Despite common belief, the American Revolution was more than 13 colonies fighting an oppressive European force; it was a transatlantic conflict involving multiple countries and their colonies. Louisiana, then under the Spanish flag, waged impressive campaigns to attack British territories and undermine the British war effort.
Spain decided to assist the rebels because of their humiliating loss to Great Britain during the French and Indian War, which was the North American theater of the Seven Years War. In 1762, Spain offered to help France in exchange for all of the Louisiana territory west of the Mississippi River, including the city of New Orleans. However, Spain surrendered East and West Florida to Great Britain.
The American Revolution provided Spain an opportunity to seek revenge against Great Britain and regain lost territory. The Spanish crown aspired to help the rebels for geopolitical ambitions as opposed to beliefs in the revolutionary ideals spouted by the American elite. As soon as the Americans rebelled, Spain utilized Louisiana to aid the rebels and obstruct British forces. The story of Louisiana’s involvement starts with an Irish immigrant, Oliver Pollock, and ends with Louisiana governor Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid.
Oliver Pollock emigrated from Ireland to Philadelphia in 1760. His commercial travels led him to New Orleans, where he married a local Irish immigrant and became the most successful merchant in the city. His wealth put him on good terms with the Spanish elite.
Pollock and Luis de Unzaga, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, financed the rebel cause at the beginning of the revolution. Through collaboration with Unzaga, Pollock funded the Illinois campaign, in which a group of militiamen led by George Rogers Clark seized British forts, crippling the British in the region. After Unzaga, Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid took governorship of Louisiana. He increased financing for the Revolution and fortified defenses along the Mississippi. In 1779, Spain signed the Treaty of Aranjuez with France and officially declared war on Great Britain.
Gálvez openly provided Pollock with Spanish ships for American use. The Americans eventually overpowered the British patrolling Lake Pontchartrain, quickly ending the Battle of Lake Pontchartrain, the first battle of the American Revolution in Louisiana.
Campaigns of Bernardo de Gálvez – “Hero of the Revolution”
Before Gálvez’s governorship, he participated in military conflicts in Europe and Africa, studied in France, and was a professor at a prestigious Spanish military academy, making him a prime candidate for governor of francophone Louisiana.
Gálvez spent his early years as governor preparing for a potential conflict with Great Britain, which at the time had more troops along the Gulf Coast than Spain. In April, 1779, Gálvez intercepted communications that claimed Great Britain was planning an attack on New Orleans. Gálvez went on the offensive. He recruited Acadians (Cajuns), Creoles, free people of color, Isleños, German immigrants, and other Louisianans to join his Spanish army. The eclectic assortment of his army reflected the diversity of 18th century Louisiana.
After being deterred by a hurricane, Gálvez first attacked the British at Fort Bute, located on Bayou Manchac, over 100 miles upriver from New Orleans. The garrison capitulated after a brief skirmish. The loss of Fort Bute denied British access to the Mississippi River. Gálvez then marched to Baton Rouge to take the newly built British fort. Fort New Richmond had an eighteen foot wide ditch surrounding it, over a dozen cannons, and over 700 British regulars, Waldecker (from modern day Germany) mercenaries, and Loyalists. Taking Fort New Richmond required precision and strategy.
Gálvez sent a small group of troops behind the fort to create a diversion. The British, thinking it was the bulk of Gálvez’s army, attacked the small force. As the British attacked, Gálvez’s main contingent dug trenches for his soldiers and artillery. The British did not notice until they were bombarded by Gálvez. The British soon surrendered and agreed to surrender Natchez as well. Throughout the series of events, known now as the Battle of Baton Rouge, only one person from Gálvez’s party died. A local justice of the peace joked that the British surrendered during the “mighty battle” because a British officer “wounded his head on his tea table.”
Gálvez soon eyed Mobile, but needed reinforcements. After battling another brutal hurricane, reinforcements from Havana rendezvoused with Gálvez at Mobile Bay. They stationed themselves around ten miles from British occupied Fort Charlotte, an old brick fort built by French colonizer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville in 1723 when the territory was part of French Louisiana.
Gálvez wrote Elias Durnford, the British officer in charge of Fort Charlotte, polite letters suggesting the British surrender. In his letters, Gálvez signed them, “Your very humble and very obedient servant.” Durnford courteously responded,
Sir: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your Excellency’s summons to surrender immediately the Fort to your Excellency’s superior forces.
