The first shots of the U.S. campaign against the Fort at Prospect Bluff (or “Negro Fort”) were fired 200 years ago today on July 15, 1816.
In many ways they could also be called the first shots of the last battle of the War of 1812.
This story is part of a series marking the 200th anniversary of the U.S. campaign against the Fort at Prospect Bluff, Florida. To read previous posts first, please scroll down to the bottom of the page.
Garcon and the company of Colonial Marines at Prospect Bluff still flew the British flag over their fort and clearly still believed that they were in the active military service of Great Britain. The sergeant major subsequently told American officers that he was acting under his final orders from Lieutenant Colonel Edward Nicolls to defend the post against all threats and to bar the passage of any vessels until he received new orders.
When Nicolls withdrew the British infantry, Royal Marines and most of the Colonial Marines from the British Post at Prospect Bluff in May 1815, he clearly believed that he would be returning soon. The Red Stick Creek, Seminole, Yuchi and other groups living in the region had signed a treaty at the outpost in present-day Chattahoochee, Florida, establishing mutual defense and trade with Great Britain.
The British government, however, rejected the agreement and Nicolls never returned to the Apalachicola River. The company of Colonial Marines he had left behind at Prospect Bluff never learned that they were on their own and continued to function as if they were still in the service of the King.
It was in compliance with his final orders from Nicolls that Garcon decided to send a reconnaissance vessel into Apalachicola Bay on July 15, 1816.
The garrison at Prospect Bluff was equipped with a number of small vessels, among them a gig, a cutter, a small schooner and three flatboats. They had even been accused by the trading firm of John Forbes & Company of using these boats to conduct pirate raids on the Gulf of Mexico. The veracity of such claims is impossible to determine.
Garcon and his marines could see American gunboats No. 149 and No. 154 riding at anchor in Apalachicola Bay. Deciding to take a closer look, they sailed one of their small craft into view of the warships on July 15, 1816:
…On the 15th I discovered a boat pulling out of the river, and being anxious to ascertain whether we should be permitted peaceably to pas the fort above us, I despatched a boat with an officer to gain the necessary information. – Sailing Master Jairus Loomis, August 15, 1816.
Garcon and his men had in the tactics employed by Colonial and Royal Marines during the War of 1812. These included the use of reconnaissance missions, defensive sorties and surprise attacks as a means of scouting and defending against an approaching enemy force.
The former slave turned sergeant major used a classic tactic of the British Marines to catch the U.S. Navy napping:
…[O]n nearing her, she fired a volley of musketry into my boat, and immediately pulled in for the river; I immediately opened a fire on them from the gun vessels, but with no effect. – Sailing Master Jairus Loomis, August 15, 1816.
This exchange of musket and cannon fire was the first hostile confrontation of the U.S. campaign against the Fort at Prospect Bluff. The gunboats reported no casualties in the skirmish and Loomis clearly did not believe that any of his cannon shots struck their target. If the American sailing master had hoped to learn whether his ships would be allowed to pass the guns of the fort, he now had his answer.
A second development also took place 200 years ago today at the opposite end of the Apalachicola River. The Creek chief John Blunt reached the new U.S. fort near the forks for the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers with news that the U.S. flotilla had arrived in the bay.
Camp Crawford – later to be renamed Fort Scott – had been established by the 4th Infantry during June 1816. Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Lamont Clinch and his men were under orders from Major General Edmund Pendleton Gaines to invade Spanish Florida by descending the Apalachicola River to Prospect Bluff. Once there they were to cooperate with Gunboats No. 149 and No. 154 to assure that the supply ships Semelante and General Pike made it past what Gaines called the “Negro fort.”
The general’s instructions to Clinch were clear:
…Should the boats meet with opposition at what is called the Negro fort, arrangements will be made for its destruction; and for that purpose you will be supplied with two eighteen -pounders and one howitzer, with fixed ammunition and implements complete, to be sent in a vessel to accompany the provisions. I have, likewise, ordered fifty thousand musket cartridges, some rifles, swords, &c. – Maj. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines, May 23, 1816.
With these orders in hand, Lieutenant Colonel Clinch instructed his men to prepare for a movement across the line into Spanish Florida. The U.S. campaign against the Fort at Prospect Bluff was about to move into high gear.
You can read previous installments in this series by clicking these links:
Tomorrow’s article is also now online: