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The War of 1812 - Part 4 - The Southern Theater

In Part 1 of this series on the War of 1812, we looked at operations along the Canadian border. In Part 2, we looked at operations in the areas along the Chesapeake Bay during 1813. Finally, in Part 3, we examined operations in the areas along the Chesapeake Bay in 1814. Although much of the fighting between the United States and Great Britain took place in these two areas, eventually, the conflict spilled over to the areas along the Gulf of Mexico which became another important, although less understood, theater of the war.

Gulf Theater of Operations 1814-1815
Gulf Theater of Operations 1814-1815

The Importance and History of the Mississippi River and New Orleans.

The Mississippi River, winding through North America for over 2,300 miles, is the fourth longest river in the world. In the early 1800s, when most of North America was a trackless wilderness, the Mississippi and its tributaries served as the primary means of transportation and communications for the central and western portions of America. The most economical way to import needed manufactured goods to and export the rich bounty of agricultural products from the central and western regions was to the south, where the river emptied into the Gulf of Mexico where the city of New Orleans was situated at the mouth of this critical waterway. Whoever owned New Orleans could either promote or strangle the economic development of the trans-Appalachian west.

In 1763, New Orleans, originally founded by the French, came under Spanish control because of France’s defeat in the French and Indian War. Once the United States won its independence from Britain in 1783, the number of Americans moving west of the Appalachian Mountains increased, making access to the river, and particularly the port of New Orleans, more important to the new American government. The Treaty of San Lorenzo, or Pinckney’s Treaty, between the United States and Spain in 1795 seemingly guaranteed American navigation on the Mississippi and access to the Gulf of Mexico. Spain’s agreement to transfer New Orleans and much of the territory west of the Mississippi River to France, however, introduced an element of uncertainty in 1800. Even though France was a more powerful state than Spain at this time, the terms of the Franco-Spanish treaty specifically said that France could not under any condition transfer its newly acquired lands to an English-speaking country.

1791 Slave Uprising on Saint-Domingue (Haiti)
1791 Slave Uprising on Saint-Domingue (Haiti)

Nevertheless, President Thomas Jefferson sent a delegation to Paris to inquire if French leader Napoleon Bonaparte might be willing to sell New Orleans. Luckily for the American diplomats, a 1791 slave uprising on the island of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), France’s most successful “sugar island,” and their ongoing wars with England, drained French resources and kept Napoleon from creating a colonial empire in North America. Napoleon needed money to finance an imminent war with Great Britain, who Napoleon feared would capture New Orleans should war break out. As a result, in November 1803, Napoleon ignored Spanish protests and sold New Orleans and its associated territories to the United States in what became known as the Louisiana Purchase.

The sale caused relations between Spain and the United States to become difficult for several reasons. The Spanish considered the sale to be illegal on the grounds that France had promised not to sell the land to an English-speaking country. Furthermore, Spain feared further American encroachment into its remaining colonies adjacent to the United States—East and West Florida and Texas. In 1806, disputes along the Sabine River, the border between Spanish Texas and Louisiana, nearly propelled the two nations into war. Four years later, American and British settlers living in Spanish territory along the Gulf Coast between the Mississippi and Perdido Rivers rebelled and declared the formation of an independent Republic of West Florida.

By 1812, the United States seemed poised to gain all of Spain’s land along the Gulf Coast with minimal effort. The acquisition of this land would allow the United States to consolidate the gains made over the past decade, hinder the ability of foreign powers to encourage disaffection among the Indian nations in the southeast, and secure opportunities for further western expansion. The outbreak of war between the United States and Great Britain in June of that year dramatically changed the situation. By this point, Spain had become Britain’s ally in the war against Napoleonic France. Britain, like Spain, feared losing its North American territories to American expansionism while it was heavily tied down in Europe fighting Napoleon. Unlike Spain, however, Britain had sufficient sea power to threaten the United States.

