The black soldiers of Nicolls’ Battalion of Royal Colonial Marines
by Dale Cox
Movies such as Glory and living historians including the members of Tallahassee’s 2nd Infantry Regiment U.S. Colored Troops have expanded our understanding of the role of black soldiers in the Civil War. Less well known, however, are the people of color who stood to arms against the United States on the Apalachicola River during the War of 1812.
The term “Maroons” is not well known today. It refers to escaped slaves who risked their lives to seek freedom. The name “Underground Railroad” is given to the routes that enslaved blacks used to escape bondage. It is a little known fact, however, that North America’s first Underground Railroad ran south instead of north.
Spanish Florida was a place of refuge for Maroons from the earliest days of its history. Slaves crossing the line from the British colonies and later the United States found freedom and often active government support.
The first major destination for Maroons was Fort Mose, a fortified community just north of St. Augustine, Florida. Spain welcomed slaves from the English colonies to settle there, offering them Baptism in the Catholic Church, arms and the right to serve in the Spanish militia. The fort was abandoned when Spain lost Florida to Great Britain for twenty years in 1763-1783 and most of its inhabitants were evacuated to Cuba. The site is now a Florida state park.
By 1814, when British forces arrived on Florida’s Apalachicola River, a significant community of Maroons was already living there. Capt. George Woodbine, who commanded the advance party of Royal Marines, found a settlement of “free negroes” on the west side of the river just south of Ocheesee Bluff in present-day Calhoun County. [I]
How and when they arrived there is not known, but they likely included former followers of the adventurer William Augustus Bowles. A pirate and the self-styled Director-General of the “State of Muskogee,” he sent parties of Seminole and Lower Creek warriors to bring back slaves from along the Georgia frontier. He died in a Spanish prison in 1804, but his Maroon followers undoubtedly continued to live on the Apalachicola.
Woodbine welcomed the men of this group into the Royal Colonial Marines. He had orders to begin organizing a battalion of marines from escaped and liberated slaves, and offered them arms, ammunition, food, uniforms, military training and a chance to fight for the freedom of others of their race.
The British built forts on the Apalachicola at Prospect Bluff, 20 miles north of Apalachicola Bay, and at today’s Chattahoochee, one mile below the forks of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers. The also occupied the Spanish city of Pensacola from September – November 1814, garrisoning old Fort St. Michael. Any slave who could reach one of these forts could gain his freedom by enlisting in the Colonial Marines. His family was also welcome.
Recruiting for the new battalion expanded when Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls of the Royal Marines arrived on the scene in August 1814. One of Great Britain’s most fierce warriors, he had fought in more than 100 battles and bore the scars to prove it.
Nicolls was as much an opponent of slavery as he was a supporter of Great Britain. Under his guidance, as many as three hundred Maroons were provided arms, uniforms and training in Royal Marines tactics. Some of these men came from the United States, but many escaped from slavery in Pensacola and St. Augustine. Others had been living in relative freedom among the Seminole Indians.
The arming of escaped slaves to fight for the British did not go over well with many citizens of Georgia, the Carolinas, Louisiana, and the Mississippi Territory. They feared the efforts by Nicolls and Woodbine would lead to a slave revolt such as the one that drove the French from Haiti in 1791-1804. They also feared the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in human property:
…From the practice recently pursued by the British, with regard to negro slaves, it may be feared that their becoming
Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, who commanded U.S. forces on the southern frontier, had unusual attitudes on the matter. He opposed British efforts to recruit and arm escaped slaves because it led to plantation owners losing valuable human “property.” On the other hand, he supported military service by free men of color and many black soldiers took part in the Battle of New Orleans under his command. Jackson, in fact, took a stand on their behalf to demand that they receive the same pay as his white soldiers.
Men from the Colonial Marines took part in the first Battle of Fort Bowyer in September 1814. They formed a land force that cut off the only escape route for the garrison of the fort, which stood at the western end of Mobile Point. Under the direction of Captain Woodbine they directed artillery fire on Fort Bowyer from a 5 1/2 inch howitzer, but the engagement was largely a battle between the fort and a flotilla of British warships.
When Andrew Jackson retaliated by attacking Pensacola, the British marines were evacuated to warships in the bay while other Maroons escaped overland to the Apalachicola River. Nicolls and Woodbine withdrew their forces to the river and resumed their training and recruitment activities.
Some of the troops from Prospect Bluff took part in the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815, but most of the black marines remained on the Apalachicola to guard the forts there.
One hundred of the Colonial Marines formed the garrison at Nicolls’ Outpost, the British fort near the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers. The others remained on duty at Prospect Bluff, where a British officer reported 170 black men under arms in January 1815.
Eyewitnesses reported that the Colonial Marines wore uniforms with blue coats and red caps. In addition to their training as amphibious light infantry, they also received instruction in the use of artillery. Their battalion was equipped with two six-pounder field pieces, 5 1/2 inch howitzers on field carriages and mobile Cohorn mortars. They also trained to work the six-pounders, swivels and heavy 24-pounder naval guns mounted in the fort at Prospect Bluff.
Many of the marines were accompanied by their families, while other women and children escaped from slavery and came to the Apalachicola on their own. At its height, the Maroon community at Prospect Bluff numbered well over 1,000 men, women and children. It was not only the largest community in Florida – larger than either St. Augustine or Pensacola – it was the largest settlement of free blacks in North America.
