The Perfect Storm: Bernardo de Gálvez and the Gulf Coast Campaign

Spanish troops at Pensacola, 1781
Bernardo Gálvez

Bernardo Gálvez

One of the genuine pleasures of research is the discovery of someone whose contributions are barely noticed in classroom histories, but without whom, events would have turned out dramatically differently.

The Spanish Governor-General of Louisiana, Bernardo de Gálvez, is one such figure.  His energetic and often brilliant contributions to the American Revolution ensured that the new United States would not be hemmed in on its West and South by stubborn, Loyalist-controlled colonies, but would have free access to the important shipping channel of the Mississippi, and, later, opportunities for expansion.

Even prior to Spain’s entry into the war in support of the American rebels, alongside their French allies , Governor Gálvez had exhibited sympathy with the rebel cause.  Spain held New Orleans at that time and claimed the territory to the west of the Mississippi. While turning a blind eye to patriot smuggling past New Orleans, in 1777 he took the occasion of a British crackdown on rebel-aligned traffic to seize British smugglers’ boats, and ordered all British subjects to leave Louisiana.[1]

When Spain formally declared war on England in May of 1779, Gálvez was already preparing an attack up the river, having intercepted British communications that revealed that they planned to strike New Orleans.[2]  As his fleet gathered in August of 1779, a hurricane struck, sinking nearly every ship he had planned to use to transport his forces.

A lesser man would have given up the attack, or would at least have waited for reinforcements from the Spanish colonial capital at Havana.  Gálvez, however, was keenly aware of the need for surprise, and so he mustered his 1,400-strong force and marched them overland 115 miles.

They arrived at Fort Bute, only to find a skeleton garrison, which they quickly overcame, suffering no losses.  Learning that the British forces had retreated upriver to Baton Rouge, Gálvez and his forces continued to the new fortification there, and found it much more formidably constructed and staffed.

Here, Gálvez demonstrated his cleverness as a military commander.  Perceiving that the fort had a potential weakness on one side, but that getting his artillery into position would mean exposing his men to withering British fire, he devised a ruse.  He sent a detachment into a wooded area on the opposite side of the fort with instructions to draw British fire and attention, and the British forces fell for it completely.

While the cannon bombarded a mostly-empty stretch of woodland, Gálvez and his forces moved their artillery to within a few hundred feet of the walls of the fort — on the opposite side from where the British were paying attention.  Protected by the terrain, the Spanish opened fire on the fort, and in a matter of hours, they wreaked enough destruction that the British commander had no choice but to surrender.[3]

Gálvez pressed his advantage, demanding that the last British fort upriver, at Natchez, also be surrendered, and the British commander assented, securing the Mississippi River entirely into Spanish hands.

Having accomplished this much, Gálvez then wrote to General Washington, notifying him of his plans to attack Mobile, further along the Gulf coast toward his ultimate goal of the capital of the West Florida colony, at Pensacola.  In January of 1780, he set out with 1,200 men on fourteen ships, intent on a quick strike at the second-largest remaining British settlement in the colony.

As he and his forces reached Mobile Bay, though, another hurricane roared into the armada, killing 400 men.  Further calamity struck as several of his ships were wrecked on a sandbar in the perilous entry into the bay.[4]  Despite these losses, Gálvez set up camp and sent urgent requests to Havana for reinforcements.

Once those reinforcements arrived, he began positioning his artillery, and sent a demand for surrender to the British commander.  As the fort was in disrepair, and its garrison was undermanned, Gálvez felt sure that he could come to terms with the British, but despite a polite, even collegial, exchange of letters, he was obliged to open fire.  Again demonstrating his ability to employ unconventional approaches, Gálvez sent a detachment to burn the British commander’s own plantation, to sap his will (and remove the military hospital on its grounds).  In the end, the British capitulated, and Gálvez sailed in triumph for Havana.

There, he gathered the largest force he had led yet, toward the ultimate aim of removing the British forces completely from the West Florida colony.  A fleet of fourteen warships and a number of smaller transports, carrying 3,800 men, sailed for Pensacola in October of 1780.  It seems unbelievable, but once again, a hurricane struck his forces, scattering the armada and sinking several ships.  He had no choice but to reluctantly retreat to Havana and regroup.

