Category Archives: battles

The Perfect Storm: Bernardo de Gálvez and the Gulf Coast Campaign

One of the genuine pleasures of research is the discovery of someone whose contributions are barely noticed in classroom histories, but without whom, events would have turned out dramatically differently.

The Spanish Governor-General of Louisiana, Bernardo de Gálvez, is one such figure.  His energetic and often brilliant contributions to the American Revolution ensured that the new United States would not be hemmed in on its West and South by stubborn, Loyalist-controlled colonies, but would have free access to the important shipping channel of the Mississippi, and, later, opportunities for expansion.

Even prior to Spain’s entry into the war in support of the American rebels, alongside their French allies , Governor Gálvez had exhibited sympathy with the rebel cause.  Spain held New Orleans at that time and claimed the territory to the west of the Mississippi. While turning a blind eye to patriot smuggling past New Orleans, in 1777 he took the occasion of a British crackdown on rebel-aligned traffic to seize British smugglers’ boats, and ordered all British subjects to leave Louisiana.

When Spain formally declared war on England in May of 1779, Gálvez was already preparing an attack up the river, having intercepted British communications that revealed that they planned to strike New Orleans.  As his fleet gathered in August of 1779, a hurricane struck, sinking nearly every ship he had planned to use to transport his forces.

A lesser man would have given up the attack, or would at least have waited for reinforcements from the Spanish colonial capital at Havana.  Gálvez, however, was keenly aware of the need for surprise, and so he mustered his 1,400-strong force and marched them overland 115 miles.

They arrived at Fort Bute, only to find a skeleton garrison, which they quickly overcame, suffering no losses.  Learning that the British forces had retreated upriver to Baton Rouge, Gálvez and his forces continued to the new fortification there, and found it much more formidably constructed and staffed.

Here, Gálvez demonstrated his cleverness as a military commander.  Perceiving that the fort had a potential weakness on one side, but that getting his artillery into position would mean exposing his men to withering British fire, he devised a ruse.  He sent a detachment into a wooded area on the opposite side of the fort with instructions to draw British fire and attention, and the British forces fell for it completely.

While the cannon bombarded a mostly-empty stretch of woodland, Gálvez and his forces moved their artillery to within a few hundred feet of the walls of the fort — on the opposite side from where the British were paying attention.  Protected by the terrain, the Spanish opened fire on the fort, and in a matter of hours, they wreaked enough destruction that the British commander had no choice but to surrender.

Gálvez pressed his advantage, demanding that the last British fort upriver, at Natchez, also be surrendered, and the British commander assented, securing the Mississippi River entirely into Spanish hands.

Having accomplished this much, Gálvez then wrote to General Washington, notifying him of his plans to attack Mobile, further along the Gulf coast toward his ultimate goal of the capital of the West Florida colony, at Pensacola.  In January of 1780, he set out with 1,200 men on fourteen ships, intent on a quick strike at the second-largest remaining British settlement in the colony.

As he and his forces reached Mobile Bay, though, another hurricane roared into the armada, killing 400 men.  Further calamity struck as several of his ships were wrecked on a sandbar in the perilous entry into the bay.  Despite these losses, Gálvez set up camp and sent urgent requests to Havana for reinforcements.

Once those reinforcements arrived, he began positioning his artillery, and sent a demand for surrender to the British commander.  As the fort was in disrepair, and its garrison was undermanned, Gálvez felt sure that he could come to terms with the British, but despite a polite, even collegial, exchange of letters, he was obliged to open fire.  Again demonstrating his ability to employ unconventional approaches, Gálvez sent a detachment to burn the British commander’s own plantation, to sap his will (and remove the military hospital on its grounds).  In the end, the British capitulated, and Gálvez sailed in triumph for Havana.

There, he gathered the largest force he had led yet, toward the ultimate aim of removing the British forces completely from the West Florida colony.  A fleet of fourteen warships and a number of smaller transports, carrying 3,800 men, sailed for Pensacola in October of 1780.  It seems unbelievable, but once again, a hurricane struck his forces, scattering the armada and sinking several ships.  He had no choice but to reluctantly retreat to Havana and regroup.

Following a lengthy period of preparation on both sides of the line between the Spanish and British forces, the Battle of Pensacola finally began in earnest on May 8, 1781.  A lucky strike of a Spanish grenade outside a powder magazine touched off an enormous explosion, killing or wounding a hundred defenders in an instant.Gathering a force of 3,000 from Havana onto a convoy of 32 ships, together with reinforcements from Mobile and New Orleans, Galvez led his men into a perilous landing under the British guns at the mouth of Pensacola Bay, demonstrating such personal bravery that he was nearly challenged to a duel by an embarrassed naval officer.

