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The Deadliest Cannon Shot in American History (July 27, 1816)
Traces of the moat and barely visible earthen mounds are all that remain of the destroyed citadel of the Fort at Prospect Bluff.

Traces of the moat and barely visible earthen mounds are all that remain of the destroyed citadel of the Fort at Prospect Bluff.

The Fort at Prospect Bluff was destroyed 200 years ago on July 27, 1816. An estimated 270 men, women and children died in the explosion.

This is part of a series marking the 200th anniversary of the U.S. campaign against the fort. Please click here to read the previous posts.

U.S. Gunboats No. 149 and No. 154 left their anchorage at Bloody Bluff before sunrise on the morning of July 27, 1816. Each was armed with a long 9-pounder:

…At 4 A.M. on the morning of the 27th, we began warping the gun vessels to a proper position; at 5, getting within gun shot, the fort opened on us, which we returned; and after ascertaining our real distance with cold shot, we commenced with hot, (having cleared away our coppers for that purpose) the first one of which entering their magazine, blew up, and completely destroyed the fort.

The deadliest cannon shot in American history was fired from a 9-pounder on the bow of a Jefferson gunboat from a range of 1.75 miles. It was a shot so impossible that it is difficult to explain even today.

Archaeologists examine the site of the exploded magazine with modern technology.

Archaeologists examine the site of the exploded magazine with modern technology.

Lieutenant Colonel Clinch was watching with his officers from the proposed battery site on the west bank when the gunboats came into view:

…About six in the morning they came up in handsome stile and made fast along side of the intended battery. In a few minutes they received a shot from a thirty two pounder which was returned in a gallant manner. The contest was but momentary, the fifth discharge a hot shot from Gun Vessel 154 commanded by sailing Master Bassett entered the magazine and blew up the Fort. The explosion was awful and the scene horrible beyond description. 

Watching from the same point was Dr. Marcus C. Buck, the surgeon from the 4th Infantry who accompanied the expedition:

…On the morning of the [27th] about sun rise, a fire from the fort was commenced on the gun boat, which was promptly returned. The 5th shot, which was the first hot shot thrown, entered the magazine, and sealed the fate of the garrison.

Another account of the attack was provided second-hand by a resident of New Orleans in a letter to the editor of the Weekly Register newspaper:

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.

Our vessels were ordered to cooperate with the army. I am sorry to say, they received no support whatever; and that on the contrary, they were dissuaded from attempted to pass or destroy the fort, as becoming impracticable, from the size of their guns, only 12 pounders, and but two of them. Not disheartened, however, our gallant little band, less than fifty in number, all told, began to warp up, every now and then throwing a shot to ascertain their distance correctly – the negroes firing their large guns, but evidently without skill. As soon as they found the shot reached the village in the rear of the fort, they determined, as they say, to see if they could make a bonfire, having previously cleared away the coppers to heat the shot, neither of them having a furnace. It seems somewhat extraordinary and almost miraculous, but the very first shot fired by Mr. Bassett, a judicious, cool, and very promising officer, who commanded gun vessel No. 154, entered their principal magazine and blew up the fort. The concussion was felt at Pensacola, a distance of sixty miles. 

There are several other first-hand accounts of the attack, but they add little more in detail. The entire exchange between the gunboats and the fort lasted only 15-20 minutes. The effects, however, changed the survivors and witnesses for the rest of their lives.

Dr. Buck was among the first Americans to enter the ruined fort. His account is graphic and heart-breaking:

One of the displays at Fort Gadsden Historic Site tells the story of the explosion that destroyed the Fort at Prospect Bluff.

One of the displays at Fort Gadsden Historic Site tells the story of the explosion that destroyed the Fort at Prospect Bluff.

..You cannot conceive, nor I describe the horrors of the scene. In an instant, hundreds of lifeless bodies were stretched upon the plain, buried in sand and rubbish, or suspended from the tops of the surrounding pines. Here lay an innocent babe, there a helpless mother: on the one side a sturdy warrior, on the other a bleeding squaw. Piles of bodies, large heaps of sand, broken guns, accoutrements, & c. covered the scite of the fort. The brave soldier was disarmed of his resentment, and checked his victorious career, to drop a tear on the distressing scene.

