Battles
“Rockets’ red glare” at Prospect Bluff (July 20, 1816)
A view up the Apalachicola River from the Water Battery of the Fort at Prospect Bluff ("Negro Fort").

A view up the Apalachicola River from the Water Battery of the Fort at Prospect Bluff (“Negro Fort”).

The Battle of Prospect Bluff (also called the Battle of “Negro Fort”) began 200 years ago today on July 20, 1816.

Some have called it the “last battle” of the War of 1812. Others believe it was the “first battle” of the Seminole Wars. It many ways it was both.

This is part of a series marking the 200th anniversary of the destruction of the Fort at Prospect Bluff. Please click here to read previous articles in the series.

U.S. troops reached Prospect Bluff at 2 a.m. on July 20, 1816.

Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Clinch believed that he would be able to carry out an immediate infantry attack on the fort. He soon learned otherwise:

At two o’clock on the morning of the 20th we landed within cannon shot of the Fort, but protected by a skirt of woods. I again sent Lafarka [John Blunt] with a letter notifying the officer commanding the convoy of my arrival. My plan of attack was communicated to the Chiefs, and a party of Indians under Major McIntosh were directed to surround the Fort. Finding it impossible to carry my plans into execution without the assistance of Artillery, I ordered Major McIntosh to keep one third of his men constantly hovering around the fort and to keep up an irregular fire – this had the desired effect as it induced the enemy to amuse us with an incessant roar of Artillery without any other effect than that of striking terror into the souls of most of our red friends. [1]

The American landing probably took place in Brickyard Creek just upstream from its mouth. The lower part of this creek was wide enough and deep enough for the military boats to enter, it was within cannonshot of the fort and it was probably lined by a skirt of trees.

The Fort at Prospect Bluff as it appeared in July 1816. Not shown are the barracks and other structures, the exact locations of which are not known.

The Fort at Prospect Bluff as it appeared in July 1816. The octagonal structure was the central citadel which had walls 18-feet thick and 15-feet high.

Clinch had informed Major General Edmund P. Gaines in June that he expected to carry the fort with an infantry assault. He changed his mind when he saw the strength of the works on the morning of July 20th.

As was discussed in the  July 14th article on The Defenses of Prospect Bluff, the British had built an impressive fortification on the lower Apalachicola. It consisted of a water battery, bastioned outer entrenchments, interior stockade, interior moat and finally a central citadel with walls 18-feet thick and 15-feet high. Twelve pieces of artillery ranging from 32-pounders to swivel guns defended the post.

The entire top of the bluff had been cleared of tree cover, giving the fort’s defenders an excellent field of fire for hundreds of yards around. Some of the clearing had been done by workers of the John Forbes & Company which operated a trading post at the site in 1808-1814. Even more acreage had been cleared during the construction of the fort in order to obtain the logs necessary for building stockades, barracks, storehouses and supports for the earthworks.

The fort was also protected by natural defenses which included Brickyard Creek on the north end of Prospect Bluff, today’s Fort Gadsden Creek at its south end, and a swamp that circled behind it from Fort Gadsden Creek to almost completely enclose it with water.

McIntosh's Creeks were stunned by the sight of rockets streaking across Prospect Bluff on the morning of July 20, 1816.

McIntosh’s Creeks were stunned by the magnitude of cannon fire directed at them as they approached the Fort at Prospect Bluff.

The “incessant roar of artillery” described in Clinch’s report indicates that Garcon and his followers relied heavily on their cannon as a primary means of defense. They had more than 300 barrels of cannon powder on hand along with cannonballs, shells and grapeshot in profusion. The lieutenant colonel claimed that the firing was not effective, but he also kept himself and his white infantrymen out of range while letting the Creek warriors take on the job of “hovering around the fort.”

Any thought of an infantry assault on the fort evaporated when the American officers saw the entrenchments, stockades, earthworks, open surroundings and overlapping fields of fire of the fort. They knew that the effectiveness of the cannon fire being aimed at them would improve dramatically if they attempted to lead their men against the outer entrenchments.

Dr. Marcus C. Buck, a surgeon with the 4th Infantry, gave a more vivid description of the arrival of the troops at the fort:

A 19th century artist's portrayal of the British bombardment of Fort McHenry, scene of the original "rockets' red glare."

A 19th century artist’s portrayal of the British bombardment of Fort McHenry, scene of the original “rockets’ red glare.”e “Negro Fort” in a letter to his father two weeks later:

…On the morning of the 20th we arrived within three fourths of a mile of the fort, and about six in the morning the enemy opened a fire of round shot, shell, grape, and rockets, which was continued with occasional intermission until the explosion of the [27th], but with little injury on our part. In the evening the Colonel chose a more secure position for our camp, until the gunboats and transport, which contained our ordnance, should arrive, and which were then ascertained to be farther from the Fort than was expected. [2]

Dr. Buck’s mention of rockets is telling. The Fort at Prospect Bluff or “Negro Fort” had been built as the British Post on the Apalachicola during the War of 1812, the conflict that gave us our National Anthem and its memorable line, “and the rocket’s red glare.” The verse was inspired by the use of Congreve rockets during the British bombardment of Fort McHenry at Baltimore, Maryland.

These rockets were developed in 1804-1805 by Sir William Congreve. Rockets had been around for centuries, but they were small and of short range. Congreve developed a new type of rocket that could propel heavy shells for distances of up to 3,000 yards. They could be fired from wheeled carriages, tripods or even ditches or embankments of earth. They were not particularly accurate, but they were quite deadly.

Rhonda Kimbrough of the U.S. Forest Service surveys one of the overgrown eastern bastions of the fort.

Rhonda Kimbrough of the U.S. Forest Service surveys one of the overgrown eastern bastions of the fort.

Congreve rockets were widely employed by Great Britain during the War of 1812, hence their mention in The Star-Spangled Banner. Sir William by then had developed rockets that could fire munitions in weights ranging from 6 to 32 pounds. Their range was not as long as that of cannon, but they could be fired with greater speed and were much easier to move.

The size of the rockets in the armament of the Fort at Prospect Bluff is not positively known, but they were probably 12-pounders. This was the size rocket carried by Lieutenant John Lawrence’s rocket detachment of the Third Battalion, Royal Marines, which was active on the Gulf Coast. The other rocket unit known to have been on the Gulf of Mexico was Captain Henry Lane’s 1st Rocket Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery which was engaged at the Battle of New Orleans. This troop also used 12-pounders.

Please click here to continue to the next story in this series.

Please click here to access all of the published articles in this series.

A lecture about the Battle of Prospect Bluff will be held this Sunday at Landmark Park (museum complex) in Dothan, Alabama. The time is 3 p.m. Central/4 p.m. Eastern.  Please click here for more information.

 

[1] Lt. Col. Duncan L. Clinch to Col. Robert Butler, August 2, 1816, Andrew Jackson Papers, Library of Congress.

[2] Dr. Marcus C. Buck to his father, August 4, 1816, included in “General Clinch and the Indians,” Army and Navy Chronicle, Volume 2 (New Series), 1836, pp. 114-116.

 

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