This week, we take our first look at Spain’s entry into the war. Recall that Spain had entered into a treaty with France in May 1779, which meant it would go to war with Britain. Spain did not enter into any treaty of alliance with the United States. Spain’s primary interest in entering the war seems to be the recovery of several colonies lost to Britain in earlier conflicts, and particularly recovery of British-occupied Gibraltar, at the southern border of Spain. The treaty with France obligated France to remain in the war until the two countries forced Britain out of Gibraltar. The treaty terms said nothing about the United States.
The Spanish King Carlos III was reluctant to enter the war at all. Although he was no friend of Great Britain, he was nervous about the idea of encouraging American colonies to rebel against a European monarch if they did not like his rule. Spain controlled most of North and South America at the time, as well as much of the West Indies. It really did not want to set a precedent that would lead to wars of liberation throughout the Americas.
Having committed to enter the war, Spain would proceed with efforts to recover land from a weakened and divided Britain. In July, the Crown issued orders to its colonial leaders authorizing them to attack British possessions where they thought they could take land. One of those colonial leaders was Bernardo de Galvez of Louisiana.
Bernardo de Galvez
Governor General Bernardo de Galvez had been born in southern Spain, the son of a prominent military general who would later serve as a Viceroy in New Spain. At a young age, Bernardo received formal military training at Spain’s top military academy. His education was cut short by the Seven Years War. By age sixteen, Galvez was a lieutenant and part of an offensive to invade Portugal, which was largely defended at the time by British regulars.
|Bernardo de Galvez|
Although Spain laid claims to all of North America west of the Mississippi at this time, it’s hold on the area north of modern day Mexico was rather tenuous. It planted a few missions, but Native tribes still resisted Spanish authority in much of the area. Galvez got experience as an Indian-fighter and survived several serious wounds. He returned to Europe for a time and was involved in a failed effort to invade Algiers. Throughout this time, Galvez impressed his superiors as an effective and daring officer.
By 1776, Galvez was a full colonel and was teaching at the military academy at Ávila. That same year, he received an appointment, effective January 1, 1777, to become the new Governor of the Louisiana Territory.
This was not among the prime Spanish colonies in America. Louisiana had traditionally been a French territory. When the Seven Years War ended, France turned over Quebec and its other holdings in Canada to Britain, At that point, France’s hold on Louisiana became tenuous. Outside of a small detachment in New Orleans, there was no significant military presence in the territory. Louisiana had continually cost France more than they gained from the colony. With the British colonies in North America pushing west, Versailles only saw increasing defense costs in the colony’s future.
Near the end of the Seven Years War, France turned over the Louisiana Territory to its ally, Spain. This was ostensibly to compensate Spain for its losses of other colonies during the war. But it really seems that France just didn’t see a way that Louisiana would not just become a financial sinkhole and was happy to be rid of it. France probably figured that Britain would demand all of Louisiana at the end of the Seven Years war, combining it with conquered Quebec. So, France secretly signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau with Spain, ceding Louisiana in 1762, the year before it signed the Treaty of Paris with Britain in 1763, which finally ended the Seven Years War.
Spain, of course, already claimed all of the lands to the south and west of Louisiana. Its territories in Mexico held valuable silver mines and were major profit centers for the Spanish Empire. Spain had ceded East and West Florida to Britain, in exchange for the return of Cuba, at the end of the Seven Years war. So, Louisiana served as a buffer between British encroachment and New Spain, what we today call Mexico.
The French residents of Louisiana were not quite so happy about becoming Spanish subjects. For all of its size, Louisiana was still mostly Indian territory, with few Europeans living there. Most of the 7500 French speaking colonists lived in and around New Orleans. Roughly one-third of those were slaves of African descent. A few French fur traders continued to operate up the Mississippi River, bringing their furs to New Orleans for sale. In 1764, two years after Louisiana became Spanish, French residents of Louisiana founded Saint Louis, in what is today Missouri.
