The Revolution might have ended much differently for the Americans if it weren’t for their ally, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, who helped them wrestle the Mississippi valley from the British.
Imagine, for a moment, an alternate ending to the American Revolution. The thirteen rebel colonies sign a peace of exhaustion with Great Britain in 1783. Instead of a trans-Appalachian nation, with boundaries on the Mississippi, the Americans are restricted to a few river valleys in Tennessee and Kentucky. The Mississippi valley is British, as well as Canada and all the territory north of the Ohio, peopled with hostile Indians whom Britain controls. South and west of Georgia the continent is also British; everything from Florida through what is now Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans and Louisiana is under the Union Jack—with more thousands of hostile Indians bound to Britain by flattery, gifts, and habit. It is hard to believe that the United States would have long survived England’s readiness to manipulate Indians, subvert politicians, and fan sectional jealousies to destabilize the fragile confederation.
The war might have ended this way—except for Don Bernardo de Gálvez. Few Americans have heard of this Spanish nobleman who became governor of the province of Louisiana on January 1,1777. On that date he was even more obscure—a thirty-year-old soldier whose chief previous experience had been fighting Apaches on the Mexican frontier. Louisiana was not an assignment that inspired fierce competition in Spain’s Council of the Indies. The province had been given to Spain by France in 1762, supposedly as compensation for the losses Spain had suffered in the Seven Years’ War with England. Actually, the French were unloading a colony that had failed to produce a sou of profit after sixty years and as many millions of livres had been poured into the swampy, malaria-ridden wilderness. Spain had accepted the white elephant because it was the only buffer she had left to shield her kingdom of New Spain (Mexico) and its priceless silver mines from England’s ever-advancing commercial empire. In the Seven Years’ War, England had acquired the provinces of East and West Florida. This meant the English fronted Louisiana along thirteen hundred miles of the Mississippi.
To make things worse, Louisiana’s Creoles were less than enthusiastic about their transfer to the Spanish empire. In 1768, in a forgotten prelude to the American Revolution, they chased the first Spanish governor out of New Orleans and talked of setting up a republic. King Carlos III replied by sending an army whose general cowed New Orleans into surrender without firing a shot and then executed five of the protorepublicans. This act earned Spain profound enmity among the Creoles. They ignored Spanish customs laws and avidly bought goods from “floating stores” that enterprising English merchants from West Florida sent up and down the Mississippi. A frustrated Spanish officer reported in 1776 that the colony’s trade was worth six hundred thousand dollars a year, and Spanish ships and goods got only fifteen thousand dollars of it. The rest went to the hated Anglois .
By the time Gálvez became governor, the war raging between England and her thirteen colonies had produced a new menace. Thousands of refugees had flooded into West Florida from Georgia and the Carolinas, more than doubling its original population of 2,500, bringing it alarmingly close to Louisiana’s 8,381 whites and 536 free blacks. (The remaining 9,000 Louisianians were slaves, another threat to stability.) The Spaniards found the size of British settlements at Natchez and Manchac on the Mississippi especially ominous. Before Gálvez arrived, the policy of Spanish officials had been to do nothing to arouse the pugnacious British lion. The war news of 1776, which consisted of little but stories of American armies routed from Canada, New York, and New Jersey, only reinforced this caution.
Gálvez proceeded to startle everyone in and around r Louisiana. First to be surprised were New Orleans’ Creoles, who discovered that the young governor was neither an aloof aristocrat, an icy militarist, nor a mild-mannered cipher, widely held characterizations of his three predecessors. He had a zest for friendship and not an iota of aristocratic hauteur. This was doubly amazing because his uncle, José de Gálvez, was minister of the Indies, the most powerful post in the Spanish empire, and the governor’s father, Matias, was viceroy of New Spain. Young Gálvez socialized freely with the Creoles and encouraged his officers to do likewise. Two of them soon married local beauties, and the governor fell in love with one himself. Her name was Felicie de St. Maxent d’Estrehan, a young widow “of surpassing loveliness” according to one possibly biased Louisiana historian. Her father was one of Louisiana’s leading citizens. The whole province reacted with delight and applause. After the wedding Gálvez probably could have run for governor and been elected, if such a republican tactic had been permitted in the King of Spain’s authoritarian empire.
Next to be surprised was Oliver Pollock. An Irish-born merchant who had been living in New Orleans since 1768, he was acting as a self-appointed agent for the American rebels. Gálvez’s aged predecessor, Luis de Unzaga, sent only two small shipments of war matériel up the Mississippi to embattled western Americans. From the moment Gálvez took office, Pollock became a virtual confidante and the Mississippi a major American supply route. The governor interpreted Spain’s decision to join France in secret aid to the rebels in the broadest, most enthusiastic terms. He worked out complicated cover schemes with Pollock to transfer medicine, guns, cloth, and gunpowder shipped from Cuba. The supplies went up the Mississippi in twenty-four-oared batteaux flying the Spanish flag to enable them to run the British forts at Manchac and Natchez. By the end of 1777, some seventy thousand dollars worth of ordnance had reached Pittsburgh and other western posts.
