Politician, planter, and military officer Ferdinand Leigh Claiborne (1772-1815) played a significant part in the defense of the Alabama portion of the Mississippi Territory during the Creek War of 1813-14. Although not present, Claiborne was in ultimate command of the soldiers assigned to Fort Mims when the massacre occurred there in August 1813. In December 1813, Claiborne exacted a small measure of revenge for the attack when he led an assault against the Creeks at the Battle of the Holy Ground in present-day Lowndes County. In addition to his military service, Claiborne served two terms in the Mississippi Territorial Legislature in 1804 and once again in 1815, at which time he served briefly as speaker of the house immediately prior to his death.
Born on March 9, 1772, in Sussex County, Virginia, Ferdinand Leigh Claiborne was the son of William and Mary (Leigh) Claiborne of Manchester, Virginia. Although not much is known of Claiborne’s formative years, he certainly came from a distinguished and politically prominent family. His brother William C. C. Claiborne became the youngest person of that era to serve in the U.S. Congress and later served as governor of the Mississippi and Orleans (Louisiana) territories and as the first governor of the state of Louisiana. Brother Nathaniel H. Claiborne and uncle Thomas Claiborne also both served in the U.S. Congress as well as the Virginia legislature.
Early Military Service
On November 21, 1793, Claiborne was appointed as an ensign under the command of Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne and joined the war between U.S. forces and several Indian tribes for control of the Old Northwest Territory (largely what are now the states in the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes region). On August 20, 1794, Claiborne’s performance in the Battle of Fallen Timbers (which effectively ended the war) earned him a promotion to the rank of lieutenant. After the war, he worked in the army’s recruiting service in Richmond and Norfolk in Virginia as well as at several frontier posts, including Pittsburgh and Detroit. By the time he resigned from the army in 1802, he had attained the rank of captain and was serving as an acting adjutant general for the forces in the Northwest. That same year, he married Magdalene Hutchins, daughter of Col. Anthony Hutchins, an officer in the British army; the couple would have seven children.
Claiborne settled in Natchez in the Mississippi Territory, where his brother was serving as governor, and managed a plantation and operated a mercantile establishment. In 1804, he was elected to the Mississippi Territorial Legislature. In 1805, Claiborne joined the territorial militia as a major and in 1806 was put in command of troops sent to support Gen. James Wilkinson in the Sabine campaign in Louisiana to repel a threatened Spanish invasion. In January 1807, by then a colonel, Claiborne led a detachment of 275 men to arrest former vice-president Aaron Burr, who was rumored to be raising troops for the purpose of forming an independent nation. Burr was released on bond but failed to respond to a later summons, resulting in his second arrest in present-day Baldwin County, Alabama.
Fort Mims and the Creek War
On February 5, 1811, Claiborne, now a brigadier general, was put in charge of the Mississippi territorial militia; two years later he was commissioned a brigadier general in the volunteer U.S. Army and organized a brigade of Louisiana and Mississippi volunteers. In the latter part of July 1813, he and his troops marched to Fort Stoddert, located on the Mobile River near present-day Mount Vernon, Mobile County, to defend Mobile, which had only recently come into the possession of the United States. Claiborne kept his volunteer troops supplied during the march by mortgaging his own estate near Natchez. Upon his arrival at Fort Stoddert, Claiborne learned that the whole area north of Mobile was ripe with rumors of impending Indian attacks, and he thus distributed his troops to several different locations, including Fort Glass, Fort Madison, Fort Mims, and St. Stephens.
Claiborne’s troops daily inspected the numerous stockades in the area from their headquarters at Mount Vernon. On August 7, 1813, Claiborne personally inspected Fort Mims and instructed the fort’s commander, Maj. Daniel Beasley, to increase the picketing and build at least two other block houses. Claiborne encouraged him to respect the enemy and send out frequent scouting parties. Beasley increased the forts defenses but did not construct the block houses and generally allowed free access to the fort, keeping its gates open; he also did not heed Claiborne’s advice to stay aware of Creek activities in the area. As a result, some 250 inhabitants of the fort were massacred by Creek warriors from the Red Stick faction. Embarrassed by the event taking place on his watch, Claiborne hoped for an opportunity to seek revenge.
In November 1813 General Claiborne’s troops were ordered by Gen. Thomas Flournoy of the Seventh U.S. Military District to establish a supply depot some 80 miles north of St. Stephens in preparation for the coming war with the Creeks. Near present-day Monroeville, they constructed a stockade that they named Fort Claiborne in honor of their commander. Anxious to repair his reputation after Fort Mims, Claiborne talked Flournoy into sending his troops to attack the Upper Creek settlement of Econochaca, known as the Holy Ground because the Creeks believed that the village was encircled by an impenetrable barrier that no white man could cross. Claiborne was so anxious to engage the Creeks that he again provided food and munitions for the troops at his own expense. On December 13, 1813, Claiborne’s troops, along with troops of the U.S. Third Regiment led by Col. Gilbert C. Russell and Choctaw warriors led by Lt. Col. Pushmataha, set out for the Holy Ground encampment, which they reached on December 22, 1813.
As the battle ensued on the morning of December 23, the advancing soldiers did not drop dead as they crossed the supposed impenetrable barrier. Prophet Joseph Francis and his party thus ran away, escaping through a gap in the American lines to the river that had also allowed the women and children to escape prior to the battle. This left Weatherford and a vastly outnumbered group of warriors to fend for themselves. Weatherford put up a courageous fight but began to look for an escape route himself when he saw that most of his men had deserted him. This led to Weatherford’s legendary jump off a nearby bluff into the Alabama River.
Although the Battle of the Holy Ground was not that significant in terms of casualties, with only about 33 Red Sticks killed (including twelve escaped slaves who were fighting with them) and only one of Claiborne’s men killed, Claiborne successfully forced the Red Sticks to evacuate their town and seized 1,200 barrels of corn for his hungry troops. The battle also was a psychological victory for the Americans, who penetrated deep into Creek territory that the warriors believed to be sacred and impregnable. At its conclusion, the Red Sticks no longer posed a threat along the lower Alabama River. The war’s focus then shifted northward to the Tallapoosa River, where General Jackson would later deliver an ultimate defeat to the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend.
After the war, Claiborne returned to his Mississippi plantation, which he called Soldier’s Retreat. On February 4, 1815, he was elected again to the Mississippi Territorial Legislature, where he served briefly as speaker of the house. Claiborne, whose health had been significantly impaired as a result of hardships and exposure during his service in the Creek War, died on March 22, 1815, and was buried in Trinity Cemetery in Natchez.
- Griffith Jr., Benjamin. W. McIntosh and Weatherford: Creek Indian Leaders. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988.
- Waselkov, Gregory A. A Conquering Spirit: Fort Mims and the Redstick War of 1813–1814. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006