The Spanish Conquest of British West Florida during the American Revolution
by Daniel Haulman
When the French and Indian War (the Seven Years War) ended in 1763, the British won large amounts of North American territory from the defeated French and Spanish. From France, the British Empire gained the rest of Canada and all of Louisiana east of the Mississippi River with the exception of New Orleans. From the Spanish, the British gained Florida. At the same time, France voluntarily gave up New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana, west of the Mississippi River, to its ally Spain, because France had lost the ability to defend them. The French gave up all their territory in North America to Britain and Spain. Between 1763 and 1776, the British held all of North America east of the Mississippi river, except for New Orleans, and the Spanish held the rest of the continent.
The British Empire organized its new territory along the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River to east of Pensacola as a new province called British West Florida. It included Baton Rouge, Mobile, which had been in French Louisiana; and Penascola, which had been in Spanish Louisiana. At the same time the British endeavored to convert the former French and Spanish subjects of the area to British allegiance, the Spanish attempted to convert the former French subjects of Louisiana to Spanish allegiance. That conversion was not immediate. French colonists in New Orleans, under a rebel named Lafreniere, revolted unsuccessfully. Under successive Spanish governors, the French-speaking population of New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana eventually became more loyal to Spain.
During the American War for Independence, the Spanish monarchy assigned Don Bernardino de Galvez as the new governor of Louisiana. He was able to bolster the loyalty of the French-speaking population by marrying a recently widowed young lady of a prominent white Creole French-speaking family in New Orleans. The French-speaking population grew even more loyal to Galvez and the Spanish when war broke out between Britain and Spain in 1779, since France was already at war with Britain. Spain and France were then both at war with Britain, which was already at war with the United States. Spain and the United States had a common enemy.
At least for Galvez, fear that Britain would take over Louisiana outweighed fear that Louisiana would declare its independence. The western and southern boundaries of the new United States were not clearly defined, but many of the states claimed territory that stretched all the way to the Mississippi River and Spanish Louisiana. American frontiersmen were already trading with the Spanish in New Orleans, and Galvez was already helping the United States even before Spain went to war with Britain. Through an agent named Oliver Pollock, Galvez authorized the shipment of guns, ammunition, gunpowder, and other war supplies from New Orleans upriver to the Americans in the Ohio River Valley. Some of those munitions helped supply George Rogers Clark, whose victories for the United States helped insure that the territory between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River would be part of the new country rather than part of British Canada.
Galvez was concerned that the British in West Florida would attempt to take New Orleans militarily, and he resolved to strike first. Leaving administrative duties as governor of Louisiana to a subordinate, Galvez himself led the military campaign against British West Florida. That campaign would ultimately be successful, with the Spanish conquest of first Baton Rouge, then Mobile, then Pensacola. In the rest of this paper, I would like to describe Galvez’s taking of those three important cities from the British between 1779 and 1781.
First, Galvez had to organize his forces. Of course, they consisted of Spanish regular soldiers under his immediate command, but they also included white French-speaking Creole militia from New Orleans, free blacks and mulattoes from the city, Germans from the German Coast just west of New Orleans, Acadians from the bayous west and south of New Orleans, and some friendly Indians. Galvez’s army was truly diverse, consisting of different races and languages. Many of the French-speaking Acadians hated the British for having expelled their ancestors from eastern Canada during the previous war. They were eager to join Galvez and his Spanish soldiers in a campaign against the British in West Florida. Galvez also sought more Spanish troops and ships from Cuba, then also a Spanish colony.
Meanwhile, the British in West Florida were also organizing their forces. Peter Chester served as the governor, in Pensacola, and he maintained strong forts along the Mississippi River at Manchac, Baton Rouge, and Natchez, and also along the Gulf Coast at Mobile and Pensacola. To bolster his forces, Chester also relied on British troops from Jamaica and German troops such as those that took part in the British occupations of New York and Philadelphia. British loyalists also arrived in British West Florida from Georgia and the Carolinas, from which they had been driven by patriots.
