The Battle of Pensacola

On the hills over looking the downtown area of Pensacola, Florida, was fought one of the most significant battles of the American Revolution - The Battle of Pensacola.

Many Americans don't realize that our country's war for independence evolved into an international conflict by the time it ended. France and Spain both entered the war in support of the fledgling American nation.  The Spanish had been settled in Florida for nearly a century before loosing the territory in 1762, so Spain's motivation to help the American colonists was driven primarily by a desire to regain the land that it had lost to Britain at the end of the French and Indian War.

When Spain entered the War in 1779, Bernardo de Gálvez, the energetic governor of Spanish Louisiana, immediately began offensive operations to gain control of British West Florida.  In September 1779 he gained complete control over the lower Mississippi River by capturing Fort Bute and then shortly thereafter obtaining the surrender of the remaining forces following the Battle of Baton Rouge. He followed up these successes with the capture of Mobile on March 14, 1780, following a brief siege.

Following the outbreak of hostilities with Spain 1779, General John Campbell, concerned over the condition of the defenses, requested reinforcements, and began construction of additional defenses which included a series of forts, stockades and redoubts. Fort George was built on the hill just north of and overlooking Pensacola near what is now North Palafox Street.  By early 1781, the Pensacola garrison consisted of the 16th Regiment, a battalion from the 60th, and 7 (Johnstones) Company of the 4th Battalion Royal Artillery. These were augmented by the Third Regiment of Waldeck and The Maryland Loyalist Battalion as well as the Pennsylvania Loyalists. These troops were provincial soldiers, rather than militia.

In addition to the Loyalist soldiers, many Native Americans supported the British. After the fall of Mobile in March 1780, between 1,500- 2,000 Indians had come at various points to Pensacola for its defense, including Choctaws, and Creeks, with Creeks being the most numerous. Just before the Spanish attack there were only 800 Native American fighters left in Pensacola, as Campbell, not realizing the attack was imminent, had sent about 300 away. During the siege and battle there were ultimately only about 500 natives left defending Pensacola, due to diplomatic efforts of the Muscogee Creeks to take a more "balanced" role by offering some supplies to both sides and diminishing the role of their fighters on the British side. The majority of native peoples still present defending Pensacola during the siege were Choctaw.

Gálvez had received detailed descriptions of the state of the defenses in 1779 when he sent an aide there under the guise of discussions concerning the return of escaped slaves, but Campbell made numerous changes in the intervening years. Pensacola's defense works in early 1781 consisted of Fort George, an earthen works topped by a palisade that was rebuilt under Campbell's directions in 1780. North of the fort he had built the Prince of Wales Redoubt, and to its northwest was the Queen's Redoubt, also built in 1780.  Campbell also erected a battery called Fort Barrancas Colorada near the mouth of the bay.

By mid-October 1780, the Spanish had finalized preparations for the first invasion of Pensacola. A powerful fleet of eleven warships and fifty-one transport ships set sail on October 16, 1780. Two days later, the fury of a Gulf hurricane devastated the fleet at sea, scattering the ships throughout the Caribbean, the Campeche coastline, and the Mississippi River. The remainder of the squadron limped back to Havana on November 17. The damage to the fleet was an appalling setback

Gálvez persevered and once again embarked his flag with the Spanish fleet, under the command of Captain José Calvo de Irizabal the following February. With about 1,300 men, the regular troops included an Majorcan regiment and Arturo O'Neill (later Governor of Spanish West and East Florida) commanding 319 men of Spain's Irish Hibernia Regiment, and including militias of biracial and free Afro-Cubans. Gálvez had also ordered additional troops from New Orleans and Mobile to assist.  The Spanish expeditionary force sailed from Havana on February 13. Arriving outside Pensacola Bay on March 9, Gálvez landed some troops on Santa Rosa Island, the barrier island protecting the bay. O'Neill's Hibernians landed at the island battery finding it undefended, and then emplaced some artillery, which was then used to drive away the British ships in the bay.

Getting the Spanish ships into the bay turned out to be difficult, as it had been in the previous year's capture of Mobile. Some materials were unloaded onto Santa Rosa Island to raise some of the ships, but Calvo, the fleet commander, refused to send any ships through the channel after the lead ship, the 64-cannonSan Ramon, grounded in its attempt, citing that danger, and some British guns that seemed to have range to the bay entrance.

He then boarded the Gálveztown and on March 18 sailed her through the channel and into the bay; the other three Louisiana ships followed, under ineffective British cannon fire. After sending Calvo a detailed description of the channel, the captains under his command all insisted on making the crossing, which they did the very next day. Calvo, claiming that his assignment to deliver Gálvez' invasion force was complete, sailed the San Ramon back to Havana.

