Battles
Gunboats on the Apalachicola River (July 24, 1816)
U.S. Gunboats No. 149 and No. 154 entered the mouth of the Apalachicola River on July 24, 1816.

U.S. Gunboats No. 149 and No. 154 entered the mouth of the Apalachicola River on July 24, 1816.

The U.S. Navy began its move up the Apalachicola River 200 years ago today on July 24, 1816. U.S. Gunboats No. 149 and No. 154 were on their way to join the fighting at Prospect Bluff (or “Negro Fort”).

This is part of a series marking the 200th anniversary of the U.S. attack on the Fort at Prospect Bluff (or “Negro Fort”). Please click here to see the full list of articles.

The Battle of Prospect Bluff (or Battle of “Negro Fort”) had been underway four days. The sound of cannon fire could distinctly be heard at Apalachicola Bay but the maroon and Choctaw attack on Midshipman Luffborough’s party had placed the officers and crews of the gunboats on the defensive lest they be draw into a similar ambush. Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Clinch had twice sent couriers down to the bay to request that Sailing Master Jairus Loomis bring his vessels up to Prospect Bluff. Loomis had refused on both occasions. He blamed the unofficial nature of Clinch’s couriers, pointing out that it could be an effort to draw him into a trap. Loomis even took two members of the second party of couriers as hostages until he heard from Clinch in writing and via an officer in uniform.

Clinch accordingly sent Lieutenant Henry Wilson of the 4th Infantry down to the bay with a corporal and 12 privates to persuade Loomis to come up as far as Bloody Bluff (then called “Duelling Bluff”), about four miles below the Fort at Prospect Bluff.

Wilson reached the mouth of the Apalachicola 200 years ago today and went aboard Gunboat No. 149 where he delivered a letter from Clinch to the naval commander and assured him that the old British Post was completely surrounded. The ships could ascend as high as Bloody Bluff without danger. Thus reassured, Loomis ordered the four ships under his direction to weigh anchor and begin their movement upstream.

Gunboats No. 149 and No. 154 were similar to the War of 1812 gunboat depicted here.

Gunboats No. 149 and No. 154 were similar to the War of 1812 gunboat depicted here.

The vessels moved by warping. This means that they advanced by using a zigzag course that allowed them to catch available wind in order to catch the available wind and move forward against the current of the river. Their progress was slow but no opposition was encountered.

The army officers directing the attack on the fort spent the 24th examining the ground around the Fort at Prospect Bluff to find an advantageous point at which to emplace the two 18-pounder cannon being brought upriver for them by the supply ships General Pike and Semelante. This had to be done while staying out of the effective range of the cannon within the fort, which continued to blaze away anytime a member of the 4th Infantry or the allied Creek Indian commands appeared in the open. Clinch would tell Sailing Master Loomis the next day that he had come under fire while reconnoitering the fort.

The problem was that the cannon fire coming from the fort kept the American troops and their allies so far back that it would be difficult to erect a battery that might have any effect on the massive walls of the main citadel. As has been noted throughout this series, the citadel (often called the “magazine”) was an octagon-shaped structure located at the center of the expansive fort. The British had built the citadel by throwing up two octagonal walls of pine logs. One was smaller and contained inside the other. The logs were laid horizontally and the angles of the octagon were formed by using mortised joints, much as the corners of a log cabin are built. The 18-foot wide space between the two walls was filled with earth to create a massive earthwork wall.’

This wall or rampart was reported to be 18-feet thick and 14-15 feet high. Cannon were mounted on top, while interior structures including a magazine, armories for weapon storage, quartermaster’s storehouses and offices were built against the interior pine log wall. Viewed from the air, the entire structure created the appearance of a thick octagon surrounded by a wide moat. Additional strength was provided by two log palisades. One of these was inside of the moat and followed its general outline around the fort. The second was semi-circular in appearance with its “ends” connecting to the long stockade walls that angled out from the citadel all the way to the banks of the Apalachciola River. The water battery was located within these and directly in front of the citadel on the edge of the bluff.

The entire affair, as has been noted, was surrounded by an extensive bastioned breastwork.

This lidar (laser radar) image shows the Apalachicola River at left. The slough and swamp that wrapped behind the fort are visible as "deep" areas in the right of the photos. Look closely just right of the river and you can see the faint outlines of the surviving earthworks of the fort.

This lidar (laser radar) image shows the Apalachicola River at left. The slough and swamp that wrapped behind the fort are visible as “deep” areas in the right of the photos. Look closely just right of the river to see the faint outlines of the surviving earthworks of the fort.

While the stockades and breastworks could be breached without great difficulty by 18-pounders, even fire from great range, the main citadel of the fort was another matter. The 18-foot thick earthen rampart was designed to withstand punishment from large cannon. 18-feet of solid earth was more than enough to absorb the penetrating power of Clinch’s 18-pounders. Only by firing at the same spot time after time could the U.S. troops hope to breach the walls.

The exact site picked for the American battery is not known. Clinch only said that it was in “rear” of the fort, implying that it was out from its eastern side. A clear field of fire surrounded the fortifications at least as far back as a swamp or slough that branches off from Fort Gadsden Creek and almost completely encloses the rear of the primary fort site. Lidar (laser radar) has been used to map the entire bluff and it reveals a distinctive channel for this slough behind the fort. It is likely that Clinch planned to place his cannons on the higher ground opposite this channel from the fort. This was in range of the cannons being fired by the defenders, but far enough back that their aim would be far from accurate. It would also be protected from the fire of the fort’s heaviest guns, the 32- and 24-pounders in the water battery.

Meanwhile, the Creek warriors under Major William McIntosh and Captain Isaacs continued to hover around the fort, drawing the fire of its defenders and closing off any escape routes. As she had done throughout the siege, Mary Ashley raised and lowered the British flag and served on one of the cannon crews. Other women likely helped man the walls and work the cannon as well.  The 320 or so men, women and children inside the fort had no way of knowing it, but most of them would lose their lives in less than three days.

This series marking the 200th anniversary of the destruction of the Fort at Prospect Bluff will continue tomorrow. Please click here to access all of the previous articles in this series.

If you would like to visit the site of the Negro Fort, it is part of Prospect Bluff Historic Sites in the Apalachicola National Forest.  Please click here for directions to the park.

 

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