John T. Ellisor. The Second Creek War: Interethnic Conflict and Collusion on a Collapsing Frontier. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010. 512 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-2548-0.
Reviewed by Samuel Watson (United States Military Academy)
Published on H-War (February, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
As John Ellisor asks, who has heard of the “Second Creek War” that began in 1836? We know the Second Seminole War as the United States’ longest discrete conflict before Vietnam; we know the First Seminole War, and perhaps the First Creek War, because of Andrew Jackson. If one has heard of the Second Creek War, it is probably as a short-lived uprising that disrupted U.S. offensives during the early stages of the Second Seminole War. Ellisor’s immensely detailed book makes the case that the Second Creek War was just as important as the other three conflicts in the creation of the cotton plantation South, and a better example of the impact of capitalist economic expansion in intensifying social hierarchies and political divisions within racial-ethnic groups, as well as between them. While we tend to think of the other three conflicts as stark clashes between red and white, Ellisor demonstrates convincingly that the Second Creek War was a civil war among the Creeks (as experts would expect, given the rifts in Creek society). The surprise is that many contemporary whites believed it “a civil war between dishonest land speculators on one side and ... settlers on the other, with the speculators fomenting and using Indian hostilities as a cover for their nefarious practices” (p. 223). Extreme social fragmentation and instability, among whites as well as Indians, made conflict termination immensely difficult—far more so than in the first Creek and Seminole wars, and at least as much as in the second Seminole conflict.
The first third of The Second Creek War provides context, the second focuses on the year 1836, and the last explores the persistence of conflict into the early 1840s and beyond. The immense detail means that military history readers may become bogged down in the context, and students of southern and Native American history in the operational narrative, but both parts are necessary for understanding why the war began, continued for so long, and played out the way it did. Many readers may find the comprehensive narrative unnecessary, but Ellisor clearly intends his book to provide just such comprehensiveness: no new history of the conflict will be needed for generations to come. This review will focus most on the problems of conflict termination, but The Second Creek War is a complex work of southern and Native American as well as military history, and deep, sustained attention to social, political, economic, and cultural context and connections is one of its great strengths, which makes it better military history. Careful readers will be rewarded for their persistence, by a far deeper understanding of the roots, catalysts, and escalation of the war, and the reasons for its repeated revival and persistence for nearly a decade.
Starting from the perspective of world systems theory, Ellisor identifies “New Alabama,” the northeastern quarter of the state where most Creeks lived when the conflict erupted into overt violence, as a periphery that entrepreneurs sought to mine for commodities: cotton for the Atlantic market. Commodification, colonialism, imperialism, and war went hand in hand. As a result, Ellisor cannot settle for the thesis of “settler colonialism” now common among students of European imperialism. In its focus on interethnic interactions, this concept sometimes reduces European (and white American) encounters with indigenous peoples to binaries of conquerors and victims. Instead, Ellisor focuses as much on intra-ethnic division, competition, and discord, and on the collusion between whites and Indians alluded to in his title. Where settler colonialism tends to emphasize that white migrants sought to settle, and often clashed with the priorities of their distant central governments, but were essentially united against the local indigenes, a world systems approach stresses divisions among the “settlers,” many of whom were speculators and profiteers, or hoped to accumulate capital (in this setting, plantations) rather than settle for the self-sufficient yeoman equality beloved in Jeffersonian and Jacksonian rhetoric. In New Alabama, these conflicts in economic purpose and practice were intensified by social and cultural conflicts between the “respectables” (essentially proto-Victorians, pursuing gentility) and the “roughs” (essentially poor whites, resentful of all hierarchies save that of race).
Thus (though not “ironically,” as Ellisor puts it), “the expansion of the U.S. people and their market economy that so shattered the Creek Nation also fragmented white society” (p. 144). “Predation ... was part and parcel of the local economy” (p. 269), which historians have long known, but it was rooted in the pressures and inequities of the world economy, and came in as many forms as peaceful economic competition. In New Alabama poor whites lived much like Indians, which fostered both resentment and collaboration between them, and disdain from “respectables.” As a result, “class conflict was a constant,” as “roughs” joined Indians in resentment and retaliation against white elites. Some Indians lived much like rich whites, with plantations and slaves, which fostered antagonism from poor whites and some Indians, some empathy from “respectables,” and greed from whites of every description. White Alabamans exported their social and economic tensions by blaming Georgian land speculators for much of the Creek resistance. As historians have long known, the Creeks were divided geographically (between Upper and Lower Creeks), economically, by mixed and full-blood status, and by their views about how to deal with white encroachment. Ellisor provides the most detailed evidence of these divisions available, and adds an unusually strong emphasis on (and evidence for) political factionalism among the Creeks and their leaders, who used the conflict to enhance their followings at each others’ expense.
Turning to the military conflict itself, Ellisor makes it clear that the resistant Indians had “a definite strategy” (p. 2) to disrupt white society and its economic and military operations by cutting roads. This strategy was possible because the war was the product of at least a generation of tension, rather than a sudden, desperate, and implicitly irrational uprising, foredoomed against overwhelming odds. The Creeks were desperate, but they hoped to take advantage of U.S. embroilment with the Seminoles and in efforts to compel the Cherokee to move west, and of the multitude of divisions among whites. Whites were surprised by the rebellion, but this was due as much to the distractions of economic and political competition (which also slowed their military and diplomatic reactions) as to the blinders of racism. The U.S. intervention during the summer of 1836 failed to crush the Creeks, although federal power projection encouraged many of the initial rebels to switch sides, and deterred others from joining the rebellion. (Regular army commanders were especially concerned to prevent Creeks from fleeing to join the Cherokee and perhaps inspiring violent Cherokee resistance.)