The differences of number, I am convinced, are greatly in your favor, sir, but mine are much beyond your Excellency’s conception, and was I to give up this Fort on your demand I should be regarded as a traitor to my king and country. My love for both, and my own honor, direct my heart to refuse surrendering this Fort until I am under conviction that resistance is in vain…
As letters were exchanged, battle preparations were made by both parties. Durnford only had around 300 men, and reinforcements from Pensacola were unable to arrive in time. Gálvez now had a force of over 1,500 men. After a week of bombardment and a few British deaths, the walls were breached and Durnford surrendered.
Siege of Pensacola
Gálvez then eyed Pensacola, the capital of West Florida. Pensacola was protected by four forts, the major one being Fort George. The British had over 3,000 regulars, over 500 Native Americans, hundreds of Waldecker mercenaries, and hundreds of Loyalists protecting the city. Gálvez requested more troops from Havana to join his army and received thousands of additional troops, including over 300 Irishmen and a sizeable contingent of free Afro-Cuban soldiers. Incoming supplies from New Orleans also helped.
Gálvez and the reinforcements dug trenches, bunkers, and redoubts in preparation for the siege. As the Spanish and their allies prepared they were attacked by Choctaws allied with the British. The same day of the attack, Spanish and French troops arrived with over 1,700 men, bringing the invading army total to over 8,000.
In late April, Gálvez’s army was attacked again by Native Americans and soon after by the British. On April 30, Gálvez began his full-scale attack on the British fortifications. The invasion was halted by yet another hurricane, the third one since the campaign started. The fleet withdrew from the action, and the trenches and bunkers flooded Gálvez’s men on land. Upon hearing their troubles, the Tallapoosa Creeks offered food and supplies. Gálvez negotiated with them to halt the attacks from the Choctaws.
The help provided Gálvez the necessary accommodations to continue the attack. On May 8, Spanish artillery hit the gunpowder supply at the closest fort and caused an explosion that killed 57 British soldiers and largely destroyed the fort. The Spanish led force advanced to the destroyed fort and put their artillery in range of Fort George and another fort. As the two forces bombarded each other for days, it was evident the British were unable to withstand the attack. On May 10, 1781, after hundreds dead or wounded, the surrender was finalized. The nine weeks siege was the longest siege throughout the American Revolution. One historian called the siege “a decisive factor in the outcome of the Revolution and one of the most brilliantly executed battles of the war.”
The victory solidified the British loss of power around the Gulf of Mexico. The American colonies were saved from any possibility of a British offensive from the south. Spain successfully took back much of its territory in the region and grew wealthier because of the conflict, as opposed to France who accumulated debt and paved the way for a different revolution.
Outside of Louisiana, the entire account is relatively absent throughout the American Revolution narrative despite its instrumental impact on the founding of the United States. Spain’s help is often overshadowed by France’s significant role in the War, but the French were only free to challenge the British in the Atlantic Ocean because Spain protected their colonies in the Gulf of Mexico.
In the 18th and 19th century, the story of Gálvez was well known, and he was considered a war hero to the infantile country. In 1783, George Washington placed Gálvez to his right in a Fourth of July parade. The two corresponded until Gálvez’s death.
Places are named in honor of Gálvez all across the country, most notably Galveston, Texas. In Louisiana, Gálvez is recognized throughout the southern half of the state and St. Bernard Parish is named after his patron saint. The parishes of West Feliciana and East Feliciana are named after his Creole wife. In New Orleans, there is Gálvez Street and a bronze equestrian statue of him on Canal Street, a gift from Spain in 1977 to commemorate the bicentennial of American independence. Towns across Mexico still celebrate Gálvez Day.
There are current efforts to revitalize the story of Louisiana’s impact on the American Revolution. The Granaderos y Damas de Gálvez in San Antonio and a similar society in Florida both formed to honor and remember the Louisiana governor and his exploits in the Revolution. The Sons of the American Revolution has recently accepted numerous Louisianans into their society. As recent as December of 2014, Gálvez was named an honorary US citizen. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the saga is now part of the Louisiana History curriculum.
Despite its relatively obscure place in history, Spain’s use of Louisiana was significant to the war effort, and it could not have happened if Gálvez did not receive the support from local Louisianans: Acadians, free people of color, Isleños from St. Bernard Parish, German immigrants along the German Coast, and French Creoles. It was the first time these groups came together for a common cause against a foreign enemy, but it would not be the last.