General Jackson responded to the attack on Fort Bowyer by calling the Mississippi Territory militia into active service. He correctly deduced that the British intended to use Mobile or Pensacola as a base for future operations. He sent reinforcements to Mobile and strengthened Fort Bowyer. He then planned an attack to drive the British out of Pensacola. As a pretext to crossing the international border of a neutral nation, Jackson contended that Spain’s inability—or unwillingness—to secure its own territory from British invasion had violated its neutrality. Within a few weeks, Jackson had about four thousand troops assembled at Fort Montgomery on the Alabama River poised to advance into West Florida. He informed the Spanish governor that he must evict the British from Pensacola and allow the United States to occupy the forts guarding Pensacola harbor. Should the governor refuse, Jackson threatened to take matters into his own hands.
The governor rejected Jackson’s demand but could do little to resist his army. By all accounts, the 500-man Pensacola garrison lacked motivation and coordination and had few supplies. The garrison’s poor condition had been the reason the Spanish had allowed the British to land in the first place. Just as the Spanish could not prevent the British takeover, they could do little to halt the Americans without British assistance.
On 7 November, Jackson began his assault. Knowing the U.S. camp lay to the west of the town, the Spanish positioned the bulk of their forces to meet an attack from that quarter. The British ships in the harbor likewise trained their guns in that direction. Jackson deceived both by leaving a force of five hundred men in camp to hold their attention. Then, in the predawn darkness, he marched most of his forces around to the east side of the town. At dawn, with the sun at their backs, the Americans attacked.
Jackson’s army advanced in four columns: three of white troops and one of allied Choctaw warriors. Each of the columns that would penetrate the main enemy defenses included a company of regulars in the van with orders to conduct immediate bayonet assaults on any enemy encountered. The British warships in the harbor attempted to repel the Americans with gunfire, but Jackson’s soldiers advanced into the town so quickly that the Royal Navy could not fire without risking setting Pensacola afire. Hardened after over a year of campaigning in Creek country, the American forces carried the town within minutes of initiating the attack.
With the town securely under his control, Jackson planned to capture the outlying forts guarding the harbor the following day. His delay gave the enemy time to detonate the powder in the magazines at Forts San Carlos de Barrancas and Santa Rosa before he evacuated them, thereby destroying the defenses. The Americans had captured the town, but they could not hold it against a determined naval attack without those forts. Nevertheless, Jackson had dealt a serious blow to British plans.