Matthew J. Clavin. The Battle of the Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community. New York: New York University Press, 2019. 272 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4798-3733-5.
Reviewed by Evan Kutzler (Georgia Southwestern State University)
Published on H-Slavery (March, 2020)
Commissioned by Andrew J. Kettler (University of California, Los Angeles)
Overlooking a river that once divided east and west Florida, Prospect Bluff holds a special place in the history of the early American republic, Andrew Jackson, and resistance to slavery. The defining event—the so-called Battle of Negro Fort on the Apalachicola River in July 1816—carries a heavy interpretive load. It was at once a postscript to the War of 1812, one of several violations of Spanish sovereignty that led to the Adams–Onís Treaty, and a prologue to aggressive westward expansion. In hands of recent scholars like Nathaniel Millett and, now, Matthew J. Clavin, Prospect Bluff represents a complex crossroads of national interests and ideas that enhance our understanding of the early United States, the Atlantic world, and the exchange between the two.
In The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community, Clavin imagines Prospect Bluff as a turning point in the United States’ “transformation into a white republic, which served both the interests and the ideology of an emerging Slave Power” (p. 14). Although Clavin follows Millett’s The Maroons of Prospect Bluff and their Quest for Freedom in the Atlantic World (2013) closely in structure, it is his interpretive framing and accessible narrative that make this book inviting to a nonspecialist reader. Following up on his conquests in the Creek Civil War and the War of 1812, Jackson saw in the maroon colony at the abandoned British fort a “pretext for war” against Spanish Florida (p. 12). “That the US government felt compelled to destroy this symbol [of African American freedom],” Clavin writes, “proved the nation’s commitment to slavery while illuminating the extent to which ambivalence over the institution had disappeared since the nation’s founding” (pp. 13-14). Wrapped in language of national security, proslavery expansionists argued, in effect, that protecting white freedom required destroying a lone symbol of black freedom across an international boundary.
The destruction of the maroon colony indicates to Clavin that affinity between slaveowners and the US government was real, and the Slave Power existed long before northern abolitionists put a name to it and called it a conspiracy. Benjamin Hawkins, for example, a man who spent two decades at the Creek Agency in Georgia, doubled as “a ruthless slave trader” (p. 27). He turned his government outpost into a holding pen for runaway men, women, and children; moreover, Hawkins offered Native Americans cash rewards for capturing black fugitives. “Decades later, in the middle of the nineteenth century, southern slaveowners would threaten disunion if the government did not further assist them in the recovery of fugitives slaves,” Clavin writes. “But such threats were unnecessary at the turn of the nineteenth century with federal agents, including Hawkins, serving as slave catchers” (pp. 27-28). Key government officials were committed to protecting slavery at home and on the frontier borderlands. The action against Prospect Bluff carried that commitment across well-known international lines.
In Clavin's telling, American motivations in the War of 1812 included the proslavery goal of eradicating safe havens for self-emancipating African Americans who fled across the southern border. Conflicts against both the Redsticks and the British provided possible pretexts for invading Spanish Florida. British strategy played into this pretext by occupying Spanish Florida, arming factions of the Creek and Seminole nations, and freeing enslaved people in exchange for military service. War provided the context for an interracial alliance—the symbol of liberation—at Prospect Bluff in 1814. Peace, on the other hand, became the first harbinger of disaster for the free black community that remained after the British left.
Publishers are notorious for letting marketing decisions determine book titles—sometimes over the impassioned pleas of authors. For a book whose subtitle points to the origins and destruction of a so-called fugitive slave community, it is noticeable that only one chapter examines the internal dynamics of Prospect Bluff. This is curious for two reasons that have to do with the book’s main competitor, Millett’s Maroons of Prospect Bluff. In Millett’s denser and more comprehensive analytical narrative, he takes four chapters to contextualize the community. Clavin, in contrast, summarizes the day-to-day life at Prospect Bluff simply as “a typical maroon colony” and an atypical community because of the role the British played in creating, supplying, and arming it (p. 80).
