Nearly 200 re-enactors from all over Florida take part in the mock battle that’s held every year.
With about 1,500 spectators watching from a hillside, the re-enacted battle takes place a few hundred feet from the actual battleground inside the Dade Battle Historic State Park in Sumter County.
The real battle, that took place 181 years ago, started the Second Seminole War.
That war would last seven years, cost $40 million in historic dollars, and claim the lives of 1,500 U.S. soldiers.
Two months after what would come to be known as “Dade’s Massacre,” Gen. Edmund Gaines and 1,100 of his men would be the first U.S. soldiers to find the site that was still scattered with the remains of dead bodies, with buzzards circling overhead.
An eyewitness account by Seminole leader Halpatter Tustenuggee (Alligator, as the white man called him) later described how it all began:
“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.”
Dade’s Massacre is often overshadowed by other battles of the 19th century, including the fall of the Alamo in 1836 and Custer’s Last Stand in 1876, but it has been the subject of three books by local historian Frank Laumer.
Francis Langhorne Dade was born in King George County, Virginia.
He enlisted in the Army in 1813, and was elevated to major in 1828.
On the morning of Dec. 23, 1835, Laumer says Major Dade departed from Fort Brooke (currently the site of the Tampa Convention Center in downtown Tampa) to lead his men through 100 miles of wilderness and open territory.
As an officer of the 4th Infantry, he was to reinforce the troops at Fort King (present-day Ocala), who were being threatened by the Seminole Indian Chief Osceola.
They would have to cross four rivers and slowly pull a 6-pounder cannon with a team of horses.
After five days on the rugged Fort King Road, Dade told his men, “Have a good heart,” based on historical records of the massacre.
Laumer is certain that Dade felt the most dangerous part of their journey was behind them once they had reached present-day Bushnell.
Dade had told his men: “As soon as we arrive at Fort King, you’ll have three days to rest and keep Christmas gaily.”
But, Seminole scouts in the scrub forest had followed the long column of 108 men under the command of Dade.
As Laumer points out, Dade was an easy target while riding in front of his men.
While crouching at the edge of the piney woods, Seminole Chief Micanopy had plenty of time to aim his rifle at the chest of Major Dade.
Dade was 42 when he became the first casualty in Dade’s Massacre.
His heart was pierced by a bullet fired by Chief Micanopy.
Laumer writes: “Francis Dade, broad shoulders erect, slumped gently in his saddle like a bag of grain cut in the middle.”
The Seminoles clearly had the element of surprise, Laumer writes. Only a few of Dade’s men managed to get their flintlock muskets from beneath their heavy winter coats in order to return fire.
“The cannon was discharged several times, but the men who loaded it were shot down as soon as the smoke cleared away…,” Alligator later reported.
Dade’s soldiers, dressed in blue wool uniforms, found themselves fighting against a fierce band of 180 Seminole warriors camouflaged in brown shirts or tunics, with winter leggings for warmth.
By the end of the day, just three U.S. soldiers remained alive.
News of the massacre was reported in the Daily National Intelligencer up north in Washington D.C.
A report in the Jan. 27, 1836 edition noted “…three soldiers, horribly mangled, came into camp, and brought the melancholy tidings that Major Dade, and every officer and man, except themselves, were murdered and terribly mangled.”
President Andrew Jackson called for volunteers from Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. He also ordered Gen. Winfield Scott to assume command of all U.S. forces in the area.
The Seminoles fighters who had won a major victory that day, left the battlefield after carrying off weapons from the soldiers they had killed.
After spending more than half of his life researching and writing about Dade’s Massacre, Laumer will narrate the annual re-enactment on Jan. 7.
It’s a familiar role for him, as he’s carried it out for more than 30 years.
Although the first Seminole War had been fought to remove Indian tribes west of the Mississippi River, there was always growing political pressure to send more troops to fight in Florida.
Laumer points out the frustration on the part of Southern plantation owners who were tired of their slaves escaping to Florida and granted refuge by the Seminole Indians.
He also explains that the outcome of Dade’s Massacre helped the white man to settle and develop Florida.
With more than 30,000 soldiers fighting in the longest and costliest Indian conflict in American history, many stayed in Florida after the Second Seminole War to raise their families on free land –so long as they were prepared to defend themselves from further Indian attacks.
A total of 1,317 land grants, with approximately 210,720 acres, were registered between 1842 and 1843.
While the massacre has largely faded from public memory, Dade is the namesake for several places. They include Miami-Dade County, Dade County, Georgia; Dade County, Missouri; Dadeville, Alabama; and, of course, Dade City, Florida.
There also is a decommissioned fort in Egmont Key State Park in Hillsborough County that is named after Dade.
Doug Sanders has a penchant for unearthing interesting stories about local history. His sleuthing skills have been developed through his experiences in newspaper and government work. If you have an idea for a future history column, contact Doug at .