THROUGH THE SWELTERING HEAT of Louisiana in the autumn of 1779 marched one of the most diverse military forces ever assembled in North America to challenge the British Army’s stranglehold in the southern theater of the American Revolutionary War. Led by a young rising star of the Spanish military, Col. Bernardo de Gálvez, the force included recruits from Mexico, free blacks, experienced Spanish soldiers in the Louisiana Regiment, volunteers from the American colonies and from Louisiana’s German and Acadian communities, and American Indians.
The march was one of the first campaigns ignited by the Spanish declaration of war against Britain in June 1779, opening a second front in the region the British had hoped to quickly secure and turn against the rebellious colonists in the North. The Spanish, who had been secretly aiding the North American rebels with critical military supplies and financing since 1776 [see “Bankrolling the Battle of Yorktown,” Spring 2007], now openly challenged the British in the global power struggle between the Bourbon monarchs and King George III, finally taking their longstanding enmity into action against British forces in North America.
The Spanish circumvented the British navy’s Eastern Seaboard blockade, using the Mississippi River to supply the colonial rebels. It was up to Gálvez to keep that line open
Over the next two years, Gálvez would lead thousands of Spanish soldiers and scores of ships against the British in what would prove to be the last combat theater of the Revolution. Enduring hurricanes, disease, and difficult, swampy terrain, he and his soldiers forced the British to divert scarce resources and played a little-known but crucial role in pressuring Great Britain to negotiate for peace after seven grueling years of war.
Upon hearing that Spain had declared war on Britain, Gen. George Washington, who was struggling to hold the rebellion together during the early summer of 1781, declared: “United with the arms of France, we have every thing to hope over the arms of our common enemy, the English.” That hope was soon realized when a French army and navy helped American troops trap Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown—and Bernardo de Gálvez rousted the British from their strongholds in Louisiana and Florida.
DESPITE BRITAIN’S ECONOMIC POWER and the colossal army and navy it massed against the beleaguered rebels, the war had dragged on for years. By 1779, murmurs of discontent and discord had grown louder within the colonies, particularly among the merchants and loyalists of the South. Southern loyalists traveled to London that year to urge the British ministers to deploy troops in their home colonies, insisting that they would be welcome and could rally the population to the king. The British, who blithely overestimated loyalist sympathies throughout the war, agreed. In October 1779, the British sent 3,500 troops from Rhode Island to the south, and in May 1780, Lt. Gen. Henry Clinton and 8,700 British troops sailed from New York to capture Charleston. (Clinton’s first attempt to capture Charleston, in 1776, had failed.) They hoped this would lead to the collapse of the rebellion in that region, leaving the northern colonies pitted against Britain and their former brethren to the south, while giving the British secure seaports from which to harass the French in the Caribbean.
By the spring of 1780, it appeared the British strategy would succeed. With British reinforcements from Georgia and the former Spanish territory of Florida, Clinton and his combined force of 17,200 men marched against Charleston. After a brutal six-week siege featuring continual artillery bombardment, the city surrendered on May 12. The 5,500 colonial troops in the garrison, almost half of them from the dwindling and discouraged Continental Army, were taken prisoner. The surrender by Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln was the biggest American loss of the Revolutionary War.
Even as the British targeted the South, the Spanish were gathering for a powerful counterstroke. Spain would enforce its declaration of war with a military campaign led by the governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Gálvez, the 33-year-old nephew of Spain’s respected minister of the Indies, José de Gálvez, and the son of one of King Carlos III’s trusted military advisers, Matías de Gálvez y Gallardo.
Unlike the hereditary titleholders typical of the 18th century, Gálvez was born to a family of self-made men from a humble adobe home in a small town near Málaga, in southern coastal Spain. Able, educated administrators and lawyers, the elders of the family ensured that Bernardo was well prepared for a military career. His first combat experience was against the Apaches in Texas, where he was wounded. He then studied military science and served with the Regiment of Cantabria in France, and was wounded again in Spain’s difficult campaign against the Moors in Algiers in 1775.
Gálvez’s first assignment in America came on New Year’s Day in 1777, when King Carlos appointed him acting governor of the Spanish city of New Orleans. (France had ceded Louisiana to Spain in 1762.) Among his biggest tasks: managing a smuggling operation authorized by the king to supply the Continental Army. Spain backed the colonists because it feared Great Britain was becoming far too powerful; the British still occupied Gibraltar on the Spanish coast and since 1764 had held the former Spanish territories in Florida, exchanged after the British captured Havana in the French and Indian War. The rebellion in North America gave Spain a strategic opportunity to protect its interests, regain its territory, and disrupt British global power.
