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The Digression Podcast

Chris and Jody are Air Force vets who enjoy military history and folklore. This is their podcast. They tell stories. They digress. A lot.

Mar 19, 2021

In 1812, the United States government tried to annex Spanish East Florida by a combination of covert action and direct invasion. Then the plan went horribly wrong.

The “Patriots' War'” in Spanish East Florida during 1812-13 was an early example of a military disaster caused by a secret, flawed political policy. The characteristics of this fiasco bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the United States' undeclared wars in the late 20th century—covert paramilitary operations, convoluted chains of command, restrictive rules of engagement, Congress at odds with the president, and increasing public dissatisfaction. As always, the troops paid the highest price for bad policy.

Marine Captain John Williams was one of the few regular military officers assigned to bolster the American government's shadowy effort to subvert Spanish colonial authority in the territory and ultimately annex it to the United States. He had become frustrated by political constraints that conceded the first shot to any adversary. His Marines were increasingly vulnerable to attacks by bands of Seminoles and blacks, who were armed and directed by East Florida's Spanish governor.

The Spanish-organized guerrillas had no such restrictions. On the night of September 12, 1812, they ambushed Captain Williams and his Marines in Twelve Mile Swamp, northwest of St. Augustine. The Marines fought fearlessly, averting a massacre, but their leader was mortally wounded. The ambush of Williams' force toppled the ill-advised plot to annex East Florida by armed diplomacy. American forces, their lines of communication effectively severed, immediately abandoned their five-month siege of St. Augustine and retreated toward the St. Johns River. The eventual evacuation of all U.S. troops from Florida ended one of the most disgraceful chapters in American military history.

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