In 1779, Galvez launched his motley army upriver from New Orleans against a British fort at Manchac. With an overwhelming numerical advantage, Galvez took the fort, but instead of finding a garrison of 400 defenders, as he expected, he found only two dozen. The rest had retreated to a stronger fort at Baton Rouge, which became Galvez’ next target. Despite the strength of the fort, with hundreds of defenders, Galvez retained a numerical advantage, and he used his artillery skillfully to breach the walls. When commander Dickson surrendered, with his four hundred troops, he gave up not only Baton Rouge, but also all British forts along the Mississippi River, including Fort Panmure at Natchez. The Spanish had driven the British from the western-most part of West Florida, but the enemy remained entrenched at Mobile and Pensacola.
In 1780, Galvez attacked Mobile, using the same kind of diverse army he had used successfully at Baton Rouge. The British defended Fort Charlotte, a masonry structure in the midst of the city. As at Baton Rouge, Spanish artillery was able to open holes in the walls of the fort, and the British were forced to surrender Fort Charlotte and Mobile, along with some 550 troops. After his decisive victory in Mobile, Galvez was in possession of British West Florida all the way from the Mississippi River eastward along the Gulf Coast to the Perdido River. The British remained powerful at Pensacola.
With his victories at Baton Rouge and Mobile, Governor Galvez went to Havana, Cuba, to organize an even stronger expeditionary force to take Pensacola. He gathered a strong fleet and thousands of Spanish regular soldiers, and set out for the invasion. A hurricane stopped him on the way. It scattered the fleet, forcing Galvez to postpone the attack on Pensacola until the next year, 1781. In the meantime, Brigadier General Campbell, the British military commander at Pensacola, sent hundreds of troops under a German colonel to attack Spanish-held Mobile. Although the Mobile garrison was heavily outnumbered, it was able to repulse the British attack.
In 1781, Galvez organized another expedition in Havana to take Pensacola. He led regular Spanish troops from Cuba, supported by a Spanish fleet. In the meantime, Galvez’s diverse army from Louisiana in the west moved against Pensacola overland, from New Orleans and Mobile. When the Spanish fleet attempted to enter Pensacola Bay, it faced the powerful artillery of Fort Barrancas, some of which fired 32-pound cannon balls. The Spanish admiral with Galvez refused to risk his ships by sending them into the harbor. Galvez himself took four of his own ships and sailed into the bay, despite heavy artillery fire from the fort. His bold action shamed the Spanish admiral into following him, and the Spanish fleet was able to get into Pensacola Bay despite the cannon fire from Fort Barrancas. Galvez then landed his army from the ships, and his Louisiana forces joined him near Pensacola for a long siege of the main British stronghold there, Fort George.
The British at Pensacola were unable to gain many reinforcements, partly because of other British troops fighting with Cornwallis were occupied against the Americans in the Carolinas and Virginia, and partly because the French and Spanish navies together were able to keep the British navy busy in other parts of the world. Fort George in Pensacola held out for a long time, but the Spanish noose grew tighter and tighter around it. At Pensacola, Spanish artillery was able to hit a powder magazine at the advance British redoubt and destroy it. By moving the Spanish cannon even closer to the fort, the walls were breached, and the British finally surrendered at Pensacola. Along with Pensacola, the British commander was forced to give up the rest of British West Florida to Galvez.
As a result of his victory at Pensacola, Galvez earned recognition from the Spanish King, who named him a count and granted him a coat of arms with the motto “Yo Solo” or “I Alone”, with a picture of a ship, which commemorated his leading Spanish ships into Pensacola Bay. Galvez went on to become the viceroy of New Spain, following his father as governor of what we now know as Mexico. Galveston, Texas, was named in honor of him.
The Spanish conquest of British West Florida in 1781 coincided with the Franco-American victory over the British at Yorktown that same year. In fact, Galvez’s campaigns against the British in West Florida prevented that province from helping British forces against the Americans in Georgia and the Carolinas. When the war ended in 1783, Britain recognized the new United States as an independent country, and also gave up all of Florida to Spain. Don Bernardo de Galvez, Spanish governor of Louisiana, played a leading role in the war of American Independence, and should be remembered not only as a friend of the infant United States, but also as one of the greatest military leaders in Spanish colonial history.