Fort at Prospect Bluff
Prospect Bluff Historic Sites
Apalachicola National Forest
Eastpoint, Florida

"The explosion was awful and the scene horrible beyond description."

Prospect Bluff Historic Sites (formerly Fort Gadsden) preserves the scene of some of the most dramatic moments in North American history. The park is 20 miles upriver from the city of Apalachicola, Florida, and is a National Landmark.

The Negro Fort, a British-built citadel, stood on this low bluff. It guarded the largest free black colony in North America but was destroyed in 1816 by the deadliest cannon shot in American history. An estimated 270 men, women, children died in the terrible blast.

The story of the Negro Fort - or British Post on the Apalachicola, as it was initially known - begins with the Creek War of 1813-1814. The Prophet Josiah Francis and the Red Stick faction of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation was engaged in civil war with the so-called White faction, led by the Big Warrior and the Little Prince. The conflict spilled over to the white frontier when a force of militia from the Mississippi Territory attacked a Red Stick supply party at Burnt Corn Creek in what is now Alabama.

The Red Sticks retaliated by storming Fort Mims north of Mobile. They unexpectedly found the gate left open by the unsuspecting garrison and poured through to take the fort. More than 250 men, women, and children died.

These events alarmed the Seminole and Lower Creek towns along the lower Chattahoochee and Apalachicola Rivers in Spanish Florida. Thomas Perryman, the principal chief of these villages, feared attack by U.S. forces who would not distinguish between his people and the Red Sticks. He went to Pensacola hoping to secure military supplies from the Spanish governor but instead found a visiting British warship in port.

Perryman and other chiefs sent a written plea for help to Governor Charles Cameron in the Bahamas via the vessel. The request slowly worked its way through the halls of power and orders came down for the Royal Navy to supply the Creeks and Seminoles with muskets, ammunition, accouterments, and military training. Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane assigned the task to acting Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls and Capt. George Woodbine of the Royal Marines.
A massive explosion destroyed the central citadel of the fort on July 27, 1816. The octagon-shaped structure stood on this site at Prospect Bluff Historic Sites in Florida's Apalachicola National Forest.​​

Garcon, the recently-discharged sergeant major of the Colonial Marines battalion, was placed in command of the fort, which Nicolls left armed with its full complement of artillery. The three magazines were filled with muskets, carbines, gunpowder, shot and shell, swords and bayonets, uniforms, and other supplies for the use not only of the Maroons but the Seminole, Miccosukee and Red Stick Creek Indians of the area as well.

The community that Nicolls left behind at Prospect Bluff was the largest free black settlement in North America. The British compensated Spanish "owners" for the loss of the former slaves, guaranteeing the freedom of the Maroon settlers.

Officials in the southern United States, however, were less than pleased with the very existence of this well-armed settlement. They believed it would serve as a beacon of freedom for slaves working plantations in Georgia, the Carolinas, the Mississippi Territory, and the Creek Nation. The Madison Administration ordered Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson to demand that Spain dismantle the fort. He sent an officer to Pensacola to meet with the Spanish governor.

The Americans coined the term "Negro Fort" to describe the Prospect Bluff establishment. It is still known by that name today.

Even before Jackson received a response from Gov. Mateo Gonzalez Manrique in Pensacola, Maj. Gen. Edmund Pendleton Gaines was authorized to move troops down the Chattahoochee River and establish posts on new lands seized by the United States under the Treaty of Fort Jackson, the agreement imposed on the Muscogee to end the Creek War.

A battalion from the 4th U.S. Infantry under Lt. Col. Duncan Lamont Clinch built Fort Gaines near the southern border of the new Creek territory. He then dropped down to the forks of the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers where he built Camp Crawford (later Fort Scott) about 10 miles up the former.

Gen. Gaines ordered that supplies and artillery for the posts be shipped by water from New Orleans and Pass Christian, knowing that this would require the transport schooners to pass Prospect Bluff. He anticipated resistance from the Maroons at the Negro Fort, so he asked the U.S. Navy to send one or two gunboats to escort the vessels.

