A Brief History
On July 27, 1816, US gunboat #154 fired a cannon shot regarded as the deadliest single cannonball ever fired by the US Navy. The so-called Battle of Negro Fort touched off what became General Andrew Jackson’s conquest of Florida, and was the first big battle of the First Seminole War.
During the War of 1812, the British had garrisoned a fort at Prospect Bluffs on the Apalachicola River of what was then Spanish Florida. With British Marines (1000 total British fighters) and several hundred Africans (free men and runaway slaves) the British had recruited as “Colonial Marines.” The British called the fort Negro Fort, and abandoned it after the War of 1812 ended in 1815, paying off the African soldiers who in turn stayed and made the fort a settlement for runaway American slaves.
The US Army established a fort on the Flint River, and when attempting to resupply the fort via the Apalachicola River were attacked by Blacks from Fort Negro when the Americans were filling water containers. The water party of sailors was massacred with only 1 survivor, and the US Army, especially Andrew Jackson, was not about to let the incident go unanswered. Jackson asked the Federal Government for permission to attack Fort Negro, and Secretary of State John Q. Adams concurred, despite the fort being in Spanish territory. Accusing the Spanish and British of stirring up Blacks and Indians, a conspiracy to start the “Indian and Negro War,” the government was supported by many plantation owners in the South who greatly feared any African escaped slave enclave anywhere near the US, especially armed and in force. Fort Negro by this time had about 800 or more occupants and settlers living nearby. Americans felt the institution of slavery was threatened, and immediate action was warranted.
Jackson dispatched soldiers and gunboats in July of 1816 to lay siege to the fort, with his column of soldiers harassed by militiamen from Fort Negro along the way. Jackson, fearing the fort was heavily garrisoned and the garrison heavily armed, decided to bombard the fort into submission rather than risk a bloody frontal attack.
General Gaines (Jackson’s subordinate) first offered terms of surrender to the commander of the Blacks named Garson, who refused, claiming the British had ordered him to hold the fort, and Garson raised the British flag and a red flag indicating “no quarter” to emphasize his point. The fort contained about 200 Black militia armed with muskets and 10 cannons, but their artillery skills were minimal, and were ineffective against the American soldiers and gunboats 149 and 154. Another 100+ women and children were in the fort, along with about 30 Choctaw Indian fighters. The gunboats fired a few shots apiece to find the range, and then prepared “hot shot” pre-heated cannonballs for the main bombardment. (Red hot cannonballs could set fire to buildings and other flammables.) The very first shot from gunboat 154, commanded by MASTER Jairius Loomis, hit the enemy powder stores and caused an enormous explosion, virtually wiping out the entire fort! The fort was leveled and almost all the defenders and occupants were killed in that one blast, perhaps the deadliest cannon shot in US history from any military branch. The American soldiers and their Creek Indian allies quickly rounded up the few survivors, including Garson who was promptly executed by firing squad.
General Gaines called the “scene horrible beyond description,” and the battle went down without even 1 American fatality. The incident angered Seminole leaders who in turn threatened the Americans to keep out of Seminole territory in Florida, prompting the US to instead attack the Seminoles, starting a war that ended up with the US taking control and ownership of Florida. Jackson’s success in conquering Florida and his exploits in the War of 1812 helped him become a US Senator from Tennessee and later to become the 7th President of the United States, an office he used to continue his persecution of Native American tribes (Indian Removal Act of 1830). Jackson was the first US President from the Democratic Party, and became an American icon, revered by generations of Americans until the Civil Rights movement in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries brought attention to Jackson’s racist policies toward Native Americans and his support of slavery, owning many slaves himself. Today, calls to remove Jackson’s image from the $20 bill and from monuments to him are being called for by many Americans eager to discredit slavery and slave holders from honored positions in history. Do you think Andrew Jackson should be honored or vilified? Post your opinion in the comments.
Note: Although around 10,000 slaves escaped during the period of slavery in US History (1776-1865), no other free-African enclave the size of Negro Fort ever developed in the continental United States. The taste of liberty and self-determination at Negro Fort lasted barely over a year.
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For more information, please see…
Missall, John and Mary Lou Missall. The Seminole Wars: America’s Longest Indian Conflict (Florida History and Culture). University Press of Florida, 2016.
The featured images in this article, a map of Fort Gadsden and the “Negro Fort” from the National Archives and a photograph by J. Williams of a Plaque at Fort Gadsden, Florida, is in the public domain in the United States, because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code, and has been released into the public domain worldwide by its author, JW1805 at English Wikipedia, respectively.