Washington's Second Front 

by Ralph N. Cramer, Sr.
Centennial President of the Florida Society SAR
Presented at Pensacola March 14, 1996 on the occasion of the one-hundredth anniversary
of the founding of the Florida Society, Sons of the American Revolution.

Copyright by Ralph N. Cramer, Sr., posted here with his permission.

1781 Sea Battles page


This publication is dedicated to the memory of my sister Ellenora, who was my inspiration to become a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, and to our patriot ancestor, Ludwig of Fribourg, renamed Lewis Fryburger, an indentured servant from southwestern Germany.

Washington's Second Front

I must admit that the impetus to research the Battle of Pensacola came in conjunction with our 100th birthday celebration here in Pensacola and this is the spot and this was the day, 100 years ago, that the Florida Society was chartered.

Washington's Second Front, of course, involves much more than just the final battle here in Pensacola. To set the stage just a little, visualize the map of the United States, starting from Maine and coming down the coast to Florida, across the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi River and then across the Great Lakes to Maine.

from the Library of Congress Web exhibit, "France in America", under Themes => Descriptive Maps

Britain controlled all of that vast area with fortifications and outposts throughout the frontier. She held the area in a giant vise.

The Second Front consisted of two separate campaigns: a Northern Campaign and a Southern Campaign. However, there was a common element that held the two together and his name was Oliver Polluck, an Irish merchant, personal representative of George Washington and a close personal friend of the Governor of New Spain, Bernardo de Galvez.

The Northern Campaign

The Northern Campaign began in January, 1778, when Governor Patrick Henry of Virginia commissioned a young redheaded man by the name of George Rodgers Clark a Colonel in the Virginia Militia and gave him marching orders to take the "Illinois Territory" from the British. In addition to this order, he was given 500 lbs. of powder and a hearty handshake. From that point on, he was on his own.

Had it not been for the help he got from Oliver Pollock from New Orleans, his mission would have failed. He wrote in August of 1778 that he received a large assortment of goods and powder and there were many other occasions when Oliver kept the small band of frontiersmen in the fray.

Oliver Pollock spent his entire fortune supplying Washington's army as well as Col. Clark. He bankrupted himself in the process... but it had a happy ending as he regained his fortune after the war. He is recognized as the "banker of the war in the west" by historians.

Most of us are familiar with the exploits of George Rodgers Clark; about how he, through stealth and cunning, captured the forts at Kaskaskia, Illinois and Ft. Sackville at Vincennes, Indiana. As a matter of fact, he had to recapture the fort at Vincennes, but this time he captured Henry Hamilton, "the hair buyer" who paid Indians for every scalp they brought him. When Col. Hamilton was sent to Virginia in chains, it was the happiest day on the frontier. It also signaled the end of British influence in the Ohio River Valley and the Upper Mississippi River Valley.

The Southern Campaign

Our main focus will be on the Southern Campaign of the Second Front. It involves the province of British West Florida, a rectangular piece of real estate. The Spanish controlled the west bank of the Mississippi River and the British controlled the east bank. This made for numerous altercations between them as General Galvez controlled the traffic on the river from New Orleans.

British West Florida extended from the east bank of the Mississippi up to the 31st parallel (above Natchez, Mississippi) then east to the Apalachacola River, then south to the Gulf of Mexico. It was a frontier area and a haven for loyalists who fled the eastern seaboard. It was at peace and remote from the Revolution... but in fear of war.

Spain declared war on May 19, 1779 as an ally of France... not to help the American cause, as King Carlos III did not want to appear to be aiding the overthrow of a monarchy... his principal motive was to kick the British lion while he was wounded.

Capture of Forts on the Mississippi

When the news reached Governor Galvez, he was ready and anxious to move. Unfortunately, his first expedition was hit by a devastating hurricane. However, 10 days after the storm, he advanced on Ft. Bute at Manchac, Louisiana, 90 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Ft. Bute was captured September 7 and Ft. New Richmond at Baton Rouge on the 21st; shortly thereafter Natchez, Mississippi fell. So, within a month, Galvez had captured 3 forts, 3 smaller outposts, 28 British officers, and 550 troops... his losses--1 killed and 2 wounded.

For his success in capturing Manchac, Baton Rouge, and Natchez, Galvez was promoted to Brigadier General ... and the British in Florida began to take notice.

General Campbell, at the capital city of Pensacola, sent urgent messages to his superiors for reinforcements and indeed received a small contingent. Galvez was now concentrating on the more formidable fortifications at Mobile, Alabama and Pensacola, Florida.

Capture of Mobile

On March 4, 1780, General Gálvez set sail for Mobile with 13 vessels but on March 6 his forces were hit with another hurricane, thus delaying his offensive. Ten days later, however, on March 17, 1780, after 4 days of siege, Ft. Charlotte at Mobile fell.

With Mobile secure, Gálvez left a sizable force there and made ready for his most difficult goal of taking the capital of British West Florida and thus pushing the British completely out of control of the Gulf of Mexico.

As a reward for the capture of Mobile, Gálvez was promoted to Field Marshall. He was 33 years old.

Because the bureaucratic authorities in Havana were slow to follow up his success, Gálvez traveled to Cuba in person to prod his military superiors into action.