Although the defense of Canada was uppermost in their minds, British leaders recognized that they might gain some advantages by spreading the conflict to America’s Gulf Coast. Harassing actions in the south might divert U.S. troops away from the U.S.-Canadian border. The capture of New Orleans would require a more substantial offensive and more resources but would hurt the United States economically. Britain was also interested in fostering an independent Native American entity that could block further American expansion. Toward that end, the British had been aiding the Shawnee leader Tecumseh’s bid to create a pan-Indian confederacy that would stretch from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast. Canada supplied the means for supporting Tecumseh’s activities in the north; but to aid Tecumseh’s followers in the south—most notably those among the Creek Indians who lived in modern-day Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi—Britain would need a presence on the Gulf Coast. At the same time, all these reasons made it important for the United States to prevent any British designs on the Gulf Coast.

War Along the Gulf Coast

Americans Make the First Moves in the South

Three months before the United States declared war against Great Britain, elements of the Georgia militia, aided by members of the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, invaded Spanish East Florida trying to capture St. Augustine. The invasion was motivated by desires for enhanced security along the southern frontier and a craving for territorial gain by some interested in land speculation. President James Madison disavowed any involvement and condemned the action, causing the invaders to withdraw. Congress, however, used the weakness of the Spanish government to press the claim that West Florida should have been included in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. So, on 14 April 1812, Congress ordered the governor of the Mississippi Territory to administer all the lands west of the Perdido River. Spain objected, but it could do little to oppose the action. Spanish troops continued to garrison Fort Charlotte in Mobile, but Spain exercised no actual authority in the territory beyond.

Maj. General Andrew Jackson
Maj. General Andrew Jackson

Toward the end of 1812, the U.S. government authorized Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson to lead about two thousand Tennessee militia to New Orleans to help secure that city against attack. The 46-year-old Jackson harbored an intense hatred for the British that originated from his service in the Revolutionary War where, after joining a militia unit at age thirteen to serve as a courier, he was captured and treated cruelly. He still bore the scars on his left hand and head where a British officer had slashed him with a sword for refusing to clean his boots. While in captivity, Jackson almost starved and contracted smallpox before being released. After the war, he became a successful lawyer, planter, and land speculator. Staying active in the militia, he rose to the position of commanding officer of the Tennessee militia with the rank of major general.

Jackson and his militia army left Tennessee for the Gulf Coast in January 1813. A brazen expansionist, Jackson hoped to exploit the opportunity and to invade Spanish Florida. It was not to be as adverse weather and inadequate supplies hampered his progress, as well as the confusion and tensions in the U.S. military command, which in February instructed him to halt near the Mississippi port town of Natchez, 176 miles northwest of New Orleans. There, his army endured harsh weather with inadequate food and shelter until March, when the War Department ordered Jackson to disband his army and return to Tennessee. The mood in Congress had shifted due to a series of military disasters along the Canadian frontier which had dampened enthusiasm for offensive operations. As a result, opposition arose to doing anything that might drive Spain into a closer alliance with Great Britain. Jackson tramped back to Tennessee in a cold fury.

No sooner had Jackson returned to Tennessee than officials in Washington changed their minds once again. In April, the secretary of war ordered the commander in New Orleans, Brig. Gen. James Wilkinson, to expel the Spanish from Mobile. The presence of British traders in Mobile who sold arms and supplies to the Indians, and the nagging fear that Spain would cooperate with any possible British military operation in the Gulf region, was used to justify the move. Wilkinson promptly led eight hundred men and five gunboats into position at the mouth of Mobile Bay to block Spanish reinforcements coming by sea, while four hundred soldiers moved east from Fort Stoddert to block reinforcements coming from Pensacola by land. After isolating Fort Charlotte, Wilkinson demanded its surrender. Luckily for everyone involved, the Spanish commander, Capt. Pérez, recognized the impossibility of his situation and capitulated. Wilkinson allowed the Spanish soldiers to leave the fort with their personal weapons and equipment, but the United States took possession of the fort as well as its artillery and military stores.

