Worst Military Defeat in U.S. History
A military defeat that eclipsed Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Long Island, and Little Big Horn combined. Updated 11/8/2022
The Dade Massacre, December 28, 1835
Some of the pictures we previously posted were inaccurate. We fixed that. Always check your work. Also, we have updated the story and provided additional sources. History is a constant journey of exploration. Thanks for riding along.
Sometimes losing is instrumental to learning how to win. Sometimes losing is just a humiliating defeat.
The United States acquired Florida in 1821. In 1835, a detachment of 108 officers and soldiers (and two civilians including an enslaved man who served as interpreter) was dispatched to police the local Seminole tribes. The entire detachment was wiped out. The casualty rate was 100 percent—a defeat not matched any other major engagement.
At least 14 people, for example, survived the Battle of the Alamo (1836) and that battle really doesn’t count anyway because Texas didn’t become a state till 1945.
All 210 of Custer’s command died at the Little Big Horn (but a horse survived and 60-70 horses were captured). Still, the battle was part of a bigger battle including the Battle of the Rosebud (1876), so the entire unit in the campaign was not wiped out.
The Fetterman Massacre occurred on December 21, 1866. A confederation of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes wiped out a military detachment of 81 men under the command of Captain William J. Fetterman. While the casualty rate was a 100 percent, the numbers were smaller than the Dade Massacre.
Biggest U.S. loses in a campaign was the Meuse-Argonne Offensive September 26, – November 11, 1918), over 26,000 killed in action, but one million doughboys fought in the campaign.
The largest loses in the a single battle was probably Gettysburg (1863). Deaths numbered almost 8,000 but that included troops from both sides and the fight last three days.
No. The opening fight of the Second Seminole War seems the dubious winner of the most disastrous campaign in U.S. military history.
What happened? Osceola led the Seminole in a surprise attack against the Americans under Major Francis Langhorne Dade leading a combined Army from Fort Brooke (Tampa) and Fort King (Ocala). Osceola and his men, wiped out Dade’s command near what is now Bushnell, Florida. The incident became known as the “Dade Massacre.”
The Seminole Osceola led the surprise attack against Dade’s command.
Who was Major Dade? Brevet Major Francis L. Dade (1793 – December 28, 1835) was a commander in the U.S. 4th Infantry Regiment, United States Army. Dade was an accomplished and experienced Army officer. He served as the Commandant of Cadets at West Point and had previously commanded to two successful expeditions against the Seminoles.
Was everyone really killed? There were three survivors of the actual battle. Captain James Barr recorded in his dairy the story of “one of the three survivors who, literally, crawled back to Fort Brook.” One of these individuals was Louis Pacheco, an enslaved servant who spoke Seminole and was rented to the Army as an interpreter. The Seminoles didn’t kill him because he was not a soldier. So, he really doesn’t count. Private Ransom Clark reported he and another soldier escaped the battlefield. The other soldier was later killed by the Seminoles. Clark was shot five times and later died from his wounds. So, fair to say the casualty rate for the campaign was 100 percent.
Mass grave of U.S. Army war dead from the Seminole War, St. Augustine, Florida
Where are they buried? Along with other causalities of the war, Dade’s command is interned in a mass grave at the U.S. military cemetery in St. Augustine, Florida.
Also, among the casualties for the U.S. forces was the first native American graduate of West Point, David Moniac. He was also killed during the Second Seminole War, in a different battle. (Here is a podcast on his heroic death.)
Major David Moniac (1802–1836), the first American Indian to graduate from West Point, died leading a U.S. Army unit during the Second Seminole War. (art by Walker Jackson)
And then, there was the last casualty.
Grave of Ransom Clark (photo by Marsha Redden)
Ransom Clark was 23 years old when Dade’s command was ambushed by the Seminoles. He was was shot 5 times, in the pelvis, shoulder and lung and hobbled 50 miles, crossing 4 rivers in three days to report back to Fort Brooke. He died 5 years later at the age of 28 from wounds suffered. He is buried at Greigsville Cemetery in Wadsworth, Livingston County, New York.
Why is this battle forgotten? Honestly, do not know. It is definitely not studied at the West Point military academy. There is, however, a fair amount of history on the Seminole War. This is the most up to date source I could find.
Dade's Last Command(1995) by Frank Laumer
The Dade Battlefield Historic Park is in Bushnell, Florida. Nearly 2,000 park visitors attend the reenactment each year.
A reenactment of the column with Major Dade leading his command.
The Dade Battle reenactment is the largest Seminole Wars reenactment and just one of the many events and programs offered at the Dade Battlefield throughout the year.
And, the heroes are not forgotten.
Dade County, Florida was named in honor of Major Dade and there is a monument remembering Dade in the cemetery at West Point.
Dade monument at West Point.
There is a memorial to Major David Moniac at the Florida National Cemetery.
The inscription on David Moniac’s headstone, written by his commander Major General T.S. Jesup, reads: “He was as brave and gallant a man as ever drew a sword or faced an enemy.”
More Extreme History
Greatest Warrior King of All Times
And in the “Shameless Plug” category.
A perceptive, vivid, and insightful panorama of one of the most brutal, yet least understood, campaigns of the Pacific theater of World War II. A must read! -- Russell A. Hart, Hawai'i Pacific University
In 1942, US and Australian forces waged a brutal war against the Japanese in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. Plunged into a primitive, hostile world in which their modes of battle seemed out of place and time, they fought, suffered, hated, starved, and killed in muck and mud. James Carafano's vivid history brings this all to life. Ranging from detailed descriptions of specific battles to accounts of the fates of prisoners and the crucial role played by New Guinea's Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, Carafano chronicles the grueling, and ultimately successful, Allied campaign, telling a tale of war at the very edge of human endurance.
Check Out The War and More Newsletter
War and More is curated, like fine art, helping folks interested in foreign policy and national security navigate this crazy world with news, events, podcasts, film, crypto, media, books, professional tools, history, and the virtual universe. This and a cup of coffee and you can conquer the world.
Many people don't realize how rugged central and south Florida can be. Unless you can find a game trail through the rugged palmetto plants, it was basically impenetrable. Rattlesnakes and water moccasins were more than plentiful, and game is not plentiful enough to feed a large formation on the march. Yellow fever was pervasive though the early 20th century. It's early March as I am writing this, and we had a high of 88 degrees yesterday. BTW, in addition to service in the Mexican War, a young Stonewall Jackson also served in this war, at Ft. Meade near Sebring, Fl.