Yet the Spanish, who had suffered terrible losses fighting the British in the Seven Years’ War, did not want to antagonize their adversary until they were fully prepared for any backlash, so their support of the colonists was at first covert. Beginning in 1776, they secretly supplied the Americans with gunpowder, weapons, and uniforms. Because the British navy blockaded the colonial Eastern Seaboard, the Spanish used the Mississippi River as an important supply line for the rebels.
It was up to Gálvez to keep that line open—not an easy task, since New Orleans was rife with British spies. But Gálvez was resourceful. Often working through brokers, he artfully arranged purchases of materiel, always carefully concealing the king’s involvement in the operation. Gálvez also created a valuable partnership with Oliver Pollock, a wealthy Irish-American patriot who risked his personal fortune to aid the Revolution. Together, the two managed to slip many critical shipments past the British watchdogs and into the hands of the colonists.
By April 1779, with its military forces finally ready for battle, the court in Madrid sent an ultimatum to the British. Among other stipulations, the Spanish demanded that the United States of America be recognized as independent. Unsurprisingly, the British rejected these terms and declared war. Spain responded with its own declaration June 21.
The official notice of the war reached Havana on July 17, 1779, and the captain general there immediately sent word to Gálvez. Realizing this would also certainly mean an attack on New Orleans, Gálvez increased his military preparations.
By this time, he was bound to his adopted hometown by far more than military duty. In December 1777, he had married a widowed French-American citizen of the city, María Feliciana de Saint-Maxent Estrehan. By popular account, this marriage to a woman known for her beauty and charm was also a departure from 18th-century norms, a marriage for love.
A skilled speaker, Gálvez—whom the king now formally appointed as governor of New Orleans—assembled the city’s citizens and called on them to defend Louisiana. In a dramatic oration, his voice rang out, “[A]lthough I am disposed to shed the last drop of my blood for Louisiana and for my king…I do not know whether you will help me in resisting the ambitious designs of the English. What do you say?…Shall I swear to defend Louisiana?” The audience applauded thunderously.
The campaign against the British was coordinated through Havana, the strategic center for Spanish military power in the Caribbean. After their disastrous defeat during the British invasion of 1762, in the Seven Years’ War, the Cuban military forces had been rebuilt under the leadership of Capt. Gen. Ambrosio Funes de Villalpando, Count of Ricla. Ricla had put in place the radical policy of training and arming Cubans, which King Carlos accepted. Pragmatically acknowledging there were not enough whites to fill the ranks of a strong military, Ricla also created two battalions of biracial and free blacks, confidently predicting that they would become the best volunteers on the island. Two decades later, as the Spanish prepared to invade British territory, the army and diverse militias of Cuba were well established.
The long-term Spanish strategy was to seize the well-fortified British enclaves of Mobile and Pensacola, which lay east of New Orleans on the Gulf Coast. Gálvez began preparing for a long campaign. Arranging for provisions in July 1779, he dispatched an emissary to the provincial governor of Texas, where Spanish vaqueros—cowboys—managed great herds around Béxar, present-day San Antonio. The next month, they herded 2,000 Texas longhorns to Louisiana to supply Gálvez’s troops—the inaugural long-range Texas cattle drive.
By August, Gálvez had assembled a force of remarkable diversity for the 18th century. The initial troop of more than 600 men comprised 170 veteran soldiers, 330 recruits from Mexico and the Canary Islands, 60 militiamen and local citizens, 80 free blacks, and 7 American volunteers, including Oliver Pollock. Gálvez recruited another 600 men among Louisiana’s German and Acadian immigrants, and 160 Indians. The babel of languages can only be imagined: West African, German, Acadian French, probably Choctaw or Chickasaw, and the Castilian of the Mexicans, Cubans, and peninsular Spaniards, with the Irish lilt of the bilingual Pollock. The troops marched more than 100 miles through the dense forests and swamps northwest of New Orleans to a recently constructed six-cannon British fort on the eastern shore of Mississippi, a few miles south of Baton Rouge. Gálvez preceded them and continued to muster volunteers. Though almost a third of the men became ill from the swarming mosquitoes and fever-inducing swampland, by all accounts their leader managed to instill esprit de corps in them.
