The First U.S. Foreign Invasion: Seizing Florida in 1816


This year of 2006 will be remembered as the moment Americans got even with leaders who had lied to them in order to garner public support for invading and occupying Iraq. But given the public’s preoccupation with a crucial election and the daily news of a dismal war, few took note of a significant 2006 anniversary: 190 years ago the United States launched its first foreign invasion. The parallels to the present are enlightening.

In July 1816, General Andrew Jackson, Commander of the U.S. Southern District, ordered Army, Navy and Marine units to invade Florida, then under the flag of Spain. Jackson acted, probably on orders from President James Madison, without a Congressional declaration of war. Neither Spain nor its colonial outpost posed a threat to the U.S. or its citizens. Rather, the President and the General–both prominent slaveholders–had concluded that the slave economy and its human "property" were threatened by the several thousand Native Americans and African Americans, including escaped slaves, who had united in the Seminole Nation on Florida soil.

As in the case of President George W. Bush’s attack on Iraq, this first foreign sortie by the U.S. had an enormous impact on the Executive Branch and its presidential powers, on respect for the Constitution by those sworn to protect it, and on the public’s right to know. Historian William Weeks points out that this episode established a number of dangerous precedents, some of which Secretary of State John Quincy Adams later regretted:

· President Madison and Secretary Adams violated the Constitution when they bypassed Congressional input into the Executive decision to go to war. The Constitution grants war powers to the Congress alone.

· Adams, in defending the invasion, lied to Congress and the public about the reasons for it.

· Adams proclaimed that those Americans who opposed the war were not only wrong but were giving aid and comfort to the nation’s foreign enemies, and he covered up atrocities committed under General Jackson’s command. [1]

Was Florida, in that distant time, any more of a menace to the strongest country in the Americas than Iraq was 19 decades later? Not really. Rather, the slaveholding elite was convinced that the Africans who fled from bondage on southern plantations to Florida’s free air posed an immediate danger to Georgia, the Carolinas and perhaps the South’s entire slave plantation system. In today’s language they regarded these men and women — who did not live under white masters, carried arms, were allied with Native Americans and welcomed runaways to their villages — as potential "terrorists." So the slaveholders used the leverage afforded by their economic power to steer the White House toward a military response to the perceived threat.

Who was "the enemy," really? Africans had been escaping from the southern English colonies and since 1738 were among the earliest explorers and pioneer settlers of Florida, where they built free, self-governing communities. Florida was their "American dream." When the Seminole Indians fled southward from Creek persecution, the Africans in Florida welcomed them and taught them methods of rice cultivation they had brought to the Americas from Senegambia and Sierra Leone. Pooling the wide range of their knowledge and skills, the two peoples united in a multicultural Seminole nation that was willing to fight slave-hunting posses from the American colonies in defense of their right to self-determination. [2]

After the 1776 American Revolution the newly-minted United States stepped up the slave-hunting forays into Florida. By 1812, events had escalated. President Madison’s administration provided covert support for a private force called "the Patriots," which crossed the border to plunder, seize free people for enslavement and wanted to incorporate the Florida peninsula into the new nation. A year later, Tennessee militia and federal government troops joined the Patriots, but the Seminole alliance repelled the combined force. In fact, the Seminole resistance led to the Congressional defeat, in April 1814, of a Patriot resolution to annex Florida.

By 1816, however, Andrew Jackson, now a famous war hero and "Indian fighter," resolved to take Florida in order to close down what he called "this perpetual harbor for our slaves." He ordered his field commander, General Edmund P. Gaines to:

· provoke an attack on "Fort Negro" on the Apalachicola River, seize its powerful cannons and its 300 Black and Seminole residents, and

· "restore the stolen negroes and property to their rightful owners." [3]

Sailing down the Apalachicola, the U.S. naval vessels passed fifty miles of large and expanding African cornfields along the river banks. [4]

Upon reaching "Fort Negro," U.S. forces confronted a Black commander named Garcia, who had four pieces of heavy artillery, six light cannons, a large store of ammunition and deep scorn for the interlopers. Garcia faced two Navy gunboats, hundreds of regular U.S. Army soldiers and 500 Creek Indians who hoped to capture runaway Seminoles.

