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THE SOCIETY WAR OF 1812 IN THE STATE OF ALABAMA, GENERAL SOCIETY OF THE WAR OF 1812
THE MAJOR URIAH BLUE CHAPTER
On April 15, 1813, American troops under the command of General James Wilkinson, seized Mobile and surrounding territory from Spain. As early as 1811, American troops had marched to within a half-mile of the gates of Fort Carlotta, and then marched away without incident. However, in 1813 the circumstances were dramatically different. The United States was at war with the world’s greatest military power and Mobile was strategically important to the defense of New Orleans, our country’s leading commercial center on the Gulf of Mexico. The seizure of the Spanish territory around Mobile was the only territorial gain made by the United States during The War of 1812. One of the most important strategic prizes acquired by the United States was Mobile Point. Control of Mobile Point meant the control of Mobile Bay and that control deprived Great Britain of a base of operations against New Orleans.
By the summer of 1813, General Thomas Flournoy had issued orders directing Col. John Bowyer to erect a log and sand fortification on Mobile Point. However, early in 1814 concerns over the fort’s vulnerability led General Flournoy to abandon his work. During the summer of 1814 a general arrived in Mobile who immediately saw the importance of fortifying Mobile Point. Major-General Andrew Jackson quickly dispatched Col. Richard Sparks to rebuild the fort and ordered Major William Lawrence and 160 regulars of the 2nd U.S. Infantry to garrison the work. On August 24th the fort was named to honor Col. John Bowyer.
The rebuilding and reoccupation of Fort Bowyer was accomplished with no time to spare, as preparations were underway by British naval forces to attack Mobile Point.
The Senior British naval commander in the Gulf of Mexico, Capt. Sir William Percy, believed that the defenders of Fort Bowyer would be routed as a matter of course. His four warships, which included the veteran sloop of war HMS Hermes, along with his Royal Marines would be more than adequate to defeat the upstart Americans. However, unlike the militia that the British had brushed off the field so many times, Major William Lawrence's 160 man garrison, although not battle tested, were disciplined U.S. Army regulars. Like the United States Army regulars who dressed their ranked under fire and had stood against the British at the Battle of Chippewa in July of 1814, Lawrence’s men would also hold their ground. Unfortunately the defense and ultimate victory achieved by this small, but well led force, has often been overlooked.
The battle fought here on September 15th, 1814 was one of the most humiliating defeats suffered by British forces during the War of 1812. Earlier that summer the British had routed American troops at Bladensburg and had burn our Nation’s capital.
During the same week of September that Capt. Percy was mounting his land and sea assault against Fort Bowyer, British naval forces were attacking Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Unlike the British offensive on Washington and Baltimore, the British strategy for the assault on Mobile Point was to capture territory. The capture of Fort Bowyer and Mobile Point was the first phase of a campaign aimed at the capture of Mobile which would then be used as a base for operations against New Orleans. The capture of New Orleans would give the British a foot hold on the Gulf and cut off vital American commerce that came through the city.
On September 11th, 1814, Capt. Percy put his plan into action. His total force numbered 852 sailors and marines, eighty cannons and 120 Creek Indian allies. He landed 120 Royal Marines and the Creek Indians nine miles east of the fort.
This force was to be commanded by Lt. Col. Edward Nicolls, an Irishman who was known to his Marines as "Fighting Nicolls". However, Nicolls, became ill shortly after landing on Mobile Point. Unable to lead the land force Nicolls returned to the Hermes. Command fell to Captain Robert Henry who immediately dispatched Lt. James Castle and 60 of the Creek Indian to secure the pass at Bon Secour.
Near 4:00 PM on September 15th, with the Marines and Creek Indians in place, Capt. Percy began his attack. By 4:30 two of the British warships had anchored within "musket-shot distance" of Fort Bowyer. The fortunes of battle rapidly turned against the British. The Sophie, number two ship in the line behind Hermes, quickly lost much of its effective artillery as rotten timbers caused her guns to overturn or throw their breeching bolts. Carron and Childers, the next two ships in line were unable to provide much support as lack of wind and a strong tide kept them out of artillery range. Disaster struck Hermes earlyin the action as a shot from Fort Bowyer parted her bow spring, which caused the ship to swing around with its bow facing the fort. For twenty minutes Fort Bowyer’s gunners poured shot after shot into the helpless vessel. Their accurate shooting tore away Hermes’ rigging. British sailors stood at their guns as deadly fire from Fort Bowyer began to take a heavy toll of the Hermes' crew.