The troops reached Fort Bute on September 6. Most of the British garrison had retreated to Baton Rouge upon learning of Gálvez’s advance, and the fort’s 27 soldiers were taken after a brief skirmish. That modest success provided a much-needed boost, encouraging the inexperienced volunteers and bonding the troops.
After resting his men, Gálvez marched on Baton Rouge. But Gálvez was a sympathetic commander. He knew his troops were green and had families at home, and he feared a direct assault on the city, which was surrounded by an 18-foot moat, would cost too many lives. Instead, he opened the battle with bombardment. Using a diversionary detachment to draw British fire as twilight fell, Gálvez’s men surreptitiously installed cannons he had hauled upriver on flatbeds in a garden on the opposite side of the fort. In the morning, the dismayed British realized their mistake, but it was too late. Gálvez’s troops launched an artillery barrage from their secure vantage point and wrecked the fort. The British could not bring their own guns to bear on the garden. By midday, the British officers proposed a truce, the terms of which included the surrender of both Baton Rouge and Fort Panmure, at Natchez, Mississippi, though the Spanish could not immediately claim the second prize.
THE MILITIA AND CIVILIANS GATHERED at Fort Panmure were in a quandary. The commanding British officer at Pensacola, Maj. Gen. John Campbell, had countermanded the terms of the surrender at Baton Rouge. Campbell himself had a force of more than 1,000 men, including loyalist troops from Pennsylvania and Maryland. He urged the inhabitants at Fort Panmure to join against the Spanish, who were rapidly approaching despite the September heat.
But Pollock’s pen proved mightier than Campbell. Certain that Natchez residents favored the Americans and Spanish, he sent a letter to them with news of Spain’s declaration of war, urging them to give up the fort. The fort quickly surrendered and the Spanish campaign’s initial sweep up the Mississippi was complete. As Gálvez later wrote, “It had so fortunate a result that with the loss of only one man and of two wounded, we have taken all the English settlements which they had on this river,” three forts, 13 cannons, 550 British and German regulars, and another 500 militiamen.
Gálvez’s success was a pleasant surprise to a weary General Washington, and it stunned the British. Campbell initially believed the reports of these losses were a ploy to lure the British out of the strong fortifications of Pensacola. The British in San Augustín panicked at the threat of a Spanish attack and—importantly for the Continental Army—requested more troops from General Clinton. The fort commander wrote in December 1779, “Should we receive a similar visit from the Havanna [sic], I shall do what ought to be done; but I have not the gift to perform miracles.”
The Continental Army and Congress turned their focus to the southern theater in 1780, amid several blows to the morale of the Revolution. Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold had defected after trying to turn West Point over to the British, and in May, two Connecticut regiments threatened to return home, protesting lack of pay and short rations. The officers defused the upheaval, but it was a troubling presage to the serious mutinies that soon convulsed other regiments of the army.
The bad news continued with General Clinton’s siege of Charleston, also in May 1780. Clinton returned to New York later that summer but General Cornwallis inflicted a devastating defeat on the colonists near Camden, South Carolina. The American commander, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, victor at Saratoga, fled the field in disgrace. George Washington sent his ablest commander, Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, to lead the Southern Department of the Army and ordered Lt. Col. Henry Lee’s and Baron von Steuben’s forces south. Greene traveled to his new command post through the states of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, stopping to request troops and supplies from political leaders, with little success.
Meanwhile the Spanish continued to gather troops, supplies, and naval reinforcements from Cuba and Spain for their assault on more impressive fortifications and larger British garrisons at Mobile and Pensacola. Gálvez sallied to take on Fort Charlotte in Mobile on January 10, 1780. Many of his men now were from the Havana garrisons, joining the artillery, fixed infantry, and militia of Louisiana. Twenty-six North Americans joined Gálvez, bringing his total force to 1,427. Spanish and Cuban troops sailed from Havana, and Gálvez’s men embarked from New Orleans. Their journey through the Gulf to Mobile Bay was plagued by shipwrecks and storms; few supplies survived, and on February 10 the soldiers disembarked, some from ships stranded on sandbars.
The story later circulated that Gálvez had thoughts of abandoning his mission. But he persevered, salvaging artillery from one of the ships to establish a battery at the entrance of Mobile Bay. Catching his spirit, the men constructed ladders from the wreckage of their ships to scale the walls of the fort.
