Volcanic ash in the atmosphere gave the sun a blood-red appearance as it rose above the Apalachicola River 200 years ago today. It was an omen of the deadly destruction that would strike the Fort at Prospect Bluff in less than 24-hours.
This article is part of a series marking the 200th anniversary of the U.S. campaign to destroy the fort. Please click here to read previous posts in this series.
The sounds of axes rang over the river on the morning of July 26, 1816. The soldiers of the 4th Infantry worked to throw up a battery on the bank of the river from which they could bombard the place they called the “Negro Fort.”
…I immediately commenced the battery and ordered the Gun Vessels to move up and take a secure position and directed the transport Similante to be in readiness to land the Artillery under cover of the night. In the course of the evening, after consulting with the Commanding Officer of the Convoy, I directed him to move up the two Gun Vessels at day light the next morning. (Lt. Col. Duncan Clinch, August 2, 1816)
Major A.C.W. Fanning, an artillery officer who was not present during the attack, later analyzed the range to the citadel of the fort from Clinch’s proposed battery. He found the distance to be 3,090 yards (1.76 miles).
In complyance with your request I have measured the distance from this point to the place where the gun boats lay at the time of its distruction and found it to be three thousand & ninety-yards. – The calculation of this distance, would be subject to some correction since the instrument I used for taking the angles, was very impractical. (Maj. A.C.W. Fanning, June 11, 1819)
While an 18-pounder of that day could fire for a total distance of around 2.25 miles, it was accurate only a distances of up to one mile. In other words, the site of Clinch’s battery was three-fourths of a mile beyond the effective range of the two big guns sent for his use.
Major Fanning proved this in 1819 when he tested the distance using an 18-pounder. Noting that he had fired his gun at an elevation of more than 10 degrees with the standard charge of six pounds of powder, Fanning reported that his shots ranged or veered over the 1.75 miles that separated the fort from the battery site.
The major conducted his study during a major post-battle disagreement between Clinch and Sailing Master Jairus Loomis.
On the 26th, the colonel began to clear away the brushwood for the erection of the battery, he however stated to me, that he was not acquainted with artillery, but that he thought the distance was too great to do execution; on this subject we unfortunately differed totally in opinion, as we were within point blank range, he however ordered his men to desist from further operations; I then told him that the gun vessels would attempt the passage of the Fort, in the morning, without his aid. (Sailing Master Jairus Loomis, August 13, 1816)
Whether Clinch’s men could have even hit the fort from a range of 1.75 miles was questionable at best. The battery site was definitely not at “point blank range” as the naval commander claimed.
The defenders of the Fort at Prospect Bluff undoubtedly observed the U.S. activity on the river bank below them but there is no indication from the available accounts that they tried to impede the work with artillery fire. Their 32- and 24-pounders had greater effective ranges than the 18-pounders that the Americans planned to emplace, but still would have been wildly inaccurate when firing at a target more than 1.75 miles away.
The Creek warriors under Major William McIntosh and Captain Isaacs continued to hover around the land-side of the fort, blocking its defenders from any attempt to escape. This was a military necessity although Garcon and his followers had shown no interest in leaving their fort.
The Creeks were now supported by a small detachment of soldiers under Lieutenant McGavock. Clinch had kept his men out of range for most of the battle and it is unclear if McGavock and his men joined the warriors in approaching the land defenses of the fort.
The plan was now in place for an increase in the aggressiveness of the U.S. attack on Prospect Bluff. Clinch’s report indicated that his plan was for the Navy gunboats to come up to his battery site the next morning in order to protect the transport ship Semelante as she tied up to the battery so the 18-pounders could be unloaded. Loomis, meanwhile, claimed that the army officer had abandoned this plan and left the attack entirely in the hands of the navy. It is impossible to know which account is true although Clinch was correct when he said that the naval commander misrepresented the distance from the battery site to the fort.
The defenders of the fort were prepared to dispute any attempt by American vessels to attack or pass their position. They had waged an extremely successful defense for seven days. The eighth day, however, would bring disaster to the largest settlement of free African-Americans in North America.
The site of the “Negro Fort” or British Post on the Apalachicola is preserved at Prospect Bluff Historic Sites in the Apalachicola National Forest. Please click here for directions to the site.