William Harris Crawford to James Monroe
Sunday Morning 5th. Apr 1812
I have just recd. a letter from Genl Floyd1 (which I enclose for your perusal) giving an account of the transactions which have lately taken place at Amelia Island under the Auspices of Genl Mathews. From this account, the affair is worse than I had expected. The veracity and intelligence, & I may add, the patriotism of the writer, exclude the idea of misrepresentation, or mistake in the account which he has given. I have also enclosed Mr Russel’s private letter which you sent me the other day. It procured two votes for the embargo. I am sir respectfully your most obt humble Servt.
Wm H Crawford
[John Floyd to William Harris Crawford]
Camden County March 21st 1812.
You have no doubt ere this reaches you, heard of the proceedings in this Quarter Respecting East Florida.2 A Revolution has broke out in that Province, which was organized on this side,3 and is supported by a majority of Volunteer militia from this State, their manifesto declaring themselves independant was issued on the 13th. Inst. and their Standard Erected at Roses Bluff a little above St marys; On the 16th: Fernandino on Amelia was Summond to Surrender on four hours Notice, they desired 24 hours to Consider of it, in the mean time, and indeed before were preparing for their defence, the Ordnance which had been some time before Burried, had a Resurrection, and were planted & Loaded with Nails Scraps of Iron &cr. for the works of Death (I presume they had not Shot). A deputation was sent with a flag to the Commanding Officer of the Cantonment at Point Pitre to ascertain whether the United State Troops woud take an Active part with the Patriots or (Rebels as they Stiled them). Major Laval4 assured them that he shoud take no part against them, they Offered to Surrender to the US. without Resistance, but Genl. Matthews had pledged the US. in Support of the Revolutionists, on the faith of which pledge Many were inducd to Embark on the Cause, it has turnd out however that the US. Troops will not under their present Orders, act offensively nor Co-operate with the Revolutionary Party, But will Occupy any post or Garrison which Shall be peaceably Surrenderd by the Governor or Local Authority of the Province, Comodore Campbell5 who has no specific Orders, so far obeyed the requisitions of Genl. Mathews as to send 6 Gun Boats into Amelia River, the Commandant offered to Surrender to him, and that if a Vessel passed the Flag Staf he Shoud Consider the Act Hostile and Strike his flag to the (US). The Comodore disclaimed any hostile intentions altho’ on the approach of the Revolutionary Party he prepared for Action, with a determination however not to fire unless insulted. These Menaces panic Struck the Amelians who had determind on resistance to the Rebels and Capitulated, prefering the preservation of life, Liberty, and property to Massacre & Pillage, the Conditions held out but for the appearence of the Gun Boats many lives woud have been lost, as Resistance was determined on, and the assailants Equally determind to Carry the place at the point of the Bayonet having 180 determind men well Armed opposed by a Greater number of Inhabitants Sailors & Negroes. Those of the Two last description however Soon disappeared, Immediately on the Possession of Amelia by the Patriots, Genl Mathews was invited by their Constituted Authority to receive it in the Name, and in behalf of the United States, Which was readily Accepted, and a requisition was made on Colonel Smith6 who arrived the Evening before (& time Enough to save the Small Garrison from impending Ruin for want of Subordination) which requisition was complied with & 54 regulars under the Command of Lieut. Apling7 went over on Wednesday the 18th. the day after the Capitulation and took possession in the Name of the (US). The British Party who were accumulating fortunes, having monopolized all the trade can scarcely contain themselves on the Occasion, they encouraged resistance to the last and are yet very sulkey, I was present at the Change of possession to the (US) And be it said to the Credit of the Patriots that of 180 men each as it were his own Officer, and many of them in want of a dinner and without a Cent in their pockets, thier was not the least irregularity or Excess Commited not to the taking of a Chickin, altho the temptations were great. I say great Because the British merchants had provisions which they refused them for money, and According to computation there cannot be less than 200.000 worth of property in that place & its harbour, One Single Ship is Said to be worth $150.000 including her Cargo it is also said that there is a Considerable Quantity of money in Specie.
