In the early 1800s, the Western world was like a gigantic, real life game of Risk. The Napoleonic Era was coming to a close. The United States and Haiti were newly independent. Several independence wars were underway in Latin America. The U.S. dealt a staggering defeat to the British in the War of 1812. Vast parts of Western civilization were seemingly being redrawn every year.
It was against this backdrop that, 200 years ago today, the United States would wage what was arguably one of its most consequential, yet largely forgotten, military attacks: the Battle of Negro Fort, in which American troops destroyed a settlement of free, armed black people and Native Americans, killing hundreds.
The battle took took place in Spanish Florida, just across the Georgia line. Though most people have never heard of it, it serves as a particularly brutal and resonant reminder of the American desire to ensure that black people were kept as slaves, and that Native Americans would submit to the nation's territorial ambitions. What's more, the issues at play on July 27, 1816 continue to bedevil America two centuries later: the supposedly existential threat posed by black people with guns; the tendency to wage war on foreign soil under the pretext of national security; the legacy and racist policies of Andrew Jackson, which are still being debated today; and an eternally troubled relationship with Latin America.
If there was a forgotten moment in American history that should be revived in today's textbooks, I would argue, this would be it. Outside of academics and Florida history wonks, the incident barely measures in the national consciousness. But for all the reasons listed above, it should be front and center.
In 1816, Florida was nominally owned by the Spanish. The territory had become a steady headache for Washington, mainly because it had become a safe haven for escaped slaves from Georgia and Alabama.
Chief among these problems was the place that came to be known as Negro Fort. Just past the Spanish side of the Apalachicola River, a community of about 1,000 escaped slaves and Native Americans was thriving. (In its official history of the fort, the National Park Service refers to the it as a “precursor" to the Underground Railroad.)
From what we know of the society that existed there, it was a multicultural, agriculture-based community. Native Americans mixed freely with escaped American slaves who fled from Georgia and Alabama, alongside escaped slaves who fled from Spanish territories. The ramshackle group of the fort's inhabitants were led by a man called Garçon, a 30-year-old escaped slave, of whom virtually no biographical information exists. He led alongside a Choctaw chief, whose name is unknown.
As if all of this wasn't enough to raise the blood pressure in white Washington, the community was also armed.
Word of this place where armed, free black people and natives were building their own lives spread through the Deep South. White people got very worried.
"It's hard for us to understand how terrified [Washington] was of that little fort,” Paul Ortiz, a professor of history at the University of Florida, told me recently. “It represented anarchy, chaos, and most of all anti-slavery."
The arms had been provided by a British general, who had been patrolling the area during the War of 1812. He made good with the residents, built them a fort and gave them arms and ammunition to fight the Americans with, if necessary. In return, a Union Jack flag flew over the site. (The Spanish, who had little control over territory that was technically theirs, evidently could do nothing to stop this.)
The combination of free black people, guns and Britain was too much for then-General Andrew Jackson. He was desperate to eliminate Negro Fort—even though it was ostensibly beyond American reach in Spanish territory. In a letter to Commander Edmund Gaines ordering an assault, Jackson was very clear about his feelings towards the fort (emphasis added):
I have no doubt that this fort has been established by some villains for the purpose of murder, rapine, and plunder, and that it ought to be blown up regardless of the ground it stands on. If you have come to the same conclusion, destroy it and restore the stolen Negroes and property to their rightful owners.
Jackson's revulsion was about more than pro-slavery sentiment. There was more at stake in the Negro Fort. Jackson saw a connection to the wave of independence struggles being waged throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Slaves in Haiti had successfully won their own freedom a mere 12 years earlier. The Mexican Independence War was in its sixth year. South American liberator Simón Bolívar was rallying support for his cause in the Caribbean. Spain's hold on Central America and the Caribbean seemed in jeopardy.
In his forthcoming book Our Separate Struggles Were Really One: African American and Latina/o Histories, University of Florida's Ortiz explains that the U.S. refused to back these wars in large part because they doubled as anti-slavery movements. "Jackson and [Washington insiders] were absolutely terrified about what was happening in Latin America," said Ortiz. "And when they looked at Negro Fort, it was seen as a place that undermined slavery in the Southeast, and it had to be dealt with harshly."
Nor did Washington feel the need to support the kind of independence movements that had won the U.S. its own freedom in the not-too-distant past. In a letter to his brother around that time, future-President and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams rejected any connection between the liberation movements in Latin America and the American Revolution. He wrote that there were fundamental differences between the U.S. and Latin America—differences that he wanted to maintain:
The resemblance between this [Latin American] Revolution and ours is barely superficial. In all their leading characters the two Events, present a contrast, instead of a parallel—Ours was a War of freemen, for political Independence—This is a War of Slaves against their masters—It has all the horrors and all the atrocities of a servile War.
As Adams, Jackson and many of their contemporaries saw it, that threat was knocking on America’s door, and it had to be neutralized.
So on that fateful day 200 years ago, Negro Fort came to an end.
The Battle of Negro Fort was really a battle in name only.
"It wasn't a pitched battle, as the word might invoke," said David Heidler, who has written many books on early American history with his wife Jeanne. "Let's put it this way: There weren't any American casualties."
The order to attack was given by General Jackson, who went out of the chain of command when he penned the letter quoted above. Though the Negro Fort drew ire in Washington, there was little political will to illegally enter Florida and strike it. In the end, Jackson wrote to President James Madison asking for permission to strike, but was so eager to stamp out Negro Fort that he attacked before Madison had even replied.
