A War of 1812 American defeat on Mobile Point, Alabama

by Dale Cox

Thousands of visitors climb the ramparts of Fort Morgan each year to marvel at the massive brick fortifications and explore the Civil War history of Mobile Bay. The historic fort is a major landmark of the Alabama Gulf Coast, but it was Fort Bowyer – an earlier work on the same site – that drew the attention of the American public 204 years ago today.

American troops built Fort Bowyer in 1813 after the United States seized the city of Mobile from Spain under a dubious claim that coastal Alabama was part of the Louisiana Purchase. Garrisoned by men of the 2nd U.S. Infantry, it stood on the windswept tip of Mobile Point, a long peninsula that stretches from today’s Gulf Shores far out to the entrance of Mobile Bay.

The fort was much smaller than today’s Fort Morgan. Built in the semi-circular design popular with military engineers of the time, it featured a 400-foot long curving rampart of earth and wood. Heavy cannon aimed out over the top of this wall, prepared to sweep the channel should enemy warships try to enter Mobile Bay.

Fort Bowyer stood at the site of today’s Fort Morgan on Mobile Point, Alabama.

Fort Bowyer received its baptism of fire in September 1814, when British forces made their first try at capturing Mobile.

The War of 1812 was underway and Great Britain had launched a campaign to drive American forces from the Gulf Coast while British troops seized Mobile, New Orleans, the Mississippi River Valley and Georgia. If the Redcoats could take Mobile Bay, they could land thousands of troops and march overland to the Mississippi, cutting off New Orleans and forcing its surrender.

The only real obstacle to this plan was Fort Bowyer. Garrisoned by Maj. William Lawrence and 160 U.S. soldiers, the fort held out against a combined land and sea assault on September 15, 1814. The American cannon destroyed the warship HMS Hermes and around 70 British sailors, marines and Creek Indian volunteers were killed or wounded. The Americans lost only ten men.

An exhibit on the grounds tells the story of Fort Bowyer and the two War of 1812 battles fought there.

The British next tried at New Orleans, but were defeated on the plain of Chalmette by the American army of Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson.

Frustrated and smarting from these defeats, they returned to Mobile Bay in February 1815. Led by Maj. Gen. Sir John Lambert and Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, the British landed 1,300 men on Mobile Point. Maj. Lawrence, at Fort Bowyer, sent calls for help up the bay to Mobile.

The two sides exchanged some fire on February 8-10, as the British dug approach trenches and landed cannon:

We broke ground on the night of the 8th, and advanced a firing party to within one hundred yards of the fort during the night. The position of the batteries being decided upon the next day, they were ready to receive their guns on the night of the 10th, and on the morning of the 11th the fire of a battery of four eighteen pounders, on the left, and two eight-inch howitzers on the right, each at about one hundred yards distance, two six-pounders at about three hundred yards, and eight small cohorns advantageously placed on the right, with intervals between one hundred and two hundred yards, all furnished to keep up an incessant fire for two days, were prepared to open. [I]

The channel leading into Mobile Bay as seen from Mobile Point.

Before ordering his batteries to open fire, however, Gen. Lambert offered Maj. Lawrence and the Americans in Fort Bowyer a chance to save their lives. He sent a messenger to the fort under a flag of truce, giving Lawrence 30-minutes to accept terms of surrender:

…Finding he was inclined to consider them, I prolonged the period at his request, and at 3 o’clock the fort was given up to a British guard and the British colours hoisted, the forms being signed by Major Smith, military secretary, and captain Ricketts, R.N, and finally approved of by the Vice-Admiral and myself, which I have the honour to enclose. I am happy to say, our loss has not been very great; and we are indebted for this, in a great measure, to the efficient means attached to this force. Had we been obliged to resort to any other mode of attack, the fall could not have been looked for under such favourable circumstances. [II]

The surrender of stunned Andrew Jackson, who had praised Maj. Lawrence and his men for holding out against a superior force in September:

It gave me great pain to learn that Fort Bowyer had surrendered to the Enemy without being fired upon. I had calculated most confidently that that post would not have fallen but after the most gallant resistance. [III]

A map of the February 1815 British attack on Fort Bowyer. 
Library of Congress

Lawrence felt that he could not hold a small fort of sand and wood against the full power of the British army and navy. His quick surrender, however, prevented a relief expedition sent down from Mobile under Maj. Uriah Blue from reaching Mobile Point and attacking the British land force from behind: 

…He arrived within four miles of the point on Monday and surprized and took one of the enemies piquets consisting of 17 men but he was 24 hours too late to relieve the garrison. [IV]

The fall of Fort Bowyer opened the door for the British navy to sail up Mobile Bay and attack the city of Mobile itself. Plans were underway for the move when news reached Admiral Cochrane two days later that Great Britain and the United States had signed the Treaty of Ghent. The War of 1812 was over.

The British lost 13 killed and 18 wounded in their operations against Fort Bowyer. The Americans lost around ten killed and wounded, as well as Maj. Lawrence and 370 men captured. 

Despite some claims to the contrary, the February attack on Fort Bowyer was not the final battle of the War of 1812. An action on the St. Mary’s River between Florida and Georgia two weeks later holds that distinction.

There are no visible remains of Fort Bowyer today, but the site can be visited at Fort Morgan Historic Site on Mobile Point. The park is at 110 AL-180, 23 miles west of Gulf Shores, Alabama. Please see the map at the bottom of this page for directions.

Admission is $7 for adults; $5 for seniors over 65 and students over 12; $4 for kids ages 6-12 and free for kids under 6. Fort Morgan is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

The museum features exhibits on Fort Bowyer.

Please click here for more information.

To learn more about the War of 1812 on the Gulf Coast, please visit The Battle of New Orleans and enjoy this free documentary:

[I] Maj. Gen. Sir John Lambert to Earl Bathurst, February 14, 1815, The Times (London), April 19, 1815.

[II] Ibid.

[III] Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson to Brig. Gen. James Winchester, February 22, 1815, Jackson Papers, Library of Congress.

[IV] Brig. Gen. James Winchester to Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, February 16, 1815, Jackson Papers, Library of Congress.