The U.S. Army and Navy began their final advance on Pensacola 200 years ago today as Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson prepared to attack the historic Spanish city.
This article continues a series that commemorates the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Please click here to see the timeline for the entire series.
Jackson turned his army north from Floridatown ferry and headed up the east side of the Escambia River, looking for a place where his army cross. Capt. Hugh Young, the army’s topographer, reported that the troops marched 13.75 miles on May 21, 1818:
…Three miles of this distance over the edge of the high ground, the remaining ten through the glady flats intervening between the hills and the river swamp. Crossed twelve branches – all with miry banks – but having generally hard sandy bottoms – one in the seventh mile has a very close thicket on the north side – one also very intricate in the twelfth. Here the path terminated at a Bayou entering the Escambia one mile and a half-below – forty yards wide with a swampy island between it and the main stream of one mile and a half in width. The Escambia at this point is eighty yards wide with steep banks and a low pine bluff on the west side. The swamp of the island is covered for two-thirds of the way from the Bayou with water to a depth of from two to five feet and obstructed by undergrowth and cypress knees – soil stiff white clay. [I]
The branch with the “very close thicket on the north side” in the seventh mile was – appropriately enough – today’s Seven Mile Creek. The crossing point was either near today’s Quintette Road or a short distance further north at Parker Island. Both locations fit well with Young’s description.
The lead elements of the army undoubtedly started to cross the Escambia 200 years ago today. The rest of the army followed on the next morning.
Meanwhile, Lt. Isaac McKeever approached the mouth of Pensacola Bay with the USS Surprise, a heavily-armed ketch from the naval station at New Orleans. The ship carried long 9-pounders, naval cannon that McKeever expected to use in support of Jackson’s planned attack. He was ordered to cooperate with the general by Commodore Daniel T. Patterson and arrived close enough off Pensacola 200 years ago today to sail into the bay on the next morning:
In conformity with your orders of the 4th inst. I repaired to Fort Gadsden but on my arrival there Iwas informed by Genl. Gaines, then in command, that our Army, under General Jackson had moved towards Pensacola, for which place I immediately sailed, and on the 22nd anchored off the Spanish Fort St. Carlos de Barrancas. [II]
McKeever played an important part in the army’s operations east of the Apalachicola River by blockading San Marcos de Apalache (Fort St. Marks) until Jackson arrived on the scene. He lured the Prophet Josiah Francis and the Red Stick chief Homathlemico out to his ship by flying the British flag and seized them while pretending to be an officer of the Royal Navy. (Please see The capture of the Prophet Francis at St. Marks, Florida).
The approach of the American warship cut off Pensacola from support by sea and bottled up the Spanish garrison there. Conditions were now set for a rapid descent on the city by Andrew Jackson’s army.
In Pensacola itself, Gov. Jose Masot learned 200 years ago today that U.S. troops were on the move across Escambia Bay:
On the 20th of last month my Adjutant, sub-Lieutenant Don Buenaventura Debrenil with my permission, paid a visit to a sawmill operated by Don Pedro Filbert, located some five leagues from the river town across the bay. When he arrived at the landing at 9 o’clock at night Filbert told him that at 10 o’clock in the morning of that same day a detachment of American troops had come to his house arresting him and some visiting neighbors. They were taken to the general headquarters a half a league to the East where he was brought before General Andrew Jackson. Jackson informed him that he and his neighbors were all prisoners of war and not to disclose his arrival in the area under penalty of death. To insure against this disclosure Jackson confiscated their boats. The adjutant returned immediately to inform me of the event, arriving at 1 o’clock on the morning of the 21st. [III]
As might be expected, Jackson’s presence on the east side of the bay alarmed the governor. Previous raids into the area by U.S. troops had posed no real threat to Pensacola itself, but this situation was different and Masot knew it. He immediately took steps to prepare his strongest fortification – San Carlos de Barrancas – for defense:
…I then ordered a general alarm in order to immediately reinforce the Post at Barrancas. Lt. Colonel Don Luis Piernas, some officers and a troop sufficient to man the positions, proceeded there. At 9 o’clock in the morning I left for Barrancas accompanied by the commanders of the Artillery and Engineers in order to group all my forces which consisted of 22 artillerymen and 153 infantrymen. [IV]
The fort of San Carlos de Barrancas stood on the site of today’s Fort Barrancas, the water battery of which was part of the Spanish castillo. The British blew up the main fort when they evacuated Pensacola in 1814, but Spain rebuilt it so the works available to Masot were reasonably new. The main structure was well-armed with 18- and 24-pounder cannon, as well as some of lesser weight.
The ramparts were reasonably strong. Made by erecting parallel walls of timber and then filling the middle with sand, they had cannon mounted on top. Inside were barracks, bombproofs, magazines and other necessary structures for the troops and officers.
Immediately below the main structure on the bay side was the Bateria de San Antonio, a semi-circular masonry structure that still stands today. Cannon mounted on its ramparts could sweep the channel leading into Pensacola Bay. American engineers later adapted the Bateria for use as a water battery, a purpose that it served through the years of the War Between the States (or Civil War). Its lower elevation allowed gunners stationed there to skip cannonballs across the surface of the bay – much like skipping a stone across the surface of a pond – and into the sides of wooden ships near the waterline.
The other fortifications of Pensacola were much weaker than the works at the Barrancas. These included the ruined Fort St. Michael – formerly Fort George – which overlooked the city from a hill just to the north; several blockhouses; barracks and other military structures in the downtown, and possibly remnants of an earlier stockade that surrounded the city. They did not amount to much and proved of little use when Jackson attacked Pensacola during the War of 1812.
The lessons of that attack were clear and Masot planned to make his stand this time behind the stronger walls of San Carlos de Barrancas.
This series will continue tomorrow. To learn more about Fort Barrancas, please enjoy this excellent program from Pensacola State College’s WSRE-TV:
[I] Capt. Hugh Young, “A Topographical Memoir of East and West Florida with Itineraries of General Jackson, 1818,” The Florida Historical Quarterly, Volume 13, Number 3 (January 1935): 160.
[II] Lt. Isaac McKeever to Commodore Daniel T. Patterson, May 31, 1818.
[III] Gov. Jose Masot to the Captain General, June 1818, quoted in General Andrew Jackson’s 1818 Invasion of Spanish Florida (First Seminole War), prepared by the University of West Florida for the American Battlefield Protection Program, National Park Service:131.