Saturday, July 23, 2016

Scorpions in a Bottle: The Florida War

Today's section of Scorpions in a Bottle begins chapter 7, The Trans-Oceanic War, which tells of the outbreak of a general European war in 1795, and its effect on the North American colonies.

* * *

Jenkinson’s declarations of war were the culmination of two years of diplomatic maneuvering following the death of Louis XVI of France in September 1793. The Queen Mother, Marie Antoinette, following in the footsteps of Catherine de Medici, had herself declared regent for her eleven-year-old son, the dauphin Louis Philippe, who succeeded his father as Louis XVII. The Queen Mother sought to renew the Franco-Austrian alliance of the 1740s, and planned a joint attack on Prussia. Jenkinson concluded a defensive alliance with Prussia and several smaller German states, as well as renewing the ancient Anglo-Portuguese alliance. Marie Antoinette and her nephew launched their invasion in April 1795, leading Jenkinson to expand his ministry to include several leading opposition figures. The declarations of war set off a series of engagements throughout the world, including a renewed Spanish siege of Gibraltar and a Russian invasion of Poland.

Word of the outbreak of war reached North America in October. In Quebec City only a few radical separationists such as Paul Cerdan favored armed revolt. The British victory in the North American Rebellion had persuaded the Quebecois that armed resistance to British rule would be futile. On the other hand, if France defeated the British in Europe, the Quebecois might very well find themselves returning to French rule in the peace settlement. Thus, although most of the Francophone population favored the French, they were content to await the resolution of events in Europe rather than attempt to precipitate an uprising at home. [1]

In New York and Norfolk, news of the outbreak of war with the French sparked celebrations, parades, and speeches. For many North Americans, it was the first public patriotic celebration since the outbreak of the Rebellion twenty years before, and served as final proof of the reconciliation between rebel and Loyalist. The Northern Confederation Council voted N.A. £12,000 towards the cost of the Tomkinson expedition into East Florida. [2]

In Norfolk, Governor Bland had more ambitious plans than simply subsidizing the Georgian invasion of the Floridas. He intended to seize New Orleans, and as much of the rest of Spanish Louisiana as possible. Together with the other governors of the Southern Confederation, Bland applied to Connolly for the creation of a united S.C. army to march across Georgia (ironically, along the trail blazed by the Greene expedition) and lay siege to New Orleans. Bland also approached Dickinson, requesting that the viceroy use his influence with the British government to gain the assistance of the Royal Navy in attacking New Orleans. [3] Bland’s relentless advocacy proved irresistible, and by the summer of 1796 a British naval expedition under Captain Horatio Nelson was ready to set sail from Halifax for a rendezvous with the S.C. militia at the mouth of the Mississippi.

In East Florida, Colonel Tomkinson’s regiment defeated and captured a smaller Spanish military force thirty miles north of St. Augustine. The road to the East Florida capital was open, and Tomkinson pressed forward, laying siege to the city on August 23, 1795. Tomkinson knew that his force, consisting largely of raw recruits leavened with veterans of his old company, was unequal to the demands of a protracted siege. Therefore, after two days spent organizing his men, he launched a sudden surprise attack on the Spanish capital. Tomkinson himself led a picked force of veteran troops against a weak point in the fortifications while the remainder of his men kept the city’s defenders occupied with a general assault on the walls. Tomkinson was able to break through, and resistance collapsed as word spread among the Spanish troops that the Georgians had entered St. Augustine.

For the next two weeks, Tomkinson’s undisciplined men gave themselves over to plunder, with the city’s taverns a particular target. Over a month passed after the fall of the city before Colonel Tomkinson was able to re-establish order over his men and resume the conquest of East Florida. [4]From their base in St. Augustine, Tomkinson’s men ranged over the Florida peninsula, destroying any Seminole villages they came across and massacring the inhabitants. By the spring of 1796, aided by reinforcements from the other provinces of the Southern Confederation, Tomkinson had subjugated East Florida and set about invading West Florida. There, through the late spring and early summer, he conquered a string of Franco-Spanish settlements on the Gulf Coast, including the capital city of Pensacola and the French outpost at Mobile. The Georgia legislature at Savannah formally annexed the Floridas to the province on July 2, 1796, without seeking the approval of the S.C. Council, Viceroy Dickinson, or the Jenkinson ministry. [5] Jenkinson grudgingly accepted the Georgian fait accompli, and the annexation was formalized in the subsequent 1799 peace treaty with Spain.

1. Davis Malone. The History of Quebec (Dorchester, 1954), pp. 73-81.

2. Madeline McIver. Financing the Trans-Oceanic War (New York, 2012), pp. 55-60.

3. Bruce. The Life of Governor Theodorick Bland of Virginia, pp. 377-88.

4. Pickett. The Florida War, pp. 46-55.

5. Bernard Telford. Georgia and the Rise of the S.C. (Mexico City, 1965), pp. 39-48.

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