For the first few years of Spanish rule, not much changed. Spain seemed to have as little interest in ruling Louisiana as the residents did about living under Spanish rule. A Frenchman by the name of Jean-Jacques Blaise d'Abbadie had been running Louisiana for the French and was tasked with overseeing the transition to Spanish rule. In 1764, about a year and a half after France gave Louisiana to Spain, authorities informed d’Abbadie, that he could just continue to run the territory on behalf of Spain.
On the ground, little changed. The locals still spoke French, exchanged money in French livres, and even continued to fly the French flag over the city. When Governor d’Abbadie died the following year, the senior military officer in the colony, French Captain Charles Philippe Aubry took over administration. That same year, the locals sent a delegation to France to try to convince King Louis to take back control of Louisiana. The King had no interest in doing so, and refused to give them an audience.
In 1766, about three and a half years after Louisiana became Spanish, Madrid finally sent its own Governor, Antonio de Ulloa to New Orleans. De Ulloa arrived in April with about ninety soldiers and a handful of civil servants to run the territory. Seeing that Louisiana still seemed mostly French, and unsure whether he could compel the locals to obey him, de Ulloa did not formally present his credentials, and allowed the French Captain Aubry to continue running the government. He sent requests to his superiors in Havana, asking for more soldiers to help enforce his administration, but could not get any assistance.
Finally in 1767, de Ulloa held a ceremony at the Spanish fort of La Balize to take control of Louisiana. But even after that, he did not move to do much of anything. He raised the Spanish flag at La Balize, but the French flag still flew at New Orleans. Everyone just seemed to be taking their time in the Big Easy, not worrying too much about laws or governments.
It wasn’t until 1768 that de Ulloa began taking action by cracking down on the massive smuggling in New Orleans. Spanish tariffs and trade restrictions had been virtually ignored for years. Merchant vessels had been coming and going at will, with almost nothing being paid to officials. The Governor’s attempts to get the locals to obey the laws that had been on the books for years, and to pay tariffs was too much for the locals to take. Several French locals, still holding official positions in the Spanish government, encouraged the locals to fight back. Riots broke out in New Orleans in October 1768. Governor de Ulloa, still without any real military support, just boarded a ship and left Louisiana.
The locals, having won, put in place their own government again, reinstated Aubry as governor, and sent delegations to France, begging the King once again to take back the territory. Once again, the King ignored their pleas.
Meanwhile, Spain decided it needed to get serious about Louisiana. It sent Alejandro O’Reilly to put down the revolt. O’Reilly was an Irish-born soldier who had taken a Spanish commission as a young man and had risen through the ranks of the Spanish Army during the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War. He had more recently set up Spanish military defenses at Puerto Rico, and married a Cuban woman from a leading family.
O’Reilly called in nine of the ringleaders of the revolt to hear their reasons for the overthrow of de Ulloa. When they arrived, he told them they had committed treason and were all under arrest. Six of the men eventually hanged. Other prominent members of the revolt were imprisoned in Cuba or exiled from Louisiana. The properties of many elite families involved in the revolt were confiscated.
The local Creole’s were taken aback by the brutal response to what had been a bloodless event up until this time. They gave him the nickname Bloody O’Reilly for executing leaders from some of the top Creole families. But the actions drove home that Louisiana was, in fact, Spanish, and that trying to change that would be dealt with harshly.
After less than a year, O’Reilly left in 1770, turning over command to Luis de Unzaga. Although Unzaga had served under O’Reilly and participated in the crackdown. His tenure as governor tried to restore good relations with the locals. Unzaga granted pardons to many of the revolt leaders still in prison and married the daughter of an elite Creole family. Under his rule, Louisianans came to accept Spanish rule.
It was under Unzaga’s Administration that he began corresponding with George Washington, and appears to have provided some military assistance to the rebellion in the British colonies. Unzaga also opened up the port at New Orleans to patriot privateers and merchant ships, all during the time when Spain was still officially a neutral party.
