While the majority of Revolutionary War action occurred on the Atlantic coast, important events occurred farther west as well. This article takes a look at this lesser known part of the conflict.
It is well known that France was an eager ally of the fledgling United States, secretly making loans and selling supplies to the Revolutionaries. When the French felt the Americans had proved themselves at Saratoga, France officially entered the war, and became the first foreign nation to recognize the United States. On February 6, 1778 both nations signed the Treaty of Alliance, in which France declared war on Great Britain and recognized American Independence.
Spain was also on the sidelines, watching events closely. Unlike France, when Spain declared war on Great Britain, they did not recognize American independence. By the Treaty of Aranjuez on April 12, 1779, Spain entered the war as an ally of France, and agreed to attack British forts in the Mississippi Valley and Gulf Coast. Spain’s King Charles III would assist his first cousin, Louis XV of France in the conflict with the British. The Spanish hoped to recover territory lost from the British, and take advantage of Britain’s preoccupation with the rebellious colonies.
The British were already realigning their military for a worldwide conflict: facing France, Spain, and the Netherlands in India, Gibraltar, Europe, and the high seas. The Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi Valley was yet another front, one that was poorly defended by the British.
In the first action of this vast theater, American marines raided Fort Bute, a British fort located at Bayou Manchac, about 115 miles from New Orleans. The attack on the far western border of British West Florida took place in February, 1778.
On February 26, 1778, seven American ships and a force of about 200 men arrived at Pointe Coupee, Louisiana and looted the settlement. This is one of the more bizarre aspects of the war.
The small fleet led by James Wiling started with only 28 men at Fort Pitt, picking up more as they went south. Sailing downriver, on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, their goal was to win assistance or force the neutrality of the Indians. Along the way they targeted British plantations and property, and liberated much loot and slaves. When they reached New Orleans, they were threatened with arrest. Most escaped, with some going upriver to join George Rogers Clark in the Northwest Territory, and others fading into the vastness of the frontier.
The key Spanish leader in this new theater of war was Governor of Louisiana, and General, Bernardo de Galvez. Spanish forces under General Galvez took Fort Bute on September 7, 1779. The fort was defended by British regulars, Loyalist militia, and a company of Hessian grenadiers. This action secured the lower Mississippi Valley for the Spanish and removed the small British garrison.
Moving up from New Orleans, a force of 800 under Governor Bernardo de Galvez, that included Spanish troops, American volunteers, Acadian settles, and free blacks, attacked and captured the British outpost of Fort Richmond (modern Baton Rouge) on September 21, 1779. The fort was defended by 146 British, 201 Waldeck, and 50 Loyalist troops.
It had been occupied by the British following the French and Indian War. Galvez renamed Fort Richmond, which also served as an administrative center, as Fort San Carlos. This action secured the lower Mississippi Valley for the Spanish and removed the small British garrison.
From February 10- March 14, 1780, American and Spanish troops under de Galvez laid siege to the 300 British in Fort Charlotte (Fort Conde) at Mobile. They successfully forced the garrison’s surrender. The garrison’s surrender gave the Spanish control of this important site, and removed all English military forces from the Gulf region. This was one of the only actions of the war in which Spanish and American troops fought side by side. Joining the Spanish naval forces was one American ship, the West Florida, which had been captured from the British the precious year.
Fort Conde, reconstructed in modern downtown Mobile.
Following their success at Fort Conde, the Spanish attacked the British garrison at Pensacola, and failed to take it. The post’s defenders included the British- allied Chickasaw and other local tribes.
The British were not always passive in the region. On May 26, 1780 at the Battle of Fort San Carlos, British forces attack, but fail to capture this Spanish fort at the site of modern St. Louis.
On April 17, 1783 in the Battle of Fort Carlos (Arkansas Post), British, Natchez, and Chickasaw attacked, but failed to capture, this Spanish fort along the Mississippi. In Arkansas’ only Revolutionary War battle, Spanish and their Quapawa allies held out in what has been called the westernmost action of the Revolutionary War. Both sides exchanged fire for about six hours, causing few casualties. At about 9 o’clock, the Spanish attacked from the fort and drove off the British and their allies. The Treaty of Paris ending the war would be signed in September that year.