The naval dominion acquired by the Franco-Spanish anticipation made it possible to carry out numerous operations against the British possessions, which had to remain almost entirely in a defensive situation.
Precisely one of the few offensive operations that the British would later attempt was against Guatemala, where Matías de Gálvez, Bernardo’s father and Viceroy of New Mexico, after the enemy attack, defeated them and put them to flight. Gálvez, a man of action like his father, immediately took the initiative after learning from secret reports that the British were preparing to invade the province. War with Britain was imminent in 1779, despite the difficult Anglo-French balance that had been maintained until then.
Recreation of the assault on Baton Rouge (note that at that time the current Spanish flag was only the Navy’s war flag).
For this reason, the military officer from Malaga reinforced the defences, tried to establish relations with the Creek, Chickasaws and Seminole Indian tribes, drew up maps of the area and when he received official notification of the war against Spain, he organised an expedition against the British posts that controlled the other bank of the Mississippi. He manages to mobilise a good number of soldiers, but as he progresses, more men join him until he reaches 1443, forming a multi-ethnic contingent made up of:
- 170 veteran soldiers.
- 330 recruits from the Canary Islands, Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
- 80 free blacks and mulattos, French and militiamen.
- 60 militiamen.
- 20 carabineros.
- 9 American volunteers under the command of Oliver Pollock.
- 10 cannon.
- 14 artillerymen.
- 600 German mercenaries, coast dwellers and Irishmen attached along the way.
- 160 Indians from Arcadia, Atacapas, Punta Cortada and Opeluzas joined along the way.
These were people from all walks of life and backgrounds who had come to fight a common enemy, the English. It is only fair to recognise that the Indians were used as mercenaries by all the armies in exchange for rum and weapons. Their cruelty frightened the Europeans, so much so that Gálvez proposed “not to employ Indians in our national disputes” to John Campbell, the English general in the area, but he refused. It was the Indians who, as beaters, led the gruelling 11-day march through the infectious swamps.
Arriving near the first fort, Bute de Manchac, the expedition regained its courage and energy when its governor announced something he had kept secret: Spain was at war with England. They could now attack the enemy with all the more reason, which they did on 27 August by assault and in the early hours of the morning, quickly concluding the capture of the fort.
After the battle, they gave themselves a couple of days rest and began the march against the real stumbling block on the river, Baton Rouge, which was defended by moats and palisades as well as 18 cannons, 375 British soldiers and 500 armed colonists and negros under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Dickson. Gálvez knew the risk of a prolonged siege due to the unhealthiness of the area, so he decided on an assault following a deception.
He arranged a false night attack on one side of the fort while digging a trench on the other. The British, thinking they had repulsed the Spanish onslaught, woke up with several siege cannons aimed at them behind a trench, which they opened fire first thing in the morning, reducing the defences to rubble. Within hours the garrison surrenders, giving away not only this fort, but also Panmure Fort at Natchez and three other posts upriver, each with 60 grenadiers.
New Orleans in 1770
While the captured forts received late word that they were at war with Spain, the expedition returned victorious with about a thousand prisoners for a well-deserved rest in New Orleans. In exchange for 1 killed and 2 wounded, the Spaniards achieved a magnificent balance of the campaign:
- 3 forts.
- 3 outposts.
- 2 harbours, Tompson and Smith.
- 1 brig, the West Florida.
- 1 British soldier killed.
- 550 British soldiers and German mercenaries captured.
- 500 colonists and armed blacks captured.
The British had barely started the war and had already lost control of the Mississippi. For this outstanding, unexpected and rogue military operation he is promoted to Field Marshal at the age of 33. Not surprisingly, he had opened the main supply route for the rebel army through the back door, and his importance would become crucial to the outcome of the conflict. The British would have a hard time closing it, as the city of New Orleans stood in their way.
This post was translated from:
Goyix (2012) ‘Bernardo de Gálvez (II) – Empieza la campaña de conquista de Las Floridas’, GEHM, Madrid, 24 December. Available at: https://www.gehm.es/edad-contemporanea/bernardo-de-galvez-ii-empieza-la-campana-de-conquista-de-las-floridas/ (Accessed: 14 March 2021).