The Valenzuela fired the first shots on February 26, 1780. She was perfectly positioned to do so, anchored in Mobile Bay, barely two miles from Fort Charlotte. She looked like she came out of a Renaissance painting rather than the 18th-century Gulf of Mexico — a shallow-draft, lateen-rigged vessel with a sharp prow, oar banks and a single 24-pounder cannon that periodically belched flame, acrid smoke and a heavy iron ball. Yet there she was, larger than life and banging away. The American Revolution had arrived.
When the Thirteen Colonies rebelled against King George III, Mobile was part of British West Florida, an underappreciated “14th colony” that stretched between the east bank of the Mississippi River (excluding New Orleans) and the Apalachicola River. The British had several small outposts along the Mississippi and settlements with forts at Mobile and Pensacola, the capital. When Spain allied with France against Britain in 1779, these immediately became attractive targets to Spanish Louisiana’s young and aggressive governor, Don Bernardo de Gálvez. Even though his sovereign did not officially recognize the infant United States, the shrewd Gálvez understood their common interest, namely defeating the British. He gave and accepted American help at every opportunity. War declared, he acted quickly and moved a small force upriver, seizing the British Mississippi River posts in a nearly bloodless campaign.
Mobile was next, and there were good strategic reasons for attacking it. To begin with, it was next closest and would provide an important base from which to hit the better fortified Pensacola. Should a Pensacola attack go badly, Mobile represented a strong fallback position. Perhaps more importantly, Mobile’s abundant cattle could feed an army, and Gálvez preferred it be his force rather than the enemy’s. Taking Mobile would also cut off the British from their Choctaw and Chickasaw Indian allies. And lastly, the local French residents were thought to be more sympathetic to rule by fellow Catholics rather than money-grubbing Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
Battery on Broad
The die cast, Gálvez departed New Orleans on January 14 with a dozen small vessels and some 800 men, a mix of Spanish regulars, militia, free and enslaved blacks and a few Americans. But just getting to Mobile proved vexatious. Contrary weather scattered the fleet, and at the mouth of Mobile Bay, churning waves and strong currents grounded six ships on sandbars. Ignoring naysayers who urged he cancel the attack, Gálvez put his men ashore on Mobile Point, lightened the grounded ships and succeeded in refloating three of them.
During the following days, the Spanish moved further up the Bay, even as five ships arrived from Havana with hundreds more troops. Gálvez remained constantly visible, inspiring his men and urging them forward. By late February he had established a camp on Dog River and sent the Valenzuela to harass the British. By month’s end he had a battery under construction within 2,000 yards of Fort Charlotte (roughly where Broad Street is today). It was time to parley.
On March 1, Gálvez sent forth a young officer with a note addressed to Capt. Elias Durnford, commanding at Fort Charlotte. As Durnford watched the officer approach under a flag of truce, he could not have felt confident about his chances. He was competent enough, 40 years old, trained as an engineer and served as the colony’s assistant governor. But his fort was in poor condition, “in a sorry state,” as he himself described, and he had fewer than 300 men to defend it. These included regulars from the 60th Regiment of Foot and local militia and slaves, plus several dozen civilian volunteers, the latter of doubtful worth. By way of preparation, he had done little more than burn the surrounding houses to clear fields of fire and repositioned his cannon.
Gálvez’s emissary cordially greeted Durnford, and the two retired to the latter’s quarters where they dined and toasted each other’s sovereigns. Gálvez’s missive informed Durnford of the disparity between their forces, pointing out the wisdom of a British surrender. If Durnford chose to fight, he darkly stated that the British faced “all the extremities of war.” While the emissary waited, Durnford penned a polite but firm reply. “The difference of numbers I am convinced are greatly in your favor, Sir, but mine are much beyond your Excellency’s conception, and was I to give up this Fort on your demand, I should be regarded as a traitor to my king and country. My love for both and my own honor direct my heart to refuse surrendering this Fort until I am under conviction that resistance is in vain.” Durnford’s answer in hand, the Spanish officer bid him farewell. Battle it would be.
Bad Weather — Surprise!
During the following week, the Spanish kept advancing their zigzag trenches toward the fort, moving heavy siege cannon into place and sniping at the beleaguered defenders. Meanwhile, a British relief force was en route from Pensacola, but bad weather and muddy roads prevented its timely arrival. At last, at 10 a.m. on March 12, Gálvez ordered his batteries to fire. The British guns replied, and all day the balls flew back and forth. Just as Gálvez had predicted, the contest was an unequal one. The fort’s weak walls were blasted open in two places, and several British guns dismounted. Despite the racket and destruction, only one defender was killed and several wounded. But the British were out of ammunition, and at sunset a white flag fluttered from Charlotte’s ramparts.
After a brief negotiation, Gálvez allowed Durnford’s troops to march out of the fort’s breaches with flags flying and drums beating. The men stacked muskets outside, but the officers were allowed to keep their swords. Durnford proudly reported that, “No man in the garrison stained the luster of the British arms.”
Gálvez proved to be a gracious conqueror. He agreed to transport the British soldiers to a friendly port, provided they promised not to take up arms against Spain for 18 months and was solicitous toward Durnford’s wife and their newborn child. As for his own men: “I thanked them on behalf of the king for their resolution in facing all of the hardships we endured, and for the zeal, courage and determination that they displayed to achieve success.” Thanks aside, he offered them a third of the value of everything taken at the fort and doled out promotions.
It was a stunning success, hailed on both sides of the Atlantic. In Paris, John Adams heard the news and exulted, “The English are on the losing hand.” Mobile was in Spanish possession, and American hearts were immeasurably cheered.
John S. Sledge is the author of “The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History.”