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Rivers of War: Snippet Thirteen

       Last updated: Sunday, February 20, 2005 10:00 EST



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 13:


    Andrew Jackson found Sam Houston on the high ground, after it had been cleared of hostiles. The ensign was hobbling along in the company of two Cherokees, engaged in what appeared from a distance to be a cheerful and animated discussion. They might have been arguing about a horse race, for all the general could tell.

    He didn’t know either of the young Indians, but he knew they were Cherokees. They might have been Creeks, true, since there were about a hundred friendly Creeks participating in this battle on the American side, under the leadership of the headman of Coweta, William Mackintosh. But Jackson, unlike many white men, could see at a glance the subtle difference between Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, and Chickasaws. Sometimes even Seminoles, although it was always harder with them. The Seminoles were more in the way of a split off from the Creeks than a truly separate tribe.

    There was no significant difference in the features between a member of one southern tribe and another. But they all had distinctive clothing, accoutrements, and ways of styling their hair.

    White people coming from the long-settled East, when they first encountered southern Indians, were frequently taken aback by their appearance. The general had often been amused by the phenomenon. The southern Indians, except when they painted themselves up for war or ceremonies, or stripped down to loincloths to play the stickball game they were so fanatical about, just didn’t look like “wild Injuns.” They looked exotic, to be sure, but it was the exoticism of such long-civilized peoples as the Arabs or the Hindoos.

    They wore European-style cloth shirts, often with wide and decorated collars, and leggings that were certainly not European in design but resembled Araby pantaloons more than they did an easterner’s notion of “Indian leggings.”

    And their headgear, if they wore any, would be a turban or an elaborate cloth cap. Not the feathered headband everyone seemed to expect.

    In the last few decades, some of those distinctive features had begun to blur and fade—the elaborate facial tattoos of the previous century had almost vanished—as more and more of the southern tribesmen adopted the ways and customs of the white settlers. Many had become Christians, and the missionaries always encouraged the adoption of white habits and economic practices, as well as the religion itself. But even those who hadn’t adopted the white man’s religion had adopted much else.

    The Ridge, for instance, still adhered to his tribe’s traditional religious practices, but Jackson knew he’d been among the first of the Cherokees to erect his own separate log dwelling, in the American style, apart from the traditional Cherokee town. It was said that he had a chimney, in fact, and a well-built one at that. He’d also abandoned hunting, despite his own fame as a hunter, in favor of tending orchards and raising livestock—much of the labor, as was true for prosperous whites in the South, being done by black slaves he’d purchased. From accounts Jackson had heard, The Ridge’s plantation at Oothcaloga was the equal in size and prosperity to that of almost any white man’s on the frontier.

    The Ridge had even placed his oldest son, John, with some Moravian missionaries in a boardinghouse at Spring Place, at the age of seven, so that he might learn to read and write and speak English fluently. His daughter Nancy, too. And he’d convinced his brother Watie to do the same with his oldest son, Gallegina—or Buck Watie, as he was known in English.

    The general had mixed feelings on the subject. On the one hand, he thought that the ideal solution to the Indian problem would be for the savages to adopt the white man’s ways completely. He’d already decided that if they did so, he’d throw his considerable influence into granting them full rights of citizenship, and not just the limited rights possessed by freedmen.

    For all that he clashed frequently with the missionaries and Indian agents like Colonel Meigs over what Jackson considered their coddling of the savages, he didn’t fundamentally disagree with their assessment that Indians might be the equal of white men. As individuals, he’d always found many of the savages to be impressive people. He’d even taken into his household a little Creek boy named Lyncoya who had been orphaned in last year’s battle at Tallushatchee, and intended to adopt him legally once the war was over.

    But . . . that was the problem, when looked at from the other side. Impressive people were also stubborn, independent, and fractious people. Jackson didn’t fault them for it—rather admired them, in fact, since he was stubborn, independent, and fractious himself. But what he could admire in an individual, he could not admire in nations that were opposed to his own. Certainly not when the British and Spanish empires he so utterly detested were always ready and eager to foment unrest among the savages, and use them as weapons against his beloved republic.

    So, watching the young American ensign enjoying the comradeship of two young Cherokees, the general saw a very mixed blessing.

    Something in his skeptical expression must have emboldened one of his aides to speak.

    “And will you look at that! There’s still a battle raging, and there they are, jabbering away like heathens.”

    The aide was a young officer, and new to Jackson’s service. Knowing what was coming, the other officer who stood with them—Major John Reid, that was, who’d been Jackson’s secretary for a year now—sidled back a step or two.

    Fury was always close to the surface with Andrew Jackson, and it could erupt as instantly as a volcano.

    The general spun around, his face red, and thrust his long jaw not six inches from the face of the aide.

    “You, sir! When the day comes that I see you fearlessly charging the enemy, you may presume to criticize such a man. Until that day comes—and I am not holding my breath in anticipation—you will keep your mouth shut. Do I make myself clear?”

    The young officer blanched, and his eyes went so wide Jackson could see the veins in the corners. Jackson’s voice, filled with rage, cut like a knife. The aide was too shocked even to step back. He just gaped.

    “Answer me, blast you!”

    “Yes, sir,” the man finally squeaked. “ Yes, sir!”

    The general continued to glare at him, for long and silent seconds. Finally, with a contemptuous gesture, Jackson waved him away.

    “Get out of my sight,” he growled. “Somewhere to the rear, where your talents might find some use. Count bullets or something, you miserable clerk. Better yet, count rations. You probably wouldn’t recognize a bullet if you saw one.”

    His right hand went to the hilt of the sword scabbarded to his waist. There was no conscious intent to draw the weapon; it was just the instinctive reflex of a man for whom intimidation was second nature. The aide scurried off like a lizard on a hot rock. As Jackson’s temper settled, he saw that the altercation had drawn the attention of Houston and his Cherokee companions. The three of them were standing some forty feet away, staring at him.

    Unwilling, for the moment, to take his right hand from the sword, Jackson summoned the ensign with a jerk of his head.

    Houston came over, as quickly as he could given that he was limping. The two Cherokees followed at a slower pace. Something of a reluctant pace, it might be said.


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