A Brutal Reckoning: Andrew Jackson, the Creek Indians, and the Epic War for the American South

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Release Date: 
April 25, 2023
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“Peter Cozzens’ storytelling works well. The author reclaims a lost important chapter in American history but with an engaging, highly readable narrative that doesn’t make the details overbearing.”

What became Alabama was the lost world of the fortunes that Spanish conquistadors dreamed of but never knew. Hardly any Europeans visited the area between Hernando de Soto’s invasion in 1542 and the French creation of Mobile in 1702. Knowledge of the Interior remained limited until after the War of 1812.

The Creek War in Alabama in 1813–1814 had huge importance to the history of the United States but it has gone largely ignored. What public memory remembers does not include the military and political failures, as well as the massacres of the Native peoples and the mutinies of the troops. Modern Alabama was essentially created as a result of the campaigns of 1814 and the subsequent removal of the area’s Native Americans from 1830 to 1838.

This “cataclysmic conflict between the Red Sticks [faction of Creeks] and the United States” came when the new nation “had neither the troops nor the inclination” to fight as the country was embroiled against Great Britain in the second year of the War of 1812. In addition to fighting the Red Sticks, the nation’s military forces in the South had to defend the southern coasts from potential British attacks.

Jackson, Cozzens points out, only led one of several columns that invaded the territory after the Creek War “commenced north of Fort Madison on July 25, 1813, with a minor chance encounter.” He should not have been there. The general was recovering from wounds received in a near-fatal duel. His chronic illnesses became so severe that sometimes he could hardly write.

Jackson had devastating supply problems and only kept his army from deserting by the sheer force of personality. The Red Sticks successfully beat back Jackson’s initial venture into Red Stick territory although with severe losses.

Even “Andrew Jackson’s” great victory at Horseshow Bend in 1814, the author writes, owed everything to “his Cherokee and friendly Creek scouts acting on their own initiative.” Without Horseshoe Bend, Jackson would not have had the opportunity to win the battle of New Orleans that propelled him to the White House.

Growing up during the brutal guerilla war of the Revolutionary War South, “Andrew Jackson witnessed unimaginable horrors.” From boyhood, he was aggressive, ambitious, angry, bold, brawling, and charismatic. He “had a long history of leniency,” but he could also be brutal when he felt that he had to make examples. Somehow Jackson survived near-death incidents time and again. The future president would inspire a powerful following but no less suspicion and outright hatred in other Americans.

Andrew Jackson, however, becomes important in only the last third of A Brutal Reckoning. In the rest of this work, Cozzens provides extensive background on “the largest Native presence in the South.” This campaign began amid a Creek civil war that reflected the complex politics of that Native American confederacy largely omitted from United States history.

The Creek people appreciated their lack of a central authority and the independence of the towns, as well as the power of their 50 ancient matriarchal clans. White talwas (towns) supported peace while such Native American communities endorsed warfare at all times. A highly religious people, the Creeks had a flamboyant culture very different and sometimes incomprehensible to leaders of the United States.

By then, two different parallel cultures had grown up, both plantation societies based on enslaved labor, one Native American and one white. The people who still followed the original native Creek culture found themselves caught in the middle. On the eve of the war that decided their future, the Creek people suffered from years of famine and the expansion of the white plantation society from the east.

The thousands of Red Stick warriors largely fought each advancing American column to a draw—militia, regulars, volunteers, and Creeks allied with the Americans. Even when they won, however, their food, manpower, and munitions declined with no hope for reinforcement.

The Red Sticks could not ultimately win, even if receiving support from Spanish West Florida. They defended a handful of sacred sites under assault from every direction. Horseshow Bend decided the fate of the Red Sticks, their leader Menawa, and Andrew Jackson.

Peter Cozzens’ storytelling works well. The author reclaims a lost but important chapter in American history with an engaging, highly readable narrative that doesn’t make the details overbearing. The personal quality of this writing is reminiscent of Pierre Benton’s works on Canada in the War of 1812.

A Brutal Reckoning is a companion to Cozzens’ two other volumes on the struggle between the United States and the Native Americans over the new nation’s first West. A Brutal Reckoning includes annotation and an extensive bibliography. For more on the sites mentioned, the readers should consult the works by Amos Wright.

Cozzens, writing this third volume of his trilogy, has peculiar problems with names—even as whether to refer to the Muscogee Native Americans as Creeks, and other challenges with words as explained in the introductory note. “Keeping track of who’s who in the impending Creek war can be daunting, a bit like a Russian novel.” The author provides a list of these personages as an appendix. The white characters are numerous as well.