- Historic Sites
Bernardo De Gálvez
The Forgotten Revolutionary Conquistador Who Saved Louisiana
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
The next morning, Gálvez sent Admiral Calbo a thirty-two-pound ball fired by Fort Barrancas Coloradas at his camp on Santa Rosa Island. With this iron (and ironic) gift was a message: “Whoever has honor and valour will follow me.” In the fleet were four ships from Louisiana, which Gálvez had the right to command. He boarded the brig Gálveztown , formerly William Pickles’s West Florida , and ordered the captain to hoist a rear admiral’s pennant. The crew fired a salute of fifteen guns to further clarify Gálvez’s intentions. With the sloop Valenzuela and two armed launches, Louisiana’s entire navy, behind him, the governor ordered all sail set and headed into Pensacola’s harbor.
The thirty-two pounders in Fort Barrancas Coloradas belched flame. The murderous round shot, any one of which could have sunk the Gálveztown , whizzed above and around the little ship. Gálvez and his staff stood on the quarter-deck coolly ignoring the rain of metal. One ball tore through the rigging; otherwise neither the Gálveztown nor the other ships were so much as scratched. Aboard the San Ramón , the mortified Admiral Calbo and his fuming captains watched this display of noblesse oblige . On the shore, Gálvez’s soldiers cheered and beat their drums while, as the Gálveztown anchored in the inner harbor, she saluted the British fort.
The next day the admiral led the rest of the fleet across the bar under fire from Fort Barrancas Coloradas. They too escaped with very little damage. The captains were not enthused when Gálvez sailed among them in a small open boat during the worst of the fire, supposedly to encourage them. At dinner a few nights later, one of them almost challenged him to a duel for publicly insulting the navy. He quickly smoothed over the quarrel by inviting himself to dinner on one of the frigates.
A week later, twenty-three hundred men arrived from Mobile and New Orleans, and Gálvez ferried his army across the inner harbor to begin the siege of Pensacola’s main defensive work, Fort George. England’s Indian allies harried the Spanish camp, sniping from cover and ambushing any soldier foolish enough to wander into the woods alone. Gálvez was in no hurry. He was determined to capture Fort George without a frontal assault. This required time to explore, probe, study. Another reason for his deliberate pace appeared on April 19. As he suspected, the captain general of Havana had been forced to follow his lead. A fleet of twenty ships appeared, with sixteen hundred Spanish and seven hundred and twenty-five French soldiers. Among the Spaniards was a regiment of the famed Irish Brigade, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Arturo O’Neil and officered by men with such exotic names as Juan Hogan and Pedro O’Daly. They, their fathers, and grandfathers had been fighting in the service of Spain since the British conquest of Ireland in 1690.
Once more Gálvez headed an international army. With more than seven thousand men in his command, there was no longer any doubt of victory. But the British made a stubborn defense. They badly bloodied the Irish regiment in one sortie, and their 149 cannon and howitzers fought deadly duels with the batteries that Gálvez emplaced. In the British ranks were two battalions of loyalists from Pennsylvania and Maryland. According to one account, a deserter from these regiments revealed to Gálvez the exact location of the powder magazine in the fort’s advanced redoubt. On May 8 a Spanish shell went through the door of the magazine as its supply of gunpowder was being replenished. A tremendous explosion killed eighty-five men and smashed the redoubt. Gálvez’s men rushed into the wreckage, drove out the British survivors, and soon had a battery firing into Fort George at point-blank range. The following day, May 9, 1871, Brigadier Campbell surrendered Pensacola and the province of West Florida to Don Bernardo de Gálvez. Including his handful of casualties at Mobile, Gálvez had conquered this huge swatch of southern America at the cost of 124 men killed and 247 wounded. Gálvez immediately was assigned an even larger task—the conquest of Jamaica by a combined Spanish-French expeditionary force and fleet. But the surrender of another British army at Yorktown and the rapid winding down of the war forced him to abandon this ambitious enterprise. For his exploit at Pensacola, King Carlos III made the governor Count de Gálvez and authorized him to emblazon on his coat of arms a small ship with the inscription Yo Solo (“I alone”).
After the war Gálvez was made captain general of Cuba and in that role he rescued Oliver Pollock from a debtors’ prison cell. Pollock had gone bankrupt while waiting for the U.S. Congress to reimburse him for the fortune he had spent on behalf of the United States. Aware that relations between Spain and the United States were souring, Gálvez gave Pollock a letter in which he claimed that the secret service money came out of his private fortune and he held Pollock “personally responsible” for its repayment. Gálvez apparently hoped his reputation might prod Congress into action on Pollock’s behalf. It still took the Irishman another decade to get his money. Among the first payments he made in 1792 was one to the estate of Gálvez.