When news came in late February 1815 that the War of 1812 was over, Nicolls’ kept his word to his black recruits. All members of the Colonial Marines battalion were given papers verifying that they had served in the British military, which only accepted free men.
A delegation from Pensacola visited Prospect Bluff in April to convince their former slaves to return to bondage. The British said that any who wished to go could do so, but refused to force anyone to leave. A handful of women and children went back, but most made clear that they were now “Hombres Libre” – free men. Nicolls informed a Spanish officer with the group that he planned to leave the fort and its artillery behind for the defense of the Maroons:
…I directed to Colonel Nicolls and asked what he sought to do with the artillery and ammunition that were there and with the works of the fortification that he had made in a territory…making him aware at the same time the danger that would result if the post was left in the state that it is as it would be a meeting point for all the wicked and a second Barataria which would increase, assisted by the number of blacks there, the unquietness not only of the rest of the province, but also the Gulf of Mexico with raids and piracy. He answered me…that he would leave the artillery that was not of bronze as it had been requested by the Indians, and so had orders and working instructions to give also many weapons, artillery, equipment &c
A few of the Maroons from Prospect Bluff evacuated to Bermuda and even Canada. The majority, however, were relocated to the Caribbean island of Trinidad where they were given land and a chance to build lives of their own. Their descendants still tell of the journey of their ancestors from Apalachicola Bay.
Around eighty of Nicolls’ Colonial Marines decided to stay at Prospect Bluff, where with their families they formed a community of around 300 people. It was still the largest settlement of free blacks in North America.
Their number included skilled carpenters, boat builders, sailors, farmers, coopers, potters, seamstresses, blacksmiths, and others. They cleared fields and built homes even as they continued to maintain military discipline. The British flag was hoisted over the fort each day and the men drilled in uniform while maintaining a sergeant’s guard and carrying out other military duties.
When Lt. Col. Nicolls departed in late May 1815, he left a massive stockpile of gunpowder, lead, cannon shot, rockets, uniforms, muskets, carbines, swords, shoes and other supplies. Heavy 24-pounder cannon aimed up and down the river from the water battery and the main citadel of the fort was surmounted with four six-pounders on naval carriages. Swivel guns protected the stockades and outer entrenchments.
The Sergeant Major, a former carpenter from Pensacola named Garcon, was left in command. Nicolls ordered him to prevent the passage of any American vessels and to defend the fort to the last extreme. The colonel hoped to return soon as a British agent to the Seminoles and Creeks.
Garcon lived at the fort with his wife and young son. He was joined in maintaining discipline by Sgt. Prince and others who were non-commissioned officers while in the British service.
The fields of the Prospect Bluff settlers quickly spread for 50 miles along the Apalachicola and they grew successful crops of corn, melons, squash and beans. The river and bay provided fish and seafood that they harvested from two schooners left behind for their use.
The vast forests of today’s Apalachicola National Forest offered game such as white-tailed deer, rabbits, opossum, gopher tortoises, bear, squirrels, and a variety of edible plants, roots, and nuts. The community also had stocks of free range cattle, hogs and chickens. Trade with Seminole and Creek Indians provided other necessities.
Dark clouds, however, loomed on the horizon. The very existence of the community troubled officials in the United States. They called it the “Negro Fort” and incorrectly believed that most of its occupants were escaped slaves from southern plantations. The majority of those who remained after Nicolls’ departure actually came from Spanish territory, but plantation owners and authorities in the United States feared that the fort was a beacon that called American slaves to freedom in the Florida wilderness.
The result was military action. U.S. forces attacked Prospect Bluff just fourteen months after the departure of the British. They blew the fort to bits with a heated 9-pound cannonball on the morning of July 27, 1816. The projectile ignited one of the powder magazines, causing a blast that killed 270 of the men, women, and children inside the walls.
The disaster ended the colony of freedom. A few survivors were returned to slavery in Spanish Florida while others – including the noted interpreter Abraham – were held briefly by the U.S. military but eventually released.
A number of families who escaped before American forces surrounded the fort resettled at
Editor’s Note: Learn the full story by watching TwoEgg.TV‘s free documentary – The Fort at Prospect Bluff. See it free atwww.youtube.com/twoeggtv/ or by adding Two Egg TV on your Roku streaming device or TV. If you prefer, you can watch here by clicking the play button below or by enjoying Two Egg TV live on our Home Page.
Prospect Bluff Historic Sites (formerly Fort Gadsden Historic Site) in the Apalachicola National Forest preserves the ruins of British Fort National Landmark, the post established by the British in 1814. The park is currently closed due to damage sustained during Hurricane Michael, but will reopen when repairs are complete.
The site of Nicolls’ Outpost, where Colonial Marines were also based, is at River Landing Park in Chattahoochee, Florida. The park is open daily and a historical marker tells the story of the fort.
[I] Woodbine Map of 1814, National Archives of Great Britain.
[II] Virginia Argus, February 21, 1816.
[III] Vicente Sebastian Pintado to Sr. Don Josef de Soto, Vicente Sebastian Pintado Papers, 1781-1842, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
- Note: Many other sources were used in this article. For a detailed history, watch later this year for Dale Cox’s new book The Fort at Prospect Bluff.