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Upper Mississippi Brigade articles; photo is UMB at Ft. Osage

Florida--1812 Junior, or Why Americans Didn't Trust the Army

by Eric Ferguson

Preliminaries--The Florida Campaign developed from the War of 1812. The war never entirely stopped on the Southeast frontier. Events that led to the seizure of Florida in 1818 go back to the Creek War of 1813.

The parties involved--Spain governed Florida and was struggling to hold on to its crumbling empire. Britain used Florida during the war and remained a Spanish ally. American settlers were pushing the frontiers in Alabama and Georgia. There were two factions of Creeks, divided over the extent of cooperating with Whites. The Seminoles were related to the Creeks and aligned with the nativists. Western politicians wanted to expand into Florida and remove the Spanish. Florida consisted of two provinces: East Florida was the peninsula, and West Florida the panhandle. The U.S. had already seized part of West Florida, the current panhandles of Alabama and Mississippi. Most events took place in West Florida.

1813"-1"4--Creek nativists, called "Red Sticks," received aid from Spain. This caused the other faction, sometimes referred to as "Allied Creeks," to seek help from the Americans. The result was a Creek civil war with American involvement on one side. This culminated in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, where an American/Creek force under Andrew Jackson nearly wiped out the Red Sticks. The survivors fled to Florida, and their presence was used as a pretext for American invasion. Creek leaders, including those allied with the U.S., were forced to cede large areas.

1815--There was cross-border raiding by Whites and Indians. Southern Whites were getting worked up about Black slaves escaping to Florida, where they joined free Black communities (Maroons), or lived in a kind of serfdom under the Seminoles. There was division between the factions in Georgia politics, and between presidential contenders including Jackson, William Crawford of Georgia, and Henry Clay. Jackson was a Major General, and his second in command, General Gaines, was searching for a pretext to invade Florida. Spain worried that America would aid Latin American rebels or allow rebels to use Florida, and might try to take Mexico.

1816--There was a free Black fort which Americans called Negro Fort. It was very heavily armed by the British. An American force destroyed it with a lucky shot by a navy gunboat. Spanish resented the intrusion, but also disliked the safe haven for their own Black slaves. The large number of arms led Americans to believe Britain and Spain intended to equip an army. Spain continued seeking help from Britain.

1817--Gaines and Jackson kept seeking permission to invade. They claimed there was an Indian menace, and they tried to provoke a Spanish attack by moving supplies for southern forts up Florida rivers. The U.S. took Amelia Island on the Atlantic coast to stop piracy, and said it would be given back when Spain could hold it. Gaines was repeatedly denied permission to invade, and Jackson aggravated the Secretary of War by making the same request.

1818--Jackson invaded. In two months he took St. Marks, attacked Seminole and Maroon towns, and took Pensacola. The excuses he gave for doing so didn't hold up. Two other incidents caused controversy: Jackson executed two British subjects for plotting against the U.S.; Georgia militia attacked Chehaw, a friendly Creek town. Jackson wanted the leaders tried, but the Georgia government let the men escape and avoided prosecuting, which would have been an unpopular action among frontiersmen. The disputes within the U.S. about the invasion arose from the army acting on its own. It made its own foreign policy, and exacted its own justice.

There were problems everywhere in Washington. Jackson was a divisive figure and the controversy revolved around him. Everyone wanted Florida. Some were loyal to Jackson but thought the army was out of control. Some wanted the invasion of Florida but didn't want Jackson getting the glory. Georgians wanted Florida but despised Jackson. The dilemmas were how to praise Jackson for actions they opposed, or oppose Jackson for actions they supported. The substance of the debate was Jackson's decisive action versus the superiority of civilian government under the Constitution.

Meanwhile, foreign diplomats were angry and left President Monroe in the awkward position of trying to explain the invasion. Britain ultimately didn't act. When Spain realized no help was coming and they couldn't hold Florida, they entered negotiations to cede Florida.

1819--Monroe made Jackson give Florida back. Congress debated the events and legalities. Did Jackson act against orders, or merely without orders? Why did he execute British subjects and risk starting a war with Britain? Where were the Indians he said were gathering at Pensacola, or where was evidence the Spanish aided them? The treaty with Spain was final before the committee reports came out, and everything was dropped without being resolved. Spain ceded Florida, and saved face by getting an American promise to neither try to take Mexico nor aid Latin American rebels.

Effects: only Congress could authorize the trial of foreign nationals. Congress reduced the army in 1821 and eliminated one of the two Major Generals, the junior being Jackson. Jackson was praised by many as a man of action, but there was no doubt that the army had been out of control, and this increased public suspicions of the army's motives and willingness to obey the government.

For further information, see Old Hickory's War: Andrew Jackson and the Quest for Empire by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler. Stackpole Books, 1996

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