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Thomas Sidney Jesup’s aggressive offensive dispersed the Creeks, making them harder to catch and defeat, and Ellisor is sympathetic to Winfield Scott’s more methodical campaign plan, but popular clamor for action spurred Jesup and sustained him in the disputes that followed. On the other hand, Jesup focused on securing Alabama, essentially leaving Georgia to its own devices, which helped the Creeks first to retreat through southwest Georgia to Florida, and then to return, prolonging the war by at least a year. Jesup’s solution then became conciliating the Creek and helping them escape the clutches of white creditors, to enable them to move west and end the conflict. To do this he supported the creation of a Creek regiment for service in Florida, which some wealthy Creeks, and their white business associates, approved as a means of recovering slaves and paying off debts.
Most of the war was fought by state volunteers and militia rather than the regular army. Indeed, Ellisor observes that the long war only truly began after the federal surge. As students of nineteenth-century Indian wars expect, we find a catalogue of impatience, indiscipline, assaults—intentional and otherwise—on neutral or friendly Creeks (including the families of those who were fighting for the United States against the Seminoles), and panicked flights from handfuls of Indians. The lines between citizen-soldiers, vigilantes, and criminal predators were thin and often transgressed. The Creeks were hard to catch and harder to keep, especially as whites used the legal system to try to force Indians to pay prewar debts (often fraudulent), to punish them as criminals (whether as Alabama citizens or as the equivalent of “unlawful enemy combatants”) rather than prisoners of war, and to extract further land cessions, often regardless of whether the Indians in question had any claim to the land in question.
Again and again, federal agents (usually army officers) would concentrate captured or surrendered Creeks for movement west, but the move would be delayed by the litigation of white claims against the Creek, who would become dissatisfied with their impoverished diets (army rations) and eager to reassert their freedom by hunting or returning to their homes. Federal officers would often return their arms for hunting, and whites would see armed Indians in the woods and mobilize to demand their disarmament, often through vigilante threats and violence, that targeted neutral Indians and culminated in atrocity. Creeks who had surrendered would then resume fighting, and whites would blame Indian perfidity and enlarge their aggression. A good example of this unremitting cycle of escalation came in the summer of 1836, when a Georgia major praised white children for shooting an elderly Indian man, who was the only confirmed Indian casualty of the major’s campaign. One of his subordinates encountered a group of hostile Creeks but fled; the major gave up the pursuit and declared his operations a success.
Alabamans and Georgians directed their anger at each other, as well as at the federal government. The military forces of the states, as well as federal officers, repeatedly confronted one another over jurisdiction over Creek prisoners, and Alabama courts acquitted almost all the Indians brought before them. The prisoners frequently had white lawyers, evidence of empathy from “respectables,” their eagerness to blame Georgia land speculators and Alabaman roughs for Indian militance, and their desire to secure Creek acquiescence in their own land claims. Many whites tried to keep Indians in Alabama as slaves or near-slaves, while other whites condemned their selfishness. Everyone sought a scapegoat, and everyone became a scapegoat at some point. Intimidation and violence were endemic among whites, as potent a currency as the dollars for which they strove. “Whites proved to be their own worst enemies” (p. 377): “the aggressively competitive and violent nature of local society not only caused [the] conflict ... but posed the greatest obstacle to defeating the rebels” (p. 257).
By the autumn of 1836 Creeks were fleeing into Florida, a process that continued for the next two years. The patterns of conflict that had developed in Alabama, among whites as well as whites and Indians, were repeated in West Florida in 1837 and 1838. Jesup eventually compelled nearly 20,000 Creeks to move west, but by 1841 the “Seminole War” was largely fought by Creeks. Whites debated whether the truce ending the Seminole conflict applied to Creeks, and Creeks continued to rob and sometimes kill until the 1850s. Thus, as in the war in Florida, white forces conquered New Alabama, dispossessing the Indians, but fear and tension persisted for decades. In Alabama, some Creeks merged into the white population through marriage and other relationships; others passed as whites. They probably found it easier to do so among poor whites, for these people won little from the conquest, and continued, or came to, live much like ordinary Creeks. Successful entrepreneurs and “respectables” secured most of the wealth expropriated from the Creek, and inequality grew among whites in tandem with the expansion of plantation slavery. Ironically, or perhaps not, a quarter of Alabamans claim Indian descent today, though few can prove it for the purpose of securing tribal income, and the intimate relationship between white and Indian is sometimes regarded as a dimension of southern distinctiveness. Strange fruit, if we look only from perspectives of race and ethnicity, rather than capitalism and class.
Despite its careful attention to the intricacies of Creek society and politics, and a minutely detailed narrative of military operations, The Second Creek War is ultimately about a white society “at war with itself” (p. 144). Social Darwinism had a long head start in New Alabama: whites blamed anything and anyone—except themselves as individuals (the war was always someone else’s fault) or the economy as a system. Ellisor has the benefit of hindsight, and of the critical perspective provided by world systems theory and historical evidence, to avoid this self-deception. He recognizes that “this process of incorporation ... helped fuel the European economy and gave a major impetus to the Market Revolution in the United States” (p. 7). “This [concerted] extraction [of resources], whether in the U.S. South, Africa, or Latin America, always resulted in the dispossession of the Native population, exploitation of the labor supply, social injustice based on a maldistribution of wealth, and ... an abundance of violence and bloodshed” (p. 360).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Samuel Watson. Review of Ellisor, John T., The Second Creek War: Interethnic Conflict and Collusion on a Collapsing Frontier.
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