Gálvez also declared that henceforth the port of New Orleans would be open to American privateers and their captures. American trading vessels were equally welcome. Any American ship that got to the mouth of the Mississippi was safe. There Spanish officials at the outpost of Balize were ordered to put them under the protection of the Spanish flag for the journey up the river to New Orleans. The captains of British frigates and sloops of war could only gnash their teeth. On another route from the sea, the “inward passage” from the Gulf across Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas to the Mississippi, American craft did not have this protection because there was no Spanish outpost at Lake Pontchartrain’s eastern exit. In mid-April of 1777 the British sloop of war West Florida captured two American batteaux and a Spanish schooner on the lake. Gálvez instantly ordered the seizure of every English vessel on the Mississippi from Balize to Manchac. Eleven floating stores were hauled to New Orleans and their tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of goods confiscated.
The British riposted by sending the frigate Atlanta up the river. The captain dispatched a minimally polite letter to Gálvez, demanding to know the reason for the seizures. Simultaneously, the British started boarding French and Spanish river boats and inspecting them to make sure they were not “Rebels” (Americans). Gálvez fiercely protested the Atlanta ’s conduct; in a letter to his superiors in Havana, he said that he met the British “match in hand” (ready to fire his cannon). But he ended the letter by nervously noting that the British were talking of another frigate reinforcing the Atlanta . Between them the two ships would be able to flatten the puny defenses of New Orleans.
English merchants, hoping the governor’s act was only a fit of temper, persuaded the Atlanta to depart. The merchants learned, to their sorrow, that Gálvez was not acting on impulse. He had been waiting for a British indiscretion to permit him to pounce on their illegal trade. He soon sold all the confiscated goods at auction and began enforcing customs regulations with such strictness that by 1778 French commissioners in New Orleans, appointed to handle trade with their Caribbean islands, gleefully reported that no British flag had been seen on the river for three months.
Meanwhile, Gálvez, through Oliver Pollock, continued to funnel war supplies to the Americans in the west. The assurance of a friendly government in New Orleans did much to encourage George Rogers Clark and other Americans to take the offensive against their Indian and British enemies. Gálvez became the man behind Oliver Pollock, who was the man behind Clark’s conquest of the Northwest Territory. Although Clark achieved his astonishing string of victories with a handful of men, he still had to pay for the ammunition with which he blasted away at the British defenders of Vincennes for eighteen consecutive hours, for the food his little army bought from the territory’s largely French inhabitants, and most important, for the lavish presents Clark gave the Indians to lull them into neutrality. Once he captured the forts that ruled the vast territory, he had to garrison them and give still more presents to the Indians. On August 6, 1778, for instance, Clark wrote Pollock, begging him for “Five thousand Dollars worth of Goods most Suitable for Soldiers and Indians.”
To pay his bills Clark wrote drafts on the credit of the state of Virginia. All this paper descended the Mississippi to Pollock for payment. “The invoicefs] Mr. Pollock rendered upon all occasions in paying those bills,” Clark later declared, “I considered at the time and now to be one of the happy circumstances that enabled me to Keep Possession of that Country.” Again and again, Pollock got the money from Gálvez, often in furtive visits from his secretary late at night. By August 26, 1779, loans of “very secret service money” totaled $74,087.17. Pollock made good another $136,466.85 in drafts from Clark and other Virginians. He could never have raised this much money without Gálvez’s backing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The dynamic young captain general stunned family and friends and filled the kingdom of New Spain with mourning when he died unexpectedly in 1786. He had succeeded his father as viceroy of Mexico in 1785 and won the same kind of popularity there he had enjoyed in Louisiana. He personally supervised the distribution of grain to the poor, pardoned prisoners condemned to death, enrolled his son as an honorary private in a local regiment, and otherwise abandoned the aloof style of previous viceroys. There was a rumor, never substantiated, that Gálvez had been poisoned by conservatives in the imperial bureaucracy because they feared that he was planning to lead a revolution against Spain and set himself up as an irresistibly popular president or king. Medical evidence suggests he was more likely a victim of malaria, which he first contracted in Louisiana.
On the continent of North America, where he won his fame, Bernardo de Gálvez left the same legacy of affection and admiration. But his superiors in Madrid never capitalized on it. They remained rigidly hostile to the United States’ republican ideology. Before and during the peace conference, Spain’s diplomats tried to block American claims to the Mississippi valley and refused to concede the right to navigate the Father of Waters below the northern boundary of West Florida. Having added East Florida to Gálvez’s conquests at the bargaining table, they wanted to keep the Gulf of Mexico a Spanish lake. America’s negotiators stressed George Rogers Clark’s conquests to win the upper Mississippi valley. In 1795 Spain, far more threatened by a new revolution in France, yielded the right of navigation on the lower Mississippi to a now thoroughly hostile United States. In 1802 a Spain humbled by Napoleon surrendered Louisiana and in 1819 sold the Floridas to an America now convinced of its right to rule the continent.
This dolorous aftermath should not—and cannot—overshadow the achievement of Don Bernardo de Gálvez. His place in American history rests not only on his military conquests but on the man himself—what today’s pundits would call his style. There was something quintessentially American about him. The emergence of such a man from Spain’s rigid empire stirs thoughts about such historic imponderables as chance, destiny, and luck. Unquestionably Bernardo de Gálvez was the right man in the right place at the right time—for the United States of America.