by Richard Green
July 2003 Times
Part Two of a Two-Part Series
It is 2 p.m. on May 26, 1736. Bienville gives the signal and the French forces begin moving forward. They had spent nearly four hours camped at the edge of the prairie near the base of the hill below the three Chickasaw villages known as Apeony, Chukafalaya and Ackia. But now the leading edge of some 275 troops begins marching uphill, both literally and figuratively--right into the teeth of the Chickasaws’ heavily fortified defense.
The Chickasaws must have felt relieved when the attack began with drumbeats, not cannons blasting, with 20 pound balls of explosives raining down on their fortifications and heads. Of course, if the French had had the means to destroy the reinforced houses and stockade fort from long distance, they would have attacked hours ago. Evidently, they used that time to argue about whether or not to attack any of these three villages.
Finally, they had decided, however reluctantly, to attack the village they thought was Ackia. It was the greatest distance away from the fort flying the British flag. Bienville was giving the British inside the walls of that fort time to clear away since Britain and France were not then technically at war. (Actually, the three villages were contiguous, and it would have been difficult for outsiders to recognize boundaries since there were no signs. Even if the village the French attacked was Ackia, warriors from all three villages responded.) One final factor in a go-no go situation might have been the report from the Choctaws that they had seen large numbers of Chickasaws from the Large Prairie villages to the north pouring into the vicinity. This probably made the battle inevitable.
As the army approaches the outlying houses, the Chickasaws inside commence firing. The French return fire, but those Chickasaws are well concealed and protected in their houses behind two or three thicknesses of stockade walls and in some cases earthen embankments. In lieu of the only method of attack that makes sense under the circumstances, knocking down the Chickasaw fortifications with cannonballs and mortars, the French move within musket range of the well-placed, reinforced houses. The front row of grenadiers are protected by a single, supposedly musket-proof shield called a mantelet. Since it was only named but not described by Bienville, this mantelet might have been made from any of several materials. But to minimize weight over the long distance that they had traveled from Mobile, the mantelet was probably made of woven rope instead of wood or metal. Moreover, if the French could have transported additional weight, the soldiers would have been wearing extra protection, such as breastplates and helmets.
The French plan for the attack’s first phase was to get close enough to lob grenades over the wall into the fort. Then, with the Chickasaws’ defenses reduced and softened up, the Indians probably would scatter in alarm. One problem with this plan was that the mantelet protecting the grenadiers was held in place by unarmed, exposed and extremely reluctant black slaves. When Chickasaw marksmen pick off two of those slaves, the other bearers immediately throw down the mantelet and run off, leaving the grenadiers vulnerable to deadly crossfires of lead coming from the Chickasaw houses.
The warriors stand in a four-foot deep trench, dug just inside the perimeter of the walls and fire their muskets through loopholes cut a bit above ground level. Before any of the grenadiers can get close enough to hurl their explosives, the well-protected Chickasaws continue to fire away. The French fall like matchsticks.
The only advantage that the French enjoy at this point would not be realized for years. It is that the only accounts of the Battle of Ackia would be written by the French, most notably their commander, Bienville. His account and an anonymously written shorter narrative of the battle includes names and personal information about the French.
On the other hand, none of the Chickasaws are identified, though Bienville knew many of them by name. As a result, in most accounts, the French would be identified by historians such as Charles Gayarre and B.F. Riley as the protagonists (heroes) while the nameless, faceless Chickasaws would be the antagonists. Though Imayatabe isn’t named in Bienville’s narrative, he is identified as the chief of Ackia in early 1730s’ French correspondence. Presumably he was there on May 26. Moreover, as a leader who worked to achieve and maintain trade relations with the French, it is likely that he is the one who had sent peace envoys out to the French earlier that day. (They were greeted by hostile Choctaws, allies of Bienville bent on insuring that the French would attack and hopefully defeat the Chickasaws at these three southernmost villages. Two of the envoys were killed and scalped by the Choctaws.)
Although the French are suffering numerous casualties in their charge toward the fort, their superior numbers in the outlying area enable them to capture three fortified houses. Bienville does not report whether the Chickasaws inside the houses fled or were killed. The French also set fire to several smaller houses.
