The past year I have been reviewing letters related to the First Seminole War in the archives to get a better understanding of the events and causes of what actually happened. Things were far more interesting than what is usually portrayed. More was involved than just Major General Andrew Jackson invading Florida—that was the inevitable conclusion, not a random action by this renegade general. Jackson had been given authority by the Secretary of War, and by the time he arrived on the scene, things had already spiraled out of control. I will not cover so much Jackson’s invasion, but more of what happened before and after. I think it is really important to understand what happened to start these events.
Let us start by looking at the events following the War of 1812 to the destruction of Negro Fort.
When the British left New Orleans, they had full intention of continuing a campaign against the Americans along the Gulf coast. But with the Treaty of Ghent ratified in March 1815, it told the Brits to leave everything status quo and stand down. Part of the British plan for the New Orleans campaign back in 1814 was to destabilize the American economy by way of Spanish Florida, using the Indian allies and escaped slaves as mercenaries against the Americans. When the British departed, all their armed Native & Negro allies remained, so the former plan took a life of its own and continued without British support. But as far as Jackson and Gaines were concerned, the Brits were lurking behind the scenes, even though there is little evidence that the Crown cared at all what was going on in North America.
There were two British forts established in 1814 on the Apalachicola River to arm and train these axillaries, one at the southern end we know as Negro Fort, and one at the northern end of the Apalachicola, just south of the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint River, known as Nicholls Fort, or Apalachicola Fort. These forts would also stop all movement of ships on the river, and prevent the Americans from bringing their cotton down river from Georgia and eastern Mississippi territory to market in New Orleans, becoming a severe economic hardship for the Americans. Not to mention a haven for escaped slaves, which much has been written about.
Photo: Historical Marker at Chattahoochee Florida for Nicholls Fort:
Even though it was Spanish territory and the Americans probably needed to make some agreement with Spain for travelling down river, Spain was by this time, ineffective as a colonial power in the western hemisphere. They were conquered by Napoleon, who had been defeated by Britain. The Spanish government in Florida had been on its own with little direction. The British forts on the Apalachicola were established without any opposition.
Fort Apalachicola or Nicholls Fort was abandoned a few months after being established. Even though Col. Nicholls met with 500 warriors, the Indians just returned to their villages after the war ended and all the presents were distributed. Even today, the river floods in the spring, so it is not a desirable place to be. But the Americans had minimal intelligence of the river, and were not aware that the northern fort was abandoned. But from what they had heard, thousands of warriors were gathering to attack the American settlements.
Secretary of War William Crawford ordered the military commander of the southern district, Major General Andrew Jackson in Nashville, to investigate the matter of the renegade forts, and have this fort south of the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint River destroyed (not knowing it was already abandoned), but first have Jackson contact the Spanish in Pensacola and see if they would destroy it since it was in Spanish territory.
Jackson ordered from his headquarters at the Hermitage, US officers to contact the authorities at Pensacola. These officers left from New Orleans and Mobile. Nobody is travelling the dangerous Apalachicola, and therefore the status of this renegade fortress was unknown.
What the US Officers find in Pensacola, is that the town has a small garrison of Black soldiers, who are basically unarmed, although the Spanish residents themselves are afraid of the soldiers in their own garrison. The Spanish knew of Negro Fort on the Apalachicola and were much alarmed by it, but could not muster any force against it. The American officer reported that the Spanish did not even have enough gun powder to fire a salute for a flag raising!
So the Americans now felt it was their duty to protect their frontier by destroying Negro Fort. Jackson wrote back to the Secretary of War that the presence of the fort could not be tolerated as a haven for escaped slaves and renegade banditti and land pirates, as he called it. He was confident that it could easily be destroyed using the 4th & 7th Infantry troops and a small Naval force. Although things would not go according to plan, and the land force would be ineffective, and it would be the small Naval force that would make quick destruction of Negro Fort.
To be continued.