In the late summer of 1814, a year after the massacre at Fort Mims and five months after the Creek defeat at Horseshoe Bend, Gen. Andrew Jackson led his army of soldiers and volunteers downriver into newly American Mobile. Like their commander, Jackson’s men were battle-hardened and mentally tough, accustomed to traveling light and fast. The typical private wore shoes, pants, leggings, a shirt, waistcoat, jacket, knapsack and hat. Weapons included a tomahawk and knife stuck in a belt and a .69-caliber Springfield musket, 5 feet long and weighing 10 pounds. This was a smoothbore and not especially accurate, but with a 15-inch bayonet attached and leveled at close quarters, it was intimidating and lethal enough. If wounded, soldiers’ prospects were usually poor. Amputation, gangrene and horrible suffering were the most likely results. The men ate meat, corn, bread and whatever else they could forage on the way. Six soldiers constituted a mess, the cooking done in an iron skillet and served on tin plates, the eating accomplished with knives and forks or grubby fingers. They slept in canvas tents, usually on the ground. Discipline was strict, especially under Jackson.
The flotilla finally reached “Mobile Town” on Aug. 22, where Jackson found the garrison healthy and well provisioned. Almost immediately, he dispatched men down to Fort Bowyer (at modern-day Mobile Point near Gulf Shores) to resupply and strengthen it for possible British assault. If such came, Jackson knew his best chances of protecting Mobile rested there. If the British got up to the town, it would go badly for the Americans. As had often been the case at critical junctures in the past, Fort Charlotte (the former French Fort Condé) was in deplorable condition and not likely to withstand a siege by the finest military force in the world. The brick walls were weak and the barracks too deteriorated to shelter men, so they quartered in town, while officers pitched their tents in the middle of the fort’s plaza.
Jackson established his headquarters in a rough dwelling near the river, where The Battle House stands today. His days were hectic and full as he began inspections of the surrounding area and engaged in a flurry of correspondence. The overall military picture looked bleak. The British were pursuing attacks in the north and planning more on the Gulf Coast. The Americans had been humiliated and routed on the Chesapeake, and Washington had been burned. The government remained intact but without a permanent address. As to the enemy’s Southern strategy, Vice Adm. Sir Alexander Inglis Cochrane had written to London that the “three thousand British Troops landed at Mobile” would be joined “by all the Indians with the disaffected French and Spaniards.” This combined force would then drive “the Americans entirely out of Louisiana and the Floridas.” On Aug. 27, Jackson got valuable hard evidence of this plan when James Innerarity appeared at his door and requested a private interview.
The local agent for John Forbes & Co. was a conscientious Scotsman who might have been presumed to remain loyal to the interests of his homeland. Jackson perhaps was suspicious initially, but not after Innerarity, with tears streaming down his face, handed him two letters. They had been sent by the agent’s brother, John, in Pensacola, and contained frightening news. “Great events are in Embrio and will soon develop themselves, ” one of them read. “Your situation is critical. The grand Fleet, consisting of 14 Saile of the line and a grate number of transports, arrived at Bermuda from B. bringing 25, 000 of Lord Wellington’s army.” Among these troops were supposedly two black regiments. New Orleans and control of the Mississippi Valley was the ultimate aim, but John feared Pensacola would be thrown open to this force by the Spanish, from whence Mobile would be an easy target. Jackson’s blood must have been boiling by this point. At Pensacola, the British could arm and supply hostile Indians to wreak more havoc in the backcountry, incite American slaves to rise up against their outnumbered masters and make Mobile Bay a lake for the Royal Navy. From there, New Orleans would be a pushover. Clearly now, everything hinged on Fort Bowyer and the pitifully small force behind its ramparts.
On Sept. 12, Maj. William Lawrence squinted out anxiously as four British warships, two sloops and two brigs, approached from the sparkling Gulf. The vessels worked their way toward the mouth of the Bay, taking soundings to find the channel. The Hermes, a 20-gun sixth-rater that drew a little more than 8 feet, stood into the Bay and dropped anchor. This was a lightweight vessel by the standards of 18th-century naval warfare, unfit for joining a line of battle against much bigger ships. But to the Americans about to face her wrath, she was doubtless a discouraging sight. Most of her guns were 32-pounder carronades, affectionately dubbed “smashers” by British seamen. In combination with her three sisters, she represented overwhelming odds. Bowyer had 11 guns, some of them antiquated, and 158 men. Its garrison confronted a total of 78 guns and 600 men on the sea and on the land 60 Royal Marines and 180 Native Americans who were preparing to assault the vulnerable fort’s rear. Once Bowyer fell, the British would move up the Bay, where those fearsome carronades would pulverize Fort Charlotte’s brick walls and sweep away the gently mouldering houses of the straggling little town.
On the afternoon of Sept. 14, the Marines and Indians were within 800 yards of the fort and opened fire with two small guns. The Americans responded immediately, and Lawrence was able to report the enemy “silenced by a few shot.” The land force thereupon decided to pull back and let the Navy do the dirty work. The following afternoon, the duel began. Lawrence’s men stood to their guns, and soon the British ships were “enveloped in a blaze of fire and smoke.” A lucky shot cut the Hermes’ cable, and she drifted onto a shoal, where the Americans raked her, causing great loss of life aboard. Disabled, she was set afire and abandoned by her crew. She burned into the night, the orange flames luridly flickering and dancing on the Bay waters, and at 10 p.m. Lawrence exulted, “we had the pleasure of witnessing the explosion of her magazine.” The report was audible all the way up at Mobile, where the agonized Jackson thought it was the fort. After he discovered otherwise, the delighted general intoned, “the gallant Lawrence, with his little spartan band, has given them a lecture that will last for ages.” Mobile would remain in American hands.
John S. Sledge is the author of “A Fine, Large River: The Mobile in American History, ” to be published in 2015 by the University of South Carolina Press.
Text by John S. Sledge