Genl Mathews went to Fernandino with the Troop⟨s⟩ where he remaind in order to Settle the police of the place in som⟨e⟩ Manner or other; the possession of this place is of the utmost importance to the U S. Its possession Shuts Completely one of the Avenues by which the restrictive acts of Goverment was made a mockery; But it requires to be well defended Shoud the British choose to reclaim it. Colonel Smith will occupy it with his whole force in a day or two which together with the Gun Boats are inadequate for its Security, the river is not very wide but bold, a Couple of Sloops of war in Such a Situation woud soon settle the a/c with the Gun Boats. The Vixen has also arrived which will be detaind here a while; thus you See, that the US have, become in an indirect manner a party. I regret Exceedingly the manner Every Officer feels little in his own Esteem in this hiden policy, all the sin of direct invasion rests on the Shoulders of the Goverment or its agent. And too against a weak defenceless, unoffending Neighbour, was it directed against the English themselves the Act woud be more reconcilable, for we owe them Somthing on the Score of Revenge.
I shoud have approved of the policy of the (US) of taking the Provences of his Catholic Majesty into Safe Keeping untill we were remunerated for what they owe us, but really the Viel [sic] thrown over this transaction, will not save appearences, and why resort to these means of Coaxing a war with England, and by doing so make ourselves the aggressor, without wishing it to be Known. Let the Goverment Come out draw aside the mask it is too flimsey for deception, Say they will have there provinces and it will be done, merit will meet its Reward, And the Govermt will only have to Answer for the deed, which she will under Existing Circumstances have to do, with all the littleness attached to such a hidden transaction. A man who conceals his real Name8 Arrived by the last mail Stage post from Washington said to be sent by Mr Foster to pry into this affair who is Capable of Acting the part of an Idiot or, the profound politician, his presence and Notice to Every thing going on attracted my Attention on the day that the US. Troops took possession of Fernandino, at which time I Knew nothing of his mission. He has mentioned the object of his visit where he did not Expect it woud be repeated, for it seems the Occurrince was anticipated, & That Mr Foster in the Event of the province being put into the hands of the US. woud formally demand its relinquishment, and Shoud it be refused Great Britain was determind on declaring open war, And that such was her wrath against us, that She woud use every means in her power to deluge the Southern States with our Domestics.
A half pay British Officer9 has been instrumental in forwarding this Revolution by information which he said he Possessed of the British intending to send two Regiments of Black [sic] to East Florida for its protection and that Emissaries woud be sent among our domestics to Encourage desertion & Enlistment among them. I know the man, & if any information has been Communicated to Mr. Foster respecting the intended Revolution it [is] more than probable he gave it for he was in the Secret, You recollect the Character whose case occasioned the Quarrel Between B. Harris and myself Some years ago.
There is Strong grounds for Suspicion for this spy has arrived here to almost a day when the plan was to be Executed which has been for some time Known to the person alluded to. I pray you to acquaint me with the Extent of the designs of Goverment on this Subject, that we may Know how far we are authorised to Act, And if it is intended to produce war in this Quarter let it be more fully understood in order that we may be prepared for it; I have omited many particulars: Expecting that Genl Mathews has Communicated Them; I sent an Express to the Governor Ten days ago, and am waiting his orders. Present me respectfully to Friend Bibb & Col. Troup. I have not time to write to them by this mail having much writing on hand which must apologize for this Scrawl not having time to make a fair Copy of it. Hoping to hear from you as Soon as possible, I remain Very respectfully Your Mo. Obt.
RC and enclosure (DNA: RG 59, ML). Readdressed by a clerk to “The President.”
1. John Floyd (1769–1839) was born in South Carolina, settled in Georgia in 1795, and in 1803 became a brigadier general in the Georgia militia. In 1813–14 he was to lead the state’s forces in campaigns against the Creek Indians on the frontiers of western Georgia and Alabama (Kenneth Coleman and Charles Stephen Gurr, eds., Dictionary of Georgia Biography [2 vols.; Athens, Ga., 1983], 1:315–16).
