|The powder magazine of the Negro Fort explodes killing nearly everyone inside. Note the fort flies a British ensign and, ironically, the red flag of no quarter.|
On July 27, 1816 two United States Navy gun boats opened fire on a small but modern and professionally constructed fort on the Apalachicola River near the Gulf of Mexico. After wasting a few rounds to find range one of the boats fired a round of hot shot which landed with in the walls of the fort on the powder magazine resulting in a thundering explosion that completely destroyed the fort and killed almost all of the 300 defenders, their families, and refugees inside. That round has been variously called the deadliest cannon shot ever fired by the Navy or by any U.S. armed force. Perhaps, although it is likely that one the huge explosive shells fired from the naval riffles of the great 20th Century Battle Ships was at least as deadly but in the heat of multiple salvo battles we may never know. Suffice it to say it was a hell of a blast.
But you, the alert history reader, may well wonder: just who the United States was at war with in 1816, a year and a half after the end of the War of 1812? The answer is…no one. The new nation was theoretically at peace with the world. And therein lies the tale.
Perhaps it will make more sense to you if I say that those holding the fort were an unofficial but trained Black militia, recently escaped slaves from both Spanish Florida and plantations in southern Georgia, and a few dozen Native Americans under a Choctaw chief whose name has been lost to history. Those natives were from the people becoming known as the Seminole, a tribe or nation in the making consisting of members of small Florida tribes persecuted by the Spanish, and elements of the Creek and Choctaw who fled to Spanish territories after the defeat of the Red Stick Creek by General Andrew Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. Those Black refugee slaves were also becoming assimilated into the new, still very informally organized tribe.
When you understand the target, it is clear why no declaration of war was necessary to as aggressive a commander as Andy Jackson.
The Spanish had mostly militarily abandoned the Florida panhandle, although not their sovereign claim to it, after Jackson’s American Army captured Pensacola and garrisoned Mobile in November 1814.
Meanwhile the British had been active in west Florida ostensibly in defense of their Spanish allies and in their own interests. They hoped arm the Creeks and elements of other southern tribes to engage in raiding and irregular warfare against American settlers in Alabama and Georgia matching the frontier warfare they were supporting from Upstate New York, through western Pennsylvania and into Ohio territory and into Kentucky and Tennessee.
In August 1814, a force of over 100 officers and men led by Lieutenant Colonel Edward Nicolls of the Royal Marines was sent into the region to arm, aid, and train native auxiliaries. He established the English Post at Prospect Bluff, 15 miles above the mouth of the Apalachicola and 60 miles south of the Georgia. There he line built a substantial fort to European field standards of earth works, redoubts, and palisades with gun platforms for several cannon. He had no trouble recruiting native allies or beginning to launch raids across the border in Georgia.
|Black troops of the Corps of Colonial Marines drilling. Those at the English Fort may not have been so completely uniformed, but they were well trained.|
But he also found large numbers of escaped slaves. As was British policy during the war with the Americans, he offered official freedom for enlisting in armed service. He organized several hundred volunteers into four companies of the Corps of Colonial Marines who he drilled and trained as infantry. Although the Colonial Marines were not deployed in active combat, word of their existence spread like wild fire across Georgia slave quarters encouraging yet more runaways to seek the protection of the fort. Georgia planters were naturally furious, but as long as Jackson’s army was away defending New Orleans they were mostly powerless to do anything about it.
In November a rag-tag expedition of barely trained Mississippi militia, and allied Choctaw and Chickasaw irregulars were sent to the region to disrupt the cross border raiding and scare off runaways. Under Army Major Uriah Blue the 1000 man force floundered in unfamiliar territory and retreated to Fort Montgomery west of Pensacola without either discovering the location of English Post or making contact with the enemy.
Unknown to everyone, a peace treaty already had been signed in Ghent in December officially ending the war. Word did not reach the region until well after Jackson soundly whipped a British invasion force at New Orleans on January 8. When word finally arrived Col. Nicolls had to abandon his fort in keeping with the terms of the treaty. He paid off the Colonial Marines but pointedly let them keep their weapons. Not only that he left behind the garrison’s cannon and a well stocked magazine. Clearly the British were up to some mischief and hoped that harassment of American settlements would continue as well as slave escapes which threatened the economy of the region.
The former Black militia took possession of the fort under the leadership of a former slave named Garson and that un-named Choctaw chief. They launched new raids into Georgia and more runaways flocked to the protection of the fort, which now existed in virtual independence of any national control—Spanish, British, or American.
Jackson soon turned his attention to Florida and shifted much of his army to Mobile and other posts near the Spanish possessions. Georgia planters were officially petitioning the government for relief and punitive expeditions into the Spanish territories. Jackson, chomping at the bit, pressured Washington for permission to strike.
Meanwhile in September of 1815 veteran American Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins organized a small force of loyal Creek to attack what was now being called the Negro Fort. Garson and his men from their well defended position were easily able to repel an assault by an inferior force. The victory may have given the defenders a false sense of their own power but it also emboldened them to step up raids. Slaves continued to seek refuge.
To protect the settlers the Army built Fort Scott on the west bank of the Flint River in the southern Georgia in early 1816. But it was almost impossible to provision the post overland trough Georgia. The quickest route was up the Apalachicola from the Gulf but required trespass on officially Spanish territory. On July 17 Navy boats attempted to pass Negro Fort with supplies and were fired on by cannon. Four escorting soldiers were killed and the boats turned back. This was likely the exact result Jackson hoped for—it provided an excuse to attack the fort in retaliation to it “hostile fire.”
