Swearingen, Joseph Van. Letters, 1834-1837

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Material Information

Title:
Swearingen, Joseph Van. Letters, 1834-1837
Physical Description:
Mixed Material
Creator:
Swearingen, Joseph Van, 1799-1837
Publication Date:

Subjects

Subjects / Keywords:
Seminole War, 2nd, 1835-1842
Genre:
Spatial Coverage:

Notes

Biographical:
Joseph Van Swearingen, born in May 1799, was a native of Maryland, and, despite spending a third of his life at military posts in the trans-Mississippi West and in Florida, he always exhibited a wistful nostalgia for his hometown of Frederick. His father, Joseph Swearingen, served with distinction during the American Revolution and used his credentials to shepherd his son into West Point. Swearingen graduated from the military academy on July 1, 1824, age twenty five, with the rank of second lieutenant, U.S. Sixth Infantry. A cameo portrait, made around that time, shows him as a pink-cheeked young man, solemn but with an air of good humor, and of a slight build, though fellow officers described him as an avid sportsman, “excelling in all that was manly,” with a passion for hunting. Throughout his military career he would have three constant companions—his manservant, Dennis, a slave, who had grown up with Swearingen from youth; his horse, Gus; and his deer hunting rifle.
Biographical:
Swearingen’s initial years after West Point were marked by frequent changes of location. He was posted to Fort Atkinson, Iowa, until 1827, then to Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis. In 1829 he was on the Santa Fe Trail, fighting against the Comanche and Kiowa, and in 1832, at the Battle of Bad Axe during the Black Hawk War. In 1836 he accompanied the Sixth Infantry to Fort Jesup on the Texas-Louisiana border, patrolling that area in the turbulent days following the Battle of the Alamo (6 March 1836). From Texas, his next tour of duty would be Florida.
Biographical:
Swearingen’s letters from Florida cover the crucial year of 1837 in the Second Seminole War. This was the second full year of a conflict that would ultimately go on for seven years. It was marked by several key events: General Thomas S. Jesup’s failed attempt to persuade the Seminole chief’s to give up and emigrate; the capture of Osceola and other important leaders; and the Battle of Okeechobee, fought on Christmas Day, a battle that claimed Swearingen’s life. His letters are a historically important commentary on his growing frustration with the war effort, a frustration apparently shared by his fellow officers in the Sixth Infantry Regiment.
Biographical:
Like many officers, Swearingen never expected the Second Seminole War to be a protracted conflict. Writing from New Orleans as the Sixth embarked for Tampa, he confidently told his sisters the whole thing would probably be over before he reached the Florida coast. “The Indians of Florida have been several times defeated and cannot hold out much longer,” he remarked. Even after landing in Tampa, this attitude gained strength in his mind. It was probably aided by the fact that the Sixth Infantry arrived in Florida during a lull in hostilities. Their first months of campaign, for instance, were radically different from those of the Fourth Infantry. While the Fourth was busy erecting forts and slogging through the swamps of the Wahoo on reconnaissance, the Sixth took up garrison duty at the newly constructed Fort Dade on the Withlacoochee River. On their march there, the Sixth met little resistance, seized sixteen prisoners—Seminole women, children, and blacks—and sent messages to the chiefs that General Thomas Jesup wished to parley with them about a truce. Swearingen’s assessment of the situation was that of a Western veteran who could scarcely credit that Florida posed a serious military problem. “I cannot see what our great Generals have been doing,” he told his sister, Elizabeth, “unless they wanted to bring the Seminoles to subjection by parading long pieces in the newspapers blaggarding one another instead of going and giving battle . . . I think they might have restored peace and quietness . . . in about two months . . . and it has been almost two years.”
Biographical:
Swearingen’s death at the Battle of Okeechobee, December 25, 2837, was dramatically captured in a newspaper report: “Van Swearingen was shot in advance of his company, in the lower part of his neck, retired to the rear, raised both his hands above his head, gave one groan, and was no more.” It would remain for the Fourth Infantry and the remnants of the Sixth to dislodge the Seminoles with a charge and two hours of hard fighting. Altogether, Zachary Taylor lost 26 dead and 112 wounded in the battle. His force was so crippled that he could not pursue the enemy. The Seminoles escaped with a dozen casualties, yet the army had routed them and the battle was hailed as a victory.

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