By 1779, the American Revolution had turned perilously against the British Empire. The Continental Army had recently won several key battles in the North and signed a decisive alliance with France. With the war becoming a stalemate that continuously drained their economy and morale, the British shifted strategies to the Southern Colonies, where they felt support for their cause would be stronger. However, further South, a campaign along the Gulf Coast would be raged between the British and the Spanish Empire, an often-forgotten ally of the Continental Army. This campaign, though small in scale, would have disastrous results for the British and their Native allies, forcing them to fight a two-front war.
Spanish Interests on the Gulf Coast
After the French and Indian War, the victorious British became North America’s most powerful colonial empire, removing virtually all French possessions on the continent. Spain was also on the defeated side of the conflict and was forced to trade Florida for the return of Havana, Cuba. Despite this, the peace treaty was quite generous as the Spanish were gifted much of the former French Empire, including the Louisiana Territory.
Unlike France, Spain managed to secure a massive empire that spanned South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and much of North America. However, Spain remained in a slow decline as a significant power in Europe and the New World. Once the American Revolution began in 1775, Spain was sympathetic to the American cause but remained strictly neutral. However, fierce anti-British sentiment and the desire to weaken its colonial rival would force Spain into sending limited material support to the American colonies.
These supplies, including money, weapons, ammunition, powder, and medical equipment, were mainly sent up the Mississippi River from Spanish-controlled New Orleans. Procuring these supplies was Oliver Pollock, an American commercial agent appointed to the city by the Continental Congress. While gathering funds and supplies for the war from the Spanish, Pollock even used much of his fortune to finance a successful operation in Illinois under Continental Army General George Rogers Clark.
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In 1777, Bernardo de Gálvez was appointed governor of Louisiana and immediately sought to increase Spanish assistance to the American war effort. Gálvez made contact with Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and, most importantly, Pollock, ensuring that American, French, and Spanish ships could easily travel through New Orleans to offload supplies. These efforts guaranteed much-needed provisions that could circumnavigate the British blockade on the East Coast to reach George Washington’s forces.
The American Revolution Expands
With the war in North America going poorly for the British, Spain saw an opportunity to combine forces with France to strike at other British possessions. With the signing of the Treaty of Aranjuez in 1779, Spain openly joined the war on the side of France but refrained from allying with the US. Formally aligning with rebellious colonies could result in similar occurrences in its empire that Spain sought desperately to protect.
While French and Spanish forces in Europe attacked Gibraltar, Governor Gálvez saw a chance to secure his position by striking into British-controlled West Florida to retake the area for Spain. He immediately began forming an army of Spanish, American, free Blacks, Mulattoes, and Native troops whom he intended to lead in conquering the British ports in the area, especially Mobile and Pensacola.
Before moving east, Gálvez, with Pollock at his side, moved his forces Northwest to secure upper Louisiana, a region held by the British. His original multicultural force of over 600 was bolstered by 700 more along the way, mainly Natives and French Acadians. However, hundreds would be lost during the 115-mile march along the swampy Mississippi River.
Their first target was the small and decrepit Fort Bute at Manchac, held by a few British and German guards. After killing a sentry and wounding two others, Gálvez’s troops captured the fort without further bloodshed. However, the prisoners informed him that their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Dickinson, had moved his main force to Baton Rouge. As Gálvez began another march, several soldiers who escaped Fort Bute informed Lt. Col. Dickinson of the Spanish force pushing towards the city. This gave the British time to prepare their defenses and supplies for a protracted siege.
The Siege of Baton Rouge
Outside Baton Rouge, the Spanish force approached Fort New Richmond, a hasty palisade built by the British to overlook the Mississippi River. It was surrounded by a moat and defended by 13 heavy cannons. Unlike the weakly defended Fort Bute, this fort was garrisoned by about 550 British and German soldiers and local loyalists. This created a formidable obstacle able to withstand any frontal attack. Gálvez refused to move his men into the range of the British cannons. Instead, he sent a force to block the northern approach that the British could use to send reinforcements from Fort Panmure in Mississippi.
However, the siege would not last as long as either side anticipated. Gálvez sent a distraction force into a nearby forest adjacent to the fort, drawing the British artillery’s attention. With the British guns trained and firing on the woods, Spanish troops moved their artillery within range of the fort. The soldiers quickly created trenches and dugouts that allowed them to withstand British fire while returning the favor.
On September 21, 1779, the Spanish initiated a massive bombardment of the fort that lasted for three hours. The British force attempted to return fire to no avail. Dickinson was forced to surrender to Gálvez, placing Fort New Richmond, Fort Panmure, Baton Rouge, and the southern half of the Mississippi River firmly into Spanish hands. Gálvez would send some officers north to secure the rest of the river, but British rule in Louisiana was finished.
The Battle of Lake Pontchartrain
While Gálvez and his army marched to Baton Rouge, George Washington sent his own force to New Orleans to support the Spanish. William Pickles and his second-in-command Pierre Georges Rousseau commanded this detachment of the Continental Navy. After a hurricane destroyed one of the American ships, Gálvez gifted them a schooner they promptly named the USS Morris. Crewed by American and Spanish sailors, the ship entered Lake Pontchartrain on September 10 to harass Royal Navy shipping. Despite its small size and minimal armaments, the vessel engaged the HMS West Florida, a British frigate under John Willett Payne.
