This Day in History: The Spanish Governor who worked for American independence

On this day in 1780, the British negotiate a surrender of Fort Charlotte to the Spanish governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Gálvez. Do you know about Gálvez? He’s the guy that Galveston, Texas, is named for. His efforts were vitally important to the American Revolutionary war effort.

If nothing else, his efforts distracted the British and forced them to maintain another theater of war to the south.

Gálvez began secretly helping Americans long he was supposed to. He secured New Orleans so that British supplies could not be sent up the Mississippi—and he looked the other way when the Patriots smuggled supplies through themselves. He expelled all British subjects out of Louisiana.

But then Gálvez really got his chance to jump into the fray: In 1779, Spain declared war against Great Britain.

Gálvez set his sights on Mobile, in present-day Alabama. It was strategically important: Control of the bay also meant access to rivers and the ability to move supplies within the region. The city was protected by Fort Charlotte—a fort that seemed to change names a lot. It was originally built by the French, who called it Fort Condé.

In January 1780, Gálvez gathered a force of soldiers and set out from New Orleans. His goal was to take Mobile and Pensacola, Florida. Unfortunately, his journey was beset by storms and other problems. Ships ran aground. Supplies were lost. Reportedly, Gálvez considered turning around, but he gained reinforcements at a critical moment and continued on. By March 1, Gálvez had reached the fort, and he sent a demand to its commanding officer. The Spanish badly outnumbered the British. The “great inequality of strength puts us in such a state,” Gálvez wrote, “that you must either give it up immediately, or you must suffer all the calamities of war, if a useless and obstinate resistance should irritate the patience of my troops . . . .”

But British Captain Elias Durnford was waiting for reinforcements. He refused to surrender. “The difference of numbers I am convinced are greatly in your favor,” he responded to Gálvez, but “was I to give up this Fort on your demand, I should be regarded as a traitor to my king and country. My love for both and my own honor direct my heart to refuse surrendering this Fort until I am under conviction that resistance is in vain.” He later wrote to the British commanding officer at Pensacola: “I will defend [the] Fort to the last extremity.”

Gálvez’s troops settled in for a siege, preparing earthworks, trenches, and a battery. In the meantime, Durnford’s reinforcements were delayed and never came.

The final attack came on March 12. Gálvez later recounted that “we opened the battery with a brisk fire from 8 guns of 18 pound balls, and one of 24, and the enemy answered in the same manner….The fire continued incessantly on both sides ’till sun-set, when the enemy having one gun dismounted, and another overthrown, hoisted a white flag.” Durnford could hold out no longer. On March 13, the two sides began discussing terms for a surrender. On March 14, Gálvez entered the fort and took his prisoners.

Gálvez hoped to continue on to Pensacola, but he didn’t get to go right away. Naturally, that is a story for another day!

P.S. The attached painting is “La Marcha de Galvez, guerra de independencia americana” by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau. (Translation: The March of Galvez, American War of Independence)