Remembering the First Quagmire at Christmastime

As the number of U.S. war dead edges toward three thousand, and Iraqi casualties soar into the tens of thousands, it might be useful to remember the an earlier Iraq — the first U.S. invasion and occupation of a foreign land. The United States sunk into a quagmire soon after its troops invaded Florida in 1816 to capture runaway slaves and to close down the largest station of the underground railroad in North America which was run by escaped Africans and their Seminole allies and had been attracting thousands of enslaved people. The U.S. violent occupation lasted forty-two years, resulted in 1500 U.S. military deaths, and cost Congress and taxpayers $40,000,000, and brought devestation and misery to the penninsula.

The war’s most dramatic moment came the day before Christmas in 1837 when U.S. troops under Colonel Zachary Taylor pursued a band of red and black Seminoles to the northeast corner of Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida. Wild Cat and his African American sub-chief John Horse had assembled 380 to 480 fighters who awaited Taylor, their sharpshooters perched in tall grass or trees. Taylor’s large army included 70 Delaware Indian mercenaries, 180 Missouri riflemen and 800 soldiers from the U.S. Sixth, Fourth, and First Infantry Regiments.

The Delawares quickly sensed disaster lurking in the tall grass, and fled. Next the Missourians broke and ran.

Taylor then ordered his U.S. troops forward only to find that pinpoint Seminole rifle fire brought down “every officer, with one exception, as well as most of the non-commissioned officers” and left “but four . . . untouched.” After a two and a half hour battle Wild Cat, Horse and their Seminoles forces had made their point felt that by decimating the enemy leaders. As they fled across the lake in canoes a night of pain and loss descended on the U.S. survivors.

On Christmas Day Colonel Taylor’s men awoke to find 26 U.S. dead and 112 wounded. Four dead Seminoles died and none had been captured. The battle at Lake Okeechobee was the most devestating U.S. defeat in more than four decades of Florida warfare, and one of its of the worst defeats in centuries of aggression against Native Americans.

Taylor’s army limped back to Fort Gardner, and as his men tended the wounded and mourned the dead, he wrote a report that declared victory and claimed “the Indians were driven in every direction.”

The U.S. Army accepted Taylor’s conclusion, promoted him to General, and he used his military reputation to become the 12th President of the United States.

The Black and Red Seminoles fought on until 1858 when most of its red and black members agreed to migrate to Oklahoma. But others stayed in their Florida homes, deeply proud of their victory over the mighty United States and its armed forces.

WILLIAM LOREN KATZ is the author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. His new, revised edition of THE BLACK WEST [Harlem Moon/Random House, 2005] also includes information on the Philippine occupation, and can now be found in bookstores. He can be reached through his website:


William Loren Katz is the author of 40 books on African American history, and has been associated with New York University as an instructor and Scholar in Residence since 1973. His website is Read an interview with Katz about his life teaching and writing history.