Indian peoples.” It concludes his impeccably researched trilogy that began with The Earth Is Weeping and continued with Tecumseh and the Prophet.
Where those first two volumes chronicled Indian warfare in the present-day Midwest, Cozzens now moves his lens to the Deep South, where “horrific combat and colossal betrayals” augured the eradication of the Indian presence in Georgia and parts of Alabama during and after the Creek War. But first, he takes the reader back to the mid-16th century, describing the destruction of the Creeks’ ancestors by the conquistadors (and the diseases they brought with them), before relating the horrors of Hernando de Soto’s “ruthless” 17th-century march through the Southeast. After these Spanish incursions, the Creeks would emerge from the remnants of the great Mississippian-tradition chiefdoms along with the Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees.
Cozzens provides an unhurried and rich exploration of Creek culture, tribal wars, and society — uniquely matrilineal — that is essential to understanding the intricate factors leading to the outbreak of hostilities in 1813. The basic political unit of the Creeks centered on individual towns, or talwas, containing members of multiple clans. These talwas were fiercely independent and protective of their autonomy against other talwas (Theodore Roosevelt once likened the Creek confederacy to “a rope of sand,” Cozzens adds).
Once contact was made with the colonial British, a “fissure emerged in Creek society” that manifested into two divisions that became known as the Upper and Lower Creeks. This, Cozzens says, is how the term “Creek confederacy” came to have meaning. After the American Revolution, Creek society further fractured along pro-American and pro-British lines. When the War of 1812 erupted, the stage was set for a conflict with those Creeks eager to push out the Americans encroaching on their land (with British assistance or not); this group named themselves after the atássa, a red war club, that Americans lumped with its bearers into the name “Red Sticks.”
The Creek War officially began with a minor encounter on July 25, 1813. But the real horror started on August 30th at Fort Mims, just north of Spanish West Florida in present-day Alabama, where 300 civilians and 20 militiamen languished in the heat. What would become the Fort Mims massacre ensued as 730 Creek warriors rushed against the fort’s ill-prepared defenders. Cozzens’ meticulously detailed account is tense and hair-raising (literally so, as the Creeks scalped many of their victims).
Hearing of the attack, American military commanders in the area waited a week to send out a squad to inspect the scene, which revealed “an abattoir,” whose gory violence “weakened [the men] by repeated retching.” As Cozzens notes, the Fort Mims massacre became a “national rallying cry for vengeance” that would be answered by 46-year-old militia major general Andrew Jackson and his 2,500 western Tennessee volunteers.
Tasked with avenging the slaughter and securing the frontier against a potential British beachhead at New Orleans, Jackson was tested by intense physical suffering — he took a gunshot wound to his shoulder that would painfully seep bone fragments for months — a lack of supplies, mutinous troops, and a lackadaisical response from the federal government to his request for assistance. But he exhibited a fierce determination, what Cozzens calls his “unbridled ambition [and] outsized sense of honor and duty,” that drove him inexorably forward, even when others were against him. The author makes a fascinating comparison between the “fiery” Jackson and the cruel de Soto, who’d ravaged the Southeastern tribes two centuries prior:
“The parallels between de Soto and Jackson and the paths of destruction they carved emerge as uncannily similar. Both men conducted their respective campaigns with fierce single-mindedness. They pushed themselves to the limits of human endurance and expected their men to indulge their zealotry no matter how unrealistic their objectives might seem.”
Despite the obstacles and botched battles, Jackson would triumph when he “broke the back of the Red Sticks” at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, where 850 Indian warriors died in a last-ditch stand defending a way of life already gone. Key to this victory, however, were the contributions of Jackson’s Cherokee allies, whose boldness in crossing a river and attacking the Red Sticks from the rear ensured the fight’s outcome. The Battle of Horseshoe Bend was “the largest loss of warrior lives in a single clash on the North American continent since 1540.”
Unfortunately, Jackson would not distinguish between his Creek enemies (the Red Sticks) and those Creeks allied with him; Cozzens intriguingly suggests he looked on his Indian allies much like “the Tories who had tormented him during the American Revolution.” Setting the surrender terms at the eponymous Fort Jackson, “Old Hickory” (his military sobriquet) would become “Sharp Knife” Jackson to the Creeks who’d fought with him, as he demanded 22 million acres of land, which constituted more than half the Creek confederacy. Cozzens rightly sees “a touch of evil genius in [his] stratagem; he would end the war by concluding a harsh peace treaty with his allies.”
The author claims Jackson’s land acquisition for American farmers “set the pattern of land seizure and removal that was to doom not only the Creeks but also all the Indians of the Southeast and later of the American West.” It would lead to President Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Trail of Tears, and finally the influx of avaricious white planters seeding the ground of dispossessed Creeks with cotton worked by Black slaves. The denouement of Cozzens’ exhaustively researched book sets the stage for the fratricidal American Civil War to follow — this time between white brothers, which an elderly Indian survivor of the Creek War “might have taken a mordant satisfaction” in.
A Brutal Reckoning is an engrossing and objective study of the war that opened American expansion into the Deep South in the early 19th century and sent a proud Native American people into exile. Impressively detailed, it provides the definitive account of the Creek confederacy and its failure to overcome its own divisions in the face of a militantly expansionist white nation.
[Editor’s note: Peter Cozzens will speak at this year’s Gaithersburg Book Festival on May 20th. Learn more here.]
Peggy Kurkowski is a professional copywriter for a higher-education IT nonprofit association by day and a major history nerd at night. She writes for multiple book-review publications, including Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, BookBrowse Review, Historical Novels Review, Shelf Awareness, and the Independent. She hosts her own YouTube channel, “The History Shelf,” where she features and reviews history books (new and old), as well as a variety of fiction. She lives in Colorado with her partner (quite possibly the funniest Irish woman alive) and four adorable, ridiculous dogs.