Category Archives: history

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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I Write Dead People

I, like many authors, am sometimes taken to task for killing off favorite characters.  While I’m no George R. R. Martin, my stories (being set in a time of war, and a period of far more medical uncertainty than today) often rack up a body count.

It is well to remember that no matter how happy their endings, my characters (real or imagined) are two hundred years in the grave.

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée le Brun, Self-Portrait with daughter, 1786

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée le Brun, Self-Portrait with daughter, 1786

Sometimes, as when I’m researching period art, and I come across a particularly striking portrayal of someone who clearly loves being alive, who lives and smiles on from the canvas, and yet is no more than moldering bones today, this gives me a sharp, even unbearable pang of grief.

It also helps to remind me that we are, all of us, short-lived, mortal, and bound to the same fate that overtakes our characters.

What matters, though, is what they — and we! — do with the days that are granted in this human experience, and in telling their tales, I am helping to extend my characters’ time in the company of the living.

So, rather than mourning the deaths of the characters who people my pages, I encourage you to celebrate their lives, and the fact that through my words, you have had the opportunity to know them and to keep the flame of their memory alive.

As an author, I certainly prefer that to being pelted with rotten fruit, at least.

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Connections

In The Light, set in Trenton, New Jersey, I depicted the wild scene that greeted the arrival of news of Lexington and Concord. In terms that are nakedly inflammatory, the Committees of Safety transmitted the account from town to town, spreading it as quickly as horse and rider could bear it:

A tumult outside the shop caught both men’s attention then, as a small crowd surged past the door to the smithy.  Robert and Charles caught shouts from the crowd, “War!  War has begun!” and hurried out to hear what the cause of the ruckus might be.  At the head of the crowd was a rider, with dried foam crusting his horse’s flanks, attesting to a hard drive.

Hurrying to catch up, Robert asked a man rushing along at the periphery of the crowd, “What is this about?”

“He carries an account of a fierce and deadly battle between a militia of men in Lexington, near Boston, and a brigade of the British.  Blood has been spilled, and the war has begun!” The bell of the nearest church began to toll now, bringing more people into the streets to learn what had happened.

The rider was being directed to the home of the organizer of the local militia, the self-styled “Committee of Safety,” where he dismounted and carried his post within.  Milling about with the crowd that had gathered, Robert heard angry voices trading ever-wilder rumors.

The British had slaughtered a militia, bringing canon to bear against light arms.  No, they had caught the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in their deliberations, and begun hanging them on the spot for treason.  They had gone house to house in Lexington, looking for weapons and powder, and had killed all who gave any resistance.  A church in Concord was in flames, and the fellowship locked within.

Nothing seemed too outrageous to be passed along, from one person to the next, as they awaited the true contents of the missive.   Finally, the door opened, and the rider took a fresh horse someone had fetched for him, and rode off at a full gallop, leaving a small, persistent group of well-wishers and rumor-mongers who had streamed out behind him.

The local committeeman emerged now, and began reading from a sheet held in trembling fingers, his voice carried away by a fitful breeze.

“Received this morning, four o’clock and forwarded by the committee in Princeton, a letter addressed to various and sundry persons, including the delegates from Connecticut and Massachusetts now in Philadelphia, dated this Wednesday near ten of the clock, in Watertown.

“To all friends of American liberty be it known that this morning before break of day, a brigade of some one thousand to twelve hundred men under arms landed at Cambridge and marched to Lexington.  They there found a company of our colony militia in arms, upon whom they fired with no provocation whatever, killing six men outright, and wounding four others.

“An express from Boston informs us that another brigade marches from there, supposed to be about another thousand men…  I have spoken with several persons who have seen the dead and wounded…  ‘Tis signed by one J. Palmer of the local Committee of Safety there.”

He lowered the page in his hand and bowed his head.   “May God grant mercy to their souls and receive them in their honor.”  Lifting his eyes to the crowd again, his manner changed suddenly now, and he roared, “To arms, men!  Prepare yourselves!  The war is begun and ‘tis only a matter of time before the King’s men are here as well.  If you have a weapon and will not use it—” his gaze fell upon Robert and Charles, marked as Quaker by their hats “—I beseech you to make it available to those  who will.  Likewise, if you have powder or bandages or other useful materials, come and speak with me to ensure that I know if it.”

He surveyed the crowd, taking their measure. “We must stand together now, as patriots all, lest the British find us unprepared, an easy target for their object of putting us down into abject servitude.  Now is the moment we have been preparing for; now is the time to set aside our factions and our bickering and to come together.   The King has made plain his intent—he means to crush us, to make the streets run red with our blood, that he may then squeeze us wholly dry with his taxes.  Will you have it?”

A ragged shout in answer rose from the crowd, “No!”

“He means to deny us the most basic rights of an Englishman, and yet demand that we enrich his treasury with the sweat of our brow.  Will you have it?”

He led the crowd this time, his fist shooting into the air as he shouted with them, “No!”

“He means to send his agents into every home, seek out every voice that dared question his tyranny and still it forever.  Will you have it?”

The crowd lifted fists into the air and roared back as one, “No!”

He roared back, “Then let us stop it!” His fist still raised, he marched down the steps of his home and led the crowd down the street toward the meeting-house where the militia had been gathering for the past months.  Robert and Charles split away from the crowd and started back to the smithy, somber and quiet.

Recently, I’ve discovered that my great-great-great-great-great grandfather was active in the Revolution, serving on Philadelphia’s Committee of Correspondence, in Pennsylvania’s Convention, marching with Benedict Arnold to Montréal, and finally, accepting the duties of Barrack-Master General to the Continental Army (after having been dismissed from service for cussing out President Hancock and the Continental Congress). Quite a colorful character, my forebearer was.

Let’s go back to that first item in his list of service, though… I just found a transcription of the letters passing along the news from that fateful April day in Massachusetts, and immediately after it passed through the town of Trenton, as I wrote, its very next stop was in Philadelphia, where it was received, acknowledged, and sent on its way by four men… one of whom was my direct ancestor.

My novels have always been personal, focusing on the circumstances and experiences of regular individuals who lived through and took part in the events I depict. But this — this is bringing it right home.  Ooof.

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The Central Question

As I started to write about the American Revolution, I kept returning, over and over, to the same basic question:

How did this come to pass?

How did these colonies, comprising nearly the same population as Mother England, and only feeling loose allegiance amongst themselves, rise up and throw off the rule of the greatest imperial power around at the time?

More critically for my stories, what drove the individual colonists to make the essential shift from being loyal subjects of the Crown to being citizens of the new nation?

My characters have each answered this question in their own ways. Some, indeed, have not made the shift, and retain loyalty to England, even in the face of great personal risk and harm.

It is a fascinating question, and it strikes at the heart of what makes the American Revolution – indeed, the American experience – an exceptional one, even a unique one in history.

It is the question which, above all others, I’m constantly probing at as my characters’ stories unfold across the backdrop of the monumental events that have swallowed up their lives.

Come along with me as we try to find some answers?

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