After Unzaga received a promotion to become Captain-General of Venezuela, Bernardo de Galvez became Louisiana’s new governor in 1777. Galvez inherited a sparsely populated colony that bordered British West Florida and which had a 1300 mile border with the British colonies along the Mississippi River. The French locals had accepted Spanish rule, but were still wary of it. Galvez, soon after taking office, married a daughter of a prominent creole family, in fact she was the sister of Unzaga’s wife. He continued the policies of allowing American shipping into New Orleans, and permitted military supplies to be taken up the Mississippi River, then to the Ohio River, where it eventually reached the Americans via Fort Pitt.
So even before Spain got involved in the war, it covertly assisted the American rebellion, mostly to weaken its enemy, Britain. However, unlike its ally France, Spain never formed an alliance with the United States during the war. When Spain declared War on Britain in June of 1779, it allied with France, but made no treaty with the United States. King Carlos ordered that Spanish soldiers would not fight alongside the Americans. Instead, Spain would focus on taking more colonies in America, and around the world from its enemy, Britain.
British West Florida
Days after Spain declared war on Britain, the ministry in London sent secret orders to General John Campbell in Pensacola, West Florida, ordering him to attack New Orleans and take control of Spanish Louisiana.Episode 199). Shortly after that, he received promotion to brigadier general and command of West Florida, headquartered in Pensacola. West Florida includes what we call today the Florida panhandle, as well as what is today southern Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. It extended all the way to the Mississippi River, to Spanish-controlled New Orleans, with its western outpost at Baton Rouge.
Campbell complained that he had almost no soldiers to defend the colony. He had brought a few companies of loyalists and Germans to supplement his two regiments of regulars. He found the colony’s defenses to be in no condition to fend off an attack. He also noted that he had no money to pay his soldiers and had to give them paper notes for several months. Campbell sent repeated calls for more soldiers, guns, and money, but got rather little. Instead, London promoted him to major general and told him to work it out with what he had.
When war with Spain finally did come in June, the ministry ordered Campbell to attack New Orleans. Secretary of State Germain authorized him to work with the navy in Jamaica in order to get the support he needed for an invasion.
Unfortunately, Campbell never received those orders. Instead, they were intercepted by a ship that delivered them to Spanish Governor Galvez. Once aware that Spain and Britain were at war and that the British had orders to attack Louisiana, Galvez decided that the best defense was a good offense.
The first target for Galvez was Fort Bute, a small British garrison on the British side of the Mississippi River, a little over 100 miles up river from New Orleans. The fort had only about two dozen Hessian soldiers. Galvez had received notification of war, and the British attack plans in late July. By the end of August, he had recruited a force of about 600 soldiers, about a quarter of which had been Spanish regulars. The remainder were new recruits, along with about 60 local militia and ten American volunteers under the command of Oliver Pollock. As he led his army toward Fort Bute, he was joined by more volunteers so that nearly 1400 men in total joined the campaign. Many of these were Native American warriors. Several dozen of the volunteers were free blacks living in Louisiana.
While the column lost several hundred men to desertion during the march, they were still no match for the handful of defenders at Fort Bute. When Galvez arrived with his army on September 6, he had to inform the local garrison that Spain and Britain were at war, and demanded their surrender. The garrison refused at first. It was already late in the day when Galvez arrived, so he waited until morning to begin his attack.
The fight that morning has been described only as a light skirmish, after which the garrison surrendered. One defender was killed, a sentry at the fort. Two others were wounded. Six others managed to escape, and made their way to Baton Rouge, about ten miles further upriver, to warn the larger garrison there of the coming attack. Galvez rested his men for six days, preparing for the more serious battle against Baton Rouge.
On September 12, the Spanish army approached Baton Rouge. The British commander there, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Dickson, commanded a larger force of about 400 regulars, supplemented by about 150 loyalist militia. Dickson had recognized early on that Fort Bute was not really defensible, which is why he left only a token force there.