Shortly after 6:00 PM Captain Percy attempted to clear his badly damaged ship out of range of the fort by cutting her cable and using the strong out flowing tide to carry her away. The Hermes, now unmanageable, drifted a short distance and ran aground, still in range of Fort Bowyers guns.
At this time the Royal Marines attempted one last all-out effort to assault the fort, but with their artillery ammunition expended and seeing the Hermes’ dire condition, the attack was halted. With that, the battle was over.
As evening fell the Childers embarked thirty eight of the Creek Indians for evacuation to Pensacola. The remainder of the Royal Marines and Creek Indian, supplied with rations by the squadron, began an overland withdrawal to Pensacola. Near 7PMCaptain Percy ordered his badly damaged flagship abandoned and her surviving crewmen were taken aboard the Sophie. Hermes was then set ablaze to prevent her capture by the Americans. Around 10 PM the fire reached the ship's powder magazine. Hermes was destroyed by a tremendous explosion that was heard in Mobile.
Fort Bowyer had four men killed and five wounded. The British naval losses were thirty-three killed and forty wounded, including a Royal Marine who was killed during the land assault. The most notable British casualty on the Hermes was "Fighting Nicolls" who was severely wounded three times and lost an eye during the battle.
After the battle Major Lawrence expressed pride in his command's conduct during the engagement. He wrote to Major-General Andrew Jackson,
"...every officer and man did his duty; the whole behaved with that
coolness and intrepidity which is characteristic of the true American, and
which could scarcely have been expected from men most of whom had
never seen and enemy, and were now for the first time exposed for nearly
three hours to a force of nearly or quite four guns to one."
Sir William Percy and the surviving crew of the HMS Hermes, had to endure a court-martial for the loss of their ship. The court meet on January 8, 1815, on board the HMS Cydnus.
The court found that Percy's attack "was perfectly justified" and all involved acted "with the greatest gallantry." The court absolved Capt. Percy along with the officers and crew of all blame for the loss of the Hermes and they were "honorably acquitted." Although Capt. Percy was acquitted, he never again commanded a warship at sea.
The failed British attack on Mobile Point had far reaching consequences. The American victory gave a boost to U.S. Army recruiting in the South. The victory also demoralized the British Creek Indian allies at a critical stage in the campaign on the Gulf. Andrew Jackson used the attack as a reason to call all available militia into service and to order the immediate strengthening of Fort Bowyer in the mistaken belief that the fort could stop any likely British attack aimed at taking Mobile. It also convince Jackson to mount an expedition against Spanish Pensacola to deprive the British of their only available base of operations on the Gulf.
After the defeat at Fort Bowyer and the capture of Pensacola, the British dropped the plan to attack New Orleans by using Mobile and Pensacola as bases. It was replaced by Admiral Alexander Cochrane's plan for a direct assault on the city which resulted in the disastrous British defeat at Chalmette on January 8, 1815.
Following this defeat the British once again returned to Mobile Point, this time with overwhelming superiority. Fort Bowyer had no chance against this large force, so faced with no alternative William Lawrence accepted Sir John Lambert's terms and surrendered Fort Bowyer on February 11th, 1815
However, in defeat the Americans had struck one final blow against the British. Lawrence and his men had held long enough to have word of the Treaty of Ghent reach Admiral Cochrane on February 14th. With that hostilities on the Gulf Coast came to an end.
So what is the lasting legacy of William Lawrence and the defenders of Fort Bowyer? As historian Wilbert Brown wrote:
"Major William Lawrence's successful defense of Fort Bowyer in September, 1814
kept Mobile out of British hands then, and his delaying action in February, 1815
again prevented their winning that prize until news of the ratification of the Treaty
of Ghent put an end to British designs on Mobile and West Florida. The value of
the major's achievement is too often overlooked. It is impossible to see on what
grounds, under terms of the Treaty of Ghent (or any other treaty), the United
States could have expected Mobile or any part of West Florida, to have been
returned to her, had the British and Spaniards actually been in possession when
the treaty was ratified. American title rested entirely on the right of possession
by forcible occupation… By 1815, only Andrew Jackson and his subordinate,
William Lawrence, retained a vestige of title for the United States --- but that was
Although nothing remains of the small sand and log fort that stood against the British, it has another tangible legacy near the site on which it once stood. The heroic stand of American forces on Mobile Point was a significant factor that elevated seacoast fortifications to a position of major importance in the defense of our Nation. Fort Morgan, the impressive masonry fortification that was begun in 1819 and has stood on this point since 1834, owes its existence to the events that took place here during 1814 and 1815.
(This speech given by Mike Bailey, Site Director, Fort Morgan State Historic Site, on September 12, 2015 for the dedication ceremony for Fort Bowyer.)