Fort Bowyer

Fort Bowyer was a short-lived earthen and stockade fortification erected by the United States Army on Mobile Point, near the mouth of Mobile Bay in Baldwin County, Alabama. Built during the War of 1812, the fort was the site of two attacks by the British. The first, unsuccessful, attack led to the British changing their strategy and attacking New Orleans. The second attack, following their defeat at the Battle of New Orleans, was successful, but came after the end of the war. Bowyer was demolished during the construction (1819–1834) of a new masonry fortification, Fort Morgan, on the site.

Construction

Mobile had been a Spanish possession before the beginning of the war, but Congress had declared it part of American territory after commencement of the war. After Spanish forces evacuated Mobile in April 1813, the Americans built a redoubt on Mobile Point. In June 1813, Colonel John Bowyer completed the fort, but the Americans abandoned it about a year later. Then in August 1814, they garrisoned it again with 160 men under Maj. William Lawrence.

The fort was made of sand and logs, and fan-shaped, with the curved face facing the ship channel into Mobile Bay. On the landward side there was a bastion, flanked by two demi-bastions. The purpose of the fort was to impede any British invasion at this point on the Gulf Coast.

Overview

The British made two attacks on the Fort. The first, which failed, took place in September 1814. The second attack, in which the British were successful, took place in February 1815, after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed but before the news had reached that part of America.

The First Battle of Fort Bowyer

The First Battle of Fort Bowyer in mid-September, Captain William Percy of the Royal Navy decided to attack Fort Bowyer in preparation for an assault on Mobile. He believed Bowyer to be a low, wooden battery mounting some six to 14 small caliber guns.

Background

Capturing the Fort would enable the British to move on Mobile and thereby block Louisiana's trade. From Mobile, the British could move overland to Natchez to cut off New Orleans from the north.

Percy took with him HMS Hermes (22 guns), HMS Sophie (18 guns), HMS Carron (20 guns; Capt. Spencer), and either HMS Anaconda (18 guns) or HMS Childers (18 guns; Capt. Umphreville).

On the morning of the 12th, Percy landed Lieut. Colonel Edward Nicolls with a party of 130 Royal Marines, aided by a motley force of over 100 Spanish allies and around 600 native American allies, together with a 5½-inch howitzer, about 9 miles to the eastward. The British land force then marched against the Fort, which was manned by 120 men from the 2nd U.S. Infantry under the command of Major William Lawrence.

Battle

The battle began with the Americans repulsing the British land attack on 14 September. Nicholls, ill at the time, was observing on Hermes. On September 15, after contrary winds had died down, Percy crossed the bar with Hermes, Sophie, Carron, and Childers or Anaconda. The fort opened fire at 4:16 p.m. and at 4:30 Hermes opened fire. The U.S. fort and Hermes were at pistol-shot range. At 4:40, Sophie opened fire also, but the other two vessels were not able to get into a firing position. During the battle, a wooden splinter wounded Nicholls in the eye.

The British naval attack was unsuccessful. After two hours of fruitless bombardment, Hermes ran aground and lay helpless under the fire from the fort. Sophie's boats took off Hermes' crew and Percy set her on fire; she subsequently blew up after the fire reached her magazine. The remaining ships anchored for the night some one and half miles from the fort.

Aftermath

The next morning they re-crossed the bar and sailed away. Hermes had lost 17 killed, 5 mortally wounded and 20 wounded, while Sophie had 6 killed and 16 wounded. In all, the British lost 32 killed and 40 wounded in the land and naval attacks, while the Americans lost only 4 killed and 4 wounded. A court-martial concluded that the circumstances had warranted the attack.

The defeat at Fort Bowyer led the British to decide to attack New Orleans instead. After their defeat at the Battle of New Orleans, the British again decided to take Mobile.

The Second Battle of Fort Bowyer

The Second Battle of Fort Bowyer was the first step in a British campaign against Mobile, but turned out to be the last land engagement between British and American forces in the War of 1812.

Background

After the unsuccessful British attack in September 1814, American General Andrew Jackson, recognizing Fort Bowyer's strategic importance, ordered the fort strengthened. Its garrison comprised 370 officers and men of the 2nd Infantry Regiment, and Jackson proclaimed "ten thousand men cannot take it".

British forces under General John Lambert decided to attack Mobile again. The commander of the naval forces was Captain T.R. Rickets of the 74-gun Third Rate ship of the line, HMS Vengeur. The British troops came from the 21st (Royal North British Fusiliers) Regiment of Foot, who had fought at the New Orleans.

When they captured the fort, the British discovered that it mounted three long 32-pounders, eight 24s, six 12s, five 9s and a mortar and a howitzer. However, Fort Bowyer's weakness was its vulnerability to an attack from the landward side.

Battle

The British campaign began with an investiture of Fort Bowyer. Lambert landed a force of around 1,400 men east of the fort to block any reinforcements by land. Judging they would need a line of artillery to successfully reduce the fort, the troops brought with them four 18-pounders cannons, two 8-inch howitzers, two 6-pounder rockets, three 5½-inch and two 4.4-inch mortars, and a hundred 12-pounder rockets for a siege. The British moved to within 200 yards of the fort and began to build their siege works. While they were constructing their artillery works, the British forces endured constant American fire and took light casualties, but continued their work undeterred. When the siege guns were in place, the British were ready to launch a devastating artillery attack on the now vulnerable fort.

On February 12 after a barrage of artillery, Lambert, under a flag of truce, called on the fort to surrender. He demanded that the American commander, Major William Lawrence, accept British terms to prevent the needless slaughter of his men. Lawrence acquiesced, surrendering Fort Bowyer after having withheld the siege for five days.

Aftermath

With Mobile Bay secured by British warships and Fort Bowyer now under British control, the remaining American forces in the area hurried to Mobile to prepare for the expected onslaught there. The British postponed the attack on Mobile itself when HMS Brazen arrived some two days later, carrying news that the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war, had been signed on the previous Christmas Eve. When news of ratification of the Treaty arrived, the British withdrew. The final attachment of Mobile to the United States was the only permanent exchange of territory during the War of 1812.

Fort Bowyer subsequently reverted to U.S. control. The War Department would later replace it with the more heavily fortified Fort Morgan.

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