GAINESVILLE, Fla. – A minor skirmish in a sparsely settled area of Florida 175 years ago provided the final piece of an ongoing project to recognize Florida’s rich citizen-Soldier heritage.
On Sept. 4, Florida National Guard Historian Gregory Moore and Senior Army Advisor for the Florida National Guard Col. David Rodgers traveled to the Kanapaha battlefield near Gainesville to collect a soil sample from the unmarked site where U.S. Army and Seminole forces clashed in 1838.
This sandy soil is the last sample needed for an ongoing project to gather soil from battlefields around the world where the Florida National Guard - or its militia predecessors - served and fought. The samples will be spread on the parade field in front of the Florida National Guard headquarters in St. Augustine during a ceremony on Sept. 13, 2013.
During the middle of the Second Seminole War, a group of U.S. Army Soldiers heading south near present-day Gainesville encountered an estimated 50 Seminole Indians on the Kanapaha Prairie on June 17, 1838. The Soldiers – guided by Florida militia Capt. Stephen V. Walker – attacked the Seminoles at their encampment, killing at least three natives.
Capt. Walker, who led the soldiers into the fight, was mortally wounded as the Army contingent attacked into the live oak hammock concealing the Seminoles.
“Our Florida National Guard tie to the Kanapaha battle was Walker,” historian Moore explained during the trip where he filled a plastic bag with the sandy soil from under the stand of live oaks at the battle-site. “We didn’t have large militia organizations in the territorial days; local communities would have a militia group, and Walker’s was one of those. He was often employed by the Army to help track down Seminoles.”
Walker served as a member of the Spring Grove Guard, but on June 17, 1838, he was guiding mounted members of the 2nd Dragoons under command of Capt. L. J. Beall.
Beall’s report three days later on June 20, 1838, described the first moments of the battle: “We then proceeded, with Captain Walker as a guide, to gain the rear of the Indians, which we did after a fatiguing march of about two miles, not however before they had taken alarm …”
According to his account, the defenders opened fire from the hammock, wounding Walker.
“We rushed forward immediately and gave them a spirited fire in return; drove them deep into the hammock,” Beall added to the report.
Beall’s account noted that the fighting lasted nearly two hours, with the Soldiers eventually leaving after running out of ammunition. They returned the next morning to recover the body of Capt. Walker.
“I don’t know if you could say it decided any single stage of the war,” explained Seminole War historian Henry Sheldon, who led the recent Florida National Guard expedition to the battlefield. “Its importance is probably that it was early on (in the campaigns), after the war transitioned to a sustained guerrilla war.”
Sheldon owns property on the Kanapaha Prairie where the battle took place. He said the guerrilla warfare aspect of the Second Seminole War echoes another war he took part in himself as a young Army second lieutenant – the Vietnam War.
“They were taking the war to the enemy,” Sheldon explained of the U.S. Army tactics in Florida in the 1830s. “There were patrols out there constantly living off the land…It was kind of like Vietnam; sending our force recon patrols out.”
Sheldon and Moore agreed that the landscape on the Florida prairie probably changed very little during the past 175 years; the terrain of grassy marshes and tall live-oaks dripping with Spanish moss was most likely similar to what the Seminoles and Soldiers encountered when they clashed.
A recent oil painting by Florida artist Jackson Walker – a descendent of Capt. Stephen V. Walker – shows the Soldiers from the 2nd Dragoons confronting the native combatants in a stand of live oaks along the Kanapaha Prairie. Except for a few fence posts and a gravel road snaking through the woods, the site today looks nearly like Jackson Walker’s depiction.
When the soil is spread outside the Florida National Guard headquarters on Sept. 13, the project will represent National Guard militia traditions beginning in the 1560s, continuing through the wars in the 19th and 20th Centuries, and ending with recent deployments to Southwest Asia.
“Any place our American service members or Florida Guardsmen have shed blood is significant to our military heritage,” Moore, a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, said. “When this soil from Kanapaha is spread in St. Augustine on our parade field, it will honor not just Capt. Walker, but every one of our Soldiers and Airmen who have carried on the Florida militia tradition.
“Nearly 500 years of selfless service in just a few handfuls of dirt --- it is truly humbling,” Moore added.