What does the American Revolution have in common with a fountain in downtown Baton Rouge? Probably more than you think.
To start and in good French, Bernardo de Galvez kicked the ass.
Certainly, given that he was the governor of the Spanish-occupied Louisiana Territory, Galvez would have said it in Spanish.
Either way, the results were the same. In 1779 Galvez expelled the British from Louisiana, four years before the end of the American Revolution. The war raged long after the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
Whoever controlled the Mississippi River, controlled a major artery of commerce and transportation. The British knew it; the Spaniards too.
And Spain didn’t have it. So he declared his own war on the British.
Three years earlier, on July 4, 1776, the Founding Fathers signed, as its title indicates, a break with Great Britain, and not the end of the fight. While the New Americans occupied the 13 colonies on the East Coast, Britain owned the land between the colonies and the Mississippi River.
The British also claimed the Republic of West Florida, which extended into Louisiana and included Baton Rouge. The lines of demarcation are clear on the map on display at the USS Kidd Veterans Memorial & Museum.
The map is part of the museum exhibit highlighting Baton Rouge’s involvement in the Revolutionary War. Yes, you heard right. Baton Rouge became part of the fight when Galvez jumped on his horse and led a ragtag army of New Orleans residents to drive the British out of what is now Louisiana’s capital.
At the museum, this Louisiana-themed exhibit complements the larger panel exhibit, “Becoming the United States,” on tour by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. This show begins in the lobby of the museum and continues on the second floor, depicting American history from the colonies to the 1960s.
Installed just in time for Independence Day, the exhibit offers an in-depth historical journey, but the museum’s local addition shines a light on Louisiana’s history and its involvement in the American Revolution.
This puts the state – especially the Baton Rouge area – in the middle of the conflict. Why Baton Rouge? Well, it stands on the banks of the Mississippi River, just north of New Orleans, which used to be part of the Louisiana Territory ruled by Spain.
“It’s something that a lot of people don’t know, especially in Baton Rouge, that Galvez, who was the Spanish governor of Louisiana, was both a leader and a soldier,” said Rosehn Gipe, executive director of the museum. “Once Spain officially declared war on Britain, in 1779, he was able to do some things overtly. Before that, he secretly helped American colonists, but it always had to be in a way could deny what was going on.”
This role of Galvez has been on full display, standing front and center, in downtown Baton Rouge since 1980, when Frank Hayden’s “Marcha de Galvez” fountain was installed in Galvez Plaza. But like so many works of art and public monuments, the everyday goes unnoticed.
The fountain shows Galvez in profile leading his collection of eclectic troops. They first stopped at Fort Butte, Britain, then headed to Fort New Richmond, which was near the grounds occupied by the former Louisiana State Capitol.
“Fort Butte stood across from the Donaldsonville area,” Gipe said. “Galvez took his troops up to Fort Butte and took that fort, then moved to Baton Rouge and took that fort, then negotiated the peaceful surrender of the fort to Natchez. So that basically cleared the river Mississippi of the British forces.”
Now consider the fact that the British forces were fully trained and uniformed troops. Galvez’s army was not.
“He had his Spanish regulars, and along the way he picked up the Acadian militia and liberated the blacks and the Native Americans,” Gipe said. “So it was really this whole group of people who felt like they were protecting their homeland and doing what they had to do.”
The trip was not easy. The exhibition reproduction of Augusto Ferrer-Dalmu’s painting “La Marcha de Galvez” shows Galvez leading his troops through mosquito-infested swampy waters, all staring down in the murky mess.
Galvez renamed the British citadel of Baton Rouge Fort San Carlos. But he wouldn’t stop there.
“Later, between 1780 and 1781, Galvez took Mobile and then Pensacola,” Gipe said. “Once they did that, all the British were moved out of the West Florida Republic area. colonies to fight the forces of Washington.”
And, Gipe added, Galvez and George Washington knew each other.
“Galvez was also instrumental in the Treaty of Paris, which of course ended the American Revolution in 1783,” Gipe said. “So he was a major player back then. And a lot of people think, ‘Oh, this is the American Revolution. These are the 13 colonies. It’s the east coast. We have nothing to do with it. But really, we really did.”
But while Galvez was kicking ass in Baton Rouge, the British were sending supply ships into Lake Pontchartrain. This is another component of Louisiana in the American Revolution explored in the exhibit.
“This part of the story is about the Spanish privateers on Lake Pontchartrain,” Gipe said. “Corsairs were basically legal pirates, and many people don’t realize they were used during the American Revolution.”
So Congress passed a resolution to hire the mercenary ships of the privateers to disrupt the British.
“The privateers were given letters of marque, which allowed them to legally go out and seize the British,” Gipe said. “A lot of these privateer ships were financed by people who had a lot of money in the colonies.”
A reproduction wood-engraved portrait of the privateer Capt. John Manly, commanding officer on one of the ships, is included in the exhibit. This was discovered through research by the museum’s assistant ship keeper, Elijah Otto, while the ship’s superintendent Tim NesSmith researched Galvez’s history.
“The woodcut was the only portrait we could find of one of the privateers of the time,” Gipe said. “They were allowed to keep part of everything they had on British ships. They could sell it or use it, and the rest came to the United States. So often they attack supply ships which were intended for British troops with muskets and gunfire and all kinds of things on board and these can go directly to American troops for supply.”
Moreover, the corsairs did their job well. They knew the territory and were already intercepting British ships on the European and Caribbean side.
All of this gives new meaning to Independence Day in Baton Rouge and New Orleans on July 4, because Louisiana had not stood idle during the revolution. It was kicking ass.
4th of July Patriots and Pirates of the USS Kidd: A Revolutionary Celebration
A Special VIP, i.e. Very Important Patriot (or Pirate), event starts at 5 p.m. on Monday July 4th. Tickets are $50 per person and include museum access for the evening, food and beverages, access to the USS KIDD starting at 8 p.m. , and the best view of the WBRZ fireworks over the Mississippi River. For tickets, visit usskidd.com/product/4th-of-july-patriots-and-pirates-a-revolutionary-celebration. For more information, call (225) 342-1942.