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1781 Battle of Pensacola

Many Americans don’t realize that the American Revolution was not just a conflict between England and the American Colonies, but it also became an international conflict before its end. Both France and Spain would eventually come to the aid of the American Colonies in their battle for independence.  While each country had it’s own political reasons for joining the conflict, Spain’s motivation was at least partially by the desire to regain the colony of West Florida that it lost to Great Britain at the end of the French and Indian War.
Cropped from the map ‘The British Colonies in North America, 1763-1775’ from the Historical Atlas by William Shepherd (1911) – available from the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection
When Spain entered the War in 1779, Bernardo de Gálvez, the governor of Spanish Louisiana, immediately began offensive operations to gain control of British West Florida which stretched from the Mississippi River east to the Apalachicola River.  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 at Fort Charlotte and Spanish Fort. Following the outbreak of hostilities with Spain 1779, British General John Campbell, concerned over the condition of the defenses at Pensacola, 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 several regiments of regular British infantry and artillery. In addition to the Loyalist soldiers, many Native Americans supported the British, including Choctaws, and Creeks. Just before the Spanish attack there were only 800 Native American fighters left in Pensacola, as General Campbell, had sent many 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. 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 fleet was hit by a hurricane in the Gulf and was scattered throughout the Caribbean, the Campeche coastline, and the Mississippi River. The remainder of the squadron limped back to Havana on November 17. Galvez was determined to capture Pensacola, which was the capitol of West Florida, and once again set out with the Spanish fleet, under the command of Captain José Calvo de Irizabal on 13 February 1781 carrying about 1,300 troops. Galvez had also ordered additional troops from New Orleans and Mobile to assist.  Arriving outside Pensacola Bay on March 9, Galvez landed some troops on Santa Rosa Island, the barrier island protecting 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 the fleet commander refused to send any ships through the channel after the lead ship, the 64-cannon San Ramon, was grounded in its attempt.  Additionally, some British guns that seemed to have range to the bay entrance. Galvez, being an aggressive general, boarded the Galveztown and on March 18 sailed her through the channel and into the bay; the rest of the fleet followed, under ineffective British cannon fire. The majority of April included many small-scale skirmishes, making way for coming large-scale conflict. Reinforcements had arrived from Louisiana and Mobile to enlarge the Spanish threat, leading to a total of approximately 7,800 men. In comparison, the British forces stood at roughly 2,000 men. With his reinforcements in place, Galvez positioned a battery on a hill within range of Fort George, and opened fire on May 5th, 1781. The British responded in kind, starting a chain of heavy fire.

After days of relentless bombardment, a fortunate Spanish shell hit a powder magazine in the Queen’s Redoubt on May 8th, 1781, destroying the fort and killing approximately 100 British soldiers. Galvez quickly led the Spanish troops to occupy the Queen’s Redoubt and placed his own artillery at the location. With artillery in place, the Spanish opened fire on Fort George at short range. Realizing that he was no longer capable of defending Fort George from unforgiving Spanish artillery, British General John Campbell raised the white flag of surrender. On May 10, 1781, Galvez personally accepted the surrender and executed the negotiated terms, ending British sovereignty in West Florida. The victory by Galvez dealt a devastating blow to the British strategy in the south.  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. General Galvez, Fort George, and the Siege of Pensacola are now all commemorated with a small park on Palafox Street that sits atop a hill overlooking downtown Pensacola much as Fort George did when Galvez arrived to begin his siege.  In addition, the Pensacola Heritage Foundation and numerous patrons raised money to erect a monument to commemorate General Galvez and the Spanish contribution to the American fight for independence.
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