Story of the War of 1812 British fort at Chattahoochee, Florida

by Dale Cox

Col. Benjamin Hawkins, the U.S. Agent for Indian Affairs, arrived on today’s Lake Seminole 204 years ago for a planned strike at British forces on the upper Apalachicola River.

He commanded a force of 700-1,000 Lower Creek warriors and a handful of white frontiersmen (Please see The War of 1812 on the Chattahoochee). His most recent intelligence came from a spy who assured him that the British would offer little resistance:

…He saw twenty white and forty black soldiers below the forks of the river, about two miles east of the little old fields, where the Commissioners of Limits encamped: one officer commanded, in British uniform. They had not fort or ditch. They had one house built and were about to build another. They came up by land, and one boat came up with their provisions and other stores. [I]

Historical marker at the site of Nicolls’ Outpost in Chattahoochee, Florida.

The spy, however, visited the British camp in October 1814. What he saw was the start of construction on Nicolls’ Outpost, a fort that stood atop one of the large prehistoric Native American mounds at what is now River Landing Park in Chattahoochee, Florida. The reference to the “little old fields, where the Commissioner of Limits encamped” was to an old fields just northwest of present-day Sneads where U.S. Commissioner of Limits Col. Andrew Ellicott camped in 1799.

As Col. Hawkins reported on February 12, 1815, however, much had changed in the four months since his spy visited the British camp:

The Hostile force below the forks of the Rivers on the East of apalatchecola are about 300 who have entrenched themselves have a breast work abt. 4 feet high and One Howitzer and one Cohorn. They have 100 whites, 80 blacks and the remainder Indians. They are endeavouring by all the means in their power to increase their force with Simenolies & There is a Spanish officer among them whos rank I know not from Pensacola, Hugh McGill with some colored people. He ordered a Half breed my informant, who knew him well, out of their fort as being opposed to him and the British. [II]

An 1815 map by Vicente Sebastian Pintado, a Spanish officer, shows Nicolls’ Outpost just below the forks of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers. “Totowhethly,” shown on the Chattahoochee River, was Perryan’s Town where Col. Hawkins established his camp.
Library of Congress

Hugh McGill was an American deserter who had enlisted in the British Colonial Marines under Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls (his name is often mispelled as “Nicholls”). The Spanish officer mentioned in the report was the commander of a garrison of Cuban militia that the British had forcibly taken from Fort San Carlos de Barrancas when they evacuated Pensacola in November 1814.

Nicolls’ Outpost was now much more formidable than it had been in October. The British had entrenched themselves behind earthen breastworks and were armed with artillery.

The howitzer referenced in Hawkins’ report was a short 5 1/2 inch brass cannon designed for closer range combat than a standard gun. It fired explosive shells as anti-personnel weapons and 18-pound solid shot that could crash through the decks of enemy boats. The Cohorns used by the British on the Apalachicola were portable mortars that lobbed 24-pound shells high into the air. These would explode over the head of enemy infantry forces. 

A private of the Royal Marines as seen during the War of 1812 era.

The “100 whites” at the fort were from the Third Battalion of Royal Marines. The “80 blacks” were members of Nicolls’ battalion of Royal Colonial Marines, a force that consisted largely of maroons (escaped slaves) and free men of color. White and Hispanic troops also served in the unit. A different report indicated that the white men from the Royal Marines wore uniforms with red coats, while the black and other men of the Colonial Marines wore blue uniforms. 

The American force camped ten miles upriver at Perryman’s Town on the Chattahoochee River had no artillery and without it Col. Hawkins knew that he stood little chance of taking the British fort. 

Making matters worse, the British knew he was there. Lt. Col. Nicolls flooded additional men up the Apalachicola River from Prospect Bluff, where his central supply depot stood 20 miles above Apalachicola Bay. Hawkins reported on February 20 that the force at Nicolls’ Outpost had more than doubled in the previous eight days:

The site of Nicolls’ Outpost in Chattahoochee as it appears after Hurricane Michael.

…Colo. Nicolls with 200 troops white and black and an assemblage of 500 Warriors is just below the forks. They have an intrenched post picketed, with one Howitzer and one cohorn. The Indians are mostly from the Simenolies of East Florida, and Oketyocanne, Fowl town, and Cheauhau within our limits. They are well supplied with cloths and munitions of War. McQueen and Francis are in Uniform. Every party as they arrive give the War whoop, fire their guns and paint for war. [III]

The mention that the entrenched post was “picketed” meant that it also had a log stockade as well as earthen breastworks. 