As the troops boarded the remaining ships to continue up the bay, a small vessel arrived with the welcome news that reinforcements were under way from Havana. By February 20, the billowing sails of five warships were sighted. They carried the Regiment of Navarra, 500 veteran Spanish infantrymen, and the combined forces assembled for the assault on Mobile.
Once the Spanish reached Fort Charlotte, a Spanish officer acquainted with the British commander of the fort, Capt. Elias Durnford, was sent to negotiate. The adversaries exchanged a series of gifts and double-edged pleasantries that were traditional in 18th-century warfare. Durnford sent wine, chicken, fresh bread, and mutton; Gálvez responded with Spanish and Bordeaux wines, tea biscuits, corn cakes, and—most persuasively—Cuban cigars. The swap ended with Durnford declaring that honor required him to resist.
While Durnford waited for relief from Pensacola, Gálvez and his men resumed the arduous work of building a battery to bombard the fort. By March 4, several of their 18-pound cannons were situated. During the ensuing week, the men completed the earthworks and trenches and began the siege in earnest.
On March 11, scouts reported two English camps in the region with an estimated force of 400 to 600 men, the relief mission from Campbell. They were too little, too late. The next day, the Spanish batteries of 18- and 24-pound cannons began firing. The intense and sustained barrage of artillery filled the skies with smoke, and cannonballs smashed the parapets and embrasures of Fort Charlotte. By late afternoon, Durnford ordered a white flag raised. The British surrendered on March 14, 1780.
GÁLVEZ WANTED TO MOVE QUICKLY against Pensacola, using Mobile as a base, but his superiors in Havana postponed the complex campaign against the most formidable British bastion on the Gulf Coast. The British continued to reinforce Pensacola and, again to the relief of the Continental Army, diverted some of their forces from Savannah. The Spanish Army of Operations, sailing from Spain, planned to support the Pensacola campaign with a formidable six regiments of more than 7,600 soldiers and 100 artillerymen from Spain. But when Adm. George Rodney brought an impressive fleet with men and supplies to shore up Britain’s stronghold at Gibraltar that spring, the Spanish fleet was forced to remain in port, where disease devastated the fleet’s sailors and soldiers. Once Rodney left, the main convoy did not reach Havana until August 3, three months after leaving Spain.
Hundreds died at sea, and hundreds more were hospitalized and died in the West Indies. By the time Gálvez was ready to launch his first campaign against Pensacola in October, only 594 of his men were fit enough to join the expedition. The Spanish commanders planning the Pensacola campaign knew that most of the troops would now have to come from Cuba, Louisiana, and other Spanish holdings in the Americas. Gálvez reached Havana to lobby for more troops on August 2, just as the decimated Spanish Army of Operations arrived. The junta there agreed to provide 4,000 men, including reinforcements from Mexico and as many troops as could be spared from Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo.
Preparations for an attack on Pensacola were finalized for mid-October 1780. But this was hurricane season, and a naval lieutenant, José Solano y Bote, protested the timing after calculating that one of the Gulf’s terrible storms was approaching. Gálvez prevailed, however, and the powerful fleet of 11 warships and 51 transport ships set sail on October 16.
Two days later, the fury of a hurricane ripped into the fleet, scattering ships and troops throughout the Caribbean, the southeastern Mexican coastline along Campeche, and the Mississippi River. When the commanders were finally able to account for 3,829 of the men in January 1781, 862 of them were in Havana, 1,771 in Campeche, 831 in New Orleans, and 365 in Mobile. Despite these discouraging setbacks, Gálvez pressed on with the final siege against the British.
In the dawn light of February 28, 1781, a squadron of 36 warships and transport ships under the command of Capt. José Calvo de Irizábal sailed in a second campaign to take Pensacola. Gálvez joined the fleet on his private brig, the Galveztown. On March 4, they reached Santa Rosa, a 40-mile-long barrier island that provided a harrowingly narrow passage into the bay leading to Pensacola. The large fleet also faced a British shore battery overlooking the inlet at Barrancas Colorados, opposite the western shore of the island.
Gálvez planned to land some troops and cannons on Santa Rosa and wait for reinforcements from Louisiana and Mobile. The troops debarked on March 9, safely shielded from the cannons of the shore battery and several patrolling British frigates. Campbell, fearing the worst, managed to slip a brig out to Jamaica in a desperate bid for reinforcements.