A few days later Jackson ordered Brigadier General Edmund P. Gaines at Fort Scott to destroy the Negro Fort. He dispatched a force of several hundred mostly Volunteer troops with a sizable contingent of Creeks who were involved in a tribal civil war with their cousins who had fallen in with the Seminole. This force attacked from the north and engaged in a couple of days of skirmishing with Black and native forces from the fort before closing in for an attack under the immediate command of Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Clinch. To counter the Fort’s advantage in artillery a naval force including two gun boats under the command of Sailing Master Jarius Loomis would lend support from the river.
|The Black and Native defenders of the Negro Fort watch the approach of U.S. Navy Gun Boats. Their inexperienced cannon fire would be useless against the boats.|
Hot fire was exchanged for much of the July 27. Several times Garson was called on to surrender. Shouts of “Give me Liberty or give me Death” were heard several times from behind the fortifications. At some point Garson defiantly ran up the English flag and a red flag symbolizing no quarter given in response. This was a critical mistake for two reasons. First, fort could expect no protection of the long gone British but by displaying the flag they gave Jackson an excuse that it was evidence the British were still actively meddling and sponsoring the raids into Georgia. Second, besiegers, not the besieged traditionally hoisted the no quarter banner after their calls to surrender were refused. Jackson would argue it was evidence that the “bloodthirsty Blacks and savages” inside were bent on massacre.
Only about a third of the fort’s active defenders were trained and armed veterans of the Colonial Marine force. The rest were haphazardly armed and untrained escaped slaves, and native warriors unused to fighting on the defense behind walls. None were experienced gunners. Their fire from the post’s cannon mostly sailed harmlessly over the heads of the attacking forces. When the Navy flotilla noticed this Loomis moved his two gunboats up into close range and began to zero in on the fort with their bow mounted gungs. Then the lucky hot shot and the battle was instantly over.
Only 30 of the more than 300 in the fort survived, most of them grievously wounded. That included Garson and that nameless chief. The Americans promptly shot Garson for supposed atrocities committed in the Georgia raids. The Chief was handed over to the Creek allies who hacked him to death and scalped him. Black survivors were sent to slavery in Georgia. Some natives and Black allies who hid in the forests during the battle managed to flee east where they joined other bands of Seminole.
Under the terms of their enlistment the Creek were allowed to loot the ruins of the fort. They took home an impressive haul of 2,500 muskets, 50 carbines, 400 pistols, and 500 swords. Even without powder and shot this gave that faction of the Creek an enormous arms advantage over their rivals and increased their regional power.
The former Red Stick Creek were forced deeper into the Florida peninsula where they became the dominant element of the Seminole nation.
|A Topographical Engineers map show Fort Gadsen which Jackson ordered built in 1818 and the footprint of the destroyed Negro Fort just behind it.|
For an action so relatively obscure in American history the brief Battle of Negro Fort had dire immediate consequences. Bitterness over this battle led directly to the outbreak of the First Seminole War a year later. The three Seminole Wars would drag on for nearly three decades and become an embarrassing debacle for the Regular Army.
A diplomatic crisis erupted when the Spanish, quite naturally, vociferously objected to the blatant encroachment on their internationally recognized sovereign territory. Although the Spanish, bled dry from long years of fighting on their soil during the Napoleonic Wars, were in no position to retaliate militarily the brouhaha threatened delicate negotiations over the undefined Texas/Louisiana border. Moreover it complicated relations with Spanish ally Britain at a time when several important and contentious issues remained including finishing British evacuation of forts and trading posts in the Great Lakes and upper Mississippi region as well as getting clear title for what Jackson had already stolen.
President Monroe’s Secretary of State John Quincy Adams had to act nimbly on the issue. He was also under pressure from Senators and Congressmen from New England and other Northern States worried that Andrew Jackson’s later unilateral seizure of Florida leading to an expansion of Slave power. They demanded Jackson be court martialed for violating his orders and insubordination in ordering operations on Spanish soil and attacking the Negro Fort.
|After victory at New Orleans General Andrew Jackson moved into Spanish East Florida itching for a fight.|
Adams ultimately vindicated Jackson arguing the attack and subsequent seizure of Spanish Florida was a national self-defense response to alleged Spanish and British complicity in fomenting the “Indian and Negro War.” Adams even produced a letter from a Georgia planter complaining “brigand Negroes [made] this neighborhood extremely dangerous to a population like ours.”
Jackson thus escaped the threat of court martial but fumed that his honor had been impugned and somehow blamed Adams, who had saved his fat from the fire, for being behind a plot to ruin him. Jackson plotted revenge and challenged Adams, the heir apparent to Monroe in the Presidential Election of 1824. He lost that multi-candidate election but blamed Adams for striking a corrupt bargain with Henry Clay to win election in a vote in the House of Representatives after failing to get a majority of Electoral College votes. Four years later Jackson defeated the sitting President in a stunning political revolution.
Thus the obscure battle can be said to have led directly to the destruction of the so-called Era of Good Feelings and the National Republican Party that had developed from the old Jeffersonian Republicans. It led to the rise of a new two party system represented by Jacksons Democrats and the shaky political coalition called the Whigs. And it ushered in decades of increasing sectional division over the expansion of slavery.
|John Quincy Adams as Secretary of State.|
Meanwhile Adams as Secretary of State managed to coerce the Spanish into acceding to a fait accompli and cede East Florida to the United States in the 1821 Adams-Onís Treaty. Jackson was appointed Military Commissioner—de facto governor and a year later West and East Florida were merged into the new Territory of Florida.
The new territory remained under and sparsely populated largely due to the seemingly endless quagmire of the Seminole Wars and the tropical diseases rampant in the wet semi-tropical climate. As new Englanders feared, Florida was finally admitted to the Union in 1845 as a slave state shortly before the outbreak of the Third and final Seminole War.
And what about all those nameless Black and Native dead at Negro Fort? Well, what about ‘em?