By Joe Darby
Since it’s still the week of Independence Day, I thought I’d continue on with my historical theme from last week. No mentions of divine intervention this week, but I think it’s well worth pointing out that Louisiana played its part in fighting the British on behalf of the struggling American colonies, although Louisiana was under the rule of Spain at the time.
Spain, under the intrepid Louisiana Gov. Bernardo de Galvez, captured territory from the British using mostly colonial troops from Louisiana. This proved a major distraction to the Brits who were trying to subdue the American colonists back on the Atlantic Seaboard.
In fact, if you have an ancestor who rode or marched with Galvez you are just as eligible for joining the Sons — or Daughters — of the American Revolution as anyone from back east whose ancestor fought in such battles as Bunker Hill, Trenton, Saratoga or Yorktown.
So we did our part. Now, how did that all come about?
France decided to come to the aid of the colonies fairly early on, mainly to knock down their heated rival, Great Britain, a peg or two. France supplied invaluable supplies and weapons as well as, later on, the use of its troops and its navy. France also had influence over Spain at the time. While the French persuaded the Spanish to join the fight, Spain declared war against Great Britain, but didn’t go so far as to ally itself with the colonies, as France had done. After all, Spain had a whole bunch of colonies itself in the New World, which it didn’t want getting any funny ideas about independence. (They eventually did, of course.)
Anyway, Galvez’ troops managed to capture British-held Baton Rouge in 1779, then Mobile and Pensacola in subsequent years. I think the Battle of Baton Rouge may be of the most interest to us. The Brits had held all of Florida since the French and Indian War ended in 1763.
When he received word that Spain and Britain were at war, Galvez feared the Brits, who had 800 English soldiers as well as Indian allies, would come downriver to attack New Orleans. So he decided a good offense was the best defense and made plans to take Red Stick town, although he had only 650 men, including 450 raw colonial militia (who might have been your ancestors). But they were certainly to prove themselves in battle.
They first planned to attack the smaller British outpost of Manchac on Aug. 23, 1779. Five days before they planned to leave, a strong autumn hurricane blew in and sank many of the boats to be used in the expedition.
But Galvez was not about to give up. He recovered as many boats as possible, and recruited men from Opelousas, Attakapas, Pointe Coupee and the Acadian Coast. Men of all castes and colors took part. We know that some Natchitoches men also joined up, including my ancestor Louis DeBlanc, as well as Jean Baptiste Darby of St. Martinville. They must have become combat buddies because their children later married and became the progenitors of beaucoup Darbys in South Louisiana.
The enthusiastic little army set out on Aug. 27, marching upriver on the east bank while the boats carried their supplies. Black soldiers and Indians served as scouts, spread out to prevent an ambush.
At dawn on Sept. 7 the creole militia surprised the garrison at Fort Bute at Manchac, taking the post without the loss of a man. Meanwhile, the Spanish won a small but important naval battle on Lake Pontchartrain, preventing the Brits from sending reinforcements from the Gulf Coast.
After five days rest the Spanish forces moved on Baton Rouge, only to find a well-constructed fort, with an 18-foot deep moat, heavy cannon and 400 tough regular troops and 100 armed English settlers (The fort was located along the river bank, not far from where the Pentagon barracks are today).
During the night of Sept. 20, Galvez placed his own cannon on the edge of some woods, using distractions by white and black colonial troops to draw attention from the artillery The guns were so well placed that at dawn bombardment took only three hours to wreck the wooden fort, causing the Brits to surrender. The Spanish also forced the British officers to provide for the surrender of the fort at Natchez, Miss. as well, killing two birds with one stone.
The Spanish ended up with 500 prisoners and complete control of the Mississippi. Galvez went on to conquer Mobile in 1780 and Pensacola in 1781, making him doubtless one of the most effective military commanders in the Revolutionary War.
He made New Orleans safe from British attack and secured the lower Mississippi for Spain for 30 years to come. Yes, we Louisianians certainly played out part in the winning of freedom in the United States — although we weren’t yet part of the good ole USA.