Meanwhile, hostilities had actually commenced in that quarter. When Jackson reached Mobile, late in August, he was satisfied that an attempt would be made to seize that post as soon as the great expedition of which he had rumors should be prepared to move. Mobile was then only a little village of wooden houses, with not a thousand inhabitants, with no defenses against artillery, and scarcely sufficient to withstand an attack from the rifles of Indians. At the entrance to Mobile Bay, thirty miles from the village, was Fort Bowyer (now Fort Morgan), occupying the extremity of a narrow sand cape on the eastern side of that entrance, and commanding the entire channel between it and Dauphin Island. It was a small work, semicircular in form toward the channel, and of redan shape on the land side. It was weak, being without bomb-proofs, and mounting only twenty guns, and all but two of these were 12-pounders and less. And yet this was the chief defense of Mobile; for, the enemy once inside of the bay, there would be no hope for holding the post with the troops then at hand. So, when Jackson perceived, early in September, that a speedy movement against Mobile from Pensacola was probable, he threw into Fort Bowyer one hundred and thirty of the Second regular infantry, under Major William Lawrence
, one of the most gallant officers in the service. At the same time, he sent orders for Colonel Butler to call out the enrolled Tennessee Volunteers, and have them led immediately to Mobile.
Major Lawrence made vigorous preparations to resist the enemy by strengthening the fort as much as possible, and providing against attacks upon it from cannon that might be planted upon sand-hills near, which commanded it. These preparations were not completed when, on the morning of the 12th of September, Lieutenant Colonel Nichols appeared on the peninsula, in rear of the fort, with one hundred and thirty marines and six hundred Indians, the latter led by Captain Woodbine, who had been attempting to drill them at Pensacola
. Toward evening four British vessels of war hove in sight, and anchored within six miles of Mobile Point. These were the Hermes, 22; Sophia, 18; Caron, 20; and Anaconda, 18, the whole under Captain Percy, the commander of the squadron of nine vessels in Pensacola Bay, already mentioned, of which these were a part. In the presence of these formidable forces, the little garrison slept upon their arms that night.
On the following morning Nichols reconnoitred the fort from behind the sand-hills in its rear, and, dragging a howitzer to a sheltered position within seven hundred yards of the work, threw some shells and a solid shot upon it without much effect. Responses from Major Lawrence were equally harmless; but when, later in the day, Percy’s men attempted to cast up intrenchments, Lawrence’s guns quickly dispersed them. Meanwhile several light boats, engaged in sounding the channel nearest the fort, were dispersed in the same way.
The succeeding day [September 14.] was similarly employed; but early on the morning of the 15th it was evident to the garrison that an assault was about to be made from land and water. The forenoon wore away, while a stiff breeze was blowing, and when it slackened to a slight one from the southeast, toward noon, the ships stood out to sea, They tacked at two o’clock, and bearing down upon the fort in order of "line ahead," the Hermes (Percy’s flag-ship) leading, took position for attack. The Hermes and Sophia lay nearly abreast the northwest face of the fort, while the Caron and Anaconda were more distant. Lawrence then called a council of officers, when it was determined to resist to the last, and not to surrender, if finally compelled to, unless upon the conditions that officers and privates should retain their arms and private property, be protected from the savages, and be treated as prisoners of war. This being their resolution, the words "Don’t give up the fort" were adopted as the signal for the day. 21
The Hermes drew nearer the fort, and when within range of its guns the two 24-pounders were opened upon her without much effect. She made a faint reply, and anchored within musket range of the work, while the other three vessels formed in battle line under a heavy fire. It was now half past four in the afternoon. The four vessels simultaneously opened fire, and the engagement became general and fierce, for broadside after broadside was fired upon the fort by the ships, while the circular battery was working fearfully upon the assailants. Meanwhile Captain Woodbine opened fire from a howitzer and a 12-pounder from behind a sand dune seven hundred yards from the opposite side of the fort
. The battle raged until half past five, when the flag of the Hermes was shot away, and Lawrence ceased firing to ascertain whether she had surrendered. This humane act was followed by a broadside from the Caron, and the fight was renewed with redoubled vigor. Very soon the cable of the Hermes was severed by a shot, and she floated away with the current, her head toward the fort, and her decks swept of men and every thing else by a raking fire. Then the flag-staff of the fort was shot away and the ensign fell, when the ships, contrary to the humane example of the garrison, redoubled their fire. At the same time, Woodbine, supposing the garrison had surrendered, approached with his Indians, when they were driven back in great terror by a storm of grape-shot.
Both sailors and marines found the garrison in full vigor, and only a few minutes after the flag fell it was seen floating over the fort at the end of a sponge-staff to which Major Lawrence had nailed it. The attacking vessels, battered and in peril, soon withdrew, excepting the helpless Hermes, which grounded upon a sandbank, when Percy fired and abandoned her. At almost midnight the magazine of the Hermes exploded. So ended, in a repulse of the British, the attack on Fort Bowyer, upon which ninety-two pieces of artillery had been brought to bear, and over thirteen hundred men had been arrayed against a garrison of one hundred and thirty. The latter lost only eight men, one half of whom were killed. The assailants lost two hundred and thirty-two men, of whom the unusual proportion of one hundred and sixty-two were killed.
The result of the strife at Mobile Point was very mortifying to the British. It was wholly unexpected. Percy had declared that he should allow the garrison only twenty minutes to capitulate. That garrison – that handful of men – had beaten off his ships and his co-operating land force with ease. The repulse was fatal to the prestige of the British name among the Indians, and a large portion of them deserted their allies and sought safety from the wrath of Jackson, whom they feared, by concealment in the interior of their broad country.
The result was most gratifying to the Americans, and gave an impetus to volunteering for the defense of New Orleans. Jackson wrote a commendatory letter to Major Lawrence, and that officer received one also from Edward Livingston, chairman of the Defense Committee of New Orleans, assuring him of the joy and gratitude felt by the inhabitants of that city when they heard of his gallant defense of Fort Bowyer. At the same time it was resolved to present to Major Lawrence an elegant sword in the name of the citizens of New Orleans.