Commodore Daniel T. Patterson agreed and ordered Sailingmaster Jarius Loomis to command the escort. He commanded Gunboat No. 149 in person, while Sailingmaster James Basset led the crew of Gunboat No. 154. The two small ships each mounted a single 9-pounder cannon in the bow and carried a crew of around 20 men.
Water still fills a surviving section of the moat surrounding the destroyed citadel of the British Post or Negro Fort at Prospect Bluff. The fallen trees were toppled by Hurricane Michael.

Capt. Woodbine arrived off Apalachicola Bay aboard HMS Orpheus at the end of May 1814 only to learn that the Red Sticks had been defeated by Andrew Jackson's army at the bloody Battle of Horseshoe Bend . The Prophet Francis, Peter McQueen, Holms, and other leaders of the movement were fleeing south into Spanish Florida hoping to find food and support. 

After meeting with Chief Perryman and others, Woodbine led the detachment of Royal Marines up the Apalachicola River and established a base at Prospect Bluff. 

Long called Achackweithle (basically a place surrounded with water) by the Creeks and Seminoles, and the loma de buena vista (hill of good view) by the Spanish, Prospect Bluff was the site of a trading post and farm operated by John Forbes & Company. It is the lowest bluff on the river not subject to inundation during the annual floods and a trading path linked it to the interior Native American towns.

The British built a magazine and storehouse on the bluff from which they distributed arms and ammunition to Red Stick Creek, Miccosukee, and Seminole warriors. Lt. Col. Nicolls arrived on the scene in August to find the Red Stick refugees in desperate straits. They were, he said, "mere skin and bones," and described how their trail from the Nation was left marked by the graves of their children. 

Nicolls and Woodbine quickly shifted part of their operation to Pensacola, the capital of Spanish West Florida. Many of the starving Red Sticks were in that vicinity and the officers realized they could best reach them from the city. 

British Marines occupied Fort San Miguel overlooking the city, invited in by Governor Mateo Gonzalez Manrique, who feared that U.S. forces would seize the city as they had done Mobile the previous year. The occupation was a violation of Spain's neutrality in the War of 1812, a situation exasperated in September when the British used Pensacola as a base for their attack on Fort Bowyer at the mouth of Mobile Bay.
A footbridge leads across a surviving section of the moat to the site of
Negro Fort's citadel at Prospect Bluff Historic Sites.

Clinch found that he was much too close to the fort and pulled his men back slightly. His new line ringed the fort at a distance of about one mile away.

Creek warriors made sorties to scout the defenses but were driven back by shot and shell. Garcon likewise responded to a surrender demand by firing a cannon shot and then hoisting the British flag and red or "bloody" banner over the fort. The red flag showed the willingness of the men, women, and children inside the walls to fight to the death. They sought no mercy and made clear that they planned to offer none.

Clinch laid siege to the fort for six days with no success. The supply ships in the bay carried two heavy 24-pounder cannon for his use, and his men began clearing a site for a battery on the west side of the river about two miles below Prospect Bluff. By the time the flotilla reached Bloody Bluff, however, Clinch had decided that the range was too long for the guns to do any real damage.

The army commander discussed the situation with Sailingmaster Loomis on July 26, explaining that the strength of the fort was too much. Clinch wanted to end the siege and return later with more men and stronger cannon. 

The navy had yet to fire a shot in the siege and Loomis wanted at least the chance to sound his guns. He suggested to Clinch that the gunboats move up to the unfinished battery and fire some ranging shot at the fort. These would let him judge better the weight of cannon needed to bombard the works. Clinch agreed, and Gunboats No. 149 and No. 154 started upstream from Bloody Bluff at 5 a.m. on July 27, 1816.

The vessels came into view of the fort a short time later, firing an occasional shot from their 9-pounders as they advanced. Garcon responded with a shot from one of the heavy guns in the water battery, but it fell ineffectively into the river. 
The British placed heavy cannon here in a water battery to protect the fort from American vessels that might approach via the Apalachicola River. 

Pensacola proved a fertile recruiting ground for Nicolls and Woodbine. Not only were hundreds of Red Stick warriors seeking refuge in the vicinity, but the Spanish city was home to numbers of African slaves and even some American deserters. 

Lt. Col. Nicolls announced that slaves could obtain freedom by coming to either Fort San Miguel in Pensacola or the base at Prospect Bluff and volunteering to serve in the British Colonial Marines. Hundreds of men answered his call and formed a battalion ready to fight against the United States.

