The battle for the Spanish fort of San Carlos de Barrancas intensified 200 years ago today as the American army opened fire from land and sea.
This article continues a special series commemorating the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Please click here to see the entire timeline of stories.
The sunrise of 27 May 1818 brought with it the most intense cannonade to shake Pensacola Bay since the days of the American Revolution when Bernardo de Galvez led an allied army against British-held Pensacola. Looking to the west where U.S. forces had placed a battery on the Cemetery Hill, Col. Jose Masot and his officers saw that the American guns were ready for action:
…At dawn it was discovered that a battery had been built at the cemetery consisting of 3 cannon. This battery immediately opened fire. I redoubled our fire with cannon from that side and 2 from the battery below. The fire from both sides was intense lasting until 10:30 in the morning. At this time an emissary arrived gruffly demanding our surrender. I immediately sent him on his way with a negative answer and in a few minutes the Americans resumed their fire. [I]
The emissary mentioned by Col. Masot was Captain Richard Keith Call of the 1st U.S. Infantry. A member of Jackson’s staff and a future governor of Florida, he helped place the guns during the night. He wrote in the third person while describing his ordeal in going forward with the surrender demand:
…As they discovered his approach they trained a gun upon him, firing as he approached, being as dangerous to turn as go forward, he put his horse to full speed and reached the fort miraculously without injury. The white flag had been disregarded in consequence of the American batteries keeping up their fire all the time upon the fort. Governor Masot, refused to surrender, but Captain Call was not a careless observer of the Fort, noting every approach to it. [II]
Why the American army continued to bombard the fort as a white flag went forward with a surrender demand was never explained but likely resulted from a failure to communicate plans to the officers commanding the batteries. With the U.S. cannon continuing to fire, the Spanish guns did so as well.
The bombardment of Fort San Carlos de Barrancas came from both land and sea. When Jackson’s batteries opened fire at dawn, Lt. Isaac McKeever and the crew of the USS Surprise joined from the bay:
…At daylight on the 27th they commenced a heavy fire upon this vessel and a battery which our army had erected during the night within about four hundred yards of the fort and which in a most spirited manner returned its fire. Finding my small guns of no avail against such heavy ordnance, I withdrew about one mile and a half. [III]
Speeding McKeever’s decision to withdraw was a 24-pound solid shot that the Spanish gunners in the Bateria de San Antonio or Water Battery sent through the bow of his vessel from a range of 3,600 feet.
The USS Surprise was not the only part of the American forces receiving accurate fire from Masot’s gunners. Spanish cannonballs were pounding the U.S. artillery positions both north of the fort and at Cemetery Hill to the west. Capt. Call wrote in his journal that Jackson’s batteries were “much more exposed to the fires of the Fort, than likely to do much damage to the enemy.” [IV]
In fact, if the Spanish casualty estimates are to be trusted, the cannon of the Barrancas were inflicting a heavy toll on the soldiers in the American batteries. Masot reported to the Captain-General of Cuba after the battle that Jackson lost 46 killed and 61 wounded. The American general himself made no mention of his casualties. A later estimate by Lt. Col. John Henry Eaton placed U.S. losses at 2 killed. Pending further research, it is impossible to say which estimate is the most accurate.
It is clear from the reports of both sides that the U.S. artillery was having little effect on the fort. Masot claimed to have silenced the battery on Cemetery Hill while the American howitzer to the north fired intermittently throughout the day:
This lasted with the same intensity until 8:15 that night at which time the enemy stopped firing. Although 3 pieces of the battery at the cemetery had been put out of commission the battery to the north continued its sporatic fire until 2:30 in the afternoon when a cannon from the cemetery began firing again, continuing until 3 in the afternoon when it ceased entirely. The fire from the Howitzer continued until 4 o’clock, at which time it ceased firing. We took advantage of this to change the mounts from the 2 cannons facing the positions of attack, these having been put out of commission. We were at this work when the enemy resumed its fire from the battery to the north. [V]
Whatever was taking place inside the American lines, Jackson decided that his cannon would not be able to breach the walls of San Carlos de Barrancas. Capt. Call told him that the works were stronger than expected and could only be taken by storm:
…[H]e reported to his General, that the only way to secure the fort was to scale the walls, and have a hand to hand fight. The suggestion met with the approval of the General and one or two hundred men were detailed at once to construct ladders, with a view to attack and scale the fort during the coming night. [VI]
Sending American troops across open ground to attack a fort armed with a wide array of cannon was a dangerous proposition. If the U.S. soldiers could get close without being detected in the darkness, they might take the fort. If they were spotted, however, the Spanish gunners would mow them down.
The attack never happened. Jackson and his officers were contemplating the timing and direction of the assault when a white flag suddenly appeared above the walls of Fort San Carlos de Barrancas. The guns of both sides fell silent for the night.
This series will continue tomorrow with the story of a remarkable scene then taking place inside the fortress.
To experience the sights and sounds of the First Seminole War in person, please mark your calendar now to attend the Scott 1817 Seminole War Battle in Chattahoochee, Florida. This event features living history encampments, demonstrations, exhibits, two battle reenactments, the replica 19th century keelboat Aux Arc, memorial services, vendors, food and more. Enjoy this 60-second preview from Two Egg TV:
[I] Col. Jose Masot to the Captain-General of Cuba, June 1818, Coker Collection, University of West Florida.
[II] Capt. Richard Keith Call, “Journal of Richard Keith Call,” Compiled and edited under date of August 1, 1861, Florida State Archives: 212-213.
[III] Lt. Isaac McKeever to Commodore Daniel T. Patterson, May 31, 1818, Secretary of the Navy, Letters Received, National Archives.
[IV] Call, Journal.
[V] Masot, June 1818.
[VI] Call, Journal.