Spanish troops at Pensacola, 1781

Spanish troops at Pensacola, 1781

Gathering a force of 3,000 from Havana onto a convoy of 32 ships, together with reinforcements from Mobile and New Orleans, Galvez led his men into a perilous landing under the British guns at the mouth of Pensacola Bay, demonstrating such personal bravery that he was nearly challenged to a duel by an embarrassed naval officer.[5]

Following a lengthy period of preparation on both sides of the line between the Spanish and British forces, the Battle of Pensacola finally began in earnest on May 8, 1781.  A lucky strike of a Spanish grenade outside a powder magazine touched off an enormous explosion, killing or wounding a hundred defenders in an instant.

Taking advantage of the destruction attending the explosion, the Spanish forces set up cannon on the high ground that had housed part of the now smashed British fortifications, and quickly forced the remaining defenders to raise the white flag.  Within days, the surrender of the whole of West Florida to Spain was negotiated, and the remaining British forces were taken as prisoners of war.[6]

The role of the Spanish in ensuring the success of the American revolution is scarcely acknowledged in most classroom histories, but it was a key factor in that struggle.   Crucial to their success in assisting us was one storm-plagued Spanish general, who is primarily memorialized today only in the name of the city of Galveston, Texas, and who deserves to be better known.

 


[1] Caughey, John. “Bernardo de Gálvez and the English Smugglers on the Mississippi, 1777.” Hispanic American Historical Review. 12.1 (1932): 46-58. Web. 16 Mar 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2506429>.

[2] Fleming, Thomas. “Bernardo de Gálvez: The Forgotten Revolutionary Conquistador Who Saved Louisiana.” American Heritage Magazine. 33.3 (April/May 1982): 31-39. Web. 16 Mar 2013. <http://www.americanheritage.com/content/bernardo-de-gálvez>.

[3] “The West Florida Campaign & the 1st Battle of Baton Rouge (August – September, 1779).” Louisiana’s Military Heritage: Battles, Campaigns and Maneuvers. Louisiana Naval War Memorial Commission. Web. 16 Mar 2013. <http://www.usskidd.com/battles-revolution.html>.

[4] Chávez, Thomas. Spain and the Independence of the United States: An Intrinsic Gift. University of New Mexico Press, 2002. 174-175. Print.

[5] Fleming, Thomas. ibid.

[6] Bense, Judith. Archaeology of Colonial Pensacola. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 1999. 36-38. Print.

Lars D. H. Hedbor

Lars D. H. Hedbor is an author of historical novels of the American Revolution, focusing on the everyday experiences of ordinary people during that extraordinary era of chaotic change. The first novel of his Tales From a Revolution series, The Prize, follows the pivotal events along the shores of Vermont's Lake Champlain. He is currently working on a novel chronicling the incredible exploits of General Gálvez in West Florida, tentatively titled The Wind. Hedbor resides in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and five daughters and enjoys practicing fiddle, homebrewing and amateur astronomy when he's not otherwise occupied. For more information, visit http://larsdhhedbor.com/.

2 Comments

  • Reply March 18, 2013

    Twistification

    Fascinating. Do you have a sense for Galvez’s motives? I would imagine he wanted to take advantage of the conflict not just to assist an ally but also to expand Spanish territory.

  • Reply March 18, 2013

    Lars D. H. Hedbor

    Glad you enjoyed the article! Gálvez went on to be the viceroy of Mexico, and there were rumors that he hoped to build on his considerable popularity there to even go so far as to challenge the King of Spain for the Spanish Empire. However, so far as I know, there is absolutely nothing to substantiate this.

    Where the Spanish gov’t seems to have been motivated primarily by a desire to confound England, Gálvez’s actions and letters seem to reveal that he had a genuine affection for the cause of the American Revolution. Too, he seemed to have a deep-seated love for the glory of victory.

    As with most complex and accomplished men, though, his true motivations are hard to tease out of the few documents we have at this remove, but it’s enough to remain grateful for his heroism.

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