Monday, April 16, 2012

Fort Bowyer - Alabama's Forgotten Battle of the War of 1812

Fort Bowyer stood on the site of today's Fort Morgan
When history buffs think of a brave stand by outnumbered American troops and a devastating defeat of the British on the Gulf Coast, they usually think of Andrew Jackson's stunning victory at the Battle of New Orleans.

Before New Orleans, however, there was Fort Bowyer. The all but forgotten little fort stood on Mobile Point in Alabama and on September 15, 1814, the men of its garrison withstood a British onslaught to secure a victory that lifted the spirits of Americans far and wide.

Plan of Fort Bowyer
Begun in the fall of 1813 after American troops seized Mobile from the Spanish, the fort was built of earth and timber on the site where the better known Fort Morgan stands today. With a semi-circular front facing the entrance to Mobile Bay, Fort Bowyer was designed to sweep the channel with artillery fire. Its land face was bastioned as an additional defense against an infantry attack.

In anticipation of their coming move on New Orleans, the British initially planned to take Mobile. Its location and bay made the city ideal for an overland move against Baton Rouge, where the Mississippi River could be controlled to break off supplies and other commerce moving downstream to New Orleans. Such a move would make the Crescent City much easier to take.

This view shows the route of the British ships.
Having landed troops and trained Creek and Seminole Indians in Pensacola with the permission of the Spanish Governor there, the British quickly focused their attention on Fort Bowyer. Built on the shifting sands of Mobile Point and still not complete, the fort offered what was expected to be an easy target. Once the fort was taken, Mobile would of necessity capitulate soon after.

Sailing west from Pensacola in early September, British commander Captain William H. Percy put ashore 60 men from the Colonial Royal Marines under Lieutenant Colonel Edward Nicolls. Supported by 120 or so Indians under Captain George Woodbine, this force moved to block land access to Fort Bowyer and Nicolls directed his Marines, almost all of whom were free blacks, to emplace a 5 1/2 inch howitzer on a high sand dune near the fort.

Cannon on display in Fort Bowyer exhibit at Fort Morgan Museum
Nicolls became sick with dysentery after achieving this objective and went back aboard the flagship HMS Hermes for treatment. While he was suffering on board ship, Captain Percy moved forward to attack Fort Bowyer.

On the afternoon of September 15, 1814, the four British warships, led by the 20-gun Hermes formed in a line and closed in on Fort Bowyer. Major William Lawrence and his garrison from the 2nd U.S. Infantry stood to their guns on the walls of the fort and, when the British came into range at around 4:15 p.m., opened fire.

HMS Hermes in Action
The following battle was one of the fiercest land and sea battles of the War of 1812. The rumble of cannon fire shook the ground for miles around as fire and smoke covered both the fort and the leading ships of the squadron. The sick Colonel Nicolls, already known in Great Britain as "Fighting Nicolls" leaped into action on the Hermes, helping Captain Percy direct the fire of the guns. A cannon shot from Fort Bowyer sent a shower of lethal splinters across the deck where Nicolls was standing, wounding him in the legs and head. He went below for treatment but then came back up to continue the fight.

For hours the Battle of Fort Bowyer raged at virtually the same site of the later and better known Battle of Mobile Bay during the Civil War. To learn more about the fight, please visit

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