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Today in Florida History: Spaniards Capture Baton Rouge

Posted by Manny Miami on 21st Sep 2015

In this day in 1779, the Louisiana governor and Spanish military officer Bernardo de Galvez, with the aide of American troops and militia volunteers, captures the British post and garrison at Baton Rouge, located in what was then British-controlled West Florida.

In a cunning and brilliant move, de Galvez included in the terms of the British surrender of Baton Rouge that the British also surrender Fort Panmure at Natchez to Spanish control. Defeated and on the verge of utter annihilation, the British had no other choice but to accept the terms.

The Spanish capture of Baton Rouge and Fort Panmure ended British control of the Mississippi Valley and opened the Mississippi River to a Spanish supply line—running from the Gulf of Mexico to the Ohio Valley–that greatly benefited the American cause. De Galvez was then able to lay siege to the British-occupied city of Pensacola, Florida, in the spring of 1781, which ended in a British surrender on May 8.

Spain never officially signed an alliance with the American revolutionaries, as King Charles III was hesitant about the precedent he might be setting by encouraging the population of another empire to overthrow their monarch. However, Spain also wanted to regain Gibraltar in the Mediterranean from the British and solidify control of its North American holdings, so it allied itself to France in the international war against Britain. Spain regained West Florida during the fighting and East Florida, which it exchanged for the Bahamas, in the final peace. Though Gibraltar remained in British control, Spain also won all the land surrounding the Gulf of Mexico.

The British fort at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, fell on September 21, 1779, in one of the least known yet highly important battles of the American Revolution.

While the alliance of France with the fledgling United States in their war of independence against Great Britain is well known, few remember that another European power - Spain - also cast its lot with the American patriots. King Charles III of Spain officially declared war on May 8, 1779. Two months later on July 8, 1779, he extended the right to make war to Spanish subjects in North America.

Bernardo de Galvez was then the Governor of Louisiana, which had passed into Spanish hands at the end of the Seven Years War (known in America as the French and Indian War). He made immediate plans for a campaign to take the British colony of West Florida, which then extended all the way to the Mississippi River, for the King of Spain. The campaign would eventually lead to the capture of both Mobile and Pensacola, but to make these moves possible, de Galvez first needed to take Baton Rouge. The city on the Mississippi was westernmost British bastion in Florida.

Recognizing that the possibility of an attack was growing, the British commander at Baton Rouge, Lt. Col. Alexander Dickson, had supervised the construction of strong fortifications. The most important of these was Fort New Richmond, a large earthwork bastion that stood on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River adjacent to today's Pentagon barracks.
Armed with thirteen cannons, Fort New Richmond was surrounded by a deep moat and additionally defended against infantry attack by a wooden palisade. The fort was built in just six weeks but offered a strong challenge to any attacking force. A second British post, Fort Bute, was located on Bayou Manchac below Baton Rouge. Built in 1766, it was in bad condition and Dickson left only 20 men there to defend it as little more than a show of the British flag.

Galvez moved north from New Orleans with a small army of 580 Spanish regulars, 60 local militiamen, 80 free blacks and ten American volunteers. As he advanced, the general was joined by another 600 or so men, many of them Indians and Acadians.

Fort Bute was taken in a dawn attack on September 7, 1779. Only one of its 20 defenders was killed. Another two dozen
were captured and six managed to escape and make their way to Baton Rouge.  Galvez halted at Fort Bute to give his men time to rest before continuing his march over the remaining 15 miles to Baton Rouge. His army reached the outskirts of the city on September 12, 1799.

Fort New Richmond and Baton Rouge were defended by 400 British regulars from the 16th and 60th regiments, some militia, a few artillerymen and several companies of the 3rd Waldeck Regiment (German). The total strength of Col. Dickson's force was around 550 men.

As he surveyed the British defenses, Galvez decided it was too risky to try to move his own cannon to within range of the guns in Fort New Richmond. Instead, he sent a small force around to the north of the fort to block any attempt to reinforce it from Fort Panmure in what is now Mississippi.

Louisiana State Capitol  The magnificent Louisiana State Capitol overlooks a battlefield of the American Revolution.

A second force of militia was sent into a wooded area with orders to create a disturbance and attract the first of the British cannon. The tactic worked and the cannon of the fort opened fire on the diversionary troops. This accomplished, the Spanish general dug siege and approach trenches allowing him to position infantry and artillery within range of the British defenses. Galvez opened his bombardment of Fort New Richmond on September 21, 1799.
The British returned the Spanish fire as best they could, but held out only three hours. at Fort Panmure as well. The Spanish troops occupied Fort New Richmond, which was renamed Fort San Carlos. It defended Baton Rouge for the Spanish until 1810 when it was taken by the revolutionary army of the Republic of West Florida.
The Battle of Baton Rouge ended forever British control of the Mississippi River. Leaving the city strongly garrisoned, Galvez returned to New Orleans but soon took the field in a second campaign that led to the capture of Fort Charlotte at Mobile and finally the British capital at Pensacola. 

While his name is rarely remembered today in American history books, Bernardo de Galvez waged one of the most successful campaigns of the American Revolution against England. His victories ended forever British claims to the Gulf Coast and what would later become the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the western half of Florida. Markers in downtown Baton Rouge also interpret the siege and one just north of the Old State Capitol points out the site of the Spanish battery during the battle.

Miami historical tours are a great way to learn more about South Florida's extensive history.