Spanish Minister to Washington, Luis de Onís
Spanish Minister to Washington, Luis de Onís

The Spanish minister to Washington, Luis de Onís, lodged a cautious protest believing that diplomacy was the best way to handle the United States. While Spain was fighting for survival in Europe, it could send little support to its colonies and threatening military action might provoke the United States into seizing even more territory. Although Onís’ cautious policy dampened tensions with the United States, it did not sit well with other Spanish officials in the New World and a militia regiment was dispatched from Cuba to reinforce the garrison at Pensacola. Compounding the problem, the soldiers already in Pensacola suffered from low morale and had not received pay in fifty-six months. The Captain-General of Cuba realized that if the Americans made a serious attempt on the colonies under his care, he might be forced to call on Spain’s ally Great Britain for help. That act would be personally embarrassing to the Spanish commander and inspire a British takeover of the threatened colonies. Caught between several unpleasant outcomes, the captain-general came round to Onís’ point of view that inaction was perhaps the wisest course.

A New Threat

Although America enjoyed some success in bullying Spain in 1813, the situation in the southern United States remained hazardous. With British encouragement, elements of the Creek Nation allied with Tecumseh launched a war against the United States in midyear, and subduing the “Red Sticks,” as the hostile warriors were called, was proving difficult. Moreover, during 1813 Britain and its allies made noteworthy progress in their war with France in Europe, allowing officials in London to contemplate sending more forces to North America.

British officials began planning operations in the Gulf of Mexico in mid-1813. Charles Cameron, the Royal Governor of the Bahamas at Nassau, provided his superiors with detailed information about the region culled from his connections with area traders visiting the Bahamas and their friendly Indian contacts. Cameron’s intelligence presented the Gulf Coast as an easy target. According to his sources, scores of Indians, as well as French and Spanish whites and both free and slave Africans, would leap at the opportunity to fight against the United States. Cameron proposed sending British military personnel into the region to help organize and train the local allies.

Location Map of Spanish West Florida
Location Map of Spanish West Florida

Spanish West Florida became the focal point of British maneuverings. Despite America’s seizure of Mobile, Spain still claimed neutrality in the Anglo-American conflict. Not wanting to provoke the United States into annexing more of its land, Spain hesitated to openly aid in Cameron’s scheme. The British suggested that the Spanish quietly abandon their fort on the Apalachicola River, in a sparsely traveled area east of Pensacola, to give the Americans little reason to intrude into the area. The British would then quietly move in, and if the United States discovered their presence, Spain could disavow knowledge and pretend outrage at the British intrusion.

In April 1814, as Emperor Napoleon abdicated his throne in defeat, Capt. Hugh Pigot of the Royal Marines sailed for the Apalachicola to contact Indians hostile to the United States. Ten prominent Creek and Seminole chiefs heartily greeted the officer, but also brought the news of a major defeat in which Jackson’s forces had killed almost one thousand Red Stick warriors at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. The Tennessee general had continued his advance deeper into Creek territory and had compelled the Creeks to surrender. The defeat of the main Red Stick forces, together with the defeat of Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames River in Canada the previous October, dealt fatal blows to the British idea of creating an Indian confederacy to restrain American expansion and to raising significant numbers of Indian recruits to help the British attack the Gulf Coast.

Battle of Horseshoe Bend
Battle of Horseshoe Bend

Ignoring the setback, Pigot proceeded to marshal supplies and to gather as many native allies as he could. Scarce provisions plagued his efforts and limited his ability to train the disparate group as a cohesive force, but early results were promising. The marine officer reported that the warriors showed great enthusiasm and might even prove effective light cavalrymen if properly equipped. He also argued that boys as young as ten years of age were willing to fight but that the muskets Britain had supplied were too long. In response, British officials sent Pigot both saddles and short-barreled carbines.

By August 1814, Maj. Nicholls of the 3d Battalion of Royal Marines had arrived on scene to assume command of the operation. Before sending him to Apalachicola, Governor Cameron had briefed Nicholls about conditions on the Gulf Coast. The Spanish still had reservations about giving direct aid to the British. Although the fort at Apalachicola provided the British with a useful base for recruiting native allies and runaway slaves, Britain needed a deep-water port on the Gulf to host an invasion fleet. When the British asked for permission to use Pensacola, the captain-general of Cuba refused to allow such a flagrant violation of Spanish neutrality. Fortunately, the governor of Pensacola, González Manrique, had no such concerns and fearful of an impending American attack, he asked Nicholls to bring his troops to the town. Nicholls’ contingent of marines and native allies quickly took over Pensacola. Many Spaniards soon regretted their governor’s decision. The British imposed a strict passport system to control movement and began recruiting the slaves of Spanish owners into service. British rule was so oppressive that even British commercial agents began supplying the United States with intelligence.

