Fort Gadsden Historic Site - Sumatra, Florida
Fort Gadsden Historic Site - Sumatra, Florida
Fort Gadsden Historic Site
The earthworks of the forts
that once stood on Prospect
Bluff survive as visible traces
of a violent past.
Grave at Fort Gadsden
The remains of a single brick
tomb mark the site where
hundreds of people are
believed to be buried.
FORT GADSDEN HISTORIC SITE
Apalachicola National Forest - Franklin County, Florida
|Site of the Fort on the Apalachicola
A British flag flies over the site of the fort that
was blown up by an American cannon shot
in 1816, killing 270 people in a furious blast.
On July 27, 1816, at the culmination of an
invasion of Spanish Florida, a pair of U.S.
Navy gunboats attacked a powerfully-built fort
on the Apalachicola River. Before the brief
battle was over, 270 men, women and
children lay dead.
The site is preserved today at Fort Gadsden
Historic Site near Sumatra, Florida. Part of
the Apalachicola National Forest, it is one of
America's most significant historic sites.
The original fort at the site was built by the
British during the final year of the War of
1812. Anxious to open a southern front
against the United States and planning an
invasion of the Gulf Coast, British command
sent Captain George Woodbine to the mouth
of the Apalachicola River in Spanish Florida.
Woodbine's orders were to open contact with
and provide arms and ammunition to the
thousands of Red Stick Creek warriors who
had fled into Florida after their defeat at the
Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Alabama. That
battle had all but ended the Creek War of
1813-1814 and came just two months before
Woodbine arrived on the Florida coast.
Reaching Apalachicola Bay in May 1814,
Captain Woodbine landed supplies on the
barrier islands and soon moved about 30
miles up the Apalachicola River to Prospect
Bluff. Forbes & Company, a British-owned
firm that operated in Spanish Florida, had a
trading post at the bluff and it seemed an
ideal place for the British to establish a post
to distribute military supplies to their new
allies, the Red Sticks and Seminoles.
Over the months that followed, Major Edward
Nicolls (often misspelled Nichols) arrived at
the Bluff and supervised the construction of a
massive fortification there. Usually called the
British Post on the Apalachicola, it consisted
of an earthwork battery on the river and a
strongly built octagonal magazine and
arsenal, all surrounded by a palisade and
In addition to more than 2,000 Red Stick,
Seminole and even a few Choctaw warriors,
Nicolls, Woodbine and other British officers
also assembled a force of more than 100
black soldiers at the British Post. These men
were mostly free black citizens of Florida, but
some had been the slaves of plantation
owners in the United States.
The irregular forces assembled at Prospect
Bluff were equipped, supplied and trained by
British officers and rapidly developed into a
cohesive fighting force. A number of them
took part in the unsuccessful attack on Fort
Bowyer at Mobile Bay, Alabama, and others -
particularly several Red Stick chiefs - were
present at the massive British defeat in the
Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1814.
Despite learning of the end of the War of
1812 in March 1815, the British did not
evacuate the Apalachicola for more than two
months. During that time they continued to
distribute arms and ammunition to their
allies and held a major council of Seminole
and Red Stick chiefs at a second fort near
present-day Chattahoochee, Florida.
When they finally left in May 1815, the fort, its
cannon and a massive supply of small arms,
ammunition and other material was turned
over to the Indian and black allies they had
enlisted there. The fort was left under the
command of Garcon, a former slave who had
served as sergeant major of the post, and he
was instructed to defend it against any attack.
Most of the Indian warriors who had flocked
to the British standard soon returned to their
villages, but Garcon and a force of 80-100
black soldiers continued to hold the fort and
live there with their families. Fields were
cleared extending up the river and the citadel
became the focal point of a settlement of free
blacks that caused much concern for the
government of the United States.
Slavery was then legal in the U.S. and many
officials and plantation owners complained
that the fort across the line in Spanish Florida
served as a beacon of sorts for runaway
slaves from the United States. The U.S.
demanded that Spain deal with the situation
and the Spanish Governor of Pensacola
seemed willing, but had to seek authority and
reinforcements from the Captain General in
This delay was unacceptable to the American
government, which authorized Major General
Edmund P. Gaines to deal with the situation.
Gaines placed the operation in the hands of
Lieutenant Colonel Duncan L. Clinch, who
moved down from Fort Gaines in Georgia to
a position near the Florida border. There he
built a new stockade called Camp Crawford.
The name was later changed to Fort Scott.
From this post Clinch moved in July 1816
with a force of 112 soldiers from the 4th U.S.
Infantry. En route down the Apalachicola they
were reinforced by several hundred Creek
warriors led by Major William McIntosh, a
Coweta chief who had fought alongside
Andrew Jackson during the Creek War.
The land force surrounded the "Negro Fort"
and demanded its surrender, but Garcon
refused and responded with a shot from one
of his heavy guns. His men raised the
English Jack and a red or "bloody" flag.
At 5 a.m. on July 27, 1816, the battle began in
earnest. Clinch was supported by the U.S.
Navy, which moved Gunboats #149 and #154
into range of the fort. They were welcomed by
a shot from its battery that flew too high..
