Pensacola 1781

Control of the area around the Mississippi was a key Spanish war aim and it had been achieved by 1780. This territory, in the words of the Spanish Minister of the Indies, was to be ‘the bulwark of the vast empire of New Spain’. Bernardo de Gálvez, the governor of New Orleans who had already demonstrated considerable diplomatic skill in his handling of the Willing raid, had taken to military operations like a duck to water.

Gálvez had received news of the Spanish declaration of war long before any British forces in the area and had prepared a little fleet to raid up the Mississippi. His ships, apart from a single frigate, were then destroyed by a hurricane, but the determined and resourceful Gálvez went back to work and created another little fleet out of thin air by raising some wrecks from the seabed and sending troops far and wide to strip the Gulf Coast around New Orleans of every available craft. Once ready, his new fleet carried a jumble of men: Spanish veterans, Mexican recruits, Canary Islanders, carabiniers, militiamen, free blacks, mulattos and Indians. The fleet was shadowed on the banks of the Mississippi by those soldiers who could not fit on the boats.

On 7 September this eclectic maritime force surprised the British at Manchac, thus securing the first Spanish victory of the war. The key strategic location of Baton Rouge fell soon after, and then Fort Panmure at Natchez. Also, and perhaps more importantly, they captured eight British vessels in the river and adjacent lakes, including one troop transport on its way to Manchac, which was taken by a Spanish crew that was five times smaller than that of its prize. Not only had the Spanish taken control of the key British forts on the river, therefore, but they had also acquired a small fleet with which they could police the river and link their new possessions together. In total Gálvez and his men captured three forts, 550 soldiers, eight vessels and 430 leagues of the best land on the Mississippi. Quite a prize.

In the summer of 1780, therefore, the Hudson, the Mississippi and the mighty harbour of Newport were in American, Spanish and French hands: a three-way transnational allied claw on the American colonies that held them fast against British threats from north, south and east and provided a strong foundation from which to build. The French presence in Newport paralysed the Royal Navy at New York and Solano’s massive fleet at Havana paralysed the British fleet at Jamaica. There were no significant British naval forces in the Floridas, Georgia or South Carolina at all, and Gálvez seized the opportunity.

He set about preparing for a strike against Mobile, the closest British base to New Orleans and a crucial harbour. Mobile Bay is like a tooth knocked out of the face of the Gulf of Mexico. Thirty miles long, six wide and protected by sandbanks, it was a fine anchorage. Some 1,200 men were readied in fourteen ships, but Gálvez’s preparations were undone by another storm, this one so fierce that 400 Spanish sailors and soldiers drowned. Yet again Gálvez was forced to resuscitate a fleet, and yet again he succeeded where many would have failed. For Gálvez the struggle for sea power was, more than anything else, a struggle against the elements.

When his fleet finally arrived at Mobile, things again went wrong. Six ships ran aground, one was wrecked, and the whole process of unloading troops and supplies, trying at the best of times, became almost farcical in the tempestuous weather. Gálvez lost so many supplies that he seriously considered retreating overland to New Orleans. Ten days after his arrival, however, reinforcements arrived from Havana and the siege was on. The Spanish immediately began to make scaling ladders from their shattered ships. The city was defenceless against such sea power and Fort Charlotte fell on 13 March. The Spanish thus took control of Mobile and with it secured access deep inland via the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers.


Gálvez’s next goal was Pensacola, capital of British West Florida and only fifty miles or so further along the coast. Pensacola, however, was another type of target altogether, a fact which Gálvez knew well, having commissioned a detailed spying operation on the British defences there in the twilight years before official Spanish involvement in the war. To take Pensacola would require a far more significant expedition than that which had taken Mobile, and it would rely entirely on Spanish ships: Pensacola was almost completely cut off from the interior by impassable swamps – it was, in effect, an island. Gálvez therefore travelled to Havana to urge Solano in person to let him borrow his fleet. Solano agreed.