The surgeon reported that the fort was still burning when he entered the ruins. The soldiers with him rushed to extinguish the flames when it was realized that a second magazine had not gone off during the explosion but was now at risk. He and his party then tried to find and help the wounded:

…They succeeded with fifty out of three hundred souls who were in the fort. Amongst these were the Negro and Indian Chiefs; but they enjoyed but a short respite from the Indians. The Indian Chief was scalped alive, and stabbed, the Negro Chief was shot. By the great exertions of our humane Col. and his officers, the other sufferers were saved from such a death; but several have since died from their wounds.

The citadel of the Fort at Prospect Bluff was an octagonal earthwork with walls 14-feet high and 18-feet thick.

The citadel of the Fort at Prospect Bluff was an octagonal earthwork with walls 14-feet high and 18-feet thick.

Not all of the survivors were spared the fates of Garcon and the Choctaw chief. Lieutenant Colonel Edward Nicolls, the British commander who directed the construction of the fort, was informed well after the explosion that Garcon’s wife was beaten to death by some of the Creek warriors.

Lieutenant Colonel Clinch was clearly shaken by the scene that greeted him as he entered what remained of the fort:

…Our first care on arriving at the scene of the destruction was to rescue and relieve the unfortunate beings that survived the explosion. The war yells of the Indians, the cries and lamentations of the wounded compelled the soldier to pause in the midst of victory and to drop a tear for the sufferings of his fellow beings, and to acknowledge that the Great Ruler of the Universe must have used us as his instrument in chastising the blood-thirsty and murderous wretches that defended the Fort.

There are other accounts of the aftermath. An officer from the 4th Infantry witnessed the executions of Garcon and the Choctaw leader. “The chief of the Choctaws was found alive, but very much bruised and burnt,” he wrote. “The Chief of the negroes (whom they called sergeant major) was also found alive – but quite blind. These two the Indians scalped and shot.”

Map showing of the Fort at Prospect Bluff. The central citadel or "magazine" of the fort is the octagonal shaped structure. It was surrounded by stockades and breastworks. The triangular-shaped earthwork on the river was an artillery battery.

Map showing of the Fort at Prospect Bluff. The central citadel or “magazine” of the fort is the octagonal shaped structure. It was surrounded by stockades and breastworks. The triangular-shaped earthwork on the river was an artillery battery.

The sailors from the gunboats were also present when the Creeks executed the two captured leaders. One described the scene upon their return to base:

…Both the principal leaders of the negroes and Indians were made prisoners – on examining them, it appeared that one of the unfortunate sailors was made a prisoner, but only to experience a more dreadful death – he was tarred and burnt alive! When this was known, the two chiefs were seized upon by the friendly Indians, who scalped them and executed them on the spot – a terrible, but just act of retributive justice.

Garcon spoke to several of the American officers prior to his death at the hands of the Creek warriors. He told them that his final orders from Colonel Nicolls had been to defend the fort and prevent any U.S. vessels from passing it.

Most estimates agree that around 270 men, women and children died in the explosion of the Fort at Prospect Bluff. Another 50 occupants survived the explosion although all but three were badly wounded. Garcon and the Choctaw leader were executed. Garcon’s wife and possibly others were killed by the Creek warriors as they rushed into the ruins of the fort. Only 22 of the survivors lived for more than one or two days after the explosion. The majority of these were from Spanish Pensacola.

This series concludes in the next post with more information on the survivors of the explosion. Please click here to read the entire series up to this point.

Prospect Bluff Historic Sites (previously called Fort Gadsden) in the Apalachicola National Forest preserves the site of the British Post on the Apalachicola or Negro Fort. Please click here for directions.

To learn more about the site, please enjoy this video tour featuring Rhonda Kimbrough of the U.S. Forest Service:

 

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