The sailors responded with slow shelling
from the 18-pounders on their vessels, using
their first four shots to establish the range.
Then, for their fifth shot, they loaded a
cannonball that had been heated red hot into
the 18-pounder on Gunboat #154.
As the defenders of the fort worked their guns
and cheered with yells of defiance, the
cannon was fired and the cannonball flew
high over the walls of the fort and directly
through the entrance to the gunpowder
magazine. In a single instant, the "Negro
Fort" was blown to bits.
"The Scene was Horrible"
these twisted fragments from
the site where a cannon shot
killed 270 men, women and
Site of the Explosion
Posts outline the site of the
octagonal magazine of the
original British Post. A heated
American cannonball entered
the entrance and blew up a
stockpile of gunpowder.
|Copyright 2011 & 2016 by Dale Cox
All rights reserved.
Last Updated: March 9, 2016
Deadliest Shot in American History?
It may have been the single deadliest cannon
shot in American history. The fort was
reduced to a smoking ruin in the blink of an
eye and an estimated 270 of its 320 or so
inhabitants - men, women and children -
were killed. Bodies and parts of bodies were
later found lodged in the tops of the tall pine
trees that surrounded the fort.
The survivors were taken prisoner, but many
of them died. Soldiers cried as they
advanced over the ruined walls of the fort to
render what assistance they could give to the
The ruined fort lay abandoned for two years
until Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson arrived at the
site with his army in the Spring of 1818. The
First Seminole War was then raging and
Jackson had been ordered to invade Florida
and punish the Red Sticks and Seminoles
responsible for a bloody attack known as the
Scott Massacre of 1817.
Impressed by the military worthiness of the
site, he ordered Lt. James Gadsden, an army
engineer, to supervise the construction of a
new fort there. Gadsden used the old earthen
British battery, which had survived the 1816
blast, as the river face of the new fort. The
rear was enclosed by a bastioned work of
earth and logs. Jackson was impressed and
named the new post after his young engineer.
Fort Gadsden was used as a forward base
for army movements during the First
Seminole War and was held by the United
States until 1821 when Spain gave up its
rights to Florida. More than 100 men died at
the isolated fort during the years between
1818 and 1821 and are buried at the site.
The fort was again occupied by U.S. troops,
although on a temporary basis, during the
Second Seminole War (1835-1842). Part of
Col. William Davenport's command used it
as a base while scouring the swamps of
today's Apalachicola National Forest for
small bands of refugee Creeks in 1840.
Please click here to learn more about Fort
Gadsden in the Second Seminole War.
The fort's final military occupation came
twenty years later when Confederate forces
positioned a battery of field artillery and small
guard force there. By 1865, when a U.S. Navy
boat party captured a few sentries at the site,
the cannon had been withdrawn and the fort
was little more than a campsite for a few
men from the 5th Florida Cavalry (CSA)
posted to watch the river.
Please click here to learn more about Fort
Gadsden in the Civil War.
After the end of the Civil War, Fort Gadsden
was never used again for military purposes.
Riverboats landed there and people
sometimes lived on the bluff, but for the most
part the site was enveloped by oblivion.
That changed in the 1960s when the Florida
Board of Parks & Historic Memorials
established Fort Gadsden State Historic Site,
cleared back the forest growth from the
remains of the earthworks and established a
picnic area and other amenities.
Florida eventually gave up the park in a cost-
cutting move, however, and returned it to the
Federal government which had acquired the
land decades earlier while establishing the
Apalachicola National Forest. The U.S.
Forest Service stepped in to care for the site
and today it is known as Fort Gadsden
Beautifully maintained, the rustic park
features the earthwork remains of Fort
Gadsden, traces of the destroyed "Negro
Fort," a cemetery, mini-museum, interpretive
signs and a walking trail that leads through
the site. A picnic area can be enjoyed, but the
historic site is day-use only and there is no
camping at the fort.
To reach Fort Gadsden Historic Site from SR
65, four miles south of Sumatra, turn west on
Forest Road 129-B (Brickyard Road) and
follow it 1.9 miles and turn left on Fort
Gadsden Road. The entrance will be 1 mile
Fort Gadsden Historic Site is free to visit and
is listed on the National Register of Historic
Places. The site is currently open on a
limited basis while the U.S. Forest Service
works on new interpretation and walking
trails. Archaeological work is also underway
to reveal more about the design of the site
without greatly disturbing the sacred ground.
Please click here to visit the official National
Forest Service website for more information.
The First Seminole War
Marker at Fort Gadsden
A state markers stands near
the entrance to the trail that
leads past the sites of both
The interpretive kiosk features
displays, information and a
scale model of Fort Gadsden
as it appeared in 1818.
Part of British Post
The ditch visible here was
part of the outer defenses of
the British Post (1814-1815)
and the "Negro Fort" (1815-
U.S. Navy gunboats attacked
the fort from the river on July
27, 1816, lobbing a heated
cannonball into a powder
magazine to ignite the blast
that killed 270 people.
Moat of Exploded Fort
Faint traces of the moat that
surrounded the central
magazine are still visible.
This was the scene of the
explosion that was felt more
than 100 miles away in