Gaines ordered the fort to surrender and sent a delegation of Creeks to negotiate with Garcia. Garcia rebuffed the order, routed the delegation and fired a cannon shot over the Creeks. Surgeon Marcus Buck, assigned to the U.S. Fourth Infantry Regiment, wrote: "We were pleased with their spirited opposition, though they were Indians, negroes and our enemies. Many circumstances convinced us that most of them determined never to be taken alive." [5]

Gaines’s forces surrounded "Fort Negro" and opened fire, but the initial artillery exchanges proved inconsequential. Then fortuitously, a cannon ball heated in the cook’s galley and lobbed into the fort hit Garcia’s ammunition magazine. The resulting spectacular explosion destroyed Fort Negro and killed 270 people. Of the 64 who survived, Garcia was executed, and the others were marched back to slavery.

Hundreds of other Africans and Seminoles in the region fled to the Suwannee River, where they built villages that extended down the seacoast to Tampa Bay. [6] Within months, the relocated Black and Indian nation chose Billy Bowlegs as their king, and his chief Black advisor, Nero, as their military commander. They gathered horses, drilled and readied themselves to defend against future attacks. [7]

Andrew Jackson, energized by his victory, notified incoming President James Monroe that he was ready to seize Florida "in sixty days." His troops captured Pensacola in May 1818. The General now shifted into high gear, embarking on "a campaign of terror, devastation, and intimidation" that included burning "sources of food in a calculated effort to inflict starvation on the tribes," according to historian William Weeks. His "exhibition of murder and plunder known as the First Seminole war," writes Weeks, was part of Jackson’s goal of "removing or eliminating native Americans from the southeast."[8]

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, believing in "Indian removal, slavery, and the use of military force without congressional approval," and that it was "better to err on the side of vigor than on the side of weakness," defended the invasion, as well as Jackson’s brutal search and destroy operations. In presenting that defense, writes Weeks, "he consciously distorted, dissembled, and lied about the goals and conduct of American foreign policy to both Congress and the public" — an effort, Weeks believes, that "stands as a monumental distortion of the causes and conduct of Jackson’s conquest of Florida, reminding historians not to search for truth in official explanations of events." [9]

In 1819, the United States persuaded a war-weary Spain to sell Florida for $5 million, and in 1822 it entered the Union as a slave state.

Although the first Seminole War had ended with a real estate deal that erased all claims of Florida’s original inhabitants, many more years of war lay ahead. The U.S. had entered a quagmire, with, at times, half of its army tied down in ongoing skirmishes in Florida’s swampland.

The Second Seminole War began full scale in 1836. That year, soon after arriving to take command of U.S. operations in Florida, General Sidney Thomas Jesup warned of the war’s consequences: "This, you may be assured, is a negro and not an Indian war; and if it be not speedily put down, the south will feel the effects of it on their slave population." He analyzed the task ahead:

The two races, the negro and the Indian, are rapidly approximating; they are identical in interests and feelings. . . . Should the Indians remain in this territory the negroes among them will form a rallying point for runaway negroes from the adjacent states; and if they remove, the fastness of the country will be immediately occupied by negroes. [10]

The war raged on, with U.S. officers violating truce agreements, seizing women and children as hostages, attacking peaceful villages and destroying crops. The Army tried mightily to pit the Blacks against the Indians through various diplomatic maneuvers, but the attempts at racial division failed. Unable to sunder Seminole solidarity, a U.S. military victory remained elusive. The Seminoles, using classic guerilla tactics, continued to run circles around the most modern army in the Americas. On Christmas Eve, 1837, about 400 red and black Seminoles, though outnumbered more than two to one, inflicted the most stunning loss suffered by the U.S. Army in decades of Indian warfare. [11]

