- Historic Sites
Bernardo De Gálvez
The Forgotten Revolutionary Conquistador Who Saved Louisiana
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
It was conducted with the gallantry and humanity that distinguished Gálvez’s approach to war. Noting that the British Fort Charlotte was surrounded by the houses of Mobile, and that the British commander, Captain Elias Durnford, had burned several houses to deprive Spanish cannon of cover, Gálvez offered not to build batteries behind any house if Durnford extinguished his torches. “Fortresses are constructed solely to defend towns, but you are commencing to destroy the town in favor of a fortress incapable of defence,” Gálvez wrote. The British commander agreed to the proposition if he was permitted to relocate cannon and open embrasures on the only side of the fortress that Gálvez could then attack. Gálvez disagreed and the siege resumed, with open season on houses still the rule.
Gálvez’s men went back to digging gun emplacements. On March 11,1780, the day before the artillery opened fire, scouts reported a large British force, at least six hundred men, on the march from Pensacola. Gálvez undoubtedly urged his gunners to make every shot count. They obeyed with zest, battering the British from 10:00 A.M. until sundown, opening a menacing breach in one wall. At dusk, a white flag rose over the ravaged fort. Durnford surrendered his motley garrison, which included sixty sailors, fifty-four local inhabitants, and fifty-one blacks, with Campbell and eleven hundred regulars and Indians only a few hours’ march away. Once more luck—and Gálvez s aggressive spirit—had won a victory.
Campbell retreated to Pensacola, where he sent out a frantic call for reinforcements and began wooing help from the Indians. Gálvez somewhat mournfully wrote to his uncle, the minister of the Indies, that if he had been given the number of men he had requested from Havana, he could have cut off Campbell’s retreat and “succeeded over the English the same as at Saratoga.” These words spawned a nasty letter from the minister to the captain general of Cuba in which he was lectured on the virtue of boldness in war. The captain general was also informed that the king had made Gálvez a field marshal. With this kind of backing, Gálvez arrived in Havana to organize an expedition against the capital of West Florida. Dominating the junta de guerra , he was given thirty-eight hundred men and fourteen warships.
The fleet sailed from Havana on October 16, 1780. Two days later, Gálvez’s nemesis, a hurricane, struck it, scattering warships and transports all over the Gulf of Mexico. That was the end of Gálvez’s hopes of capturing Pensacola in 1780. The captain general of Cuba, whose love for Gálvez was slight, might have stalled another expedition indefinitely. But Brigadier Campbell once more cooperated with Don Bernardo’s ambitions. Early in January, 1781, Campbell sent a six-hundred-and-fifty-man force commanded by a German colonel to attack Mobile. The one-hundred-and-fifty-man garrison beat off a frontal assault, killing the colonel, described as “the best officer of Pensacola,” plus two other officers and sixteen enlisted men. This gave Gálvez the argument that unless Pensacola was reduced, all his previous conquests in West Florida might be lost. The Havana junta de guerra agreed after some heavy foot dragging. They voted to give Gálvez only 1,315 men, whose main purpose was to strengthen Spanish defenses in Louisiana. But they authorized him to attack Pensacola if he could draw other troops from Mobile and New Orleans. That was all Don Bernardo needed. He headed straight from Havana to Pensacola, sending orders to his lieutenants in Louisiana to assemble every man they could spare and ship them to the same destination.
Gálvez was risking disaster. He was besieging an enemy whose twenty-five-hundred-man garrison outnumbered him. But he was also using psychology on the junta de guerra . He was sure that once the siege began, the junta and the captain general would be embarrassed into supporting him.
Before that happened, Gálvez had to perform an even more spectacular feat of leadership. Landing on Santa Rosa Island at the mouth of Pensacola Harbor, he found the English battery thought to be there had been abandoned. The guardian of the harbor was a fort on Barrancas Coloradas (the red cliffs), the point of land opposite Santa Rosa. The fort bristled with thirty-two-pound guns. The Spanish admiral in command of the fleet, José Calbo de Irazabal, tried negotiating the tricky bar at the harbor’s mouth in his seventy-four-gun flagship San Ramón and almost ran aground. He came about and announced that it was impossible to bring the fleet into the harbor under the fire of Fort Barrancas Coloradas. This meant that the first storm would scatter warships and cargo vessels, leaving Gálvez and his men stranded.