Jane Phillips: The death of Lt. John Slade Gatlin, MD
On your next trip to Disney World and while in Orlando, travel down Gatlin Avenue. The street was named for a Kinston native and this is his story.
John Slade Gatlin grew up just a short way from Kinston in a house near his grandfather’s home. It is alleged his home place is a house on Vernon Avenue across the road from the Gov. Caswell State Historic Site. With the blood of military leaders running in his veins, he was destined to make his mark in life as a warrior.
Young Gatlin trained as a physician and at the age of 28, enlisted in the Army. This writer has found no information on where he was educated but maybe his younger brother Richard Caswell Gatlin, who was a graduate of the University of North Carolina and West Point, had followed in John Slade’s footsteps.
His first assignments as an army officer were at remote outposts on the western frontier such as Fort Gibson in Arkansas and Fort Jackson in Louisiana. Gatlin applied for a transfer, hoping for a more civilized environment in New York or something closer to home in North Carolina. Instead, he was shipped to Fort Pickens near Pensacola, Fla., then to Fort Brooke at Tampa, which had fewer than 100 settlers at the time.
In December 1835, when the orders came to march from Tampa inland to Fort King near present-day Ocala, Gatlin must have thought his plight couldn't get much worse, but it did. On Dec. 28, the company of 110 soldiers led by Maj. Francis Dade had just crossed the Withlacoochee River near what is now Bushnell in Sumter County. Gatlin was riding and talking with a lieutenant from his home state when they heard gunfire up ahead.
Indians hiding in the brush along the left side of the trail fired the first volley. Gatlin was too far away to know that a gunshot had pierced Dade's heart and killed him. About half of Dade's men were killed in the first volley of fire.
Gatlin took the two double-barreled shotguns he had brought with him for hunting and took his place beside the other survivors. He was behind some palm fronds, firing as fast as he could reload.
For a while, the unit held its own and forced the Indians to retreat into the woods. But over a period of hours, the Seminoles picked off most of the rest of Dade's men, one by one. Only four soldiers survived the massacre. Three were wounded and escaped, while the fourth was captured. Only three Indians were killed.
One of the survivors was Pvt. Ransom Clarke who later recorded this recollection: ''We were surrounded by the Indians, who looked like devils yelling and whooping."
Of Gatlin, Clarke wrote, ''Dr. Gatlin was as cool as if out in the woods shooting game and ... dealt out death as methodically as he had formerly dealt with life, seemingly ignoring the chilling battle cries of the Indians.''
The last thing Clarke remembered before losing consciousness was seeing Gatlin reload his shotguns as he waited for the Indians' next charge and hearing him say, ''Well, I've got four barrels ready for them.''
But Gatlin was killed before he got a chance to fire again.
Clarke reported after the battle some of the attackers violently killed any wounded survivors with axes and knives. He survived by playing dead, and since he had been wounded in five places, he could play dead convincingly.
The 29-year-old physician from a prominent North Carolina family was one of 107 men killed by Seminole Indians on Dec. 28, 1835; This number varies according to who’s account one may read.
The attack became known as the Dade Massacre. It was a fierce battle in open woods that led to the Second Seminole War. Because of the wilderness the bodies lay exposed in the woods for several days before U.S. soldiers finally came and gave them a temporary burial on the battlefield.
As soon as conditions allowed, however, the remains of Maj. Dade and his men were exhumed and removed to what is now St. Augustine National Cemetery and buried in the Dade Pyramids. Though the three small pyramids in the St. Augustine National Cemetery are associated with Maj. Dade and his men, they memorialize more than 1,000 men who died in the Second Seminole War.
Dr. Gatlin, who once had walked the streets of Kinston, didn't go in the army to kill Indians. He went to mend wounded soldiers and heal the sick. But even an Army surgeon assigned to the wilderness and surrounded by hostile Indians does whatever he must to stay alive. In Gatlin's case, it wasn't enough.
Afterward, Gen. Zachary Taylor commanded that forts be created throughout Central Florida, including Fort Gatlin, named after the Army assistant surgeon who died a hero’s death when killed in the Dade Massacre. Fort Gatlin was created at a strategic point overlooking three Orlando lakes: Lake Gem Mary, Lake Jennie Jewel and Lake Gatlin.
A Raleigh newspaper published, “In the death of Dr. Gatlin, the Army has lost an able and efficient Surgeon, society a polished gentleman, and his aged parents an affectionate and dutiful son, whose untimely end will bring their gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.”
In choosing a military career, Dr. Gatlin, like his brother Gen. Richard Caswell Gatlin, the commanding general over North Carolina at the beginning of the Civil War and his grandfather, Gen. Richard Caswell, head of the N.C. Militia during the American Revolution, and hero at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, proved themselves to be fine soldiers and patriots while serving our country.
A monument was erected at West Point to honor the eight officers who died during the Dade Massacre.
Today in Orlando you will find a historical marker that commemorates Fort Gatlin. In addition to the historical marker, the legacy of Fort Gatlin lives on in several ways. Gatlin Avenue bears his name, as well as the Fort Gatlin Shopping Center.
The Standard (Raleigh Newspaper) February 1, 1836
Explore Southern History.com
A Dictionary of all Officers, who have been commissioned, or have been by Charles Kitchell Gardner
Orlando Sentinel February 2, 1992| Army Surgeon Fired Back to Save His Own Life - And Failed by Mark Andrews
Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army: From ..., Volume 1 by Francis Bernard Heitman
Congressional Serial Set - Page 450
General Scott By Marcus Joseph Wright
List of monuments at the United States Military Academy - Wikiwand
Dictionary of North Carolina Biography: Vol. 2, D-G, Volume 2 edited by William S. Powell