“We will fire the town” 

In the panic-stricken aftermath of Fort Mims, many Americans feared an Indian attack on Mobile. It never came.

Above This 19th century illustration depicts the death of Maj. Beasley at the Fort Gates. Courtesy Tennessee State Library and Archives. 

Situated at Fort Stoddert on the Mobile River, 10 miles south of Fort Mims, Judge Harry Toulmin feared the worst. He had in hand a note dated August 30, 1813, from Major Daniel Beasley, Mims’ commandant, dismissing rumors of Indian war parties. But plumes of ugly black smoke upstream augured otherwise. Within hours, traumatized American survivors arrived on Toulmin’s doorstep, briefly related news of the terrible massacre and continued downstream. “Some pushed off by water,” Toulmin reported, “others fled by land in the darkness of the night, and the whole face of the country exhibited a scene of consternation and distress.” Convinced his family would be safer at Mobile, Toulmin joined the exodus. “The river was strewed with boats from Fort Stoddert to Mobile,” he wrote, “and here many have no shelter and no means of support.” 

But how safe was Mobile? During the following days, more smoke rose from scattered locales as the Redsticks continued raiding and burning plantations and farms all over the Tensaw and up between the forks of the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers. Should they decide to attack the tiny American port city next, only recently taken from the Spanish and under-provisioned, overcrowded with refugees, and poorly defended by a crumbling brick fort and a few hundred soldiers, they could hardly fail to conquer. And what then? Surely, they would return it to the Spaniards positioned at nearby Pensacola, who would promptly invite the British, at war with the United States, into Mobile Bay. That would constitute a veritable dagger pressed against the young republic’s soft underbelly.

The Redsticks recognized their advantage, and sought counsel with Pensacola’s Spanish governor, Mateo Gonzalez Manrique, a shrewd frontier diplomatist, about their next move. Though Spain remained officially neutral, Manrique considered the recent American seizure of Mobile an act of bad faith. Based on that conviction, he had willingly provided the Redsticks supplies and hosted the British at Pensacola, all to the Americans’ fury. 

Shortly after the Fort Mims attack, Manrique received a letter from Josiah Francis, a Redstick prophet, or holy man, who represented his tribe’s warlike faction, the foremost of whom was the famed William Weatherford, or Chief Red Eagle. Francis professed friendship and solidarity with the Spaniards, and bragged about his people’s victory, declaring they “went against a garrison at tennisau [Tensaw] and … put the garrison in flames.” They had done this, he continued, despite rusted weapons and meagre equipment. He asked for more arms and goods to continue the fight, and then broached Mobile’s future. “I hope that you will make hast to take posesion of mobeale,” he wrote, “you lent mobeale to the American they have held that town two long if you have really given it up to the American you will give us answer for if you have we will fire the town.” [sic] 

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Gov. Manrique responded on September 29 (American troops later discovered the letter among Weatherford’s effects), expressing his “great satisfaction” at the Fort Mims news, and promising to ask authorities in Havana about supplying the Redsticks more arms and ammunition. But he objected to an immediate attack against Mobile. “I am very thankful for your generous offers to procure me the provisions and warriors necessary, in order to retake the post of Mobile,” he assured them. “To which I answer, that, for the present, I cannot profit by your generous offer, not being at war with the Americans, who did not take Mobile by force, since they purchased it from the miserable officer, destitute of honor, who commanded there, and delivered it without authority, by which means the sale and delivery of the place is totally null and void.” He continued that he hoped “the Americans will return it again to us, because no one can dispose of a thing that is not his own property; in consequence of which, the Spaniards have not lost their right to it. I hope you will not put in execution the project of which you spoke to me, that of burning the town, since those houses and properties do not belong to Americans, but to true Spaniards.” In short, he did not relish regaining a despoiled city. He closed with professions of respect, good wishes, and a few “small presents.” 

The Redsticks had their answer, and in deference to Manrique, they switched their attentions to the north, where General Andrew Jackson and his avenging Tennesseans were on the march. Thus did Mobile escape direct attack and the Redsticks meet their annihilation. mb

John S. Sledge’s “Mobile and Havana: Sisters Across the Gulf” with coauthor Alicia García Santana and photographers Chip Cooper and Julio Larramendi will be published March 2.

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