To cover his tracks, the American forces had to play it carefully, lest they set off a diplomatic row with Spain.
As a pretext, Jackson's men were ostensibly testing a supply route to bring goods from New Orleans to Fort Scott in Georgia, via the Apalachicola River. The route required passing the Negro Fort along the way. General Jackson and Commander Gaines hoped to provoke fire to justify the planned attack.
Both Army and Navy troops and gunboats were deployed. They lay waiting for the right moment for weeks, just a few miles upstream from the fort, a time during which they exchanged small fire with blacks and Natives on the Spanish Florida side of the water. In one instance, three Americans were killed when they briefly came ashore. Another was taken hostage, and one escaped by swimming.
In the meantime, another band of troops left Fort Scott in Georgia, marching towards Negro Fort. Along the way they met, apparently by chance, a band of Creek Indians who were also marching towards the fort. The chiefs and the U.S. officers held a council, and it was determined that they would join forces. (The Creeks had just completed a civil war of their own, with one anti-U.S. side having fled to Spanish Florida, and another pro-U.S., slaveholding side still in the U.S.)
Just before dawn on the morning of July 27, 1816, with the Natives and American troops in position across the river, the Naval gun boats were dispatched to cross the Negro Fort. The fort fired upon the ships, and the Americans decided that was ample permission to fire back.
Overall, exactly nine cannonball shots were fired at the fort that morning. That was all it took. The ninth and final shot was a "hot shot," which had been held to a flame long enough that it was smoldering. By a stroke of pure luck, that ninth shot entered into a window of the fort and struck a gunpowder magazine. In different accounts, the explosion that followed was described as "that of a hundred thousand cannons," and as the largest explosion that the Americas had ever known. The explosion could be heard and felt as far away as Pensacola, 100 miles away.
Over 270 escaped slaves and natives died immediately in the blast, according to official military dispatches. An eyewitness account from Colonel Duncan Clinch, who led the troops to the spot from Georgia, described the scene:
The explosion was awful, and the scene was horrible beyond description. Our first care, on arriving on the scene, was to rescue and relieve the unfortunate beings who 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, to acknowledge that the Ruler of the Universe must have used us as his instruments in chastising the blood-thirsty and murderous wretches that defended the fort.
Miraculously, both Garçon, the black leader of Negro Fort, and his fellow Choctaw leader survived the explosion. They were eventually scalped by the Creek warriors who joined the Americans.
As a testament to the fight that might have been waged if not for that fateful shot, an estimated 3,000 undamaged guns were recovered from the morbid scene, Clinch noted. These were given to the Creek, fulfilling the deal the officers made with them that they would keep the spoils of the battle. The fort's surviving black residents were taken into Georgia by the soldiers and returned to slavery, according to the official U.S. account.
"And thus was destroyed," wrote author James Parton, in the 1860 book the Life of Andrew Jackson, "not the Negro Fort only, but the growing Negro power of Florida."
The battle would presage some of the worst atrocities committed by the U.S. against Native Americans.
"If there is a first shot in the First Seminole War, this was it," Andrew Frank, an associate professor of history at Florida State University, told me.
That war ended with widespread massacres and displacement of the Seminole tribe in Florida, and with an unknown number of free blacks exiling themselves to the Bahamas and other Caribbean islands to avoid slaughter or a return to slavery. You can draw a direct line between the Seminole Wars, the Indian Removal Act, and the Trail of Tears, all of which took place under the direction of Jackson, who became President after his racist and territorial ambitions outgrew his post as a general.
Within two years of the attack on Negro Fort, American troops had flooded the peninsula, in what General Jackson called a "savage and Negro" war. His tactics in the Seminole Wars were notoriously ruthless, even by early 1800s standards.
John Quincy Adams later wrote that Jackson was brutal, but his actions were necessary. "The justification of these principles is found in their salutary efficacy for terror and for example," he wrote. "It is thus only that the barbarities of the [free blacks and Natives] can be successfully encountered."
By the end of the First Seminole War, the territory of Florida would become a part of the U.S. It was a slaveholding state. Years later President James Polk would conspire to annex Texas from Mexico, under many of the same "national security" pretenses, and the expansion of slave holding states. Mexico had previously abolished slavery.
"The battle [of Negro Fort] got the U.S. in the habit of intervening not just to protect slavery, but in fact to expand it," said Ortiz. "The U.S. rejected everything else that was going on in the hemisphere at the time, and what it did was put us on a collision course for our own Civil War."
The Spanish Governor of Florida had previously told the U.S. that he would have destroyed Negro Fort if he only had the men and the power to pull it off. The Spanish were relieved at the news that the fort was gone, but demanded that control of the fort and the area be given back to the Spanish Crown. The U.S. refused.
American territorial ambitions for the future state were just getting started, and a new U.S. fort—Fort Gadsen—was built on the same spot.
Today, Fort Gadsen is a National Historic Monument inside the Apalachicola National Forest. At the site lies a tiny plaque that mentions the history of the "British Fort" that stood once on its grounds. The plaque mentions an explosion that took place on the site, and it even mentions 270 deaths, but not the fact that it was free black and Native people who died that day, or what it is that they died in the name of.
"If memory serves, the marker that's there just glosses over the significance of the battle," Ortiz, the University of Florida historian, told me of his last trip to the spot. "The place is desperately in need of an update, to tell the full story of what happened that day."
Exactly 200 years later, there is no better time to push for that change. We are still living in the shadow of the Battle of Negro Fort, whether we know it or not.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.