- Historic Sites
Bernardo De Gálvez
The Forgotten Revolutionary Conquistador Who Saved Louisiana
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
The governor summoned a mass meeting of the Creoles in the Place d’Armes, New Orleans’ central square. After a few words of regret about the damage wreaked by the storm, he told them that the British were threatening to attack New Orleans and drew from his coat his commission from the king, confirming his appointment as governor. He said he could not accept the commission without swearing to defend Louisiana. He was ready to shed the last drop of his blood to support that oath. But he hesitated to take it “because I do not know whether you will help me in resisting the ambitious designs of the English. What do you say? Shall I take the oath of governor? Shall I swear to defend Louisiana? Will you stand by me and conquer or die with your governor and for your king?”
Gálvez held up the commission and drew his sword. The crowd met this showmanship with an enthusiastic roar.
On August 27, Gálvez led five hundred Spanish regulars, sixty white Creole militiamen, eighty free blacks and mulattoes, and nine American volunteers from New Orleans. Oliver Pollock rode beside him as his adjutant. They marched upriver to the German and Acadian coasts (named for the original settlers), where they turned out another six hundred men and one hundred and sixty Indians. It was an international army if ever there was one: the Indians and blacks were the advance guard, prowling through the thickets and canes along the river; the regulars followed them, and the white militia brought up the rear.
One Creole, Julian Poydras, celebrated the “Marcha de Gálvez” in grandiloquent verse:
The reality was somewhat grimmer. The 115-mile march along the Mississippi in the August heat took eleven exhausting days and knocked out a third of the army. On September 6 Gálvez and his men camped within a mile of the British fort at Manchac. Only then did he tell them that they were to attack, rather than simply defend Louisiana. The militiamen were enthused by the announcement. The Acadians in particular could not wait to get at “those who had … driven them into exile like miserable outlaws.” Positioning his regulars as a blocking force to the north to cut off a British retreat, Gálvez sent his militia screaming through heavy ground fog to assault Manchac at 8:30 A.M. The men killed a hapless sentry, wounded two others, and the battle was over. Instead of the expected four-hundred-man garrison, there were only two dozen men in the fort, twenty of whom immediately surrendered. Six others escaped through the fog. From the prisoners Gálvez learned that the British commander, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Dickson, had decided the rotted stockade was indefensible and had retreated to Baton Rouge, where he had built a new fort.
After resting his men for six days, Gálvez pushed on to Baton Rouge, another fifteen miles. There he found Lieutenant Colonel Dickson in a well-built earthen-walled fort bristling with chevaux-de-frise and with a ditch eighteen feet wide and nine deep. Dickson had thirteen cannon and about four hundred regulars, plus one hundred and fifty militia from the neighborhood. By this time, Gálvez’s army had dwindled to about seven hundred men. Nevertheless, he unloaded his ten cannon from the ships that had followed him up the river and began a siege. His officers, fearful that dwindling supplies and summer fevers would further shrink their army, urged an immediate frontal assault. The militia were heady from their easy victory at Manchac and ready to charge. But Gálvez reminded his officers that most of these men were heads of families. Charging thirteen cannon and six hundred and fifty blazing muskets would “fill the whole Province with grief and mourning.” He did not want to win that kind of victory.
Studying the topography around the fort, Gálvez noted a triangular grove of trees not far from its wall—the logical point from which to launch an attack. That evening Gálvez sent his Indians, blacks, and Creole militia into the woods with orders to chop trees, fire muskets, and otherwise make as much noise as possible. The British swallowed the bait and pounded the woods with round shot and grape all night. Meanwhile, Gálvez’s regulars were digging furiously in a garden on the other side of the fort, getting the artillery in place. At dawn they were down deep enough to protect them from British counterfire and their big guns were ready to boom at musket-shot range.