The invaders were the Americans, and the defenders were the men of East Florida.
|St. Augustine City Gates b.1808|
A little known and embarrassing piece of US history is the “Patriots War”, a foray by the United States to seize Spanish East Florida, a land of British and Spanish settlers, free blacks, runaway slaves, European adventurers and Indians. Florida was under British control from 1763-1784, a haven for British Loyalists fleeing south during the American Revolution. The British Governor of Florida, James Grant, described St. Augustine during this period: “There is not so gay a Town in America as this is at present…Major Small with the band of the 21st has turned all their Heads. His Colonel has not escaped the infection, he is as young as any of them, danced till twelve last night at the Weekly assembly, then carried the ladys [sic] home to sup at his house and after they went away…got drunk with their partners till six in the morning.”1 Tory refugees swelled East Florida’s population from 6,000 to over 17,000 persons by the end of the war, and the British continued to play a strong role in St. Augustine society when control returned to Spain in 1784, as Spain could not put a great deal of effort into maintaining its colony in Florida while it fought wars in Europe and the Caribbean.
The American government wanted control of Florida for a number of reasons: to protect New Orleans and Mississippi traffic in the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, to keep Great Britain from having a southern foothold on the continent where it could affect American shipping and to stop slaves from running to freedom in Spanish Florida. The status of blacks, free or slave, was different in Spanish areas than in America. In St. Augustine free blacks served in the militia and owned land. Slaves could purchase their freedom and that of family members, and the Church supported educating blacks and ran a free school. It was not a paradise, but to the slaves in the United States it was a far better life with greater opportunities than what they had, plus some runaways hid amongst the Indians in Florida giving rise to the Black Seminoles. The armed blacks in the St. Augustine militia worried southern Americans so much that they pressured the US federal government to do something about Florida.
Historian James G. Cusick says, “If you want a three-sentence summary of a very complicated story, it runs like this: In March 1812 an agent for the U.S. government used American forces to seize a border town in Florida, an action that severely embarrassed the administration of President James Madison. However, when war broke out with Great Britain a few months later, the Madison administration decided to leave American troops in Florida, and the state of Georgia used its militia to reinforce them. As a result, for the next two years, angry American citizens in Georgia and angry Spanish subjects in Florida slugged it out in a kind of no man’s land at the edge of a bigger conflict.”2
|St. Augustine Light b.1824|
The defenders of St. Augustine fought fiercely because they knew their freedom was at risk, but it was ultimately a losing cause. When America legally acquired Florida from Spain in 1819 the territorial government began rolling back the rights of free blacks and imposing harsher US standards of slavery. Many of the free blacks who could fled to Havana. Wealthy landowner Anna Kingsley went so far as to make her daughters marry white men who could uphold their property rights. 3 By the end of the 1820s St. Augustine was transitioning from a cosmopolitan British and European city of frivolity and fiestas to a staid American small town, its glory days of pirates, adventurers and invaders mostly behind it.
1 The Oldest City—St. Augustine Saga of Survival, Jean Parker Waterbury, Ed.
2 The Other War of 1812—The Patriot War and the American Invasion of Spanish East Florida, James G. Cusick
3 Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley—African Princess, Florida Slave, Plantation Slaveowner, Daniel L. Schafer
Darlene Marshall is an award-winning author of Regency-era romance set in Florida and the Caribbean. Her latest novel, Sea Change, is available in print and digital editions. For more information: www.darlenemarshall.com
Sea Change blurb: “Before the day is done, Charley Alcott must survive an attack by privateers, perform surgery at sea, and ensure that Captain Davy Fletcher never discovers his prisoner is actually Charlotte Alcott. Her adventure is just beginning.”