The Americans were the first to militarize the situation in the Gulf. Three months before the United States declared war against Great Britain, elements of the Georgia militia, aided by members of the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, invaded Spanish East Florida in an attempt to capture St. Augustine. The invasion was motivated by desires for enhanced local security and territorial aggrandizement. President James Madison disavowed any involvement and condemned the action, leading the invaders to withdraw. Congress, however, used the apparent weakness of the Spanish government to press the claim that West Florida should have been included in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Accordingly, on 14 April 1812, Congress ordered the governor of the Mississippi Territory to administer all the lands west of the Perdido River. Spain objected, but it could do little to oppose the action. Spanish troops continued to garrison Fort Charlotte in Mobile, but Spain exercised no actual authority in the territory beyond.

Portrait of Andrew Jackson. By Ralph E. W. Earl. 1837. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Toward the end of the year, the U.S. government authorized Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson to lead about two thousand Tennessee militia to New Orleans to help secure that city against possible attack. The 46-year-old Jackson harbored an intense hatred for the British that originated from his service in the Revolutionary War. After joining a militia unit at age thirteen to serve as a courier, he was captured and treated cruelly. He still bore the scars on his left hand and head where a British officer had slashed him with a sword for refusing to clean his boots. While in captivity, Jackson nearly starved and contracted smallpox before being released. After the war, he became a successful lawyer, planter, and land speculator. He served as a delegate to Tennessee’s Constitutional Convention in 1796. After Tennessee achieved statehood that same year, voters elected him first to the U.S. House of Representatives and later to the Senate. After resigning his seat, he received an appointment as a justice on the Tennessee Supreme Court. Remaining active in the militia, he rose to the position of commanding officer with the rank of major general.

Jackson and his militia army departed Tennessee for the Gulf Coast in January 1813. An unabashed expansionist, Jackson hoped to exploit the opportunity and to invade Spanish Florida. It was not to be. Adverse weather and inadequate supplies hampered his progress, as did confusion and tensions in the U.S. military command, which in February instructed him to halt near the Mississippi port town of Natchez, 176 miles northwest of New Orleans. There, his army endured harsh weather with inadequate food and shelter until March, when the War Department ordered Jackson to disband his army and return to Tennessee. The mood in Congress had shifted. A series of military disasters along the Canadian frontier had dampened enthusiasm for offensive operations, and voices arose against doing anything that might drive Spain into a closer alliance with Great Britain. Jackson tramped back to Tennessee in a cold fury.

No sooner had Jackson returned to Tennessee than officials in Washington changed their minds once again. In April, the secretary of war ordered the commander in New Orleans, Brig. Gen. James Wilkinson, to expel the Spanish from Mobile. The presence of British traders in Mobile who sold arms and supplies to the Indians, and the nagging fear that Spain would cooperate with any possible British military operation in the Gulf region, justified the move.

Wilkinson promptly led eight hundred men and five gunboats into position at the mouth of Mobile Bay to block Spanish reinforcements coming by sea, while four hundred soldiers moved east from Fort Stoddert to block reinforcements coming from Pensacola by land. After effectively isolating Fort Charlotte, Wilkinson demanded its surrender. Fortunately for everyone involved, the Spanish commander, Capt. Cayetano Pérez, recognized the hopelessness of his situation and capitulated. Wilkinson allowed the Spanish soldiers to leave the fort with their personal weapons and equipment, but the United States took possession of the fort as well as its artillery and military stores.

Survey from the bay of Perdido to Mobile Point made by order of Genl. James Wilkinson. By Joseph C. Kennedy. 1813. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The Spanish minister to Washington, Luis de Onís, lodged a cautious protest. He believed that diplomacy was the best way to handle the United States. As long as Spain was fighting for survival in Europe, it could send little support to its colonies. Indeed, threatening military action might provoke the United States into seizing even more territory. Although Onís’ cautious policy dampened tensions with the United States, it did not sit well with other Spanish officials in the New World. Juan Ruiz Apodaca, the captain-general of Cuba, wanted to use the threat of force to deter the United States from invading any more Spanish land. He dispatched a militia regiment from Cuba to reinforce the garrison at Pensacola, but could do little else. To compound the problem, the soldiers already in Pensacola suffered from low morale and had not received pay in fifty-six months. Apodaca realized that if the Americans made a serious attempt on the colonies under his care, he might be forced to call on Spain’s ally Great Britain for assistance. That act would be personally embarrassing to the Spanish commander and possibly encourage a British takeover of the threatened colonies. Caught between several unpalatable outcomes, the captain-general came around to Onís’ point of view that inaction was perhaps the wisest course.

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