Jean Laffite
Jean Laffite

Satisfied with his new base of operations, Nicholls proceeded to continue to recruit more forces for his growing army. On Pigot’s advice, he decided to try to enlist the service of Jean Laffite, the leader of a band of smugglers working as privateers with letters of marque from various Latin American authorities in rebellion against Spain. Laffite’s base of operations lay south of New Orleans on islands in Barataria Bay, one of the swampy inlets along the Gulf of Mexico. The self-styled “Baratarians” had intimate knowledge of the myriad bayous and waterways that snaked across lower Louisiana. If Nicholls could secure the Baratarians’ help, the British could secretly move an attack force to the very gates of New Orleans.

Nicholls sent two trusted officers to bribe Laffite and his men for their help. The Crown offered Laffite a commission, title, $30,000 prize money, and proportional gratuities for his subordinates. Laffite asked for time to consult his various ships’ captains and sent the British on their way, then sent the British documents to Governor Claiborne and warned him of the impending attack. Laffite and his men had often had legal troubles with the United States over smuggling, but they enjoyed significant popular support in New Orleans due to their ability to smuggle luxury goods past the British blockade. Additionally, the British alliance would have required Laffite and his men to refrain from attacking Spanish shipping, their most common and lucrative prey. An alliance with the British was simply not in Laffite’s best interest.

First Battle of Fort Bowyer, 15 September 1814

Fort Bowyer, located at the end of the Mobile Point peninsula, commanded the narrow entrance to Mobile Bay. In August 1814, General Jackson, having replaced Wilkinson as commander of the U.S. 7th Military District learned that British forces at Pensacola intended to attack and capture Mobile before moving by land against New Orleans. He also knew that Britain’s Spanish allies, who had abandoned the area in 1813, were eager to regain possession. After posting some regulars near the town and calling for militia reinforcements, Jackson sent Maj. William Lawrence with 130 men from the Corps of Artillery and 2d U.S. Infantry to man and strengthen Fort Bowyer. Lawrence improved the sand-walled redoubt, erected battery positions, and increased the armament from nine to twenty guns.

V. Adm. Alexander Cochrane, commander of the Royal Navy’s North American Station, ordered Capt. Henry Percy, who held the local rank of commodore, to destroy the harbor defenses. Percy’s command included a flotilla of four warships, several tenders, and a mixed landing force of British marines and trained Seminoles and Red Stick Creeks under now Lt. Col. Nicholls. With more than thirteen hundred men and ninety cannons, Percy was confident that he could easily capture Fort Bowyer.

The British ships appeared off the peninsula on 12 September, anchoring about six miles to the east of the fort. Nicholls led the landing force ashore, but then took ill and returned to the flagship with Capt. Woodbine assuming command of the shore party. They advanced to within eight hundred yards of Fort Bowyer, where Royal Marine artillerymen set up a firing position for their 5½-inch howitzer. The plan was for them to create a diversion on the landward side, while Percy’s ships pounded the fort into submission. For the next two days, the British sent sailors in launches to take soundings offshore and reconnaissance parties to scout the land approaches through the dunes to the defensive works. Whenever they drew uncomfortably close, U.S. artillery fire drove them back.

