Pensacola, Florida
Thursday October 17th 2019

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What We Can Learn From the Battle of Negro Fort

By C. Scott Satterwhite

Historian Matthew Clavin released a new book, “The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Colony,” earlier this month. It tells the fascinating story of the largest fugitive slave colony in what we now call the United States. It’s rarely covered in history classes and largely unknown, even in the area where the incredible battle took place. Comprised largely of formerly enslaved African Americans from Spanish Pensacola, the fugitive slave army fought Andrew Jackson’s troops to the death.

Clavin has been captivated by this story since graduate school, and his book speaks to our national ongoing discussion about slavery, as well the stories so often neglected in Southern and African American history.

INWEEKLY: For those who haven’t heard of it, how would you describe the Battle of Negro Fort?
CLAVIN: That is not easy to do briefly. The facts are that during the War of 1812, Spanish Florida was neutral; however, Spanish authorities allowed the British to land several thousand troops in their territory. The British were willing to do anything to defeat the United States, so they enthusiastically recruited Native Americans and both American and Spanish slaves to their cause. After the war, the British evacuated Florida, but they left a massive and extraordinarily well-armed fort on the lower Apalachicola River to the fugitive slaves who had joined the British cause and their families. In the coming months, the fort attracted hundreds of additional fugitive slaves, bringing the total number of the fort’s inhabitants to as many as 1,000. This did not sit well with white Southern slaveowners, who for more than a year lobbied the federal government to eliminate what they described as a dangerous threat to the peace and security of the southern border. The effort worked. In the summer of 1816, Andrew Jackson ordered the fort’s destruction and the killing and capturing of the fort’s black residents. For two weeks, hundreds of pro-American Creek warriors and American soldiers assaulted Negro Fort and eventually destroyed the compound when a heated cannonball landed on a massive gunpowder magazine, causing an incredible explosion that some claimed could be heard as far away as Pensacola.

INWEEKLY: In your introduction, you state that “understanding the battle’s importance requires acknowledging that the American government had always sanctioned slavery.” Why is this important for our understanding of the Battle of Negro Fort?
CLAVIN: As a historian, it is crucial to demonstrate history’s dynamic nature. Ideas like race, gender and class are not fixed but always changing. I thought it was important to show at the outset just how conflicted most white Americans were over slavery at the close of the 18th century. Indeed, nearly every slave-owning founding father struggled mightily over the issue. Unfortunately, that sentiment would grow weaker with subsequent generations. Andrew Jackson is a case in point. He owned, bought and sold slaves his entire life and never once expressed any internal conflict over the practice. To the contrary, he was a proud slave owner who strongly identified as a Southerner.

INWEEKLY:  You describe the European Americans moving into the multiracial, multilingual Spanish Florida as “migrants,” a term not often used when discussing those later known as “Florida Crackers.” Was this intentional and related to our current debate over immigration?
CLAVIN: It’s a fascinating question. The story of Negro Fort definitely resonates with today’s immigration debate. Above all else, it proves that the demonization of people of color on the opposite side of the United States’ southern border is not a new phenomenon. It has occurred for centuries. Interestingly enough, as you point out, Americans have often decried the migration of dark-skinned people across the southern border at the exact same time they supported and promoted white immigration southward. Thomas Jefferson is a prime example, and he even took the racial double-standard a step farther. While encouraging white immigration into Spanish Florida, he also sought Indian removal and the colonization of African Americans outside of the United States.

INWEEKLY: I found so much in this book fascinating, especially the interactions between the African Americans and Native American actors in this story. When doing the research, what surprised you the most?
CLAVIN: As for the relationship between African Americans and Native Americans, nothing really surprised me as I have long studied the complicated relationship between these people, especially along the Southern frontier. That being said, I think many readers will be shocked to learn the critical role the Creek Indians played in Negro Fort’s destruction. While several dozen Native Americans fought and died in Negro Fort’s defense, roughly 100 Creeks led the American assault on the Fort and then spearheaded the effort to capture and return any survivors to slavery.

INWEEKLY:  I’m not sure if “hero” is the right word, but who were some of the remarkable figures who stood out in this story?
CLAVIN: If you believe in freedom, then there were absolutely “heroes” in the Battle of Negro Fort. The most obvious was Garçon, a “French Negro” who absconded from his Spanish owner in Pensacola during the War of 1812, served in Great Britain’s Corps of Colonial Marines and eventually became the fort’s most feared commander. During the Battle of Negro Fort, when the American forces proposed a cease-fire, Garçon vowed that he would rather blow up the fort himself rather than see it fall into the possession of the United States. Garçon survived the magazine’s explosion but was summarily executed. Though tragic, he had long demonstrated a preference for liberty or death.

INWEEKLY:  With a resurgence in interest, both in slavery and Andrew Jackson, what do you think your book adds to our ongoing discussion about how to see slavery in America, as well as how we see Andrew Jackson?
CLAVIN: I think this book demonstrates the long and difficult struggle for freedom in the United States for African-descended people as well as their allies. As has become painfully obvious in recent years, white supremacy is never static. Support for the radical ideology comes and goes, ebbs and flows. Sometimes leadership is all that matters in determining which direction an entire nation moves regarding its policy toward minority groups. In the case of Negro Fort, there is no telling what would have happened to the historic community [in Negro Fort] if Andrew Jackson had not risen to the command of the Southern army. Undoubtedly, a Northern anti-slavery general who sympathized with the plight of African Americans and Native Americans certainly would have acted differently. The Battle of Negro Fort shows the power of one man to dictate and determine public policy.

INWEEKLY:  Why do you think so few people know of this incredible story?
CLAVIN: I think it has much more to do with the large gap that now exists between historians and the public. Historians have studied Negro Fort for decades, but too often, their scholarship has failed to target general readers and other students of history. Given the troubling racial climate in America today, it is more important than ever that historians of race and slavery speak to as wide an audience as possible.

INWEEKLY:  What are some of the lessons readers can take away from the story of Negro Fort and your book in particular?
CLAVIN: First and foremost, it is the indomitability of enslaved people. Even when an entire country tried to keep them enslaved, hundreds of black people fought to the death for their freedom. It is a truly inspirational story. Second is the role that British soldiers, Native Americans and a handful of white American citizens played in Negro Fort’s year-long existence. While history prefers winners, the free people who helped establish Negro Fort, and, in many cases, died in its defense, deserve recognition. They are proof that even in the opening decades of the 19th century, when slavery took on increasing economic and social importance as a result of the success of the cotton gin, large numbers of people forcefully opposed both slavery and racism.

A former professor at the University of West Florida, Clavin now teaches history at the University of Houston. “The Battle of Negro Fort” is his third book. You can learn more about it and order a copy direct from the publisher at nyupress.org.