2. Although the National Intelligencer on 7 Apr. 1812 reported that it lacked solid information on “various vague rumors” that had been circulating “for some days past” about a revolution in East Florida, news of the event had reached Washington from several sources by 2 Apr. The British minister learned of Mathews’s activities on that day, and four days later he sent the secretary of state a sharply worded letter demanding an explanation (Foster to Wellesley, 2 Apr. 1812 [PRO: Foreign Office, ser. 5, vol. 85]; Foster to Monroe, 6 Apr. 1812 [ibid.]). Monroe, however, had almost certainly received before 2 Apr. a 14 Mar. 1812 letter from Mathews announcing his intention to take possession of Amelia Island under the instructions he had received from the administration on 26 Jan. 1811 (see PJM-PS description begins Robert A. Rutland et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison: Presidential Series (4 vols. to date; Charlottesville, Va., 1984–). description ends , 3:123 n. 1). It is also quite clear that the administration agonized for some time over how to respond to this news. Monroe consulted with the Georgia congressional delegation, one of whose members, George M. Troup, suggested that if the administration chose to assume that Mathews’s followers were Spanish subjects, “as is by no means improbable at least in great part, … nothing can be objected” to the U.S. receiving East Florida from a newly constituted revolutionary government there. “But,” Troup asked, “will it be possible to keep out of sight the agency of … ?” (Mathews to Monroe, 14 Mar. 1812 [DNA: RG 59, TP, Florida]; Troup to Monroe, undated [ibid.]).
The more the administration studied the matter, though, the more it became apparent that the agency of Mathews or indeed of the U.S. naval forces could not be kept “out of sight.” On 4 Apr. 1812 Monroe acknowledged receipt of Mathews’s 14 Mar. letter and explained that the president was disavowing his actions on the grounds that they were not authorized either by law or by his instructions. Reminding the agent that he was permitted to take possession of East Florida only in the event of the local authorities’ being “disposed to place it amicably in the hands of the United States” or if a “foreign power” should attempt to occupy it, Monroe stated that neither contingency existed to justify the annexation. It was not administration policy, Monroe continued, to take East Florida by force or “by any means irregular in themselves” which might subject the government to “unmerited censure.” He accordingly informed Mathews that his powers were revoked and that his duties had been reassigned to the governor of Georgia (DNA: RG 59, DL).
3. After Mathews and McKee had failed by midsummer 1811 to persuade Governor Folch to transfer Mobile and the surrounding region in West Florida to the U.S., the former agent traveled to St. Marys, Georgia, in order to implement the same policy with respect to East Florida. After finding that the Spanish officials at Fernandina on Amelia Island were no more cooperative than Folch had been, Mathews set about organizing a “Patriot” party, consisting largely of Americans living near the boundary line, whose leaders would be willing to overthrow the colonial regime as a preliminary to delivering the province to the U.S. In his reports to Washington, Mathews made little effort to conceal his methods, and on 3 Aug. 1811 he explicitly told Monroe that the inhabitants of East Florida were “ripe for revolt” but “incompetent to effect a thorough revolution without external aid.” As he went about providing such aid, the agent promised to “use the most discreet management to prevent the U. States being committed,” adding that he thought “there would be but little danger” as a result of his efforts. Receiving no orders from Monroe to cease and desist, Mathews concluded that the president would approve whatever steps he took to achieve the goals they had discussed during their meetings in January 1811 (Mathews to Monroe, 28 June, 3 Aug., and 14 Oct. 1811 [DNA: RG 59, TP, Florida]).
During those meetings between JM and Mathews, it is perhaps unlikely that the president, as Mathews was later to claim, ever gave his agent verbal encouragement to act in ways that were not covered by the strict wording of the 26 Jan. 1811 instructions that had been written by the secretary of state. It is, however, quite possible that Mathews, as he went about recruiting supporters for his cause in Georgia, placed as much emphasis on the instructions that the War Department had sent to U.S. Army officers on the southern frontier as he did on the orders that he had received from the State Department. These former instructions were rather more loosely worded than the latter and simply stated that the president and his agent had been authorized by law to occupy East Florida “in case arrangement has been or shall be made with the local authority of the said territory for delivering up the possession of the same or any part thereof to the United States.” Mathews, moreover, in the event of his “making such arrangement,” was permitted to call on U.S. Army and Navy officers for such troops “as may be necessary to occupy & maintain certain military posts within the territory aforesaid” (Eustis to Wade Hampton and Thomas Cushing, 24 Jan. 1811 [DNA: RG 107, LSMA]).
