ST. AUGUSTINE — Had circumstances been different, Maj. Francis Langhorne Dade might be a legendary U.S. hero remembered for how he and his men fought to the death after being ambushed by a group of Seminole Indians.
Instead, the Battle of the Alamo and the War for Texas Independence grabbed the nation's attention, and Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett became bywords of American sacrifice.
Dade and his command died in the piney woods of what is now Sumter County, but their final remains came to rest in St. Augustine in what were the gardens of the St. Francis Barracks and is now the U.S. National Cemetery.
The massacre would become the first battle of the Second Seminole War. There were three Seminole Wars between 1817 and 1858. It was three days after Christmas 1835 when Dade and his detachment of 108 soldiers met their fate.
"Have a good heart, our difficulties and dangers are nearly over now, and as soon as we arrive at Fort King you'll have three days to rest and keep Christmas gaily," Dade told his soldiers on Dec. 28.
They were six days into the march from Fort Brooke on Tampa Bay to Fort King, near what is now Ocala. The primitive road they marched along went through open piney woods, palmettos and tall grass. Progress was slow, but they were two-thirds of the way along their 100-mile trek. Dade, a veteran of the War of 1812, was cautious but "apparently had little conception of the actual perils of the expedition," wrote Albert Hubbard Roberts in the Florida Historical Society Quarterly in 1927.
They knew there was danger. The detachment had been delayed by a burning bridge about 20 miles outside of Fort Brooke. Dade took precautions. An advanced guard and flankers went ahead of the detachment, and at night the men were on their guard in case of an attack.
But within a few days of their goal, Dade and his men apparently grew careless. He didn't expect a daytime attack, and while the advance guard went ahead that morning, he didn't use flankers. That exposed the detachment to the Indians hiding along the trail.
"We had been preparing for this more than a year," Alligator — or Halpatter Tustenuggee, as he was known among the Seminoles — said later in a report given to Capt. John T. Sprague and recorded in the captain's book, The Origin, Progress and Conclusion of the Florida War. "Just as the day was breaking, we moved out of the swamp into the pine-barren. I counted by direction of Jumper, one hundred and eighty warriors. Upon approaching the road each man chose his position on the west side."
The day was chilly, and the men wore their overcoats buttoned, their ammunition boxes and muskets covered.
Dade was on horseback, following the advance guard, when the first shots were fired. Half the column, including Dade, went down on that first volley, according to eyewitnesses.
"About nine o'clock in the morning the command approached. … So soon all the soldiers were opposite between us, Jumper gave the whoop, Micanopy fired the first rifle, the signal agreed upon, when every Indian arose and fired, which laid upon the ground, dead, more than half the white men," Alligator reported.
According to some accounts, Micanopy, the head chief, fired the shot that killed Dade.
All but three of the eight officers were killed or wounded in that first volley. Survivors headed behind trees and opened fire.
Building a fort
Survivor accounts say the Indians withdrew to a small hill a half-mile or more from the battlefield. Soldiers cut down several of the larger pines and hastily built a small triangular-shaped breastworks that was about knee-high. Others gathered up ammunition from their dead comrades and hauled the wounded to the makeshift fort.
"As we were returning to the swamp supposing all were dead, an Indian came up and said the white men were building a fort of logs. Jumper and myself, with ten warriors, returned. As we approached, we saw six men behind two logs placed one above another, with the cannon a short distance off," Alligator reported. The soldiers were soon surrounded with the Indians "within a long musket shot," and the soldiers began firing back with cannon and muskets.
By two o'clock, wrote Roberts, "all had been cut down."
When the Indians entered, they found the bodies of about 30 men. The Seminoles reportedly took the arms and ammunitions as well as Dade's military coat and some clothing from other soldiers.
"We soon came near, as the balls went over us. They had guns, but no powder; we looked in the boxes afterwards and found they were empty," Alligator reported. "When I went inside the log pen, there was three white men alive, whom the negros put to death, after a conversation in English."
With five wounds and a bloodied head, Pvt. Ransome Clark was called "dead enough" by one of the raiders, who stripped him of his clothes and shoes. Clark told his story to authorities after returning to Fort Brooke. His was the only account.
He lay quietly until about 9 p.m., when he and Pvt. Edward Decourcy managed to slip away. The two ran into an Indian on horseback the next day and separated. The Indian followed Decourcy, and Clark heard a rifle shot. Clark hid when the Indian came back and eventually made it to Fort Brooke on Dec. 30 with the story of the massacre.
Three soldiers reportedly survived the massacre.
The Seminoles lost three men and had five wounded.
On Feb. 20, 1836, soldiers under the command of Gen. Edmund P. Gaines stopped at what was already known as the Dade battlefield. Clothing or items still on the bodies were used to identify the officers, who were buried in one trench while the soldiers were buried in two separate trenches. The six-pounder gun was pulled from a pond where the Indians had thrown it and placed at the head of the trenches.
But Dade and his men hadn't found their final resting place.
That would come in 1842, almost seven years after the beginning of the Second Seminole War and nine days before the end of hostilities.
Soldiers were asked to contribute a day's pay in order to gather the members of the Dade command plus other officers who were killed or died from wounds or disease during the war and rebury them in St. Augustine in what was then the gardens of the St. Francis Barracks. Also to be reburied were noncommissioned officers and privates who had died in "circumstances of unusual gallantry."
On Aug. 14, 1842, the bodies came into St. Augustine in wagons, "each covered by the American flag as a pall and drawn by five elegant mules," and the soldiers' remains were buried in three vaults beneath the "Dade Pyramids" in what was called "a grand and imposing spectacle."
Mary Lou Missall was searching for a subject for her master's degree thesis. Someone mentioned the Seminole Indian Wars. She and her husband, John, asked "What are those?" and the two were on their way to what has become a cottage industry.
When Mary Lou Missall finished writing her thesis, the couple found themselves with lots of research material. Because they hadn't found one book that gave an overall picture of the lengthy war, they decided to try their hand at filling that gap.
"It was a voyage of discovery," John Missall said. University Press of Florida picked up the book "right away." The book is The Seminole Wars: America's Longest Indian Conflict.
Since then the couple have written pamphlets, more history books and even a novel. They've also become part of the Seminole Wars Foundation Inc.