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The Final Destruction of Negro Fort / Prospect Bluff Part 6

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Above: Kiosk display at Fort Gadsden showing destruction of the fort at the site. (And details of the painting of the fort destruction.) The items on display are currently removed during site renovation.

Sources used:
The Army & Navy Chronicle, Vol. 2, No. 8, Page 114-116, Feb. 25, 1836

Navy Doc. # 119, Letter from the Secretary of the Navy, Transmitting, in Obedience to a Resolution of the House of Representatives, of the 26th Ult, sundry Documents relating to the Destruction of the Negro Fort in East Florida, in the Month of July, 1816. February 1, 1819. Washington, 1819, 21 pages.

Sec. of War Doc. # 122, Letter from the Secretary of War transmitting Pursuant to a Resolution of The House of Representatives of the 26th Ult. Information in Relation to the Destruction of the Negro Fort in East Florida in the Month of July 1816, &c, &c.” February 2, 1819. Washington, 1819, 26 pages.

Sorry that I took longer to compose this article than I anticipated. I had an important project requiring my full attention that needed completing. And, the paying jobs have to take priority.

Back to the original timeline, I have read a few other things around the internet, and most of what has been written about Prospect Bluff / Negro Fort in the past is unfortunately wrong. You can easily know this by going back to the original documents. For example: One of the misconceptions is that General Andrew Jackson was doing this as a rouge action, on his own. That it was a renegade action, or illegal invasion on Spanish territory. That is not true. President Madison and Secretary of War William Crawford had full knowledge of the fort. Crawford in March 1816 recommended that the fort be destroyed by the use of artillery, which is exactly what happened. First it was recommended that the Spanish be approached to take care of the fort, but when it was realized that the Spaniards were powerless, the Secretary of War deemed action was needed for reason of national self-interest. The outcome in human lives killed was horrible. But the order given for the destruction of the fort was from the highest authority and was not a rouge action from Jackson, and directly from Washington. Yes, the government in Washington wasn’t present on the Apalachicola River, but neither was Jackson.

Reading both Clinch’s report and Sailing Master Loomis’ report of the destruction of Negro Fort, along with the letters in the Army & Navy Chronicle of the horrific carnage resulting from the explosion from Marcus C. Buck and “A Soldier,” the sight of the deaths were beyond description. I think It says body parts were buried in the sand and up in the trees. That is all the description that we need.

Lt.Col. Clinch boasts of his command ability, but it is obvious that he was mostly incompetent in the whole operation. The Creek allies under McIntosh did most of the work of the land force by surrounding the fort and preventing the escape of the occupants, and apprehending those attempting to flee. Clinch mentions that they apprehended about 100 escaped slaves from American plantations, and these were not ones who survived the fort magazine explosion, so I can only assume that they were captured with assistance of the Creek allies.

Above: Plan of the fort from the Museum of Florida History in Tallhassee.
Below: View of the River from the Fort Bluff, what the occupants in the fort would have probably seen.

The fort itself was able to sustain any siege by land, and Clinch did not have the force to show much opposition to it. Under the British flag and the red “Bloody flag,” flown in the center of the fort, the fort was on the only high ground along that part of the river, even though it is only about ten feet above sea level. The fort had ten artillery pieces and had stockpiled thousands of arms and hundreds of barrels of gunpowder. They even had Congreve rockets that were being fired over Clinch’s force. And the men inside the fort were British trained troops.

The fatal flaw to the fort was from a lucky shot fired from a naval ship that hit the gunpowder magazine in the fort. So this ended up being a naval engagement for a fort that was prepared for an attack from a land force. Forever it will be remember by the one shot that destroyed the fort in a horrific explosion that killed 90 percent of the occupants. And two-thirds of the occupants were non-combats, women and children.

So our story opens up as written by both Clinch and Loomis themselves, that Clinch was supposed to set up an artillery battery opposite the fort on the other side of the river. Clinch complains that he had naval carriages that he could not maneuver and elevate the cannons. Loomis’ report says that Clinch complained that he was not familiar with artillery and too far away, even being at point-blank range of the fort. Loomis disagreed. Finally, Loomis basically said to Clinch, “Fine; I will pass by the fort without your aid!” It is obvious from Loomis’ letter that he had become disgusted with Clinch’s mismanagement of the whole affair.

On the morning of July 27th at 4 a.m., the fleet started up. At 5 a.m. they were within gun range of the fort, and the shooting commenced. The fort started firing at the ships, which the ships returned fire. After firing for distance and range, the gunboat commanded by Sailing Master Bassett fired one cannon shot heated red hot, that landed dead center in the powder magazine, in the back center of the fort. The resulting tremendous explosion was heard as far away as Pensacola, over 100 miles away.

Lt.Col. Clinch says, “The explosion was awful, and the scene horrible beyond description. Our first care on arriving at the scene of destruction was to rescue and relieve the unfortunate beings that had survived the explosion.”

“The war yells of the Indians, the cries and lamentations of the wounded, compelled the soldier to pause in the midst of victory, to drop a tear for the sufferings of his fellow beings, and to acknowledge that the great Ruler of the Universe must have used us as an instrument in chastising the blood-thirsty and murderous wretches that defended the fort. The fort contained about one hundred effective men, (including twenty-five Choctaw,) and about two hundred women and children, not more than one-sixth part of which number were saved.” (Army & Navy Chronicle Vol.2, pg. 115)

Marcus C. Buck also eloquently described it, “You cannot conceive, nor I describe the horrors of the scene. In an instant, hundreds of lifeless bodies were stretched upon the plain, buried in sand and rubbish, or suspended from the tops of surrounding pines. Here lay an innocent babe, there a helpless mother; on the one side a sturdy warrior, on the other a bleeding squaw. Piles of bodies, large heaps of sand, broken guns, accoutrements, &c. covered the site of the fort."

