- Historic Sites
Bernardo De Gálvez
The Forgotten Revolutionary Conquistador Who Saved Louisiana
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
Next to be surprised was Oliver Pollock. An Irish-born merchant who had been living in New Orleans since 1768, he was acting as a self-appointed agent for the American rebels. Gálvez’s aged predecessor, Luis de Unzaga, sent only two small shipments of war matériel up the Mississippi to embattled western Americans. From the moment Gálvez took office, Pollock became a virtual confidante and the Mississippi a major American supply route. The governor interpreted Spain’s decision to join France in secret aid to the rebels in the broadest, most enthusiastic terms. He worked out complicated cover schemes with Pollock to transfer medicine, guns, cloth, and gunpowder shipped from Cuba. The supplies went up the Mississippi in twenty-four-oared batteaux flying the Spanish flag to enable them to run the British forts at Manchac and Natchez. By the end of 1777, some seventy thousand dollars worth of ordnance had reached Pittsburgh and other western posts.
Gálvez also declared that henceforth the port of New Orleans would be open to American privateers and their captures. American trading vessels were equally welcome. Any American ship that got to the mouth of the Mississippi was safe. There Spanish officials at the outpost of Balize were ordered to put them under the protection of the Spanish flag for the journey up the river to New Orleans. The captains of British frigates and sloops of war could only gnash their teeth. On another route from the sea, the “inward passage” from the Gulf across Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas to the Mississippi, American craft did not have this protection because there was no Spanish outpost at Lake Pontchartrain’s eastern exit. In mid-April of 1777 the British sloop of war West Florida captured two American batteaux and a Spanish schooner on the lake. Gálvez instantly ordered the seizure of every English vessel on the Mississippi from Balize to Manchac. Eleven floating stores were hauled to New Orleans and their tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of goods confiscated.
The British riposted by sending the frigate Atlanta up the river. The captain dispatched a minimally polite letter to Gálvez, demanding to know the reason for the seizures. Simultaneously, the British started boarding French and Spanish river boats and inspecting them to make sure they were not “Rebels” (Americans). Gálvez fiercely protested the Atlanta ’s conduct; in a letter to his superiors in Havana, he said that he met the British “match in hand” (ready to fire his cannon). But he ended the letter by nervously noting that the British were talking of another frigate reinforcing the Atlanta . Between them the two ships would be able to flatten the puny defenses of New Orleans.
English merchants, hoping the governor’s act was only a fit of temper, persuaded the Atlanta to depart. The merchants learned, to their sorrow, that Gálvez was not acting on impulse. He had been waiting for a British indiscretion to permit him to pounce on their illegal trade. He soon sold all the confiscated goods at auction and began enforcing customs regulations with such strictness that by 1778 French commissioners in New Orleans, appointed to handle trade with their Caribbean islands, gleefully reported that no British flag had been seen on the river for three months.
Meanwhile, Gálvez, through Oliver Pollock, continued to funnel war supplies to the Americans in the west. The assurance of a friendly government in New Orleans did much to encourage George Rogers Clark and other Americans to take the offensive against their Indian and British enemies. Gálvez became the man behind Oliver Pollock, who was the man behind Clark’s conquest of the Northwest Territory. Although Clark achieved his astonishing string of victories with a handful of men, he still had to pay for the ammunition with which he blasted away at the British defenders of Vincennes for eighteen consecutive hours, for the food his little army bought from the territory’s largely French inhabitants, and most important, for the lavish presents Clark gave the Indians to lull them into neutrality. Once he captured the forts that ruled the vast territory, he had to garrison them and give still more presents to the Indians. On August 6, 1778, for instance, Clark wrote Pollock, begging him for “Five thousand Dollars worth of Goods most Suitable for Soldiers and Indians.”
To pay his bills Clark wrote drafts on the credit of the state of Virginia. All this paper descended the Mississippi to Pollock for payment. “The invoicefs] Mr. Pollock rendered upon all occasions in paying those bills,” Clark later declared, “I considered at the time and now to be one of the happy circumstances that enabled me to Keep Possession of that Country.” Again and again, Pollock got the money from Gálvez, often in furtive visits from his secretary late at night. By August 26, 1779, loans of “very secret service money” totaled $74,087.17. Pollock made good another $136,466.85 in drafts from Clark and other Virginians. He could never have raised this much money without Gálvez’s backing.