McGee on Clavin, 'The Battle of the Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community'
Matthew J. Clavin. The Battle of the Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community. New York: New York University Press, 2019. 272 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4798-3733-5.
Reviewed by Amanda McGee (University of Arkansas) Published on H-SAWH (January, 2020) Commissioned by Lisa A. Francavilla (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series and Jefferson Quotes & Family Letters)
Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54663
In July of 1816, American troops authorized by Major General Andrew Jackson descended upon a former British fort at Prospect Bluff in the Spanish Florida wilderness, now occupied by the largest maroon community in North America. The ensuing battle between US troops, free and enslaved blacks, and Native Americans became a part of a broader debate over slavery and its expansion in the newly independent United States. Throughout his work, The Battle of the Negro Fort, Matthew Clavin links the fort’s destruction to the early beginnings of a southern Slave Power as he centers the rise and fall of the “Negro Fort” within the national struggle over slavery and freedom.
Clavin contends the significance of the battle of the Negro Fort is, in part, due to the symbolism associated with the fugitive community and its allies. Part of his argument explores how the fort became a literal site of freedom that inspired enslaved peoples throughout the nation. Unlike Pennsylvania, New York, and other northern states that passed laws for the gradual abolition of slavery at the turn of the century and thereafter became tenuous free spaces, Clavin contends the fort at Prospect Bluff was a secure and sovereign sanctuary for fugitive slaves. Not only was it located on foreign soil, the fort was also established and recognized as free by the British, a result of their southern strategy during the War of 1812. “Great Britain’s recognition of their freedom,” Clavin argues, “gave them both the right to resist their reenslavement and the expectation that the empire would further assist them.… Their real and imagined connection to an imperial power” made the Negro Fort exceptional to any other maroon community during this period (pp. 80-81). Throughout the first three chapters, Clavin explores the various origins of the fort's community, its government, and, more importantly, its powerful trade relationships and alliances with Native American populations in the region, such as the Creeks. A free black refuge so close to the nation’s borders and allied with Native Americans hostile to the United State's expansionist ideals represented a two-pronged threat for southern slaveholders. While it became a site of possible freedom for free and fugitive blacks, it threatened the proslavery expansionist agenda for Spanish Florida.
Clavin’s other framing argument emphasizes the role of the battle of Negro Fort in the newly independent nation’s “imperialistic pro-slavery public policy” (p. 179). He demonstrates how correspondence between Jackson and the governor of Spanish Florida prior to the battle reflected a shared perception of the fort as a threat to civilized society. Additionally, national media disseminated proslavery propaganda that used the menacing specter of an armed black and Native American community near the southeastern border of the nation to encourage widespread support for its destruction. Drawing connections between the Slave Power and southern foreign policy regarding Spanish Florida places Clavin’s work in conversation with scholars such as Matthew Karp and Leonard Richards. The willingness to divert resources to invade a foreign territory under the guise of capturing and returning fugitive property demonstrated the federal government's interest in both protecting and expanding the institution of slavery. Despite the rise of additional maroon populations throughout Spanish Florida, never again did the United States enter foreign soil to eliminate a fugitive community following the battle at the Negro Fort.
Jackson plays a central role throughout Clavin’s work. Thus the book is as much an analysis of Jackson’s proslavery expansionist ambitions as it is a work on the relationship between the Negro Fort and the rise of a Slave Power. Jackson's policies regarding fugitives and Native Americans modeled during the battle at Prospect Bluff legitimized his future military endeavors in Spanish Florida, such as the First Seminole War. Moreover, Clavin links the events during the summer of 1816 to the Second Seminole War and the incorporation of Florida into the white republic. He contends that Jackson “would prove indispensable in persuading the federal government to use military force” against the Negro Fort (p. 11). The battle and Jackson’s zeal for attempting to eliminate additional fugitive communities in foreign territory prior to his election shed light on the proslavery imperial policies that would serve as the foundation for a foreign policy that represented southern slaveholding interests on a transnational stage throughout the rest of the nineteenth century.
Despite an entire chapter dedicated to the free black community at Prospect Bluff, Clavin provides very little insight on the inner workings or lived experiences of those within the fort. For example, questions regarding the role of women and children or how class differences shaped daily life within the community remain unanswered. Besides trading relations and the various origins of the fugitive community, his focus is on the fort as a military operation. Clavin simply states that members lived in accordance to their roles as citizens or soldiers. Perhaps bound by the limitation of archival materials providing evidence into the more intimate details of life within the fort, these questions illuminate the possibilities for future research on the Negro Fort and similar maroon communities. This concern aside, Clavin’s work is a welcome addition to existing literature on the rise of the Slave Power. Scholars interested in military history, maroon communities, Indian-American relations, and especially the rise of proslavery foreign policy during the early republic will find his work a quick and useful read. As he deftly navigates the tragic account of the rise and fall of the Negro Fort, Clavin provides clear and engaging evidence that “the Slave Power existed long before the sectional conflict erupted into civil war” (p. 13).
. Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016); Leonard L. Richards, The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780-1860. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000).
Citation: Amanda McGee. Review of Clavin, Matthew J., The Battle of the Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community. H-SAWH, H-Net Reviews. January, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54663This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.