The leaders of the fort, the Choctaw Chief, and the Black Maroon named Garcon, had survived, but not for long. The American Creek allies took them aside and quickly executed them.

Of the survivors, it was determined that the majority were runaway Spanish slaves. These were turned over to William Hambly, the local trading factor. Those who were determined to be runaways from American plantations were taken back to Camp Crawford/ Fort Scott and confined.

The amount of property taken or destroyed in the fort was not less than $200,000, which today I am sure would be easily over $2 million. There were over three thousand stands of arms and 5 to 600 barrels of gunpowder, and a great quantity of ammunition and shot. One magazine that was saved, and not blown up, had 163 barrels of gunpowder, and was given as a prize for compensation to the Creek allies by Lt.Col. Clinch. Loomis also made note of 2,500 muskets, 500 carbines, 500 swords, 4 cases of 200 pairs of pistols, and 300 quarter casks of rifle powder that the Indians also plundered as prizes. These were items apparently not destroyed in the explosion and therefore from another magazine storage. Since Clinch gave these to the Indians in agreement as their payment for services rendered, there was no taking that away from them. Normally the items would be seized by the War Department. But, it was felt not to press the issue since the Creeks were still very disgruntled from losing their land at the Treaty of Fort Jackson, and the chiefs and warriors had felt they were not receiving enough compensation.

There were ten artillery pieces mounted on the fort, recorded by Loomis as follows: Four long 24-pounder cannons. Four long 6-pounder cannons. One 4-pounder field piece. And a 5 ½ inch brass howitzer. Cannon and shot were transported to Camp Crawford (later Fort Scott) by Lt.Col. Clinch.

Also listed among items seized, were shoes that were taken by the Army. Military clothing was taken by the allied Creeks, which would have been British redcoat military uniforms. The Navy also transported off 7 ship carriages that the cannons were mounted on, 3 ammunition wagons, 502 muskets, 1200 bayonets, 1810 cartridge boxes, hundreds of belts, gun slings, sword belts. Dozens of straps, haversacks, accoutrements and boxes. 3500 gun flints, 5 cross-cut saws, 1 whip. 170 24-pd shot, dozens of stands of grape and canister rounds, 80 round for the 6-pdr., 13 water casks and hoops and blocks. (Also items that were obviously not blown up in the exploded magazine, and in an alternate magazine.)

Clinch continues with more tools that he had collected: 26 spades, 48 shovels, 54 pick axes, various tools, block and tackle, saws, 120 shoes, 700 spikes, 460 old belts, 40 new belts, 2 casks flints containing 20,000 each, 100 cartridge boxes, a box of 20 muskets, one corn mill (no doubt small), 50 copper hoops, 4 sets harness, and one set cart harness. Yes, much of Camp Crawford/Fort Scott’s quartermaster was supplied from what was seized here.

As Clinch was loading this aboard the two cargo ships, it was too much weight, and the boats bottomed out on the river. They had to be unloaded on flat boats and ferried up river, which took more time. He became worried, because the gunboats had now left to go back down river, so he would not have them for protection. Clinch was also annoyed by the fact that the allied Creeks had taken their loot of arms and left already. The bulk of his protective force had already departed, and he had word that an angry force of Seminoles and Miccosukees were soon heading his way. He had to get out of there fast. Somehow necessity seems that he was able to do that, or the vengeful party did not make an appearance.

As Loomis’ gunboats were leaving the scene, they met the Spanish schooner Maria in Apalachicola Bay, just arrived from Pensacola. Captain Benigno Garcia Calderon was there to make demands from the Spanish Governor. His Catholic Majesty demanded all the artillery and ammunition taken in possession from the fortress. “I do not doubt you will accede to, considering the perfect harmony which exists between my government and that of the United States of America.” And also requesting a circumstantial account of what occurred in taking and destruction of the fortress, that it may be communicated to the governor of the province of West Florida.

Sailmaster Loomis answered, “The property captured on the 27th of July, 1816, on the Apalachicola river, in East Florida, I consider as belonging to runaway slaves, who had absconded from the United States and elsewhere, to protect themselves against their proper masters. The fort was defended under the English flag accompanied with the bloody flag, therefore I consider it my duty to hold the said property until I receive further instruction from the commanding naval officer of the New Orleans station.”

In other words; you want it? Talk to the US government!

This ends the series on Negro Fort/Fort Gadsden/Prospect Bluff. In honor of the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War, I will start covering some of the letters I have found in the archives from that period of history, and will be reprinting some of that in the future.

I have been to the location of Fort Gadsden / Negro Fort / Prospect Bluff several times. The site is very remote and inhospitable. It is miles from the nearest city in the middle of the national forest. Being so far out of the way, you really have to make an effort to visit. In the spring, the river floods and the road to the site may be impossible to drive down. Mosquitoes and biting flies during various seasons can get unbearable. Visit at your own risk during that time. Because of these environmental factors, there will be a 200th anniversary commemoration, but not on the July date when it is too buggy and muggy. The event will instead be October 22, 2016.

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On August 15th, 2016 04:37 pm (UTC), duck113 commented:
an incredible (and sad) story-
[User Picture]
On August 16th, 2016 12:42 am (UTC), seminolewar replied:
It certainly is an amazing story!
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