Although America enjoyed some success in bullying Spain in 1813, the situation in the southern United States remained perilous. With British encouragement, elements of the Creek Nation allied with Tecumseh launched a war against the United States in midyear, and subduing the “Red Sticks,” as the hostile warriors were called, was proving difficult. Moreover, during 1813 Britain and its allies made significant progress in their war with France in Europe, allowing officials in London to contemplate sending more forces to North America.
British officials began planning operations in the Gulf of Mexico in mid-1813. Charles Cameron, the Royal Governor of the Bahamas at Nassau, provided his superiors with detailed information about the region culled from his connections with area traders visiting the Bahamas and their friendly Indian contacts. Cameron’s intelligence presented the Gulf Coast as an easy target. According to his sources, scores of Indians, as well as French and Spanish whites and both free and slave Africans, would leap at the opportunity to fight against the United States. Cameron proposed sending British military personnel into the region to help organize and train the local allies.
Spanish West Florida became the focal point of British machinations. Despite America’s seizure of Mobile, Spain still maintained neutrality in the Anglo-American conflict. Not wanting to provoke the United States into annexing more of its land, Spain hesitated to openly assist in Cameron’s scheme. The British suggested that the Spanish quietly abandon their fort on the Apalachicola River, in a sparsely traveled area east of Pensacola, to give the Americans little reason to encroach into the area. The British would then quietly move in, and if the United States discovered their presence, Spain could disavow knowledge and feign outrage at the British intrusion.
In April 1814, as Emperor Napoleon abdicated his throne in defeat, Capt. Hugh Pigot of the Royal Marines sailed for the Apalachicola to make contact with Indians hostile to the United States. Ten prominent Creek and Seminole chiefs heartily greeted the officer, but also brought the news of a major defeat in which Jackson’s forces had killed almost one thousand Red Stick warriors at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. The Tennessee general had continued his advance deeper into Creek territory and had compelled the Creeks to surrender. The defeat of the main Red Stick forces, together with the defeat of Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames River in Canada the previous October, dealt fatal blows to the dream of creating an Indian confederacy to contain American expansion and to raising significant numbers of Indian recruits to help the British attack the Gulf Coast.
The setback notwithstanding, Pigot proceeded to assemble supplies and to gather as many native allies as he could. Scarce provisions plagued his efforts and limited his ability to train the disparate group as a cohesive force, but early results were promising. The marine officer reported that the warriors showed great enthusiasm and might even prove effective light cavalrymen if properly equipped. He also argued that boys as young as ten years of age were willing to fight but that the muskets Britain had supplied were too long. In response, British officials sent Pigot both saddles and short-barreled carbines.
By August 1814, Maj. Edward Nicholls of the 3d Battalion of Royal Marines had arrived on scene to assume command of the operation. Before continuing to his destination, Governor Cameron briefed Nicholls about conditions on the Gulf Coast. The Spanish still had reservations about giving direct aid to the British. Although the fort at Apalachicola provided the British with a useful base for recruiting native allies and runaway slaves, Britain required a deep-water port on the Gulf to harbor an invasion fleet. When the British asked for permission to use Pensacola, the captain-general of Cuba refused to allow such a flagrant violation of Spanish neutrality. Fortunately for Nicholls, the governor of Pensacola, González Manrique, had no such concerns. Fearful of an impending American attack, he asked Nicholls to bring his troops to the town.
Nicholls’ contingent of marines and native allies quickly took over Pensacola. Many Spaniards soon regretted their governor’s decision. The British imposed a strict passport system to control movement and began recruiting the slaves of Spanish owners into service. British rule was so oppressive that even British commercial agents began supplying the United States with intelligence.
Satisfied with his new base of operations, Nicholls assembled more forces for his growing army. On Pigot’s advice, he sought to enlist the service of Jean Laffite, the leader of a band of smugglers operating as privateers with dubious letters of marque from various Latin American authorities in rebellion against Spain. Laffite’s base of operations lay south of New Orleans on islands in Barataria Bay, one of the swampy inlets along the Gulf of Mexico. The self-styled “Baratarians” knew intimately the myriad bayous and waterways that snaked across lower Louisiana. If Nicholls could secure the Baratarians’ assistance, the British could secretly move an attack force to the very gates of New Orleans.
Nicholls sent two trusted officers to bribe Laffite and his men for their help. The Crown offered Laffite a commission, title, $30,000 prize money, and proportional gratuities for his subordinates. Laffite asked for time to consult his various ships’ captains and sent the British on their way, then forwarded the British documents to Governor Claiborne and warned him of the impending attack. Laffite and his men had often had legal troubles with the United States over smuggling, but they enjoyed significant popular support in New Orleans due to their ability to smuggle luxury goods past the British blockade. Additionally, the British alliance would have required Laffite and his men to refrain from attacking Spanish shipping, their most common and lucrative prey. An alliance with the British was simply not in Laffite’s best interest.