After a year of guerilla warfare, Jesup restated his view: "The warriors have fought as long as they had life," which he credited to "the determination of those who influence their councils–I mean the leading negroes." He concluded, "The negroes rule the Indians, and it is important that they should feel themselves secure; if they should become alarmed and hold out, the war will be resumed." Jesup proposed that the entire Seminole nation, with its Black members, be allowed to migrate west. While planters greeted the idea with "violent protests," ultimately Jesup’s proposal would prove to be the only plan that could bring peace. [12]

In the Second Seminole War 1500 U.S. soldiers had died, Congress had spent more than $40,000,000 (pre-Civil War dollars!) and thousands of soldiers were wounded or had died of disease. Seminole losses, particularly civilians, were undoubtedly much higher.

Finally, thousands of red and black Seminoles, having won assurances that they could remain free and united as a nation, agree to migrate to the Oklahoma Indian Territory. Others neither surrendered nor left their Florida homeland. The Seminoles of Florida had operated the largest station on the Underground Railroad and had emerged undefeated, with their community intact, from nearly 50 years of siege. Their accomplishment has no equal in United States history.

WILLIAM LOREN KATZ is the author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. His new, revised edition of THE BLACK WEST [Harlem Moon/Random House, 2005] also includes information on the Philippine occupation, and can now be found in bookstores. He can be reached through his website: www.williamlkatz.com


[1] William Weeks, John Quincy Adams and the American Global Empire (Kentucky, 1992).; See also, Noam Chomsky, Failed States, [New York, 2006] 89-92 for a discussion of how precedents established by the 1816 invasion of Florida impacted on American foreign policy through the current occupation of Iraq.

[2] The following sources inform this article: Kenneth W. Porter, The Negro on the American Frontier [New York, 1971] a pioneering collection of scholarly articles on African Americans and Native Americans, based on primary sources presents reliable information on the Seminole alliance. Newer sources confirm Porter’s major findings: Daniel F. Littlefield, Africans and Seminoles from Removal to Emancipation [Greenwood Press, 1977]; WILLIAM LOREN KATZ, Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage [Atheneum 1986] a popular history; Kevin Mulroy, Freedom on the Border: Seminole Maroons in Florida, the Indian Territory, Cuahuila, and Texas [Texas Tech University Press, 1992]; Kenneth W. Porter, The Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-Seeking People, [University Press of Florida] 1996, "revised and edited by Alcione M. Amos and Thomas P. Senter" from a Porter manuscript.

[2] Major General Sidney T. Jesup, Jesup Papers, box 14; 25th Congress, Second session, 1837-1838, House Executive Doc., Vol. III, no. 78, p. 52.

[3] Porter, 202, 212.

[4] Report of Col. Clinch on "the destruction of Fort Negro, on the Apalachicola, July 29, 1816" [Washington: War Records Office, National Archives]

[5] Porter, 219

[6] Porter, 221

[7] Porter, 223

[8] William Weeks, Op. Cit.; see also Richard Immerman and Regina Gramer, Passport, (newsletter of the Society of Historians for American Foreign Relations, August 2005.

[9] Washington Chauncey Ford, ed., Writings of John Quincy Adams [Macmillan, 1916], volume 6, p. 385n

[10] Major General Jesup, in American State Papers, Military Affairs, vol. 7, 820-822; see also Porter, 272, 281, 282.

[11] For U.S. efforts to sow racial discord, see exchanges between General Gaines and King Hatchy in American State Papers, 1 (Washington, D.C., 1832) 723, and Chief Emachutochustern to General Thompson, Indian Agent, 1835 in American State Papers, Military Affairs 4, (Washington, D.C., 1861) 463; Porter, 1996, "revised and edited," 88-93; Porter, "Seminole Flight from Ft. Marion," Florida Historical Quarterly xxvi (July, 1947) 92-98.

[12] Major General Jesup, March 26, 1837 in American State Papers, Military Affairs, VII. 835.; Porter, 276-277; Mulroy, 29.


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