The appearance of a two-masted gunboat in the Apalachicola River 200 years ago today was more remarkable than it might seem at first glance. The vessel was No. 149, one of the two U.S. Navy boats that had destroyed the Negro Fort two years earlier.
This article is part of a continuing series that commemorates the 200th Anniversary of the First Seminole War.
Gunboat No. 149 had a rich history. One of the so-called “Jefferson Gunboats” promoted by President Thomas Jefferson, No. 149 was a small coastal patrol and defense craft. Sail-powered, she had two masts and was armed with a single long 9-pounder mounted in her bow. Designed to cooperate with a swarm of similar gunboats to protect America’s harbors and rivers, she was one of 170 such vessels in the navy by 1812.
No. 149 was originally stationed at Norfolk, Virginia, and was one of several gunboats ordered to Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina, in June 1812. Contrary winds forced the small vessels to turn back, however, and it is uncertain if they ever reached their planned station. By 1815 she was at New Orleans where she participated in a 55-day cruise to suppress pirate raids around the mouth of the Mississippi River.
The gunboat sailed from New Orleans again in the spring of 1816 under the command of Sailing Master Jarius Loomis with orders to escort the supply ships General Pike and Sinclair from Pass Christian to the mouth of the Apalachicola River. Joined by Gunboat No. 154, the little flotilla reached Apalachicola Bay on July 10, 1816.
Seven days later a small boat from No. 149 was sent into the river to secure fresh water but was attacked by a detachment under Garcon, the sergeant major who commanded the Negro Fort. Midshipman Richard W. Luffborough and two sailors were killed. A third man, Edward Daniels, was captured and tortured to death at the fort. (Please see The Watering Party Attack).
Loomis subsequently took the gunboats up the Apalachicola to Bloody Bluff where he met Lt. Col. Duncan Lamont Clinch of the 4th U.S. Infantry. Clinch had been attacking the Negro Fort for a number of days without success. No. 149 and No. 154 joined the battle at 5 a.m. on July 27, 1816, exchanging cannon fire with the fort from a distance of 1.75 miles. The fifth shot from the vessels – a “hot shot” fired by No. 154 – blew up the gunpowder magazine in the fort’s citadel, killing 270 of the 320 men, women and children reported to be in the Negro Fort at the time. It was the deadliest cannon shot in American history. (Please see Prospect Bluff Historic Sites for a day by day history of the attack on the Negro Fort).
Now, two years after her crew took part in that bloody scene, Gunboat No. 149 was back at Prospect Bluff. Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson was building Fort Gadsden on the site and the vessel came as an escort for five supply schooners loaded with provisions for the army:
…[I]t was deemed necessary for their protection, that one of the armed vessels should accompany them to this place. I much regret that the decayed & leaky state of U.S. Gun Vessel No. 149 will render her entirely incapable of going to sea again until she has some repairs; as on the 15th inst. during the Gale which separated the convoy, she had at one time two feet water in the hold, and nothing but her incapacity to beat up to Mobile (having a head wind at the termination of the Gale) induced me to proceed to this place; we were however so unfortunate as to experience a second gale, while off this place, during which we were compelled to clear her decks of Spars, sails & etc. I have to request you to order a survey on her Hull, spars, sails &c. &c. [I]
The Navy would prove unable to sufficient repair the vessel for her to ever take to sea again. She spent the rest of her life afloat as a stationary storage house in the river at Fort Gadsden:
I have the honor to inform you that I have transferred all the stores and other public property belonging to Gun Boat No. 149 to the Schooner James Lawrence, with the exception of one anchor & cable; her mainsail, foresail, jib & square sail; neither of which sails are fit for further service. An Officer of the Army will take possession of her, and repair to Fort Gadsden, where they intend to occupy her as a powder magazine. [II]
Gunboat No. 149 ceased to serve even this purpose after the U.S. Army completed a suitable powder magazine in the fort. She was mentioned occasionally in military reports from 1818-1819 but references to her soon disappeared from the written record. It is likely that she finally sank or was beached and allowed to rot away at Fort Gadsden.
It seems appropriate in a way that she remains there to this day, lost and forgotten, not far from the remains of the men, women and children who died in the deadly 1816 attack.
This series will continue. You can learn more about the attack on the Negro Fort by visiting our day by day series at Prospect Bluff Historic Sites or by watching this free video from Two Egg TV:
[I] As. Campbell to Lt. Commdt. Isaac McKeever, March 26, 1818.
[II] Lt. Commdt. Isaac McKeever to Commodore Daniel T. Patterson, March 28, 1818.