American Revolution in Florida
One of the most significant battles of the American Revolution was fought on the hills overlooking downtown Pensacola, Florida.
Many Americans today do not realize that Great Britain had more than 13 colonies in North America when the Revolutionary War erupted in 1775. In addition to Canada, Britain also possessed East and West Florida. These colonies, however, did not join in the uprising against King George III.
The Floridas, which were divided along the line of the Apalachicola River, had belonged to Spain until 1763 when they were surrendered to Great Britain at the end of the Seven Years War. This conflict was known in North America as the French & Indian War. Capitals were established in St. Augustine and Pensacola.
The British forged a strong alliance with the Creek Indians and also based a strong military force in Pensacola. These measures, combined with the city’s isolation on the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, were expected to provide it with much better security than many of the King’s possessions in North America.
The strategic situation changed, however, when the fledgling United States formed an alliance with Spain. Gov. Don Bernardo de Galvez led Spanish troops north from New Orleans to fight and win the Battle of Baton Rouge. Natchez fell to his forces soon after as he cleared British forces from the lower Mississippi Valley in less than one month after taking the field.
The general’s successes on the Mississippi were followed in March 1780 by an attack on Mobile. Despite the loss of his supply ships in a hurricane, Galvez laid siege to Mobile in the Battle of Fort Charlotte. British reinforcements were sent from Pensacola but the Spanish took the city before they could arrive.
The fall of Fort Charlotte (formerly Fort Conde) and Mobile left Pensacola as the only British stronghold on the Gulf of Mexico.
Another year would pass before Galvez could move to attack Pensacola but a massive Spanish fleet assembled off the entrance to Pensacola Bay on March 9, 1781. Some of the general’s troops marched overland from Mobile while Galvez joined the fleet aboard his own brig, the Galveztown. The outcome of the attack soon grew questionable.
The first Spanish ship to make the attempt to enter Pensacola Bay came under fire from the British cannon at the Royal Navy Redoubt and then ran aground. Admiral Jose Calbo de Irazabel hesitated to try again, despite the pleadings of Gen. Galvez. The frustrated general finally took matters into his own hands and sailed the Galveztown into the bay and past the guns of the redoubt on March 18, 1781.
The admiral still hesitated but finally gave his captains authority to use their own discretion. They quickly followed Galvez into Pensacola Bay. British warships retreated up the bay and Galvez moved into position to begin the Siege and Battle of Pensacola.
Skirmishing took place as the Spanish forces moved into position during April 1781 but by the end of the month the two armies were arrayed and ready to fight. Galvez planted a battery on a hill within range of Fort George and opened fire. The British replied and the Battle of Pensacola began in earnest.
One of the largest and longest engagements of the American Revolution, the Battle of Pensacola was carried out as a regular siege. Galvez and his army, which included some 7,000 men, slowly advanced by digging trenches and placing new batteries under cover of night. His command included some 7,000 men, most of them Spanish regulars. Also joining him were black Cuban militia, French troops, 319 Irishmen and a handful of American Patriots.
The British army was led by Gen. John Campbell and included around 3,000 regulars and roughly 500 allied Creek warriors. Although Campbell’s force was much smaller than the one arrayed against him, he was on the defensive and his men fought from strongly built fortifications.
The Spanish and allied army slowly dug its way closer to the British defenses. Campbell retaliated by sending his men to overrun and destroy one of the siege batteries. It was a temporary victory, however, and the cannon of the two sides were soon firing from almost point blank range.
Galvez increased the severity of his bombardment of the British lines during the first week of May. The shelling finally achieved its desired result when a Spanish shell struck the powder magazine of the Queen’s Redoubt on May 8, 1781. The fort was destroyed and nearly 100 British soldiers were killed. Spanish troops rushed forward to occupy the smoking ruins of the redoubt and soon had their own cannon in place there.
The redoubt occupied a hilltop overlooking the primary British defense of Fort George. With Spanish guns now firing down into the fort from close range, Gen. Campbell realized that the end had come. The white flag soon rose above the battered defenses of Pensacola.
The city was surrendered to Gen. Galvez on May 10, 1781.
The victory achieved by the allied army at Pensacola is one of the most overlooked yet pivotal moments of the Revolutionary War. The fall of the West Florida capital left Spain in control of the entire Gulf Coast and lower Mississippi Valley. Galvez had achieved the largest territorial conquest of the war.
The capture of Pensacola also closed the city as a supply point for the British-allied Creek Indians who had been attacking the Georgia frontier.
Finally, the victory by Galvez and his army resulted in the capture of 1,113 prisoners of war and two ships. The British also reported casualties including 102 dead and 105 wounded (total loss of 1,320). The attackers lost 74 dead and 198 wounded.
The site of the Battle of Pensacola is largely covered by residential areas today but archaeologists located a section of Fort George on North Palofox Street. A section of the fort has been reconstructed there and is open to the public. Interpretive and memorial plaques tell the story of the siege.
The park is located at 501 North Palafox Street, Pensacola, Florida. It is open to the public daily and is free to visit.