In October nearly 4,000 troops boarded a fleet of seventy-two ships under Solano’s command, left Havana for Pensacola, and immediately sailed into a horrific storm – the third time in three operations that natural forces destroyed Spanish fleets. ‘The day began beautiful, with a clear horizon and a good wind’, wrote one Spaniard, but things started to change, and fast. ‘The wind rose at 9.30; at twelve it became violent; and at 4 there was a furious hurricane.’ Three days later, their masts gave way, and ‘water came in through the heads, the ports, and everywhere’. One ship, the San Ramón, was taking on fifty-eight inches of water every hour.

Most surviving accounts of the storm are terse and echo shock and disappointment, rather than detailing the actual struggle with the elements, but one letter written by an educated Spaniard, perhaps an officer and certainly a seaman, offers a glimpse of the shocking destruction that visited the fleet. He reported that, of Gálvez’s seven ships of the line, only one returned unscathed. One was never seen again and the rest were all left dismasted and adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. The fleet was scattered far and wide across the Gulf of Mexico: some survivors came ashore at their intended destination of Pensacola; others reached Mobile, New Orleans, even Campeche on the south-eastern tip of the Gulf of Mexico’s crescent; others still, including Gálvez himself, were able to make it back to Havana. In many instances the sailors had thrown overboard everything that the ocean had not already claimed, simply to stay afloat. For warships the heaviest and most dangerous items in a storm were the cannon; for the horse transports it was the poor horses; for one of the hospital ships it was her entire supply of ‘equipment and materials’. No detailed figures survive, but the British press boasted that over 2,000 Spaniards died. The hurricane was so powerful that its existence can be physically demonstrated today in tree-ring isotopes in Georgia.


This sequence of three storms endured by the Spanish in three separate operations raises the important question of weather forecasting in this period. In this campaign alone Gálvez had been frustrated at every turn, and in the war as a whole the weather repeatedly played a major role, not least in the storm that disrupted the battle between Howe and d’Estaing off Rhode Island in 1778, the storms that delayed and damaged Byron on his way to America and then the Caribbean in 1778, the storm that damaged d’Estaing’s fleet at Savannah in 1779, the storm that nearly destroyed Arbuthnot and Clinton’s expeditionary force to Charleston in 1780, and the major hurricane of October 1780 that would shortly tear apart the Royal Navy in the Caribbean.

It is important to realize that the men who navigated these ships, entirely dependent on the weather though charged with the fate of empires, actually knew very little about the science of the weather. Professional sailors had a general understanding that certain locations were dangerous at certain times of year, but apart from that their weather forecasting simply relied upon portents in the immediate environment: the behaviour of sea-birds; pods of dolphins moving in a certain direction; the appearance and behaviour of ocean swells. The science of meteorology was not unknown, but it was not yet a rigorous science, and instruments were very rare and neither standardized nor accurate. Certain crucial basics had not yet been discovered: atmospheric dynamics and the concepts of revolving storms and moving depressions were all unknown until the nineteenth century.

It is all too easy to focus on a warship’s guns and forget that these ships had no weapons at all with which to fight or outwit the weather. If caught out, all that the sailors could do was endure, though it is important to appreciate just how skilled they became at doing exactly that. A practised eighteenth-century crew could swiftly transform a ship set up to squeeze every last knot from a light breeze into one that could be punished by the elements for days at a time. Their repair skills were also exceptional. Wood or canvas could be taken from one part of a ship to be grafted onto another, like a bone transplant. Rudders could become jury-masts; capstan poles could become yards; sails could block breaches in the hull. We only have a dim sense now of just how they did what they did, however, and the question of seamanship during or after storms and battles remains one of the most interesting but least researched topics of naval history. Indeed, one of the most fascinating hidden statistics of this period is not how many ships were wrecked by storms but how many were saved by exceptional seamanship and innovation – a type of knowledge that is now largely lost to history.