Map of the Attack on Fort Boyer
Map of the Attack on Fort Boyer

At noon on 15 September, the four warships weighed anchor and headed out to sea, struggling against contrary winds. Two hours later, they changed tack and bore down on the fort until they were close enough for the U.S. gunners to engage. The batteries began firing, and the Royal Navy answered with all the shipboard guns aboard HMS Hermes, followed shortly with those of HMS Sophie, but the rest could not get close enough to bring their guns to bear. By 4 PM, Percy’s flagship, HMS Hermes, anchored within musket range, and the other vessels took up position forming a line of battle astern. When the firing become general, the marines’ artillery piece joined the attack, only to be silenced in short order by U.S. counterbattery fire. The British shore party advanced with sixty Creek and Seminole warriors in the center and an equal number of marines on the flanks. When the group got within range of the fort, grapeshot from the U.S. artillery pinned them down, forcing Woodbine to break off the engagement and retreat.

Meanwhile, a projectile had cut Hermes’ anchor cable, and the ship drifted to shore and ran aground. Captain Percy ordered the crew to abandon the helpless ship and to set it on fire to prevent its capture. Intense gunfire from the fort drove off the remaining warships, damaging two and inflicting many casualties. The fort’s gunners then turned their attention to the stricken flagship until the flames ignited its powder magazine. At about 11 PM, Hermes blew up in a tremendous explosion. After exchanging signals with Percy, Woodbine and his force retreated to the beach and re-embarked followed by Percy sailing the remnants of his battered flotilla back to Pensacola. The British had suffered thirty-two dead and forty wounded both ashore and afloat, including Colonel Nicholls. The Americans sustained four dead and five wounded.

The Capture of Pensacola, 7 November 1814

General Jackson responded to the attack on Fort Bowyer by calling the Mississippi Territory militia into active service. He correctly deduced that the British intended to use Mobile or Pensacola as a base for future operations. He sent reinforcements to Mobile and strengthened Fort Bowyer while planning an attack to drive the British out of Pensacola. As a pretext to crossing the international border of a neutral nation, Jackson contended that Spain’s inability—or unwillingness—to secure its own territory from British invasion had violated its neutrality. Within a few weeks, Jackson had about four thousand troops assembled at Fort Montgomery on the Alabama River poised to advance into West Florida. He informed the Spanish governor that he must evict the British from Pensacola and allow the United States to occupy the forts guarding Pensacola harbor. Should the governor refuse, Jackson threatened to take matters into his own hands.

The governor rejected Jackson’s demand but could do little to resist his army. By all accounts, the 500-man Pensacola garrison lacked motivation and coordination and had few supplies. The garrison’s poor condition had been the reason the Spanish had allowed the British to land in the first place. Just as the Spanish could not prevent the British takeover, they could do little to halt the Americans without British help.

On 7 November, Jackson began his assault. Knowing the U.S. camp lay to the west of town, the Spanish positioned the bulk of their forces to meet an attack from that quarter and the British ships in the harbor likewise trained their guns in that direction. Jackson had deceived both by leaving a force of five hundred men in camp to hold their attention while, in the predawn darkness, he marched most of his forces around to the east side of the town. At dawn, with the sun at their backs, the Americans attacked. Jackson’s army advanced in four columns: three of white troops and one of allied Choctaw warriors. Each of the columns that would penetrate the main enemy defenses included a company of regulars in the front with orders to conduct an immediate bayonet assault on any enemy resistance met.

Blowing up Fort San Carlos de Barrancas
Blowing up Fort San Carlos de Barrancas

The British warships in the harbor tried to repel the Americans with gunfire, but Jackson’s soldiers advanced into the town so quickly that the Royal Navy could not fire without risking setting Pensacola afire. Hardened by over a year of campaigning in Creek country, the American forces carried the town within minutes of starting the attack. With the town securely under his control, Jackson planned to capture the outlying forts guarding the harbor the next day. His delay gave the enemy time to detonate the powder in the magazines at Forts San Carlos de Barrancas and Santa Rosa before evacuating them, thereby destroying the defenses. The Americans had captured the town, but they could not hold it against a determined naval attack without those forts. Nevertheless, Jackson had dealt a serious blow to British plans to gain control of the Mississippi River.

We hope you enjoyed Part 4 of our examination of the War of 1812, found it to be interesting, and hopefully learned something new. Please join us again in two-weeks for our next look at the War of 1812 as, in Part 5, we discuss the British attempt to seize control of the Mississippi River and the resulting Battle of New Orleans.

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