Finally, after much pleading and many delays, the expedition he wanted was ready. A fleet consisting of 64 ships and landing force of 164 officers and 3,800 men left Havana on October 16, 1780, but 2 days later the fleet... yes, you've guessed it... was hit by a hurricane.

One ship was sunk, many were crippled, and the rest were scattered from the Gulf Coast to Yucatan. Disillusioned after a fruitless effort to reunite his fleet, Gálvez returned to Havana.

Meanwhile, the British thought it would be a great idea to recapture Mobile. In January, 1781, General Campbell sent a force of 600 -- 300 soldiers and 300 Indians -- to seize Mobile. However, the attack was repulsed by the Spaniards... Mobile was saved.

The British attack on Mobile and its gallant defense gave the Spanish a wake-up call. Gálvez marshaled 1,400 regulars, 4 artillerymen, 25 American Volunteers, 32 militiamen, 90 free mulattoes and blacks, and 75 slaves, in total a force of over 3,800. They faced a British force of about 1,000: half were Indians, a quarter were Waldeckers -- German mercenaries, and the rest were Englishmen.

Siege and Capture of Pensacola

The Battle of Pensacola has been labeled by historians as the best documented battle in history. General Campbell kept a ship's log and General Gálvez kept a meticulous daily diary ... both of which were published after the war.

A two months' siege of Pensacola began on March 9, 1781 when under cover of darkness he landed his troops and military impedimenta on Santa Rosa Island.

For the next six weeks the Spanish opened trenches at night, extending their lines ever closer to the main fortification. The British, on the other hand, sent their Indians out at night to try to halt the movement, but the attackers moved ever closer. The entrenchments were completed by May 1st, cannon were mounted, and the two adversaries proceeded to shell each other continuously... without much effect on either side.

For example, Gálvez' diary records that on the third of May the Spanish fired 534 shots and 186 shells at the British but only killed one and wounded two -- not very cost effective ! -- so that it was necessary to trench even closer to reach the enemy with any accuracy.

Seven days later, on the 8th of May, which began like so many previous days with both sides shelling each other, between 8:30 and 9:00 AM one of the two Spanish howitzers firing from their new position landed a shell in the open doorway of the British main powder magazine while the British soldiers were obtaining fresh powder. A terrific explosion rocked the redoubt and, in an instant, reduced that body of the fort to a heap of rubbish. Campbell reported losing 48 regulars and 27 seamen with that one shot.

Gálvez was quick to move into the breach, seizing what was left of the redoubt and opening fire at much closer range. The British returned the fire but the Spanish now held the high ground... 30 more British soldiers bit the dust and General Campbell realized continuing the action was hopeless.

The formal surrender took place at 3:00 PM on the afternoon of May 10, 1781, thereby ending British control of the Gulf of Mexico.

Consequences of Galvez' Victories

Few people, if asked to name the important battles of the American Revolution, would include the Battle of Pensacola. Few, indeed, are even acquainted with the battle... but the struggle between Spain and England for supremacy along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico was one of the most important strategic battles of the Revolution. At the ensuing Peace treaty, Spain was ceded not only British West Florida, but East Florida as well. Spain's ownership of Florida facilitated American acquisition of the area later. Had Britain retained West Florida, she would have been an obstacle to American expansion. Under control of Spain and with the presence of large numbers of loyalists, who in time became pro-American, the new nation began achieving its "manifest destiny" long before John L. O'Sullivan ever coined the phrase.

Spain's involvement in the American Revolution was late and indirect and for the wrong reasons; but the fact that they replaced the English as a factor in the lower Mississippi River Valley and the Gulf of Mexico was indeed significant.

We have honored Bernardo de Gálvez's victories with the placing of a bronze historical plaque at Ft. George in downtown Pensacola, dedicated to the 25 American Volunteers who served with him in 1781. We have also honored him by naming one of our principal cities for him -- Galveston, Texas.

[Editor's note: Galveston was named for Bernardo de Gálvez, the Spanish colonial governor and general. Gálvez sent Jose de Evia to chart the Gulf of Mexico from the Texas Coast to New Orleans, and on July 23, 1786, de Evia charted an area near the mouth of a river and named it Galveston Bay. Later the island and city took the same name. Bernardo de Gálvez died the same year, never setting foot on his namesake. See www.galveston.com/history/

There is a beautiful monument to George Rodgers Clark at Vincennes, Indiana, and I urge you all to visit it. But in a larger sense, those of us from the midwest and the mid-south who now claim Florida as our home are living monuments to both men!!


"The Log of HMS Mentor 1780-1781", James A. Servies (Ed.).

"Battle of Pensacola", N. Orwin Rush.

"Tories, Dons, and Rebels", J. Barton Starr.

About the Author

Compatriot Ralph N. Cramer, Sr. of Naples, Florida served as the Florida Society SAR's State President during their centennial year ... 1995 - 1996.

He is the recipient of the SAR Medal for Meritorious Service (with oak leaf clusters), the Silver Good Citizenship Medal, and the state's highest award, the Patriot Medal.

During his active business career, he worked for forty years in the railroad industry, retiring as Vice President Sales for Conrail. He served on the Board of Directors for several railroads.

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