The price the French pay for gaining ground is frightful. The field commander, Chevalier de Noyan, a nephew of Bienville, apparently is unaware of the magnitude of the losses. As he and some junior officers crouch behind the fortified house nearest the fort, Noyan is thinking that the fort can be breeched. On the verge of giving the order to charge, he looks around and probably is stunned by what he sees. Instead of seeing troops moving quickly forward to join him, he sees what must have looked like a slaughter-house of dead and wounded French soldiers. He also observes that the troops that had survived relatively unscathed are cowering behind Chickasaw houses.
What distinguishes Noyan’s crouching from their cowering is fear. Noyan and the officers are prudently taking cover. But the panic of the soldiers immobilize them; they are too terrified to even run. Afterwards, Bienville emphasized the cowardice and low quality and stature of the soldiers in a report to Lord Maurepas, the minister in charge of Louisiana. He said the great majority were under five feet tall and that most of the soldiers had received lashes for various infractions.
On the other side, the Chickasaw war chiefs must have been discussing what to do next. They seem to have a big advantage. Should they press it by sending out warriors to finish off the French troops that were pinned down? Such mopping up probably would not take long, overwhelming the few troops with many warriors, but there would be some Chickasaw casualties. The chiefs wait for Bienville’s next move. This decision indicates that the Chickasaws, not the British, are directing the defense of their villages. Some historians have written accounts implying that the Englishmen inside were in charge.
Meanwhile, rearguard officers order their troops to advance into the battlefield. They refuse. The officers alternately threaten dire punishments and offer battlefield promotions and even money, all to no avail. Bienville calls this cowardice. But to the soldiers who had seen their compatriots mowed down by well protected and concealed Chickasaws, moving forward into a shooting gallery may seem insanely dangerous.
Still, French honor and prestige are at stake. Something has to be done. Something is, but not what Bienville wants. The Chickasaws unleash another hail of gunfire, and Noyan and other officers are wounded. It isn’t hard to imagine Chickasaw marksmen lined up with the unsuspecting officers in their sites, firing simultaneously. Bleeding from multiple wounds, Noyan orders his aide to tell Bienville that he needs immediate reinforcements. The aide has scarcely turned to go when he is shot dead. This is the punctuation mark in a very desperate situation. The troops suddenly realize that they are completely vulnerable; death may be only seconds away. Some are panicky; others are so immobilized they appear to be in shock. Somehow, Noyan needs to get word to Bienville--reinforcements or retreat?--or all of the officers will perish. But by then the governor can see for himself that a retreat must be sounded. He orders an officer named Beauchamp forward with 80 men to protect the retreat and bring back the wounded and dead.
Bienville wrote that while this rescue mission was occurring, the Chickasaws “would not dare to charge them.” He was implying that the Chickasaws didn’t have the courage, but the truth was that by staying behind their fortifications they could continue to pick off the rescuers without risking a single Chickasaw life. In popular accounts of Ackia, historians make much of this effort, by detailing stories of French valor and heroism in contrast with the barbarism of the Chickasaw. In one such episode, a Swiss officer, Grondel, had been wounded and left to die near the walls of the Chickasaw fort. When Beauchamps’ men arrived on the scene, a group of five attempted to rescue him. They were all killed or wounded in the process. Then, some Indians emerged from the fort to finish off Grondel and mutilate his corpse in some public fashion. But before they could reach Grondel, one soldier raced through the hail of bullets, scooped up the Swiss officer and raced back to cover. While this rescue was gallant, the historians conveniently forgot to remind the readers who had been attacking whom.
At this point in the battle, increasingly dense smoke, via musket fire and the house fires set by the French, is probably making it hard to see the enemy. Still, as Beauchamps’ soldiers run forward, many are shot. Charles Gayarre’s 1903 account of this part of the battle says more about him and his fantasies and fears than it does about the battle: “The Chickasaws, inside the fort and cabins, firing through loopholes, were uttering such appalling whoops and shouts, such blood-freezing shrieks and fiendish yells, that we would have thought that thousands of demons were rioting in one of their favorite haunts in Pandemonium.”
Beauchamp’s soldiers reach the pinned down officers and apparently firing to provide cover, help some to escape. At this juncture, the Choctaws bestir themselves. When they had arrived on the scene that morning, some had jeered and taunted the Chickasaws, and fired their muskets toward the villages in a traditional show of contempt. Then, they retired to the bottom of the rise where they remained out of sight and action until Beauchamp’s men were retreating. Suddenly, an unknown number of them charge across the prairie toward the fortifications, muskets blazing, in a wild attack that seems to make even less sense than the French attack. Twenty-two of them were killed or wounded and the rest beat a hasty retreat.
