On July 27, 1816, a shot from a U.S. Navy gunboat blew up a facility in Spanish territorial Florida known as the Negro Fort, instantly killing at least 270 men, women and children. It was the loudest man-made noise heard on the North American continent at the time. Most survivors were executed or enslaved.
Photos coming soon.
Who built the fort? Near the end of the War of 1812, the British crafted a last-ditch "Southern Strategy" to secure the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. They erected an intimidating fortress in the Florida Territory on the Apalachicola River, about 15 miles north of the Gulf and 60 miles south of the Georgia border. With 18' thick earthen walls, 15'-high timber palisades and a moat, the fort was a model of defensive design.
With its surrounding fortifications, the facility was known variously as Fort Nicholls and Fort Blunt, and became a regional trading post and training facility for the Royal Marines. It housed hundreds of British soldiers, some white settlers and a few Indians. It also was an ammunition depot for the region, storing a massive inventory of gunpowder and bullets.
What happened when the British left? When the British called it quits in 1815, they left the fully-armed fort to their friends, the Indians who were becoming known as the Seminoles. The British knew the Indians would be a thorn in the Americans' side, so they invited others - Choctaw, Black Seminoles, Red Stick Creek - plus free blacks, runaway slaves, and various adventurers, entrepreneurs and scalawags to make themselves at home.
Who lived at the fort? Most Seminoles were nervous about being trapped inside a fortress, so they hauled away as many rifles as they could carry and headed southeast. But 30 Seminoles and the others stayed behind and did indeed make themselves at home. They began farming the fertile river basin for miles in either direction that spring. Tiny colonies sprang up like spokes in a wheel.
Word spread of this new oasis. Slaves who had escaped from as far away as the Carolinas made their way to the fort as safe haven. It became a stop on the "Underground Railroad" to freedom.
The installation - called the "Negro Fort" by the Americans - was technically in territory owned by Spain, but the Spanish had bigger worries in Florida and throughout the globe, so they ignored U.S. entreaties to evict the squatters. Soon, a thousand people built a thriving settlement on the east bank of the Apalachicola with the Negro Fort as an anchor.
Who ran the fort? Despite the eclectic composition of its populace, the Negro Fort still flew the Union Jack. Its new leaders - two free blacks from Pensacola called Garcon and Cyrus, and a Black Seminole named Prince - often paraded around in tattered British army uniforms. The charismatic Garcon and fierce Cyrus became spokesmen and principal organizers of this complex community.
The leadership also included Choctaw, women and escaped slaves. This odd coalition government welcomed all to its rainbow oasis. They rebuilt the dock, and built a flotilla of keelboats and dugouts to control this stretch of the river.
Why was the Negro Fort a political issue? The Negro Fort frightened slave-owners in the Deep South, so in April 1816, U.S. Gen. Andrew Jackson decided the fortress was a threat to U.S. security. He formally requested Spanish military authorities to close and destroy it. They refused, so Jackson vowed to do it himself.
Jackson ordered his second-in-command - General Edmund Gaines - to build a fort just north of the Florida-Georgia border. Gaines declared the fort (Fort Scott) would be supplied through New Orleans, meaning his supply line would cut straight though Spanish territory right under the nose of the Negro Fort. Not only could the Americans keep an eye on the Negro Fort, but they might even be able to pick a fight.
The spark that ignited the confrontation began on July 10, 1816, when supplies from New Orleans arrived at the mouth of the Apalachicola River, ready to head north 75 miles past the Negro Fort to the starving U.S. soldiers in Fort Scott. The four-ship convoy anchored in Apalachicola Bay waiting for the commander upriver to escort them. The convoy consisted of two schooners heavy with food, medicine and rum and two small U.S. Navy gunboats known as Gunboat #154 and Gunboat #149. They sat for several scorching days and nervous nights in placid Apalachicola Bay.
What was the "Watering Party Massacre"? Soon, a rowboat filled with Negro Fort warriors approached the schooners, waved, then fired several volleys. The Americans returned fire, but they fell short as the Indians withdrew. Two days later, after waiting a week, the U.S. Navy commander of the supply convoy - Jarius Loomis - dispatched four sailors in a rowboat ashore for fresh water and oysters. They carried empty kegs and buckets.
After steering through the mudflats and putting ashore, the men were attacked by 40 Negro Fort defenders who killed two sailors and captured a third, who they later burned alive in hot tar. The fourth sailor hid and was found the next day by a U.S. rescue party. The incident became known as the "Watering Party Massacre".
What were the key events leading to the bombing? U.S. Col. Duncan Clinch left Fort Scott with 116 soldiers and met up with 150 allied Creek and Coweta warriors under Coweta strongman William McIntosh. They moved quickly down the Apalachicola, arriving at the Negro Fort on July 20. Clinch sent a squadron downriver past the Fort to find the supply convoy and escort it back upriver. The Creeks surrounded the Fort on land, while Clinch's troops established a fortification on the opposite bank.
On July 23, McIntosh approached the Fort under a white flag of truce, urging surrender. The Negro Fort's principal leader - Garcon - refused to surrender, berating the Creeks as traitors and rodents. He mocked and taunted the U.S. generals, and threatened to fire his cannons at any U.S. ship that went past the Fort in either direction. A week later, the two gunboats moved up the river and anchored at dawn on the bank opposite the Negro Fort, their cannons aimed at the Fort's walls and remaining 350 inhabitants.
What happened on July 27, 1816? At sunrise, the firing began. Marksmen inside the Fort were pinning down the U.S. and Creek forces, even wounding some. The gunners inside the Fort, though, had no experience, while the grizzled War of 1812 veterans on the gunboats were calibrating each shot. The Fort's artillery operation was comprised of inexperienced but desperate people. One of the Fort's defenders was told to retrieve more powder from the storage magazine. In his haste, he left the door open, exposing tons of gunpowder, ammunition and weapons.
On Gunboat #154, the crew was finding the mark with each shot. Their guns were smaller, but more accurate. Some of the crew methodically loaded cannonballs into the boat's guns while others watched the sky for incoming shells being lobbed aimlessly from the Fort. The crew chief - a young naval officer named Basset - ordered the next cannonball to be a "hot shot", in which a cannonball is heated in a fire before being loaded in the gun.
Glowing in the morning mist, the "hot shot" was loaded and fired. It flew in a perfect arc over the river, above the Fort's west wall and into the center of the Fort's plaza, bouncing a few times then rolling directly through the open door into the powder magazine.
In an instant, the Fort was vaporized, totally leveled by a single blast. At least 270 men, women and children died instantly. The devastation was indiscriminate and absolute.
What happened after the blast? Clinch rewarded the Creeks for their loyalty with a blank check to pillage whatever they could from the wrecked Fort, not realizing the size of the weapons stash there. The Creeks walked out with 2,500 muskets, 500 swords and 400 pistols left behind by the British.
They also quickly snatched 30 surviving blacks and - no matter how badly wounded or their legal status - shackled and marched them for miles north to be "returned to their rightful owners" (even though some were escaped Spanish slaves) or sold. It marked the first "slave-catching operation" the U.S. government had formally participated in.
One of the Creeks recognized Garcon writhing among the wounded survivors and turned him in to Clinch, who ordered Garcon to be shot on the spot. One Choctaw leader was scalped alive. Only a handful of Negro Fort residents escaped.
The United States government has yet to apologize to the victims' families for this indiscriminate loss of life.