Instead, the British had spent the prior few weeks building Fort New Richmond. The defenses included a high earthen wall, a moat, chevaux de frise, and thirteen cannon. These defenses gave the British the ability to hold off a larger force.
Galvez had brought cannons with him, but his soldiers arrived well before the cannons. The Spanish surrounded the fort to prevent communications with other British garrisons further upriver, but did not have the firepower to take down the defenses.
Galvez sent his militia through a wooded area to test the British defenses. British cannons opened up on the attackers with massed volleys. However, because the attackers were in a wooded area, they were able to take cover and took only three fatal casualties.
|British Surrender at Baton Rouge|
After a three hour artillery duel, Galvez paused and offered the British the opportunity to surrender. Colonel Dickson accepted. Part of the surrender terms included an agreement that Fort Panmure, at modern day Natchez, about 90 miles upriver from Baton Rouge, would also surrender its garrison of eighty men. Galvez sent a contingent of 50 men, along with a British messenger, to take Fort Panmure. The British commander there was obviously perturbed that Colonel Dickson had surrendered his force without any consultation, and accused Dickson of throwing his garrison under the bus in order to get better terms for his own garrison. Despite his annoyance, Dickson followed orders and surrendered the fort.
With the surrender of Fort Bute, Fort New Richmond, and Fort Panmure, the Spanish took complete control of the Mississippi River and the western portion of West Florida. Spanish privateers also captured several British supply ships on the river and on Lake Pontchartrain, including one with 54 German soldiers. Galvez left the bulk of his regulars at Baton Rouge and returned to New Orleans with about 50 soldiers to celebrate his victory. As a reward for his initiative, Galvez would see a commission as a general.
A few days after Fort Panmure surrendered, a British messenger arrived at the fort warning the commander that Spain and Britain were at war and that he should join General Campbell in Pensacola for an attack on New Orleans. So Campbell was finally getting the word out, but it was far too late. Spain had taken the initiative and had secured the region.
Next Week, we head back to New York as General John Sullivan takes on the effort to clear out the Iroquois and secure upstate New York for the patriots.
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Bernardo de Galvez, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/bernardo-de-galvez
Fleming, Thomas “Bernardo De Gálvez” American Heritage Magazine, Vol. 33, Iss. 3, April/May 1982: https://www.americanheritage.com/bernardo-de-galvez
Trickey, Erick, “The Little-Remembered Ally Who Helped America Win the Revolution” Smithsonian Magazine, Jan. 13, 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/little-remembered-ally-who-helped-america-win-revolution-180961782
Spanish Colonial Louisiana: https://64parishes.org/entry/spanish-colonial-louisiana
Slavery in Spanish Colonial Louisiana: https://64parishes.org/entry/slavery-in-spanish-colonial-louisiana
Haarmann, Albert W. “The Spanish Conquest of British West Florida, 1779-1781.” The Florida Historical Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 2, 1960, pp. 107–134. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30150253
Battle of Baton Rouge: https://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/batonrouge1779.html
The Battle of Baton Rouge: https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1779/battle-baton-rouge
(from archive.org unless noted)
Gayarré, Charles History of Louisiana: The Spanish Domination, New York: William J. Widdleton, 1867.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
De Ville, Winston Yo Solo: The Battle Journal of Bernardo de Galvez During the American Revolution, Claitor's Law Books and Publishing, 2011.
Haynes, Robert V. The Natchez District and the American Revolution, Univ. Press of MS, 1976.
Paquette, Gabriel (ed) & Gonzalo M. Quintero Saravia (Editor) Spain and the American Revolution: New Approaches and Perspectives, Routledge, 2019.
Quintero Saravia, Gonzalo M. Bernardo de Gálvez: Spanish Hero of the American Revolution, Univ. of NC Press, 2018.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.