Gálvez’s men endured this third storm and, eventually, returned with all but one of their ships to Havana, an impressive achievement indeed. Gálvez set about rebuilding the force. In Pensacola knowledge that this extraordinarily resilient man had his eyes set on them weighed heavily on the British, and they began to suffer from the same anxiety that had plagued the citizens and soldiers of New York in 1776, Philadelphia in 1777, and Charleston in 1780. Eyes nervously scanned the horizon for a force that they knew was coming but which they could do nothing to stop. Capture, rot and convoy duty had reduced the British ‘squadron’ at Pensacola to two armed schooners, and the same hurricane that shattered the Spanish fleet at Havana had nearly destroyed the British fleet at Jamaica. Parker was now unable to offer any help at all, even if he had been willing.

The lack of British naval presence threw the Pensacolans into ‘a state of disagreeable uncertainty’. This was no Gibraltar; they had no expectations of succour at all. With the Spanish threat so clear and so close, the military and civilians of Pensacola fell to pecking at each other, the military claiming that the civilians were ‘selfish and lazy’ while at the same time coming up with plans to hand them all over to Gálvez as soon as he arrived so that they could be kept, for their own ‘safety’, in Spanish ships. Unsurprisingly, the idea appalled the civilians, who considered it ‘unprecedented in any society’.


The lesson of 1780 was that the worst British fears had come true: they had lost control of the sea. The combined American, French and Spanish threats meant that there were insufficient British warships to protect all their possessions. This had been a problem since the start of the war, but now, with competent men at the helm of the French and Spanish navies, it had become particularly acute. It is no surprise that the allies also began to make significant convoy captures in this period. On one occasion, on 9 August, a Franco-Spanish fleet of thirty-three ships sailed from Cádiz and captured a vast British convoy of over sixty ships, taking prisoner 1,350 seamen and 1,255 troops, and seizing £1.5 million in cargo and stores. It was the worst British convoy disaster in living memory, and was felt so severely that it led to significant changes in British marine insurance. Under pressure everywhere, the British had been unable to provide this convoy, which was travelling at a predictable time of year along a predictable course, with any more than a single line-of-battle ship and two frigates as escorts. The Channel Fleet was weak with sickness and the pressure of trying to control home waters with an inadequate force nearly killed Admiral Geary, then commander-in-chief of the home fleet. He appears to have had a complete breakdown and remarkably the doctor’s report still survives. ‘The Admiral’, wrote Dr James Lind, ‘thro’ a constant fatigue and hurry of business added to an over anxiety of mind, seems to have exhausted his strength, and spirits. He is feverish, his pulse weak, has for a violent headache, pain of his Breast, and profuse sweats.’ He simply had nothing left to give, broken by the challenge of exercising British sea power.

The British maritime empire was starting to fall apart because its maritime connections could not be guaranteed. This naval weakness, experienced empire-wide, was sensed intensely in Britain, particularly in London, where the pressure of exercising inadequate sea power was crippling its already divided political hierarchy. The sudden outburst of riots in London, the worst riots of the century, is no coincidence. The very last thing that the British now needed was for Spain to open a new front in the Mediterranean; for France to reopen another front thousands of miles away in India; for several more countries, all equipped with their own navies, to flex their maritime muscles against Britain; and for the Spanish and French to ignore the festering wounds of their failed combined operations and to begin to co-operate once more.

But – quite extraordinarily – that is exactly what happened.


Early summer of 1781, while Rochambeau was marching across Connecticut to link with Washington, and while La Luzerne was persuading Congress to allow Louis XVI and Vergennes to negotiate America’s future. In June, in a harbor in Haiti, the Comte de Grasse and the Spanish nobleman Captain Francisco de Saavedra, thirty-five, sat down aboard the majestic Ville de Paris to decide where in North America de Grasse’s fleet would go.

Saavedra had credence in this meeting because he had recently been involved in successfully besieging a British stronghold in North America, Pensacola. Saavedra, a special emissary from Carlos III appointed to coordinate the activities of France and Spain in the Caribbean, had put together the forces for the Pensacola attack—the Spanish and French soldiers, the vessels, and their commander, Gálvez. Back in May, that Spanish fleet and polyglot army had started to attack that Gulf Coast city. Bernardo de Gálvez’s 1,315 troops had been ferried there on Spanish ships from Havana, some of those ships and troops having recently crossed the Atlantic to reinforce the Spanish Caribbean fleet.

