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Seminole War journals offer insight into forgotten Florida

In February 1836, Dr. Hosea Lewis Cushman, a young physician from Maine, traveled to Florida to join the U.S. Army’s medical corps and provide care at the start of the Second Seminole War.

Cushman kept two journals during his time in Florida. Though they cover a fairly short period of time — Feb. 6 to March 11, 1836, and Nov. 10, 1836, to Feb. 15, 1837 — they help bring out the personal stories of a war fought long ago.

The Cushman journals, which are in the collection of the Maine Historical Society, will be published in the upcoming issue of Tampa Bay History, the history journal published annually through a partnership between the Tampa Bay History Center and the University of South Florida Libraries’ Special Collections Department.

Cushman witnessed many important events and interacted with several key individuals during the war’s first year.

Tampa and Fort Brooke

Cushman arrived in Tampa Bay on Feb. 9, 1836, aboard the steamer Merchant after a three-day journey from Pensacola. He first stepped foot on Fort Brooke soil the following day. The quote below includes his grammar, spelling and punctuation.

“Fort Brook is a beautiful spot shaded with Live oke and orange trees,” he wrote, “its beauty however has been greatly dimineshed by the burning of the most of the officers quarters by the order of Bt. Maj. Belton.”

Dade Battle

The Dade Battle was fought on Dec. 28, 1835, and is generally recognized as the beginning of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). Named for the officer in command, Maj. Francis Langhorn Dade, the battle lasted the better part of a day and ended with the deaths of 101 of Dade’s 104 men. A state of war existed between the U.S. and the Seminoles, and Dade was marching his men from Fort Brooke (Tampa) to Fort King (Ocala) to reinforce that post.

Two of the three survivors made it back to Fort Brooke (the third was killed along the Fort King Road by a Seminole) to relate news of the disaster. However, it wasn’t until Feb. 20, 1836, that U.S. soldiers, including Cushman, finally came upon the battle site. Although Cushman was not the only person to write down what he saw that day, his observations provide insight and descriptions that help us understand the last days of Dade’s men.

Commanders

Cushman was fortunate (at least from our standpoint) to meet a vast majority of the major players of the Second Seminole War, some of whom would become legendary. Generals included Richard Keith Call, Duncan Clinch, Edmund Pendleton Gaines, Thomas Sidney Jesup, Winfield Scott and Persifor Smith; Seminole leaders included Jumper, Abraham and Osceola. His encounters provide us with context that was, for some of them, nonexistent.

Climate and geography

Cushman witnessed the wounding and subsequent death of Lt. James Farley Izard, for whom Camp Izard is named. That site is now protected by the Seminole Wars Historic Foundation. He also witnessed the everyday events of the war in Florida. It is interesting how many times he says he is cold. Coming from Maine, it seems he would be complaining of the heat (which did bother him).

Cushman also became well acquainted with the Cove of the Withlacoochee, a beautiful area in central Florida that, in his time, was home to most of the Seminoles fighting for their right to remain in Florida.

From his writing, Cushman became less happy with his situation as the days and months dragged on. His ill health contributed to this. One ailment he mentions in particular was “tic douloureux,” which literally means “painful tic” in French. Also known as trigeminal neuralgia, tic douloureux was caused by degeneration of, or pressure on, the trigeminal nerve (a nerve in the neck that is responsible for feeling in the face), resulting in swelling of that nerve. It is apparently quite painful and there was no known cure at the time.

Other Seminole War Era diaries

Lt. Henry Prince kept the most notable journal during the Second Seminole War, from Jan. 10, 1836, until April 25, 1842 (with some gaps). Cushman and Prince were in the same place on many occasions, but Cushman fails to mention Prince at all, and Prince only mentions Cushman once — on May 24, 1836, which falls within the gap between the two Cushman journals.

Another remarkable first-hand account is by Lt. John T. Sprague, who wrote of his time in the military just after the war ended (1842), using his own journal as well as official papers and correspondence. Sprague’s work formed the basis for “Coacoochee’s Story,” the History Center’s Seminole War presentation.

Myer M. Cohen’s “Notices of Florida and the Campaigns” is another war journal, and like Cushman’s, it covers only a short period of time. Cohen’s work, however, has been criticized for potential problems with plagiarism.

In addition to Prince and Sprague, a few military doctors also kept journals (Drs. Forry, Jarvis, Strobel and Motte), though none has been published. Works published years after the Seminole Wars are available, and the work of George McCall (“Letters from the Frontier”) and John Bemrose (“Reminiscences”) are notable among those.

Ransom Clark, the true lone survivor of the Dade Battle (the other man died of his wounds at Fort Brooke a few days after the battle), traveled around the country relating the story of his military service. These, along with Cushman’s journal, bring the reality of the 19th century Florida War to the 21st century.

Rodney Kite-Powell is the director of the Touchton Map Library and the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached via email at [email protected] or phone at (813) 228-0097.

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