The men who walked away from slavery to fight with the British are called Maroons, a term that means "escaped slaves." Most were from Spanish Florida, but others escaped from Louisiana, the Mississippi Territory, Georgia, the Creek Nation, and the Carolinas. Since the British military only enlisted free men, their service guaranteed their freedom.

The use of Pensacola in the attack on Fort Bowyer infuriated American officials and Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson moved against the city with an army of roughly 3,000 men. The outnumbered British evacuated as Jackson's troops stormed Pensacola on November 7, 1814. U.S. soldiers occupied Fort San Miguel, but the British forcibly embarked the Spanish garrison from Fort San Carlos de Barrancas near the entrance to the bay and blew up the magazines, destroying the main fort.

Most of the Maroons and Red Sticks were carried to safety across the bay or taken aboard British warships. Some, however, did not escape and were killed by American troops, but were not listed as battle casualties by Jackson's officers.

Nicolls and Woodbine returned by ship to Prospect Bluff where they started building a massive fortification called the British Post on the Apalachicola. Troops also went upriver to the forks of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers where a second fort - commonly called Nicolls' Outpost - was built at what is now Chattahoochee, Florida.
The remnants of earthen walls of the central citadel of the Negro Fort are seen here from across the moat. The slight rise is all that remains.

The two gunboats tied up alongside Clinch's planned battery and Loomis, who commanded No. 149 in person, conferred with Sailingmaster James Bassett of No. 154. Recognizing that their guns were too light to damage the fort from such a distance, they decided to heat solid shot in their copper cooking boilers and lob them as "hot shot" into the village beyond the fort. The goal was to start fires and do at least some damage before withdrawing.

The first "hot shot" - and fifth shot overall - was fired by Sailingmaster Bassett from Gunboat No. 154. It arced high over the river but unexpectedly struck a tall pine tree as it hurtled down toward the village. The glowing cannonball ricocheted down into the octagon-shaped citadel of the fort, where a group of women and children were pouring cannon powder into cartridge bags. The bags exploded, and fire shot through the open door of one of the three magazines.

The Negro Fort exploded in a blinding flash as hundreds of kegs of gunpowder ignited. Explosive shells and Congreve rockets blew skyward, carried first by the force of the explosion before igniting in a deadly series of secondary blasts. The ground shook with the power of a massive earthquake. Some claim that residents of Pensacola felt the tremors. Tsunami-like waves rocked the gunboats. It was the deadliest cannon shot in American history.

Lt. Col. Clinch said the "explosion was awful and the scene horrible beyond description." He later described how soldiers cried upon seeing the hundreds of lifeless and dismembered bodies scattered across the plain where the fort had stood.

U.S. officers estimated that 270 men, women, and children died in the explosion. Around 50 people survived, but most of them were grievously wounded.

Garcon was found alive but blind from the flash of the blast. He told Clinch that his final orders from the British were to defend the fort and not allow any vessels from the United States to pass. The colonel turned him over to his Muscogee (Creek) allies, and he was executed, along with his wife and young son.

The Creeks also executed the chief of a small party of Choctaw that was in the fort when it exploded.
An exhibit at Prospect Bluff Historic Sites explains the design of the fortifications and tells the stories of key individuals who spent time there.

The Fort at Prospect Bluff centered on an octagonal citadel, atop which the British mounted six-pounder cannon on naval carriages. The walls of this structure were 18-feet thick and 12-feet high. Log stockades and a moat surrounded the citadel while other stockades extended at angles from this central structure to the river.

An earthen redan or battery was built on the crest of the bluff immediately on the river. 24-pounder naval guns were placed here to control the water approaches both above and below the fort.

Enclosing this complex was a rectangular field entrenchment designed with demi-bastions on the river and full bastions on its interior corners. Strong earthworks protected the bastions and provided positions from which field artillery, swivel guns, and muskets could be used to repel a land attack.

The community surrounding the fort grew to an impressive size. The battalion of Colonial Marines mustered 300 men, many of whom brought their families to Prospect Bluff. A company of Royal Marines also served there, along with hundreds of Red Stick Creek, Miccosukee, and Seminole warriors and their families. By 1815 British officers reported that they were feeding as many as 3,500 people, exclusive of the force at the second fort near the forks of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers.