The Prophet Josiah Francis painted this self-portrait during his visit to Great Britain in 1815-1817.
British Museum

“McQueen and Francis” were noted Red Stick Creek leaders. The Prophet Josiah Francis was the principal religious leader of Red Stick forces during the Creek War of 1813-1814, while Peter McQueen had been the war chief of Tallassee. An attack on him by Mississippi Territorial Militia at Burnt Corn Creek had brought the United States into the Creek War. Both men escaped to Florida after the defeat of Menawa’s Red Stick army at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.

Also present at the British fort were Thomas Perryman, the principal chief of the Seminoles; his son William; Vaccapachassee, the leader of a maroon or Black Seminole village on the Apalachicola; John Yellowhair, a prominent leader among the Apalachicola Seminoles; Lt. William Hambly, an interpreter and former employee of John Forbes & Company, and John Blunt, the Tuckabatchee chief for whom modern Blountstown is named.

A British officer wrote a vivid description after meeting Thomas Perryman, Josiah Francis, Peter McQueen, and others about six weeks earlier at the Battle of New Orleans:

…They were fantastically attired; two of the principals had on large ill-made coats of scarlet serge, with a profusion of marine buttons, tinsel epaulettes, and small stars on their breasts. This attempt at European costume scarcely covered their filthy check-shirts and deer-skin leggings. One of these was pointed out to me as Perimond [Perryman], King of the [Seminoles]. He was of an advanced age, and remarkably fair complexion for a red skin…A large hoop of gold hung from his majesty’s nose, and his unsymmetrical ears were adorned with silver rings. The rest were badly clad, after their own fashion; but all of them exhibited the peculiarity of having the external cartilage of the ear cut, and hanging down on the shoulder in unseemly flesh, resembling the cadaverous appendage to the neck of a turkey-cock. [IV]

Another British officer recalled that the chiefs wore “large cocked hats” with their British uniform coats. [V]

Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls as he appeared later in life after achieving the rank of general.
Royal Marines Barracks

Lt. Col. Nicolls, who commanded the British fort, was called “Fighting Nicolls” by his countrymen. He fought in more than 100 battles during his career, many of them against French forces during the Napoleonic Wars, and was wounded many times. George Laval Chesterton saw him on the field of the Battle of New Orleans:

His appearance was not at all improved by additional age and by active and disastrous service, for his enterprises had been unsuccessful. He had lost an eye; and whether it resulted from his association with his wild Indians, or an affected singularity, or, as some averred, a slight aberration arising from numerous wounds, he certainly had contracted a fantastical deportment, and looked so strangely care-worn, that few could regard him without surprise and comment. [VII]

The missing eye was the result of a wooden splinter that struck Nicolls after an American cannonball crashed into the warship HMS Hermes during the first Battle of Fort Bowyer the previous September.

The Chattahoochee River arm of Lake Seminole as seen from the site of Hawkins’ camp at Perryman’s Town.

By February 20, 1815 – 204 years ago today – Hawkins knew that he stood no chance of taking Nicolls’ Outpost. He kept his main army well away from the fort, separated from it by the Flint River and ten miles of wilderness. He maintained his position on the lower Chattahoochee, watching the activities of the British and hoping that a Georgia militia force might come to his aid.

Nicolls, meanwhile, continued to strengthen his fort, even sending up a small Royal Navy vessel that could sweep the American force with cannon fire from the river in the event of an engagement.

The site of Nicolls’ Outpost can be visited at River Landing Park in Chattahoochee, Florida. The park has reopened from damage suffered during Hurricane Michael. A historical marker tells the story of the little known War of 1812 fort. See the map below for directions.

Note: The outcome of the confrontation between Col. Hawkins and Lt. Col. Nicolls will be the focus of an article on Monday, February 25. Until then, learn more in Dale Cox’s book Nicolls’ Outpost (available in both paperback and Kindle e-book formats):

References

[I] Col. Benjamin Hawkins, quoted in Maj. Gen. John McIntosh to Brig. Gen. David Blackshear, January 9, 1815, in Stephen F. Miller, Memoir of Gen. David Blackshear, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1858, Appendix: Papers Referred to in Memoir, pp. 403-468.

[II] Col. Benjamin Hawkins to Gov. Peter Early of Georgia, February 12, 1815, Telamon Cuyler Collection, Hargrett Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, The University of Georgia Libraries.

[III] Col. Benjamin Hawkins to Gov. Peter early of Georgia, February 12, 1815, Telamon Cuyler Collection, Hargrett Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, The University of Georgia Libraries.

[IV] Benson Earle Hill, Recollections of an Artillery Officer: Including Scenes and Adventures in Ireland, America, Flanders, and France, Volume I, London: 1836, pp. 298-300.

[V] George Laval Chesterton, Peace, War, and Adventure: An Autobiographical Memoir of George Laval Chesterton, Volume I, London: 1853, pp. 214-215.

[VI] Ibid., Page 213.