The first bloodshed of the U.S. campaign against the Fort at Prospect Bluff (or “Negro Fort”) took place 200 years ago today on July 17, 1816.
This article is part of a series marking the 200th anniversary of the destruction of the maroon settlement at Prospect Bluff, Florida. Please click here to read previous articles.
The four American ships had now been anchored in Apalachicola Bay for seven days. This time period was on top of the two weeks it took the vessels to reach the bay from the naval station at Pass Christian, Mississippi. They had now been without a new supply of fresh water for more than three weeks.
Sailing Master Jairus Loomis, who commanded the expedition, waited a day after the exchange of fire with a vessel from Prospect Bluff on the 15th before deciding to send a boat into the mouth of the Apalachicola River in search of water.
Recognizing that he and his sailors were now on a hostile footing with the garrison of the fort, Loomis mounted the boat with a swivel gun (a small, portable cannon) and armed the members of the watering party with muskets. The whole detachment of four men was placed under the command of Midshipman Alexander W. Luffborough.
Midshipman Luffborough was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, and had received his commission in 1812. He held the unique distinction have having served aboard America’s most famous warship, USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”). He was in action during the Constitution’s famous battle with the British warships HMS Cyane and HMS Levant.
That engagement took place about 100 miles east of Madeira, Spain on February 20, 1815. It ended when “Old Ironsides” remarkably captured both of her British opponents.
Luffborough’s party left Gunboat No. 149 at 5 a.m., while Sailing Master Bassett left Gunboat No. 154 on a similar expedition a short time later:
…At 11 A.M. sailing master Bassett, who had been on a similar expedition, came alongside with the body of John Burgess, O.S. [Ordinary Seaman] who had been sent in the boat with midshipman Luffborough; his body was found near the mouth of the river, shot through the heart; at 4 P.M. discovered a man at the mouth of the river on a sand bar, sent a boat and brought him on board, he proved to be John Lopaz, O.S. the only survivor of the boats crew, sent with midshipman Luffborough…. – Sailing Master Jairus Loomis to Commodore Daniel T. Patterson, August 15, 1816.
The watering party under Luffborough had entered the mouth of the Apalachicola River only to discover to its misfortune that the reconnaissance party from the Fort at Prospect Bluff was still there.
Garcon and the Choctaw Chief had kept their men hidden near the mouth of the river after the exchange of fire on the 15th. The prepared an ambush when they saw the armed boat from Gunboat No. 149 pulling into the Apalachicola.
Seaman Lopaz (probably Lopez) gave his account to Loomis of what happened next:
…[H]e reports that on entering the river, they discovered a negro on the beach, near a plantation; that Mr. Luffborough ordered the boat to be pulled directly for him; that on touching the shore he spoke to the negro, and directly received a volley of musketry from two divisions of negroes and Indians who lay concealed in the bushes on the margin of the river; Mr. Luffborough, Robert Maitland and John Burgess, were killed on the spot; Lopaz made his escape by swimming, and states that he saw the other seaman, Edward Daniels made prisoner, Lopaz supposed there must have been forty negroes and Indians concerned in the capture of the boat. – Sailing Master Jairus Loomis to Commodore Daniel T. Patterson, August 15, 1816.
The captured sailor, Edward Daniels, was carried back to the Fort at Prospect Bluff where he was scalped and burned to death.
Many have speculated that the Watering Party Attack or “Watering Party Massacre” as it is sometimes called took place at Bloody Bluff, a low rise on the east bank of the Apalachicola about four miles below Prospect Bluff. While the name “Bloody Bluff” certainly speaks to violence in the distant past, it is unlikely that it was the site of the attack.
The is roughly 11 miles up the river from its mouth at Apalachicola Bay. That would be a hard row for a midshipman and four sailors in a small boat. There is plentiful freshwater within that distance and it would have been physically impossible for the watering party boat to make it all the way up to the bluff and then for the body of John Burgess to have floated all the way back down to the river’s mouth in just five hours. Since Luffborough left the gunboats at 5 a.m. and Burgess was found floating at the mouth of the Apalachicola at 10 a.m., it is clear that the attack took place much closer to the bay than Bloody Bluff.
It is worth noting that Sailing Master Loomis referred to Bloody Bluff as “Duelling Bluff.” This may indicate that the bloodiness of the bluff originated from its use as a site for conducting duels during Colonial times. The name Bloody Bluff was in use by 1822 when it is shown under that name on a plat of the proposed town of Colinton, which developers planned but failed to establish on Prospect Bluff in the 1820s.
The bloody attack undoubtedly took place much closer to the site of the modern city of Apalachicola. It convinced Sailing Masters Loomis and Bassett that they were now well within the discretion provided by their orders from Commodore Daniel T. Patterson to destroy the “Negro Fort” if its garrison opposed their free passage of the Apalachicola River.
They would not have long to wait. Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Clinch left Camp Crawford (Fort Scott) with his command on the same morning as the attack (July 17, 1816):
…On the 17th I left this place with one hundred and sixteen chosen men in boats and commenced descending the river. The Detachment was divided in two companies commanded by B. Major Muhlenberg and Capt. Taylor. On the same evening I was joined by Major McIntosh with one hundred and fifty Indians…. – Lt. Col. Duncan Clinch to Col. Robert Butler, August 2, 1816.
The “Capt. Taylor” mentioned in Clinch’s report was not Zachary Taylor, who was with the 4th Infantry during the War of 1812, as some have speculated. The future President was still in the Midwest in 1816 and had already attained the rank of major. The “Capt. Taylor” who took part in the campaign against the Fort at Prospect Bluff was Captain William Taylor of South Carolina.
July 17th came to an end 200 years ago tonight with Clinch’s boats somewhere in the upper Apalachicola River between today’s Gadsden and Jackson Counties, Florida.
This series marking the 200th anniversary of the U.S. campaign against the Fort at Prospect Bluff will continue tomorrow with a discussion of a council that took place on the river between Lieutenant Colonel Clinch and the leaders of the two Creek Indian forces involved in a simultaneous campaign against the “Negro Fort.”
To learn more about Camp Crawford (Fort Scott) and its role in the campaign, enjoy this free documentary: