by Art Levy
Updated 4 yearss ago
Seminole Chief Micanopy, crouching at the edge of the piney woods, pointed his rifle at the chest of U.S. Army Maj.
Francis Langhorne Dade. Micanopy hesitated for a moment, considering the consequences of what he was about to do. Pulling the trigger now would surely mean another war between the Seminole Tribe and the United States.
Dade, on horseback, was just 60 feet away. He sat high in the saddle, wearing a tall, black leather hat. The major’s 108 troops were six days into a 100-mile march from Fort Brooke in Tampa to Fort King in Ocala, right through the middle of Seminole land. It was Dec. 28, 1835, and the men had missed celebrating Christmas. Dade, certain that the most dangerous parts of the march were over, sensed his men were down, so he had gathered them a few minutes earlier to deliver a pep talk.
“Have a good heart,” he told them. “Our difficulties and dangers are over now and, as soon as we arrive at Fort King, you’ll have three days to rest and keep Christmas gaily.”
Micanopy’s bullet pierced Dade’s heart, and the Virginia native fell dead to the ground. The shot was a signal to the chief’s 180 men, who emerged simultaneously from the forest, firing their guns. The first volley killed more than half of Dade’s men. By battle’s end, just two U.S. soldiers, both severely wounded, had survived, and the Second Seminole War (1835-42), had begun.
The killing field, now part of Dade Battlefield Historic State Park in Sumter County, is about 15 miles from Frank Laumer’s Hernando County home. He took his family to the park for a picnic one afternoon in 1962 and, while nosing around in the visitor center, discovered that very little had been written about the battle or its significance.
Laumer, who always had an interest in history, soon fixed that. His 1968 book “Massacre!” told the battle’s story and won a D.B. McKay Award from the Tampa Historical Society. He kept researching and realized he had enough material for another book, which became 1995’s “Dade’s Last Command.” Laumer, 87, also spent years studying the life and death of Ransom Clark, one of the battle’s U.S. survivors. That research became “Nobody’s Hero,” an historical novel published in 2008.
Laumer probably knows more about the battle than anyone alive. His own theory for what led to the battle is that both Dade and his men and Micanopy and his men were used as pawns by Southern slave owners, who were tired of their slaves escaping to Florida, where the Seminoles harbored and protected the runaways. The slave owners pushed the federal government to send more troops to Florida, both to intimidate the Seminoles and also to escort slave trackers they sent to Florida to capture and bring home the escaped slaves.
“I think the basic cause of the Second Seminole War, like the Civil War, was slavery,” Laumer says. “When the Seminoles took the bait and killed those troops, that gave the U.S. an excuse to go after them. That gave us a cause to go to war — and we did.”
Laumer, standing at the site of the battle, shakes his head sadly at his own theory. He stares at the field, now ringed by moss-draped oaks instead of the pines that grew here in 1835, and he chokes up at the thought of the soldiers shot down nearly 180 years ago. As part of his research, he has read some of their letters home and some of the letters written to them. They were just regular guys, he says. If he thinks about it, he can hear their screams and imagine their wounds.
“It breaks my heart,” he says.