Battle of Okeechobee Re-enactment continues today

OKEECHOBEE — On Christmas Day, 1837, Col. Zachary Taylor led soldiers of the 1st, 4th, and 6th U.S. Army Infantry Regiments and Missouri Volunteers into the largest and fiercest battle of the Second Seminole War, on the banks of Lake Okeechobee. The site of that battle is now a state park, and each year re-enactors gather to pay homage to the soldiers and warriors who fought and died there.

Today, Feb. 25, the Battle of Okeechobee observance will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The battle re-enactment will be at 2 p.m. at the Okeechobee Battlefield Park, 3500 S.E. 38th Ave. (off U.S. 441 S.E.) Admission is $10 per vehicle.

A Seminole dancer demonstrates his dance before a group of South Elementary students at the Battle of Okeechobee being held Feb. 24-25 at Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park. Photo by R. Marion.

The re-enactment will also feature music by Jeb Marum and Ricky Pittman, alligator demonstrations, Powwow dancing and a cannon demonstration. Vendor booths will offer food, souvenirs, arts and crafts and historical exhibits.

The Florida State Parks website gives this account of the site’s history:

“The Battle of Okeechobee occurred on Christmas Day, 1837, when between 800 troops of the 1st, 4th, and 6th Infantry Regiments (under the command of Colonel Zachary Taylor) which included 70 Delaware Native Americans and 132 Missouri Volunteers (under the command of Colonel Richard Gentry), attacked between 380 and 480 Seminoles and Miccosukees led by Holata Micco (aka Billy Bowlegs), Arpiucki (aka Sam Jones), Halpatter Tustenuggee (aka Alligator) and Coacoochee (Wildcat), who were encamped on the northeast shore of Lake Okeechobee. The two Colonels were leading their troops down the Kissimmee River when they received word from their Delaware scouts of the Seminole and Miccosukee encampment. Around 12:30 p.m., the 70 Army scouts from the Delaware tribe sensed the danger as they neared a hammock of trees. They quickly left the area without a shot being fired and warned the approaching soldiers of the danger. Realizing the Seminoles had been located, Colonel Richard Gentry, the commanding officer of the Missouri militia, suggested to Colonel Taylor that they encircle the hammock of dense trees.

Taylor rejected the idea and ordered a frontal assault just as the Seminoles had prepared for. The Seminoles and Miccosukee’s in all likelihood had been awaiting the arrival of the troops and held a superbly defensible position upon a high hammock that overlooked a dense saw grass swamp which the U.S. troops had to traverse to engage them, making themselves perfect targets. The Seminoles cut the grass short in this area to allow for an unobstructed and open firing lane. They also notched trees to steady their rifles as they fired. Scouts were placed high in trees to keep track of the approaching soldiers. The muck was so thick that the soldiers would often sink up to their thighs while trudging through it.

The area was impassable for horses.

“Taylor ordered a full frontal assault against their foe with 120 of the First Regiment of the Missouri Volunteers led by Gentry, in the center of the advancing line flanked by the Fourth Infantry and Sixth Infantry. Taylor’s First Infantry was held in reserve which accounted for nearly half his force. The initial Seminole fire sent the Delaware fleeing and after suffering heavy casualties, the volunteers fell back due to withering fire that brought down most of their commissioned officers and then their noncommissioned officers. They were then replaced by regular troops of the sixth infantry. This unit also suffered severely, losing almost every officer. Taylor then ordered the Fourth Infantry to attack. Instead of marching in orderly ranks, these men rushed the hammock with bayonets fixed, finally driving the Seminole and Miccosukee from the field of battle. After the “Seminoles and Miccosukees fled the hammock, Taylor called in his reserve First Infantry to secure the area, thereby claiming victory. Of the soldier’s casualties, 28 were killed and 112 wounded, and many of the wounded would die of injuries soon after. The highest number lost were from the Missouri Volunteers. Gentry was mortally wounded early in the battle and passed away shortly after its conclusion.

“The American press hailed it as a great victory and Zachary Taylor became a national hero, was made a general, and took his first steps toward the presidency. Taylor was able to drive the Seminole and Miccosukee’s from the field of battle and he did round up 100 horses and 600 head of cattle the warriors left behind when they fled but modern historians question how great a victory it was. Taylor’s men had killed few of their enemy. In contrast, approximately one third of the soldiers who had attacked the hammock before the reserves were sent in were dead or wounded. With half of Taylor’s force out of action including the majority of Taylor’s officers and noncommissioned officers killed, the Seminole and Miccosukee had gained time to make their escape to the safety of the Everglades. It’s unknown if the warriors dragged bodies off when they escaped but there were only 12 Seminole bodies found in the hammock. From interviews and stories many years later, some of the native participants of the battle would state that another 11 warriors were wounded.

The Seminoles and Miccosukee’s drove their families and meager belongings deeper into the Everglades where an estimated 300 of the original 3,000 would hide on remote islands for the next decade or longer. Years after the battle, Holata Micco (aka Billy Bowlegs) visited Washington and on being escorted through the buildings of the Capitol and viewing many statues and paintings, he suddenly halted before a portrait of Zachary Taylor, grinned and exclaimed: Me whip!“

Okeechobee Elementary students listen as a battle reenactor explains his uniform at the Battle of Okeechobee being held Feb. 24-25 at Okeechobee Battlefield Historic State Park. Photo by R. Marion.

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