The Morris grappled with the West Florida, allowing Rosseau to lead a boarding party onto the enemy deck. After a brief fight, several crew members from both sides were dead and wounded, including Captain Payne. The West Florida now belonged to the Continental Navy, who renamed it the Gálveztown. The Battle of Lake Pontchartrain and the British loss of Baton Rouge officially ended the American Revolution in Louisiana. As Gálvez turned East towards Mobile, so did this naval force under Pickles and Rosseau. The Morris and Gálveztown would support the troops on land.
Gálvez Advances into West Florida
With his territory secured and with a new army, Gálvez transported his troops by ship along the Mississippi Coast towards the major British port at Mobile. His ethnically diverse army of 2,000 men and several heavy cannons landed west of Mobile in February of 1780. The force moved into the interior swamps of the Alabama coast, reaching the outskirts of Mobile and Fort Charlotte soon after. As Spanish and English troops began skirmishing outside the city, the Spanish ship Valenzuela entered the Mobile River and opened fire against enemy defenses. The British garrison of just 300 men and 40 cannons under the command of Elias Durnford resisted surrender offers from the Spanish. Meanwhile, a relief force from Pensacola was formed to relieve Durnford’s forces.
On March 10, only a few weeks into the Siege of Fort Charlotte, Gálvez ordered a massive bombardment of the fort. Several British guns were destroyed, and several gaps were blown into the walls. The relief force was still nowhere to be seen, and being low on provisions, Durnford called for a truce and surrendered the fort and his men on March 14. The Spanish quickly occupied the fort and Mobile, while the captured British troops were sent off to prison camps across the Caribbean. While casualties were low on both sides, the loss of Mobile forced the relief force back to Pensacola and gave the Spanish room to continue their advance.
Setbacks and Counterattacks
Gálvez felt the time was right to move into Pensacola and finally end the Gulf Coast Campaign. However, while sailing towards the city in the fall of 1780, his fleet was devastated by a surprise hurricane. The remaining ships scattered to Havana or Mobile, leaving the army in disarray. Gálvez returned to New Orleans to form a new force for future operations. Meanwhile, the defense of Mobile was left to Col. José Manuel de Ezpeleta y Galdeano, who quickly began fortifying his position. This led to the creation of an outpost eight miles east of the city near a small farming community known simply as “The Village.”
Emboldened by the setback suffered by Spain, the British General charged with protecting West Florida, John Campbell, saw a chance for revenge. He quickly reassembled the relief force initially meant to save Mobile. This army numbered 500 men and two cannons, and was supported by a small naval detachment. The mixed formation of regular soldiers, loyalist volunteers, German mercenaries, and allied Creek warriors set their site on “The Village” to gain a clear vantage point from which to attack Mobile. On January 5, 1781, this army advanced on the fort in two columns, with the Native warriors moving around the defenders’ rear. However, despite the initial surprise, the British force became disorganized in a fierce, close-quarters fight. The Spanish managed to bluff the head-on assault, sending the British routing back toward Pensacola.
The Final Drive
With a massive army of 3,500 men and a fleet of 40 ships, Gálvez landed on the outlying islands near Pensacola on March 9, 1781. Commanding from the Gálveztown alongside Rosseau, Gálvez led the ship into the range of British coastal defenses. This inspired the rest of the fleet to follow suit, allowing them to pummel the British positions around the city unrelentingly. Meanwhile, several skirmishes between British and Spanish troops occurred in the surrounding area, forcing Campbell to retreat to a series of forts in the north. Unfortunately, Gálvez was wounded in mid-April while scouting these enemy positions. Command of the siege itself then fell to Col. Ezpeleta, whose forces from Mobile had just arrived alongside several thousand reinforcements.
Skirmishes, bombardments, and ferocious weather persisted throughout the month. On May 8, a stray cannonball from a Spanish gun hit the magazine of Fort Crescent, causing a massive explosion that killed several British soldiers. Ezpeleta immediately sprang into action, personally leading a spirited infantry charge into the fort against the dazed defenders. Meanwhile, Spanish artillery devastated the other two forts, forcing General Campbell to concede defeat. On May 10, Campbell ordered a white flag to be raised over Fort George and surrendered his remaining 1,100 men to Gálvez. British control of West Florida was finally over, and so was the Spanish campaign on the Gulf Coast.
Consequences of the Gulf Coast Campaign
The British defeat in West Florida is commonly overlooked in contemporary histories. However, to the British Empire, the loss of this territory was shocking and came at the worst possible time. The Spanish fleet took over responsibility for operations in the Caribbean, allowing the French fleet to traverse north. This French fleet mauled the British Royal Navy off the coast of Virginia in the Battle of the Chesapeake. This stunning naval defeat prevented the evacuation of Lord Cornwallis and his army from their besieged positions in Yorktown, Virginia.
Following the loss of West Florida and the surrender of Cornwallis in 1781, British morale was decimated as the nation no longer saw a successful way to terminate the war. The American Revolution came to an eventual close and saw the creation of the newly independent United States in 1783.
Although Spain and the new republic were allied in their fight against Britain, the American Revolution would spark unrest and revolutions throughout the Spanish Empire. In the following decades, Spain would desperately try to put down these revolts as the British had with the American colonies. However, the results were disastrous for Spain and would eventually culminate in several independent nations throughout South America and the Caribbean. American desires to end European control in the western hemisphere throughout the 19th century would even lead to the Spanish-American War over a century after Gálvez took Pensacola. While this would mark the end of the Spanish Empire, Bernardo de Gálvez and Spain remain vital contributors to the success of the American Revolutionary War.