- Historic Sites
Bernardo De Gálvez
The Forgotten Revolutionary Conquistador Who Saved Louisiana
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
The artillery blasted huge holes in the chevaux-de-frise, and wreaked havoc on barracks and other structures inside the fort. After several hours of punishment, Dickson asked for terms. Gálvez demanded the surrender of all forts on the Mississippi, in particular, Natchez. The British lieutenant colonel glumly complied. Gálvez sent an officer and fifty men north to take over Fort Panmure at Natchez. With him he carried a letter from Pollock, assuring the settlers that they had nothing to fear from Gálvez, citing “the protection which every American has received on this River from his Excellency. ” The Natchez fort surrendered on October 5, and the settlers accepted Spanish rule without a murmur.
A few days later, a messenger reached Natchez with a letter from Brigadier John Campbell, the British commander at Pensacola, informing the district that war had been declared against Spain and urging them to join in an attack on New Orleans. Spanish ships had outsailed the British for once; the news of war had not reached Pensacola until September 9. If Gálvez had not launched his “marcha,” he would have been on the receiving end of the British blow.
While Gálvez was capturing Manchac, Baton Rouge, and Natchez, other Spanish officers were seizing smaller British posts and numerous ships on the Mississippi and its tributaries. The most colorful acts of war came from a Creole and an American. On Lake Pontchartrain, the British sloop West Florida , which had been harassing American and Spanish vessels for two years, was assaulted by William Pickles commanding a ship originally captured from the British by James Willing. The West Florida outgunned Pickles but she surrendered when he led a boarding party onto her quarterdeck, killing the captain and three others. Pickles lost only one man: “Brown, Traitor to our Cause, swimd ashore.”
Even more spectacular was the feat of Vizente Rillieux of New Orleans, whom Gálvez gave command of a small armed ship to cruise the lakes and intercept British reinforcements from Pensacola. Rillieux decided to improvise an ambush at Pass Manchac, between Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas. He landed his fourteen-man crew and their light cannon at the pass and blasted the first British ship that appeared, while his men howled loud enough to convince the English they were facing an army. They dove below decks, and Rillieux and his men leaped aboard to discover they had captured fifty-six German mercenaries and a dozen sailors.
This exploit ended Gálvez’s Mississippi campaign in a blaze of local glory. At the cost of only one man killed and two wounded, the Spanish governor and his multihued American compatriots had captured over a thousand enemy regulars and militia, three forts, eight substantial ships, and thirteen hundred miles of prime farm land on the east bank of the Mississippi. In his dispatches, Gálvez praised his blacks and Indians as much as his white volunteers. The Indians especially pleased Gálvez by not mistreating a single prisoner. They even carried to him “with the most tender care” children of settlers who had fled into the woods.
Gálvez now turned his attention to Mobile and West Florida’s capital, Pensacola. His Louisiana garrison had been bolstered by an additional seven hundred regulars from Havana, so he had little fear of a British counterattack. Further reassurance on that point came from West Florida, where, at this moment of crisis, Governor Peter Chester proved that the British had learned nothing from the upheaval that was costing them thirteen American colonies. The British commander at Pensacola, Brigadier Campbell, begged Chester to call the assembly and pass a militia law. But the governor, characterized by the frustrated Campbell as “cold, phlegmatic and indifferent,” had summoned the assembly only once since 1772, when they had had a nasty quarrel over abstruse questions of privilege. Chester refused Campbell’s request.
While collecting supplies and men in Louisiana, Gálvez bombarded Havana with pleas for more men to resume the offensive. He finally had to send out one of his deputies, Esteban Mir’f4, who wangled a measly 567 men from the cautious captain general of Cuba. Without waiting for these to arrive, Gálvez sailed from New Orleans on January 11,1780, with 754 men—the usual mixture of regulars, Creole militia, and free blacks and mulattoes. Off Mobile, heavy weather drove six ships onto the treacherous sandbars at the mouth of the bay. A similar fate befell other ships in the fleet as they arrived. Energetic seamanship rescued most of the grounded vessels, but a hospital ship and a cargo ship loaded with badly needed medicines and supplies were lost. Although he remained cheerful and full of his usual energy, Gálvez knew he was in a precarious position. There was a rumor that Campbell, hearing that the shipwrecks had cost Gálvez seven hundred men, was advancing from Pensacola with formidable reinforcements. Gálvez declined to abandon the attack. He marched his army, reinforced by the detachment from Havana, fifteen miles from Mobile Point, to the little town at the mouth of the Mobile River and began a seige.