Review of: The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community, by Matthew J. Clavin

In yet another fortuitous connection to my attendance at the Civil War Institute (CWI) 2023 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College, I sat in on an enlightening presentation by the historian David Silkenat1 on the environmental history of slavery in the American south that turned to a discussion of the frequently overlooked phenomenon of communities in secluded geographies that were populated by runaways who fled enslavement. These so-called “maroon communities” appeared mostly on the margins of settled areas across the upper and lower south, sometimes in tandem with the indigenous, with inhabitants eking out a living by hunting and gathering as well as small scale farming, supplemented by limited and surreptitious trading with the outside world. The origin of some of these maroon societies can be traced back to the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, when the British offered freedom to the enslaved if they were willing to serve in the military. Many jumped at the chance. On both occasions, when hostilities concluded, those who were unable or unwilling to withdraw with British forces went into hiding to avoid recapture and a return to slavery. One such refuge in the Spanish Floridas became known as the “Negro Fort.”

My next out of state trip subsequent to Gettysburg brought me to a small town in southern Vermont that one lazy afternoon found me exploring a used bookstore—housed in, of all places, a yurt2—where I stumbled upon The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community [2019], by Matthew J. Clavin. Silkenet’s fascinating talk about maroons rang in my head as I bought the book, and I started reading it that very day.

Southern planters often held competing, contradictory notions in their heads simultaneously, while sidestepping the cognitive dissonance that practice should have provoked. On the one hand, they deluded themselves that their enslaved “property” were content in their condition of servitude. At the same time, they held them inferior in every sense and thought them nearly helpless, unable to successfully function independently. Slaveowners also dismissed the idea that African Americans could possibly make good soldiers, even though they did manage to fight on both sides during the Revolution. On the other hand, whites nursed a deep visceral fear of slave uprisings by armed blacks, whom despite their apparent contentment and incompetence might somehow team up and murder them in their sleep.

This heavy load of contradictions got hoisted menacingly above them to cast an ever-lengthening shadow when numbers of escaped slaves recruited into service by the British in what was then the Spanish colony of East Florida during the War of 1812 opted to remain behind after the Treaty of Ghent in a military fortification on Prospect Bluff overlooking the Apalachicola River heavily stocked with cannon and munitions and bolstered with support from allied Native Americans. These were not handfuls of fugitives out of reach in an unknown, inaccessible swamp somewhere, like most maroon settlements; this was a prominent, fully equipped, self-sustaining, armed camp, which even had the temerity to continue to fly the Union Jack—the so-called “Negro Fort.” This was an invitation to fellow runaways. This was not only a challenge to the white man’s “peculiar institution,” this was a thumbing of the nose to the entire planter mentality. This was an unacceptable threat. They could not bear it; they would not bear it.

In The Battle of Negro Fort, Clavin, Professor of History at University of Houston, deftly explores not only the origin of this community and its eventual annihilation through the machinations of then General Andrew Jackson, quietly countenanced by the federal government, but places the fort and its destruction in its appropriate context by opening a wider lens upon the entire era. This was a surprisingly significant moment in American history that for too long fell victim to superficial treatments that overlooked the significance of the multiplicity of forces in play, a neglect much more recently remedied by Pulitzer Prize winning scholar Alan Taylor, whose body of work points not only to the far greater complexities attached to the War of 1812 that have usually remained unacknowledged, but also identifies the broader consequences that rose out of the series of conflicts Taylor collectively terms the “Wars of the 1810s.” Taylor’s brilliant American Republics3 specifically cites actions against the Negro Fort, and connects that to a series of events that included the First Seminole War, sparked by attempts to recapture runaway blacks living among Native Americans, and finally to Spain’s relinquishing of the Floridas to the United States. While never losing focus on the fort itself, Clavin too walks skillfully in this larger arena that hosts war, diplomacy, indigenous tribes pitted against each other, related maroon communities, as well as overriding issues of enslavement and the predominance of white supremacy.

The Battle of Negro Fort is very well-written, but it takes on an academic tone that makes it more accessible to a scholarly than a popular audience. But it is hardly dull, so those comfortable in the realm of historical studies will be undeterred. And it is, after all, a stirring tale that leads to a dramatic and tragic end. Just as the Venetians blew up the Parthenon in 1687 by scoring a hit on the gunpowder the Turks had stored there, a gunboat’s cannonball struck the powder magazine located in the center of the fort, which exploded spectacularly and obliterated the structure. Scores (or hundreds, depending upon the source) were killed, the leaders who survived executed, and those who failed to make their escape returned to slavery.

The author’s thesis underscores that the chief motive for the assault on the Negro Fort by Jackson’s agents in 1816 was to advance white supremacy rather than as part of a greater strategy to dominate the Floridas, which strikes as perhaps somewhat overstated. Still, Clavin cites later antebellum abolitionists who reference the Negro Fort with specificity in this regard, so he may very well have a point. In any case, this contribution to the historiography proves a worthy addition to the literature and an understanding of this less well-known period of early American history will be significantly enhanced by adding it to your reading list.

1Note: David Silkenat is the author of Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South.

2The used bookstore in the yurt is West End Used Books in Wilmington, VT

3Note: I reviewed the referenced Alan Taylor book here:  Review of: American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850, by Alan Taylor





Author: stanprager

Book nerd, computer geek, rock music fan, dogmatic skeptic.

3 thoughts on “Review of: The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community, by Matthew J. Clavin”

  1. I read this book and perhaps 10 others about Jackson and his campaigns of genocide. In one sentence I remember it as what happens when a colonial power abandons its “possessions”. The Negros never had a chance.

    1. Indeed. Jackson was a dangerous man and even those who sympathized with his motives were horrified when he won the White House. And if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend the Alan Taylor book, which explores that period in great detail.

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