Bunker Hill in Miniature

In January 1781, while the Revolutionary War raged in the northeast, British forces attempted a sneak attack on a Spanish fortification on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay.

Chilly predawn fog clung to the reaches of upper Mobile Bay, blurring the marsh, obscuring the woods, and moistening the soldiers’ musket barrels and blankets. Sub-lieutenant Manuel de Córdoba stood in a shallow trench outside the palisade and tried to fathom what he was seeing. Ghostly shapes were approaching. He assumed they were friendly troops, the free Black militia coming in for breakfast, and he ordered his men not to fire. It was a fatal mistake. Suddenly, a British soldier materialized in front of him and drove a bayonet into his breast. The battle for The Village had begun. 

Spanish Governor of Louisiana Don Bernardo de Gálvez as depicted in a 1785 portrait. Artist unknown

Just nine months earlier, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, Don Bernardo de Gálvez, had captured British Mobile after a brief siege. He wanted to attack Pensacola next, but a devastating hurricane delayed his plans. Sensibly fearing a British counterattack, Gálvez ordered a small fort built on Mobile Bay’s eastern shore at a place called The Village, roughly where I-10 crosses east into Baldwin County today. The Village was a small concentration of cattle farms rather than a town proper, but its importance was twofold. First, it supplied Mobile with plentiful beef, and second, it represented a strategic jump-off point for a British counterattack. The fort wasn’t much to look at, a flimsy wooden stockade with firing ports, two 4-pounder cannon, and a few buildings, all ringed by trenches. The garrison consisted of 190 men, a mix of Spanish regulars, Havana militia and New Orleans free Blacks.

Just as Gálvez feared, the British commander at Pensacola, Gen. John Campbell, was stung by Mobile’s loss and ordered the city retaken. Campbell’s plan entailed sending two frigates and a smaller vessel into Mobile Bay to support a simultaneous overland expedition, which consisted of several hundred men commanded by Col. J. L. W. Hanxleden, a Hessian officer. This force included 100 British regulars, 60 Hessian mercenaries of the Third Waldeck Regiment (so named for their home principality), 250 Pennsylvania and Maryland loyalists, a dozen mounted West Florida Royal Foresters and a few hundred Creek Indians. Among the latter was a 17-year-old Marylander named William Augustus Bowles, notable for his dashing good looks, disinclination to follow orders and gift for self-promotion. 

The British ships made good time. On January 5, they flew false colors and bluffed their way past the enemy’s undermanned Dauphin Island garrison. But rather than sail north as they should have done, the British landed shore parties to rustle the island’s abundant cattle. There were only 18 Spanish soldiers on shore, and the British were sure these men would flee or surrender. But instead, the chagrined Spaniards loosed a staggering volley. The British beat a hasty retreat with only three beeves to show for their trouble. Rattled by the rude reception, they sailed farther up the Bay and anchored, too far from The Village to be of immediate help. The army would have to handle the dirty work alone.  

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Marylander William Bowles in 1791. Portrait by Thomas Hardy

Meanwhile, Hanxleden’s men hacked through wilderness and tramped across bogs to reach their objective. By the morning of January 7, they reached The Village undetected, and Hanxleden immediately ordered his command forward with fixed bayonets. The men moved in single column at a rapid trot. The New Orleans Black militia encamped outside the palisade was totally surprised and offered no resistance. The main garrison did not even realize it was under attack until young Cordóba fell and the enemy was at its walls. 

Thanks to the quick reaction time of the post commander, the Spanish recovered their equanimity and opened fire at the Waldeckers milling in the outer trench. It quickly became a killing ground. Hanxleden, an adjutant, and a captain of grenadiers all fell, and the attackers were thrown into confusion. One loyalist officer named Benjamin Baynton later wrote to his brother that Spanish muzzles were within three feet of his men. “One continual sheet of fire presented itself for ten minutes,” he wrote. “You may judge the gallantry of the Officers,” he continued, “when you read in the papers that out of ten, six were killed and wounded. It was Bunkers hill [sic] in miniature.” Spanish troops rushed outside, and vicious hand-to-hand combat increased the confusion and noise. Steady musket and cannon discharges flashed yellow in the thin morning light, while fog and sulfurous smoke drifted across the scene. Throughout the slaughter, Britons yelled, “Long live the King!” and the Spaniards responded “Viva el Rey!” When Baynton attempted to climb over the palisade, he was hit in the “left arm above the Elbow” and had to be carried to the rear. 

Meanwhile, the Black militia fled to the Bay to escape by boat. But Creek fighters had slipped around the palisade and waded into the water after them. The militiamen were forced back onto land where they were caught in a deadly crossfire. Trapped between the Bay and the palisade they fought hard, battling back the Creeks. Meanwhile, Bowles found a tree conveniently close to the palisade and sheltered behind it, calmly loading and firing into the Spanish compound even as his comrades withdrew. Soon he was practically alone. One witness declared that Bowles would have continued “had not a cannon-ball from the enemy shivered the tree to pieces, and driven him unhurt, to gain the small flying party, already at the distance of a quarter of a mile.” The British retreat was managed by a young loyalist officer named Philip B. Key, uncle to Francis Scott Key, then only 17 months old. 

Thanks to their brave defense, the Spanish held The Village. But the cost was high. Fourteen Spaniards were dead, 23 wounded and one taken prisoner. British losses were even greater with 18 dead and 60 wounded soldiers plus an unknown number of Creek Indian casualties. 

The Spanish garrison commander at Mobile proudly reported to Gálvez that “every one of the attacks thrown against us by the enemy has been repulsed, and with these small victories our men are gradually gaining a certain feeling of superiority over the enemy, which could be useful from now on.” And so it proved to be, when many of these same troops helped topple Pensacola that spring. 

The fight at The Village was a skirmish compared to the Revolutionary War’s big battles to the northeast, but it played its part in Britain’s overall defeat. And no one who was there would ever forget it.

John S. Sledge is the author of “The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History.”

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