On March 24, the Spanish army and militias moved to the center of operations. O’Neill served as aide-decamp and commander of the patrol scouts. After the bay was entered, O’Neill’s patrol scouts landed on the mainland and blunted an attack by 400 mainly Choctaw Indians allied to the British during the afternoon of March 28. These soon joined forces with the Spanish troops arriving from Mobile.

During the first weeks of April, the Pensacola fortifications were reconnoitered by O'Neill's Irish scouts. The furthest redoubt from the city was the Crescent; next was the Sombrero, followed by Fort George. The troops established encampments and began the extensive preparations for the siege. Hundreds of engineers and workers transported supplies and armaments to the battlefield. The men dug trenches, bunkers, and redoubts and constructed a covered road to shield the troops from the constant fire of British cannons, grapeshot, grenades, and howitzers. On April 12, Gálvez was wounded by gunfire while viewing the British fortifications and the battlefield command was formally given to Col. José de Ezpeleta, a personal friend of Gálvez.

A further attack by the Choctaws in support of Fort George began on April 19, interrupting siege preparations, and the same day a large fleet was sighted heading towards the bay. At first thought to be British reinforcements, these ships were the combined Spanish and French fleet from Havana headed by of José Solano y Bote and François Aymar, the Baron de Monteil, bringing Spanish Field Marshal Juan Manuel de Cagigal. Reports of a British squadron sighted near Cape San Antonio had reached Havana earlier, and concerned that this fleet would support Pensacola, reinforcements were rushed to Gálvez. The Spanish fleet carried a crew of 1,700 and 1,600 soldiers, raising the total Spanish force to 8,000 men. Solano decided to remain to assist Gálvez after the disembarkation of the troops, and the two men worked closely together.

On April 24, a further Indian attack caught the Spanish by surprise, wounding five, including O’Neill’s kinsman, Hibernia Sublieutenant Felipe O’Reilly. On April 26, English soldiers from Queens Redoubt attacked Spanish positions, but O’Neill’s scouts managed to drive the enemy back. The Spanish batteries opened fire on April 30, beginning the full-scale attack on Pensacola fortifications. The Gulf continued to produce tempestuous storms, and on May 5 and 6, a hurricane again struck the Spanish ships. The Spanish navy was forced to withdraw, fearing that the fierce sea would crash the wooden ships on the shore. The army was on its own to continue the siege. The trenches flooded and the troops were granted a ration of brandy from Gálvez.

About May 5, Gálvez received chiefs of the Tallapoosa Creeks who had arrived offering to supply meat for the Spanish camp. Gálvez asked them to intercede with the British-allied Creeks and Choctaws to cease or suspend their attacks, and made arrangements to purchase beef cattle from them.

An engraving depicting the 1781 Battle of Pensacola. BY LAUSAN (ARTIST), BERTAUX AND PONCE (ENGRAVERS) [PUBLIC DOMAIN]On May 8, a fortunate howitzer blast hit the magazine in Fort Crescent. Black smoke billowed into the sky as the gunpowder supply exploded, killing 57 British troops and devastating the fortifications. Ezpeleta, commanding the light infantry, was then able to lead the charge to take Fort Crescent, and moved howitzers and cannons in place to open fire on the next two fortifications. The British fired back from Fort George, but were overwhelmed by the Spanish firepower.

Realizing that this final line of fortification could not sustain the barrage, General John Campbell surrendered Fort George and Prince of Wales Redoubt two days later. The British hoisted the white flag from Fort George at 3 in the afternoon on that same day. On May 10, 1781, the formal surrender was complete. More than 1,100 British prisoners were taken and another 200 casualties sustained. The Spanish lost 74 men, with 198 wounded.

Gálvez personally accepted the surrender and executed the negotiated terms, ending British sovereignty in West Florida. The Spanish fleet sailed out of Pensacola for Havana on June 1 to prepare assaults on remaining British possessions in the Caribbean. O’Neill was appointed by Gálvez as Governor of West Florida, and tendered command of his Hibernia Regiment, which departed with the fleet.

The victory by Gálvez dealt a devastating blow to the British strategy in the south.  The Spanish and Hispanic Americans routed the British in fierce fighting in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. The victory at Pensacola was soon followed by the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown in October 1781. British politicians were then unwilling to continue the fight, and these key battles in the south were the last major campaigns during the American Revolutionary War.