The convoy attempted to enter the bay on March 11, and the leading 64-cannon San Ramón touched bottom in the shallow water. The naval officers, fearing both the shallow draft and the shore battery, countermanded Gálvez, refusing to take the fleet through the gap. Calvo moved his warships out to the deeper water.
Gálvez and Calvo began an acrimonious dispute. For six days, anchored at sea in their respective ships, they remained at a standoff. Gálvez feared that the campaign would be lost. The turbulent weather of the Gulf could once again scatter the ships, and he worried that the British might send a rescue fleet from Jamaica. He decided on a dramatic course of action. After sending one man to sound the entrance of the bay, he risked his Galveztown and three other Louisiana vessels he commanded with a run through the gap. The Galveztown cleared the channel, avoiding British cannons by hugging the shoreline. When they saw it was safe to follow, the Spanish frigates entered the bay under the command of Capt. Miguel de Alderete. Calvo returned to Havana on the San Ramón.
ON MARCH 24, THE SPANISH ARMY and militias at Santa Rosa joined the forces arriving from Mobile. During the first weeks of April, they reconnoitered Pensacola’s fortifications. There were two redoubts, Crescent and Sombrero, protecting Fort George, earthen works topped by a palisade, built at Campbell’s direction the previous year. The troops established encampments and began preparations for what became a two-month siege, the longest of the Revolution. Hundreds of engineers and workers brought supplies and armaments to the battlefield. The men dug trenches, bunkers, and redoubts. Then they extended a tunnel toward the British redoubts, large enough to move mortars and cannons while shielding the troops from the fire of British cannons, grapeshot, grenades, and howitzers.
A month after arriving, Gálvez was wounded by gunfire while viewing the British fortifications, and he transferred battlefield command to his friend Col. José de Ezpeleta. On April 19, a large fleet was sighted heading toward the bay. Rumors swept through the ranks that British reinforcements had arrived.
To his relief, Gálvez soon learned that these ships were the combined Spanish and French fleet from Havana headed by Solano, the navy lieutenant who had warned of the hurricane during the first Pensacola expedition. The Spanish fleet carried a crew of 1,700 as well as 1,600 soldiers, raising the total Spanish force to nearly 8,000 men. Solano decided to remain to assist Gálvez after the troops disembarked, and the two men worked closely together.
By April 30, the Spanish had moved six 24-pounders through the tunnel to a small hill within range of the British redoubt, and opened fire. Trenching continued and a larger battery was installed on Pine Hill, a more advantageous position, but the British sallied, captured the position, and spiked the Spanish cannons. The Gulf continued its tempestuous storms, and on May 5 and 6, another hurricane struck the Spanish ships. The Spanish commander was forced to withdraw, fearing that the fierce sea would wreck his wooden ships on the shore. The army was on its own to continue the siege. The trenches flooded and with morale in the balance, Gálvez granted a ration of brandy to his troops.
On May 8, a howitzer blast, aimed from information given by an American loyalist deserter, hit the magazine at the Crescent redoubt. Black smoke billowed into the sky as the gunpowder supply exploded, killing 57 British troops and devastating the fortifications. Ezpeleta, commanding the light infantry, led a charge into the redoubt and then took it, quickly positioning howitzers and cannons to open fire on Fort George.
At this point, most American loyalists and their Creek Indian allies deserted, leaving Campbell only 600 soldiers. The British returned fire from Fort George, but were overwhelmed by the Spanish bombardment. Realizing that their final line of fortification could not sustain the barrage, the British hoisted the white flag from Fort George at 3 in the afternoon on that same day. On May 10, 1781, the formal surrender was complete. The Spanish lost 74 men, with 198 wounded.
That victory clinched the Spanish rout of the British from their southern strongholds. Gálvez and his men were welcomed as heroes when they arrived in Havana on May 30. The king promoted him to lieutenant general and Solano to squadron chief, with the title Marquez de Socorro. Gálvez was also named governor of Florida (in addition to Louisiana), his annual salary was increased to 10,000 pesos, and he was made viscount of Gálveztown and count of Gálvez.
The royal commendation also stated that in recognition of Gálvez singly forcing the entrance to Mobile Bay, he could place on his coat of arms the words, “Yo solo,” or “I alone.”
Returning to Spain, Gálvez was among those who drafted the Treaty of Paris that formally ended the Revolutionary War in 1783—and gave East and West Florida to Spain. His contributions to the American victory also were recognized in the newly forged United States; both Galveston, Texas, and St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana are named in his honor.