- Historic Sites
Bernardo De Gálvez
The Forgotten Revolutionary Conquistador Who Saved Louisiana
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
As a reward for this clandestine generosity, Gálvez was visited in the early months of 1778 by the biggest headache of his career—Captain James Willing. The younger brother of a prominent Philadelphia merchant named Thomas Willing, the partner of Robert Morris, James had spent some time at Natchez before the war, mostly drinking and whoring and dodging creditors. In 1777 he turned up in Philadelphia and convinced the commerce committee of the Continental Congress that West Florida was ripe for conquest. Using his insider’s influence, he got a commission from the committee to launch a harebrained assault on the province with thirty men aboard an armed sloop, the Rattletrap , which he picked up at Fort Pitt. Descending the Ohio and the Mississippi to Natchez, Willing assembled the startled inhabitants and ordered them to swear their neutrality in the war. In return Willing promised them that their lands and slaves were safe. He apparently kept this promise in the Natchez district, but once he got below it he began a reign of terror along the British east bank of the river, seizing slaves, property, burning houses, and incidentally capturing a British armed sloop, the Rebecca .
Panic swept the citizens of West Florida, which Willing gleefully redoubled by portraying his men as the advance guard of a large army. Hundreds fled across the river, some in their nightshirts, to seek protection of the Spanish flag. Gálvez ordered his people to receive them as refugees. One West Floridian told the governor that he felt obligated “to proclaim to all the world … the Bénéficient part which you have so generously and Seasonably taken.” Gálvez also gave Willing and his men protection, which they soon needed as badly as the refugees. The infuriated British sent two sloops of war up the river and another with one hundred soldiers over the lakes to demand the surrender of the raiders. Gálvez not only refused, he allowed them to sell their plunder in New Orleans, with Pollock’s help. Gálvez’s correspondence with the captains of the British sloops and with Peter Chester, governor of West Florida, grew tense. But he refused to give up Willing and his men, even when he heard a thirty-two-gun frigate was on its way up the river. Oliver Pollock admiringly reported to Congress that Gálvez deserved “the greatest applause … for his noble Spirit & behavior on this Occasion.”
From Willing, instead of gratitude, Gálvez got arguments and complaints. To stave off the English, Gálvez ordered him to return some of the property his men had seized on Spanish soil. Willing haggled over each item. Meanwhile, the citizens of West Florida, who had had a decidedly neutralist tinge in their attitude toward the Revolution, became aggressively hostile. Over three hundred volunteered for military service. Thanks to the raid, Governor Chester was able to procure from Jamaica and the British field army in New York over a thousand reinforcements. Although Willing must have known his continued presence in New Orleans was extremely provocative, he sulked around the town until the late summer of 1778, departing only when Pollock all but forced passage money into his hand and got him aboard a ship to Philadelphia.
By the time Willing left, Gálvez had learned that France had recognized American independence and joined the rebels against England. Deciding it was only a matter of time before Spain followed suit, he began planning for war. He wangled a few hundred extra soldiers from Mexico and the Canary Islands and worked hard at encouraging the Creoles to join the militia; soon he had seventeen volunteer companies, enrolling 1,478 men. He built a small fleet of shallow-draft gunboats propelled by oars. He sent gift-laden agents to nearby Indian tribes to lure them from their loyalty to the British. Combining diplomacy with espionage, he sent Captain Jacinto Panis to Pensacola to discuss “repeated insults” by the British on the Mississippi. Captain Panis returned with an exact report on the town’s defenses.
By the summer of 1779, war clouds were thickening along the Mississippi. The British post at Manchac was reinforced by four hundred German mercenaries, and there were rumors of an imminent British expedition down the Mississippi from Canada, which would combine forces with a seaborne thrust from Pensacola. Gálvez intercepted letters from British officials in which they exulted at the coming chance “to strike a blow against the Dons.” The governor summoned his officers to a council of war. They advised him to protect New Orleans at all costs and abandon the rest of the colony. Gálvez thanked them and decided to do the precise opposite—take the offensive. He swore one officer to secrecy and ordered him to act as his commissary and gather supplies and boats for an expedition up the Mississippi. Early in August, news of Spain’s entry into the war arrived from Havana. Gálvez kept this a secret, too.
On the eighteenth of August, a few days before Gálvez was ready to march, a hurricane came boiling out of the Gulf of Mexico. In three tumultuous hours it demolished dozens of buildings in New Orleans, destroyed crops and cattle for forty miles up and down the river, and sank all but one ship of Gálvez’s fleet, with all their war supplies and guns. A lesser man would have surrendered to fate. But Gálvez told his weary commissary to raise the sunken ships and start collecting supplies all over again.