Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day in Florida - Fort Gadsden Historic Site

This is part of a weekend long series dedicated to Floridians who gave their lives for freedom, liberty, their follow citizens, their state and their country.

Perhaps the deadliest cannon shot in American history was fired in Florida on July 27, 1816. The target was a powerful fort on the lower Apalachicola River and the resulting explosion left an estimated 270 men, women and children either dead or dying.

British forces had built the fort in 1814 as part of their expanding campaign along the Gulf Coast during the closing months of the War of 1812. Its purpose was to serve as a recruitment and training base for a large force of Native American and African American volunteers that had joined the British as they came ashore in what was then Spanish Florida.

At its height, the post provided security and housing for more than 2,000 men and their families. The War of 1812 came to an end, however, before this force could be put into the field for a campaign into Georgia. The British left the lower Apalachicola in May of 1815 and American authorities initially thought the fort had been abandoned. They soon learned otherwise.

When Colonel Edward Nicolls (sometimes misspelled Nichols) left the "British Post on the Apalachicola" with his force of Royal Marines, he left the fortress, its artillery and a massive supply of ammunition, small arms and other military goods in the hands of his former allies. Most of the Indians soon drifted back to their villages, but the African Americans - many of whom had escaped slavery in the United States - remained.

Commanded by their sergeant major, a former slave named Garcon, they continued to conduct artillery drills and flew the English Jack over the fort. When American officials learned of this, they began calling the establishment the "Negro Fort" on the Apalachicola and demanded that Spanish authorities eliminate it. The free colony and fort on the Apalachicola served as a natural beacon to slaves on the plantations of Georgia and the Carolinas.

Ultimately, Major General Edmund P. Gaines (although Andrew Jackson often gets the blame) sent a joint land and sea expedition to destroy the fort. A force of 116 men left Camp Crawford, Georgia, in July of 1816 and dropped down the Apalachicola River by boat. Joined by more than 200 allied Creek warriors en route, they landed and surrounded the land approaches to the fort.

At the same time, a flotilla of U.S. gunboats and supply vessels arrived in Apalachicola Bay. To the outrage of the sailors, several members of a party sent into the mouth of the river to obtain fresh water were ambushed and killed by men from the "Negro Fort." One of the survivors was taken back to the fort were he was tortured and burned to death.

A demand from Lt. Col. Duncan L. Clinch for the surrender of the fort was answered with a cannon shot and on the morning of July 27, 1816, the American forces began their main attack.

Two U.S. gunboats moved to within range of the fort and were greated by artillery fire from its garrison. The sailors responded with their own cannon and to the shock of all involved, fired a heated cannonball directly through the doors of one of the fort's magazines on only their fifth shot. The entire structure disappeared in a massive explosion.

Of the estimated 320 men, women and children in the fort at the time of the blast, 270 died instantly. Most of the rest were wounded. Colonel Clinch, the commander of the American forces, remarked that he shed a tear over the fate of the unfortunate beings and described how he and his men rushed to help the few survivors that remained.

The site of the "Negro Fort" on the Apalachicola is now a historic site within the Apalachicola National Forest. Maintained by the forest service, the park is open daily and also includes the earthwork remains of Fort Gadsden, a U.S. fort built at the site in 1818 by Andrew Jackson.

To learn more, please visit

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