The brief attention to the free black community is also surprising because Clavin’s main disagreement with Millett involves what Prospect Bluff settlement meant to those inside it. According to Clavin, the residents of Prospect Bluff lived under “martial law” rather than, as he quotes Millet, “a sophisticated and modern political system” (p. 86). Likewise, Clavin concedes that the defenders of Prospect Bluff fought in British uniforms and under the Union Jack, but he rejects Millett’s assertation that “the members of the community acted as British subjects who were defending sovereign territory in resisting the American invasion” (p. 119). In Clavin’s view, then, the Prospect Bluff community cared more about survival and autonomy than political philosophy and national allegiance.
One reason Clavin may have chosen not to focus on life inside the Prospect Bluff settlement is that the meaning of its destruction matters more to his central argument. Even calling it “Negro Fort,” a name coined by white men who wanted kill or recapture its residents, points to the significance of its destruction. This is where The Battle of Negro Fort is strongest. As a symbol of black freedom, white southerners were determined to bring about its downfall with or without official sanctioning. “Approximately one year after Negro Fort became the largest independent community of fugitive slaves in the history of the present-day United States, Jackson endeavored to bring about its ruin,” Clavin writes. “Ordering a combined army-navy invasion of Spanish Florida, he launched an illegal, unconstitutional, and undeclared war against fugitive slaves” (p. 101).
Critics at the time and some modern historians have placed most of the blame on Jackson for the illegal invasion that led to the battle at Prospect Bluff and, two years later, the First Seminole War. In contrast, Clavin shows how Jackson gambled, correctly, on the direction of US foreign policy both times. Jackson hedged his first bet in Florida by delegating the task of destroying Prospect Bluff to Edmund P. Gaines. This allowed the general the flexibility to “avoid culpability if the assault proved unsuccessful or particularly controversial” (p. 108). After the fact, Jackson interpreted the silence coming from Washington as a good sign. “Public acts,” he told a subordinate, “if not publicly censured, are tacitly approved” (p. 135). In other words, Jackson correctly predicted the confluence of southern sectional interests and US foreign policy.
Jackson was not alone. The proto-Slave Power required collaborators in the free states and within the US government. Following Jackson’s invasion in the First Seminole War, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams embraced what Clavin describes as “a pro-Jackson, pro-slavery, pro-southern point of view” in a letter to the US minister to Spain that was republished in the National Intelligencer (p. 158). Depicting the free black settlement and its survivors among the Seminoles as a menace to a white republic, Adams “provided the blueprint for Jackson’s defenders in the congressional hearings that followed” (p. 158). Adam’s involvement was remarkable for two reasons. As a man who became only the second early president not to own slaves (the other president being his father), Adam’s acquiescence to proslavery foreign policy shows how pervasive the sentiment was in the so-called Era of Good Feelings. Adam’s involvement is also significant because of his opposition to the admission of Missouri as a slave state only one year later. During that controversy, Adams vividly described a "phalanx" of representatives from the slave states metaphorically overrunning the disorganized representatives of the free states. Adams would spend much of the rest of his life opposing the proslavery interest that Jackson, with Adam’s assistance, had helped unleash.
Clavin’s Battle of Negro Fort is an accessible, worthwhile read about a still-underappreciated topic. Rather than merely an aberrant invasion led by a rogue general, the destruction of Prospect Bluff and the First Seminole War resurface in Clavin’s writing as a key turning point in the creation of a white republic and the rise of the Slave Power. More than just fugitives from slavery died when the fort’s powder magazine exploded. One of the casualties was any uncertainty about the relationship between the US government and the future of slavery in an expanding, proslavery empire. Forget New Orleans of 1814-15, and put the battle of Negro Fort in your next early republic lecture.
. David Waldstreicher and Matthew Mason, John Quincy Adams and the Politics of Slavery: Selections from the Diary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 77-78.
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Evan Kutzler. Review of Clavin, Matthew J., The Battle of the Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community.
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