Taking advantage of the destruction attending the explosion, the Spanish forces set up cannon on the high ground that had housed part of the now smashed British fortifications, and quickly forced the remaining defenders to raise the white flag.  Within days, the surrender of the whole of West Florida to Spain was negotiated, and the remaining British forces were taken as prisoners of war.

The role of the Spanish in ensuring the success of the American revolution is scarcely acknowledged in most classroom histories, but it was a key factor in that struggle.   Crucial to their success in assisting us was one storm-plagued Spanish general, who is primarily memorialized today only in the name of the city of Galveston, Texas, and who deserves to be better known.

(This post was originally published at the Journal of the American Revolution.)

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National Television Appearance

10801579_788021257908183_7853454459465713474_nAs many of you may have already heard, my focus on little-known stories of the Revolutionary era recently brought me a really exciting opportunity. I’ll be appearing as a featured expert commentator on an upcoming miniseries on the Discovery Network’s American Heroes Channel (formerly the Military Channel), which will premiere nationwide on the 15th and 16th of December:

Rise of the Patriots
Premieres Monday, December 15 at 9/8c
Five unsung patriots strike pivotal blows for American liberty as unrest between Britain and the colonies explodes into a war for independence. A Boston doctor named Joseph Warren spearheads the rebellion with inspiring oratory and an underground spy network; a Rhode Island merchant, John Brown, leads a daring raid against a British customs ship; Samuel Prescott visits his fiancée and suddenly finds himself completing Paul Revere’s secret mission; Samuel Whittemore, an elderly farmer, becomes an unlikely hero on the first day of hostilities; and a former slave named Salem Poor rallies American militia fighters at Bunker Hill.

The Empire Fights Back
Premieres Monday, December 15 at 10/9c
Time after time, American independence seems like a lost cause as George Washington’s Continental Army teeters on the brink of annihilation. The heroics of five little-known patriots help the colonies live to fight another day. John Glover, a tough New England mariner, saves 9,000 soldiers from certain capture on Long Island; a shadowy double agent, John Honeyman, helps Washington score a stunning victory at Trenton; a teenage girl named Sybil Ludington rides to the rescue of rebels under fire in Connecticut; a Pennsylvania sharpshooter named Timothy Murphy fires a bullet that turns the tide of the war; and an Indian warrior called Han Yerry leads a rescue mission to starving soldiers at Valley Forge.

Return of the Rebels
Premieres Tuesday, December 16 at 9/8c
The American Revolution seems doomed as the British army launches a bold new campaign in the south, but five unsung patriots help reverse the course of the war and shock the world. Nancy Hart, a Georgia mother of eight, battles a patrol of loyalists singlehanded; Elizabeth Burgin attempts a daring rescue of American POW’s in Brooklyn; a supersized soldier named Peter Francisco becomes a legend on the battlefield; a Virginia slave, James Armistead, steals key secrets leading to a stunning victory at Yorktown; and a frontier teenager called Betty Zane runs a gauntlet of death in the Revolution’s final battle.

You can use the AHC Channel Finder to find your local listings. As the AHC is not carried in all cable plans, I will keep you all apprised as the DVD edition of the show becomes available.

I’m very excited about getting to share my knowledge of the our nation’s history with a wider audience, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore this interest to its fullest through telling tales from a most singular revolution. I hope that you’ll watch and enjoy this terrific series, and share it with your friends and family who may be interested—and thank you in advance!

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Blood and Guts

So, I’ve read Homer, and after the scenes outside the walls of Troy, what can anyone actually hope to add to that? In just a few hundred lines of poetry, the creator of the first major written epic covered pretty much every variant of violent battlefield death that I ever needed to think about.

And yet, here I am, writing about events framed by a war, in which blood was spilled and guts were occasionally strewn. What to do?

For the most part, I’ve made the conscious decision to this point to keep such action at a distance. My characters recollect the horrors of battle from time to time, and stories of specific incidents so notable that they have persisted in the historical record also pop up.

I have yet to write a direct account of battle, however, and I freely acknowledge that this is a somewhat chicken-hearted approach to the problem. For one thing, as I said above, it’s been done to death, by everyone from Homer down to our modern-day cinematographers, whose loving renditions of the personal costs of war can be emotionally overwhelming.

For another, I’m fortunate enough to have largely avoided any but the most prosaic and well-controlled episodes of blood and gore in my personal life. The births of my children and raising and slaughtering my own chickens, along with the typical injuries of a basically sedentary lifestyle, are the sum total of my own exposure to real-life bloodiness.

So, in all honesty, I don’t know that I have a lot to add, and for the moment, at least, I’m happy enough to just tell my characters’ stories through their reactions to the horrors that they’ve experienced. If I ever did sit down and try to write a realistic battle scene, I suspect that I would give myself nightmares, and that just doesn’t sound like fun at all.

Better to leave it in better-equipped hands, I think.

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