Even so, as Floyd’s letter to Crawford makes clear, the responses of the U.S. Army and Navy officers to Mathews’s plans were mixed, and Mathews had to call on Georgia militia forces for volunteers in order to fill the ranks of his “Patriot” army. This setback too compelled him to limit the scope of his military operations in the first instance to the seizure of the Spanish post at Fernandina rather than advancing on the more important location of St. Augustine. Eventually, on the afternoon of 17 Mar. 1812, a “Patriot” force of some sixty men accepted the surrender of the ten-strong Spanish garrison at Fernandina, and the same day the Spanish commander signed articles of capitulation that Mathews had drawn up (see Patrick, Florida Fiasco, pp. 40–98; Isaac J. Cox, “The Border Missions of General George Mathews,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 12 : 309–33; Paul Kruse, “A Secret Agent in East Florida: General George Mathews and the Patriot War,” Journal of Southern History, 18 : 193–217; and Rufus K. Wyllys, “The East Florida Revolution of 1812–1814,” Hispanic American Historical Review, 9 : 415–45).
4. Jacint Laval (d. 1822) was born in France, served in the Revolution, and was promoted to major in the Light Dragoons in 1809 (Heitman, Historical Register description begins Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, from Its Organization, September 29, 1789, to March 2, 1903 (2 vols.; Washington, 1903). description ends , 1:618).
5. Hugh George Campbell (1760–1820) of South Carolina entered the navy in 1799 as a master commandant. Promoted to captain in 1800, he saw service in the Mediterranean squadron and acquired the nickname of “Old Cork,” but difficulties arising from an injured leg led him after 1809 to opt for a land-based career in the southern station, first at Charleston and then in Georgia, where the gunboat fleet was responsible for suppressing smugglers operating out of Amelia Island (Callahan, List of Officers of the Navy description begins Edward W. Callahan, List of Officers of the Navy of the United States and of the Marine Corps from 1775 to 1900 (New York, 1900). description ends , p. 98; Christopher McKee, A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession: The Creation of the U.S. Naval Officer Corps, 1794–1815 [Annapolis, Md., 1991], pp. 183–85).
6. Thomas Adams Smith (1781–1844) was born in Virginia and entered the U.S. Army in 1803. In 1810 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the Regiment of Riflemen (Heitman, Historical Register description begins Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, from Its Organization, September 29, 1789, to March 2, 1903 (2 vols.; Washington, 1903). description ends , 1:903).
7. Daniel Appling (d. 1817) of Georgia had been serving as a lieutenant in the Regiment of Riflemen since 1808 (ibid., 1:168).
8. The story that Foster had sent a spy to Amelia Island to reconnoiter American troop movements was later recounted in Georgia newspapers (see the Augusta Mirror of the Times, 6 July 1812). In his dispatches to the Foreign Office, however, Foster made no mention of sending anyone from Washington to East Florida for this purpose, though he did correspond with Joseph Hibberson, a British merchant at Amelia Island. Hibberson sent Foster the news about Mathews’s activities that the minister received on 2 Apr., and Foster sent communications to the Spanish officials at Fernandina through the same channel (see Foster to Castlereagh, 23 Apr. 1812 [PRO: Foreign Office, ser. 5, vol. 85]).
9. Apparently this was a man named Henly Wylly, who seems to have acted as a double agent in his dealings with the “Patriots” and the Spanish authorities. He certainly urged the former to make their attack on Fernandina (Wylly to John Houston McIntosh, 10 Mar. 1812 [DNA: RG 59, TP, Florida]; Patrick, Florida Fiasco, p. 67).