Sunday, February 1, 2009

Fort Gadsden - A Black History Landmark in Florida

February is observed as Black History Month in the United States and one of the most significant American black history landmarks can be found in North Florida's Apalachicola National Forest.

Fort Gadsden Historic Site near the small community of Sumatra preserves the site of the "Negro Fort" on the Apalachicola. Also called the British Post and, for unclear reasons, Fort Blunt (this name appears in no official documents), this was the location of a major colony established by both free African Americans and refugee slaves from the United States and Spanish Florida in 1815. (Note: Fort Gadsden was the name of an American fort built on the same site in 1818).

The fort itself was originally built by British forces during the summer of 1814 as a base for operations during the War of 1812. Colonel Edward Nicolls (sometimes mispelled Nicholls) and Captain George Woodbine assembled a large force of Seminole and Creek warriors and African American soldiers here for planned attacks on Georgia. The war ended before the attacks could take place.

In May of 1814, Colonel Nicolls withdrew from Florida, but left his fort, its artillery and a massive stockpile of arms and ammunition in the hands of his former allies. Most of the Native American warriors soon drifted away, but a colony of several hundred African Americans remained. Farms were established along the riverbanks near the fort and the occupants continued to fly the British flag over their settlement.

The colony naturally became a beacon for slaves living on the plantations of the Southeast and numbers slipped away from bondage to seek freedom at the black settlement on the Apalachicola. U.S. officials began calling the establishment the "Negro Fort" in their reports and demanded that the Spanish take action to destroy it and return its occupants to slavery.

Before the Spanish could act, however, the United States launched a combined land and sea operation against the fort. Reinforced by several hundred friendly Creek warriors, Lt. Col. Duncan L. Clinch and 112 men from the 4th United States Infantry surrounded the fort in July of 1816 and demanded its surrender. The commander of the fort, a former slave named Garcon who had served as a sergeant major in the British forces, replied with a cannon shot.

U.S. forces launched their main attack at 5 a.m. on July 27, 1816, when Gunboats #149 and #154 moved upstream to within range of the fort. The cannon of the fort opened fire, but the shots went wide and did no damage. The sailors, meanwhile, fired four rounds at the fort to test the range and then loaded their guns with cannonballs they had heated until they were red hot.

They hoped to set the wooden parts of the fort on fire, but instead the first "hot shot" fired sailed directly through the open door of a gunpowder magazine and blew the massive fort to bits. The explosion killed 270 of the 320 men, women and children in the fort and injured most of the survivors.

Garcon was captured and executed, as was a Choctaw chief in the fort. The other survivors of the blast were carried to Georgia where they were claimed by plantation owners.

Click here to learn more about this dramatic episode of Florida history and to see photographs of the site of the deadly explosion.

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