One interpretation of this charge across the plain is that it was a way of showing disrespect for the badly mauled French. Another is that the pro-French Choctaw chief, Alibamon Mingo had either been persuaded or had volunteered to help cover the retreat. Still another is that their hatred for these Chickasaws and the powerful need to uphold the tradition of blood revenge obliged them to do something when they realized that their stand-ins, the French, were being badly defeated.
With the French and Choctaws in full retreat, the Chickasaw war chiefs again may have considered pursuing them. Though such action runs counter to Southeastern Indian battle strategy, just two months before, the Chickasaws went in hot pursuit after the retreating French following the battle of Ogoula Tchetoka. Many of the French were killed or captured and later killed. Likely one or more war chiefs advocated another hot pursuit as a Chickasaw-applied coup de grace. However, two factors made Ackia different. First, pursuing the French enabled the Chickasaws to capture much of their armaments and provisions. This was needed more then than now. A Choctaw chief who visited the Chickasaw villages in early 1737 told the French that he found no shortage of firepower and that each village was well stocked with English weapons. Second, the war chiefs could not be sure that the nearly 600 Choctaws would continue to retreat. They were capable of fighting back, which could prove costly to the Chickasaws.
So, with the sun dipping lower on the horizon by 4 p.m., the last shots are fired at the retreating French. No one estimated the number of Chickasaw casualties, though they were probably quite minimal, which was crucial to a tribe whose population had been decreased by warfare and diseases brought by Europeans. Furthermore, Ackia undoubtedly enhanced the tribe’s value in the eyes of the British. The battle probably weakened the already diminished pro-French faction of the tribe. And it demonstrated to Choctaw leaders, particularly Red Shoe who was at Ackia, that the French were weak and unreliable allies. A few years later, the Choctaws would be fighting a civil war between the pro-French and pro-British factions.
No matter how Bienville massaged the message to Maurepas, Ackia had been a terrible, crippling defeat. He reported 24 killed and 52 wounded. However, French officers had estimated 60 to 70 casualties before Beauchamps’ troops arrived. Whatever the actual number, it is certain that Bienville’s officer corps had been decimated. These losses were critical in that they were virtually irreplacable. The absence of an officer corps further weakened an already fragile, undisciplined and needy colony. Though the French army, again under Bienville’s command, would return three years later, his much ballyhooed battle to exterminate the Chickasaws never took place. Therefore, Ackia marked the beginning of the end for the French empire’s plan to link its northern territories to the southeastern colony of Louisiana. Increasingly weak in the ensuing years, Louisiana would be abandoned altogether by 1763.
Note: Part I of the Battle of Ackia ran in the July issue of the Times.
Mississippi Provincial Archives, French Dominion, Vol. I, Bienville’s letters to French officials, 1736. Charles Gayarre, History of Louisiana, Volume I, 1903.
Alfred W. Reynolds, The Alabama-Tombigbee Basin in International Relations, 1701-1763, doctoral dissertation, 1928.
Robbie Ethridge, The French Connection: The Ethnohistorical Evidence for Interactions between the Chickasaw and French, paper presented in Macon, Ga., Nov. 10, 2000.
B.F. Riley, Makers and Romance of Alabama History, 1915?
Patricia Galloway, “Formation of Historic Tribes and French Colonial Period,”
Michael J. Foret, “War or Peace? Louisiana, the Choctaws, and the Chickasaws, 1733-35.”
Richard White, The Roots of Dependency, 1988.
Arrell Gibson, The Chickasaws, 1971.
Michael J. Foret, On the Marchlands of Empire: Trade, Diplomacy, and War on the Southeastern Frontier, 1733-1763, doctoral dissertation, 1990. “
To Provide for the Commemoration of the Two Hundredth Anniversary of the Battle of Ackia...” Report to U.S. House of Representatives, 1934.
Allen Cabaniss, “Ackia: Battle in the Wilderness, 1736,” 1975.
Grace King, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur De Bienville, 1893.
Joseph L. Peyser, “The Chickasaw Wars of 1736 and 1740,” 1983.
*Bienville is the only known recorder of events associated with the Battle of Ackia. Other soldiers in his army are thought to have written accounts but if so, these narratives have not been located. All sources listed are available at the Chickasaw Nation Library in Ada.