The first Spanish ship to enter Pensacola Bay had run aground and the fleet commander refused to attempt the bar with any of his other vessels. Gálvez was furious, and his situation was shortly remedied by the arrival of more ships sent by grateful American residents of New Orleans, ships that were put under his sole command. With these he passed the sandbar, and then needled the Havana-based ships into following him through. During the ensuing siege he was wounded twice. Saavedra then arrived with more reinforcements, Spanish regulars accompanied by eight hundred French troops and some free blacks. By May 1781 in Pensacola Bay Gálvez commanded seven thousand men—more soldiers than Rochambeau had at Newport. On May 8, a Spanish cannonball pierced the walls of Crescent Fort and hit the powder magazine, which exploded, killing 105 men and making it possible for the Spanish to fire without opposition at the main Pensacola defensive works, Fort George. Two days later the British surrendered. It was a major victory. Together with the Spanish-led takeover of the lower Mississippi, it left control of the Mississippi Delta and the nearby Gulf of Mexico in Spanish hands. Gálvez, promoted to field marshal in charge of all Spanish military forces in the Caribbean and New Spain, elevated Saavedra to strategist of all future military activities.

Before entering the military Saavedra had been a theological student, and his intelligence had aided his rise in the Spanish government, in diplomatic and council posts, before he was sent to Havana. France had agreed that in the Caribbean, Spain’s would be the dominant force and the French would be under their command. Learning of de Grasse’s imminent arrival in Haiti a week in advance, Saavedra went there and was well acquainted locally by the time he and de Grasse met aboard the Ville de Paris on June 17.

There the leaders formulated a two-step plan. De Grasse would best the British in North America, and then in the fall return to the Caribbean to take part in a joint Franco-Spanish operation against Jamaica, the most valuable of the British possessions. In regard to the North American venture, as Saavedra put it in his diary, they “could not waste the most decisive opportunity of the whole war”—to take advantage of the British naval inferiority in the American Atlantic. The most vulnerable British point, in the view of Saavedra and de Grasse, was Virginia, because the British troops there enjoyed only sporadic naval protection from squadrons based in New York and the Caribbean. De Grasse was also not inclined to attack New York because he knew that d’Estaing had not been able to pass the bar at Sandy Hook. Letters from Rochambeau and La Luzerne championed a Chesapeake Bay focus, as did Saavedra’s positive reports of the success of the action at Pensacola against a well-defended British stronghold. De Grasse would go to Virginia.

The most important strategic decision of the war, to attack the British on the Yorktown Peninsula, was made by French and Spanish military men in a Haitian harbor.

To receive permission to depart for American waters, de Grasse had to obtain his ships’ formal release by Spain. Gálvez authorized that, but Saavedra vetoed allowing de Grasse to take Spanish ships with him, as de Grasse had requested, on the grounds that their fighting directly for America might be construed as de facto recognition of American independence, which Madrid was at pains to avoid. The Spanish fleet, by remaining in the Caribbean and protecting both French and Spanish colonies, would tie down Rodney’s squadron, as the British admiral would not risk going to the aid of his brethren in the north for fear that the Spanish would use his absence to seize more British sugar islands.

De Grasse was under instructions from Rochambeau to raise specie to pay the French troops, whose stash was running out. He was unable to coax very much from the French Caribbean colonists, even after public notices advertising a very favorable credit exchange rate. Saavedra then stepped in. Deciding that “without the money the Conde de Grasse could not do anything and the delay … would put his fleet in jeopardy,” the young captain told the admiral to start his ships toward America and that he would have conveyed to them at sea the needed money, which he would obtain from Cuba. In just six hours, by an “emergency appeal” to the populace in Havana, he collected five hundred pesetas and had them ferried to de Grasse. The admiral then took off northward with his fleet, sending ahead a letter that his destination was Chesapeake Bay.


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