The focus of the U.S. Army turned to the Barrancas 200 years ago today as Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson demanded the surrender of the Spanish fortress.
This article continues a series that commemorates the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Please click here to see the entire timeline of stories.
The morning of 25 May 1818 dawned with American troops in control of Pensacola while Spanish soldiers waited to engage them at the fortress of San Carlos de Barrancas. Jackson warned Gov. Jose Masot that “the accusations against you are founded on the most unquestionable evidence.” The reference was to claims that Spain had supplied Seminole, Miccosukee, Muscogee (Creek) and Black Seminole warriors in their fight against the United States.
Masot had withdrawn his garrison into the Barrancas on the approach of Jackson’s army to Pensacola and now refused to deliver up the fort to the American general. Jackson repeated his demand that the post must be surrendered:
I have only to repeat that the Barancas must be occupied by an American garrison, and again to tender you the terms offered if amicably surrendered. Resistance would be a wanton sacrifice of blood for which you & your garrison will have to atone. You cannot expect to defend yourself successfully, and the first shot from your Fort must draw down upon you the vengeance of an irritated soldiery. I am well advised of your strength and cannot but remark on the inconsistency of presuming yourself capable of resisting an Army which has conquered the Indian tribes too strong agreeably to your own acknowledgement when confronted by you. If the force which you are now disposed wantonly to sacrifice had been wielded against the Seminoles, the American troops had never entered the Floridas. [I]
Despite his beliefs about the governor’s involvement in supporting Native American forces, however, Jackson admired the courage shown by Masot:
I applaud your feeling as a soldier in wishing to defend your Post, but where resistance is ineffectual & the opposing force overwhelming, the sacrifice of a few brave men is an act of wantonness for which the Commanding Officer must be accountable to his God. [II]
Each commander, in fact, warned that the other would be accountable to God for his actions. Masot had informed Jackson on May 22 that he would repulse the Americans “force to force” if they continued their invasion of Spanish West Florida:
…The results in this case will be an effusion of blood & will also disturb the present harmony existing betwixt our nations but as I will only oppose the insult of your approach I shall not consider myself the aggressor. You will therefore be responsible before God & Men for the consequences & results of the same. [III]
The governor remained firm in his determination to defend the Barrancas and, in fact, had selected the best point on Pensacola to make his stand. The fort was the newest and strongest of the city’s defenses and with determination could be held against a much larger force.
San Carlos de Barrancas stood on the site of an earlier redoubt built on the barrancas or red clay bluffs of Pensacola Bay by the British during the American Revolution. Spain rebuilt and strengthened the fort in 1787. The new works included a semi-circular water battery called the Bateria de San Antonio from which heavy cannon could skip shot across the bay like stones over a pond and into the sides of enemy warships. Above the battery, on the highest point of the bluff, was the main fort. Rectangular in design with bastions on each corner, a ditch and outerworks, this structure was blown up by the British when they evacuated Pensacola during the War of 1812.
Spain rebuilt the fort in 1814-1818 and the works that Jackson now faced were much stronger than expected. Only the Bateria or water battery was of brick construction, but the main fort boasted strong ramparts created by planting parallel lines of log posts and then filling the intervening space with earth. The fortress mounted a number of cannon, among them heavy 18- and 24-pounders. Masot worked his men tirelessly to strength San Carlos de Barrancas as the American army approached via the road from Pensacola:
The Governor had previously fled to Fort San Carlos de Barancas, where it was said he resolved upon a most desperate resistance. . .The peaceable surrender of the fort at the Barrancas was denied; I marched for and invested it on the evening of the 25th of May; and, on the same night, pushed reconnoitring parties under its very guns. [IV]
Masot watched as Jackson’s men appeared from the east and established an encampment. The U.S. reconnoitering or scouting parties did come within the range of his guns but the Spanish governor held his fire, determined not to be responsible for firing the first shot of the coming engagement.
The soldiers of Spain were ready to fight their King’s final battle for control of his Florida colonies.
The confrontation between Jackson and Masot at San Carlos de Barrancas was the culmination of major fighting in a conflict that began five years earlier when Mississippi Territorial militia attacked Peter McQueen’s Red Stick Creeks at the Battle of Burnt Corn Creek. That unprovoked attack ignited a conflict that drew the United States, Spain, Great Britain, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the Miccosukee Tribe, the Seminole Nation and the Black Seminole into the connected series of encounters known today as the Creek War of 1813-1814, the War of 1812 and the First Seminole War.
[I] Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson to Don Jose Masot, May 25, 1818, Jackson Papers, Library of Congress.
[III] Gov. Jose Masot to Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, May 22, 1818, Jackson Papers, Library of Congress.
[IV] Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, June 2, 1818, American State Papers: Military Affairs, Volume I: 708-709.