The numbers grew after the Battle of New Orleans when soldiers from a West India Regiment, many of them wounded, arrived. The Spanish soldiers removed by the British from Fort San Carlos de Barrancas also spent time at the bluff. The total number of people there likely approached 5,000 at times, making Prospect Bluff the largest community in Florida in early 1815.

The War of 1812 ended before Nicolls' command could be deployed against the frontier of Georgia in a planned two-prong campaign against that state. A second force under Admiral George Cockburn was to march up the seaboard while Nicolls struck the border.

The British withdrew from Prospect Bluff in late May 1815. Two companies of Colonial Marines evacuated with their families to Trinidad, but the third company of some 80 men opted to stay. Most of these were from Spanish Florida and likely felt they had little to fear from the nearby United States. WIth their families, they formed a settlement of around 300 people, clearing fields and spreading up and down the river from the bluff.

The flotilla reached Apalachicola Bay in mid-July in desperate need of fresh water. Sailingmaster Loomis ordered Midshipmen A.W. Luffborough into the mouth of the river with four sailors in a small boat to find a spring or other water source early on July 17, 1816. A party of Maroons and Choctaw warriors from the Negro Fort ambushed them.

Luffborough and two of his men died instantly. A fourth man, Seaman Edward Daniels, was taken prisoner only to be burned at the stake. The fifth man, a sailor, named Lopaz or Lopez, swam to a sandbar. The crews of the gunboats spotted and rescued him.

The site of the attack is sometimes identified as Bloody Bluff, a low rise just downstream from Prospect Bluff, but is too far upstream. The actual location is probably in the Apalachicola vicinity.

The goal of the U.S. military was to provoke a confrontation with the occupants of the Negro Fort by appearing in the vicinity with a large armed force. The strategy worked and the situation now escalated into a full siege.

Lt. Col. Clinch landed two companies from the 4th U.S. Infantry Regiment just north of the fort on July 20, 1816. Around 250 allied Creek warriors supported him under the Coweta war chief Maj. William McIntosh, the Lower Creek chief Mad Tiger, and a former Red Stick leader named Captain Isaacs. 

Garcon's sentries saw the soldiers and warriors through the trees and opened fire with a barrage of cannon shot and Congreve rockets. 
Author and historian Dale Cox leads Native American students on a tour of Prospect Bluff. The higher earthworks marked by the tree at right are from the water battery of the Negro Fort. The lower earthworks in the background near the tree line are part of Fort Gadsden, built by U.S. forces in 1818.

The warriors under McIntosh, Isaacs, Mad Tiger, were given all the ammunition, small arms, and supplies they could carry. The army and navy then confiscated everything else worth taking, including the fort's nine cannon. Whether they took the time to bury the victims of the explosion is not known.

The destruction of the Negro Fort ended the life of the largest free black community in North Amerca. Many of the survivors died from their wounds, but a few survived to be returned to slavery in Spanish Florida - even though the British compensated their "owners" for them.

Nine others were taken back to Camp Crawford (later Fort Scott) by Lt. Col. Clinch but were released after their "owners" never came to the far frontier to claim them. Among them was a man named Abraham, who became an important figure among the Seminoles. He was a noted advisor, warrior, and interpreter during the Second Seminole War.

The U.S. forces evacuated the site a few days after the explosion, and it returned to oblivion. John Forbes & Company re-established its trading post at Prospect Bluff later that year and Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson brought his army to the site in 1818 during the First Seminole War.

Jackson recognized the military importance of the bluff and ordered his men to build a new fort there. He named it Fort Gadsden to honor his engineer, James Gadsden. 

Fort Gadsden occupied a small part of the original Negro Fort and was held by American forces until 1821 when Spain transferred Florida to the United States. Confederate troops used it on occasion during the Civil War, but the military importance of the site ended when Florida became a U.S. territory.

The remains of both forts are preserved today at Prospect Bluff Historic Sites in the Apalachicola National Forest. Hurricane Michael damaged the site and forced a temporary closure of the park while the U.S. Forest Services makes repairs.

Please visit the official U.S. Forest Service website to check current status.

We will post directions to the site after it reopens.