The small flotilla of U.S. ships was still riding at anchor when the sun rose over Apalachicola Bay on Friday, July 12, 1816, two hundred years ago today.
This article is part of a series on the 200th anniversary of the U.S. campaign against the Fort at Prospect Bluff. Other articles in the series can be accessed at the bottom of this page.
Garcon, the Choctaw Chief and their detachment from the Fort at Prospect Bluff likely reached the bay on this date and caught their first view of the American ships. The sight was not overly impressive.
The two cargo ships – Semelante and General Pike – were small, as were the gunboats serving as their escort. The General Pike might have been recognized by Garcon, who was familiar with the commerce of Pensacola and Mobile Bays. She was an old vessel with a growing reputation for leaks and a general lack of seaworthiness.
Gunboats No. 149 and No. 154 provided the defensive and offensive firepower of the flotilla. They were part of a fleet of small, coastal defense ships once advocated by former President Thomas Jefferson. Each carried only one cannon. Their small crews of around 20 men would have little chance of success against ships like HMS Orpheus, the frigate that first brought British troops to Apalachicola Bay in 1814. Orpheus mounted 32 guns and carried a crew of 265 men. She was also three times as long as the small 50-foot American gunboats.
The story of the Jefferson gunboats is an interesting part of American history. When President Jefferson assumed office in 1801, he did so with a deep suspicion of the permanent military establishment. He was one of the surviving Patriots of 1776 and the author of the Declaration of Independence. He had taken part in a revolution against a government that was backed by a strong military and believed that a powerful regular navy was an antithesis to the concept of American Liberty.
Jefferson scaled back the number of regular warships in the U.S. Navy and focused instead on the construction of a fleet of small gunboats. Unable to project power – it would take 32 of them to match the firepower of a ship such as HMS Orpheus – these vessels were designed to protect America’s harbors, rivers and coasts.
Under the leadership of President Jefferson and his successor James Madison, the United States built 174 small gunboats over a seven year time period in 1805-1812. Generally under 50-feet long, although a few were larger, they normally mounted a single cannon and were propelled by sails on one or two masts.
New Orleans became the second largest base for these vessels during the War of 1812 and the disastrous nature of the policy that led to their construction was revealed when the British attacked that city in 1814-1815. The New Orleans Campaign began with an assault by the British navy on the U.S. gunboats guarding the Lake Borgne approaches to the Crescent City.
The Battle of Lake Borgne was a disaster for the U.S. Navy. Using little more than launches, longboats and barges, the British rowed into the lake and took all five of the gunboats engaged in the sharp encounter.
Despite their failures during the War of 1812, the conflict ended with the U.S. Navy still manning a considerable fleet of Jeffersonian Gunboats. Gunboats No. 149 and No. 154 were among the leftovers at the New Orleans Naval Station.
The two vessels were at nearby Pass Christian (between Biloxi, Mississippi and New Orleans) when Major General Edmund P. Gaines requested that Commodore Daniel Patterson send warships to escort the Semelante and General Pike to the Apalachicola River and past the Fort at Prospect Bluff.
As Garcon studied the four small ships in Apalachicola Bay, he likely was puzzled by their intent. He undoubtedly knew that the Americans had built a new fort – later to be called Fort Scott – at the head of the Apalachicola River but had received no intelligence of any troop movements below the Georgia border.
Until he could better determine their intent, the Prospect Bluff commander decided to remain cautious and simply keep an eye on the American vessels. His reconnaissance party remained hidden in the woods around Apalachicola Bay.
Garcon did not know that his former ally John Blunt, a Creek chief who lived at Iola on the Apalachicola River, was even then making his way up to the new American fort on the lower Flint River. Blunt had silently bypassed the Fort at Prospect Bluff on the previous day and was avoiding scouting parties from that post as he continued upstream with a letter from Sailing Master Jairus Loomis to Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Lamont Clinch of the U.S. Army.
The letter informed Clinch of the arrival of the American ships in Apalachicola Bay and included a request that he would send U.S. soldiers down the river to assist them in passing the bluff.
This series marking the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Campaign against the Fort at Prospect Bluff will continue tomorrow.
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