Heavy fighting broke out on Pensacola Bay 200 years ago today as U.S. forces moved forward to attack the Spanish fort of San Carlos de Barrancas. It was Spain’s last military action in defense of its Florida colonies and the climactic battle of the First Seminole War.
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 American army moved into place just beyond cannon shot range of the Barrancas on the evening of May 25, 1818. On the morning of the 26th – 200 years ago today – Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson sent his engineer and aid-de-camp Capt. James Gadsden forward to decide how best to attack the fortress:
The position of the Fort Carlos de Barrancas is well selected, has an imposing command on the entrance into Pensacola and is susceptible of being strongly fortified. . .the water battery is of masonry and with but a few improvements may be rendered permanent; the upper work is too contracted in its dimensions, its figure greatly diminishing the internal space, and the materials of which it is constructed are perishable, the whole indicates its having been hastily created, and as a temporary defence. [I]
Col. Jose Masot, Spain’s Governor of West Florida, knew that Gadsden was inspecting his works but chose not to open fire on the American engineer because he knew this would give Jackson grounds to blame the Spanish for starting the battle. Masot also knew that a nearby cemetery was the most-threatening point to his defenses.
The now-lost burial ground stood on the ridge that is now the site of the Advanced Redoubt, a masonry fort built in 1845-1870 to guard the landward approaches to Fort Barrancas and the Pensacola Navy Yard. Gadsden quickly recognized the significance of the site and reported to Jackson that cannon mounted at the cemetery would play successfully against the Spanish works. He recommended construction of a battery there. Longer range guns, he felt, could be placed on another hill more to the north of San Carlos de Barrancas. The cemetery was to the west-northwest.
Confident that the Americans would see the advantages of the cemetery hill, Col. Masot sent out scouts of his own:
Of course I realized that if the Americans planned to attack us they would establish their batteries to the west of the Fort on the heights of the cemetery, a distance of 430 yards. At dusk I therefore deployed a small detachment and 4 black native soldiers from the area to observe with their bellies to the ground under orders to return should American troops be discovered. At 9 o’clock on the night of the 26th the detachment returned and the leader Corporal Juan Hernandez reported that a column of about 300 men with utensils and faggots of brushwood had arrived at the before-mentioned location. I immediately ordered cannon fire be directed to this high point. Scarcely had the first cannon been fired than a battery that the Americans had established to the north, opened fire with a Howitzer lobbing shells and incendiaries although without effect during the entire night. [II]
The Battle for Fort San Carlos de Barrancas was now underway. It is interesting to note that Masot commanded his troops more by sound, instinct and the report of others than by his own sight. An officer of long service to the King of Spain, he suffered from heavy cataracts in both eyes. So severe was his condition that he was completely blind in one eye and had only partial sight in the other.
The American and Spanish gunners exchanged limited fire through the night of May 26, 1818. The soldiers in the fort stood to their positions despite the incoming shells from the U.S. howitzers. Across the battlefield in the American lines, meanwhile, Capt. Gadsden joined with Capt. Richard Keith Call and Capt. Hugh Young to supervise the continued construction of the planned battery. All three men were officers on Jackson’s staff and they exposed themselves and their men to Spanish fire throughout the night to have the army’s 9-pounders in place and ready by morning.
Out on the bay, meanwhile, Lt. Isaac McKeever and the sailors aboard the USS Surprise heard the cannon fire erupt at about sundown. Jackson sent a courier out to the ship on the 24th to tell McKeever of the “possession of Pensacola and of his intention to demand the surrender of the Barrancas, and in case of a refusal requesting my cooperation for its reduction.” [III]
The sound of cannon fire told McKeever that the Barrancas did not surrender. He ordered his crew to raise anchor and moved the Surprise to within a range of about 1,200 yards of the fort. The U.S. Navy would join the undeclared war against Spain on the next morning. [IV]
The scene where the fighting took place 200 years ago today is now part of Gulf Islands National Seashore and Naval Air Station Pensacola. Fort Barrancas and the Advanced Redoubt – near which the cemetery battery was placed – are open to the public as part of the former. The second battery site and main encampment of Jackson’s army are part of the navy base.
For more information about Fort Barrancas, site of the Spanish fortress of San Carlos de Barrancas, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/fortbarrancas1.
To learn more about the Advanced Redoubt, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/redoubt1.
Also be sure to enjoy these free programs about Fort Barrancas and the Advanced Redoubt from Pensacola State College’s WSRE-TV:
This series will continue. To see the entire timeline of stories and catch up on any articles that you might have missed, please visit Seminole War 200th Anniversary.
[I] Capt. James Gadsden to Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, August 1, 1818, National Archives.
[II] Col. Jose Masot to the Captain-General of Cuba, June 1818, Coker Collection, University of West Florida.
[III] Lt. Isaac McKeever to Commodore Daniel T. Patterson, May 31, 1818, Secretary of the Navy, Letters Received, National Archives.