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Dauphin Island, AL
Archive of Historical Data, Books, Maps
And Other Materials

Excerpt from the book
"Dauphin Island AL:
French Possession 1699-1763"

by Jo Myrtle Kennedy

"Bienville Takes Pensacola - 1719"

In March 1719, in addition to its passengers, the ship 'Comte de Toulouse" also brought news that France and Spain had declared war on each other, and in fact had been fighting since December 1718. The 4-month voyage across the ocean from Europe had delayed news of the war, and Bienville determined to use to French advantage the powerful element of surprise, on the chance that the Spanish in Pensacola had not yet heard of the war.
Bienville called together a hastily-assembled council and made the decision that the French must seize Pensacola before the Spanish had time to attack Mobile Bay. The battle between the French in Mobile Bay and the Spanish in Pensacola is one of the most exciting in Dauphin Island history.

Bienville left Mobile with 20 men in a sloop to sail to the mouth of the Perdidio River, and from there upriver to a previously-selected site where he met with 800 recruits, which included French soldiers in uniform, immigrants in homespun and buckskins, and 400 Indians. The motley army set out to march overland to Pensacola.

Meanwhile, Bienville's brother Serigny sailed from Dauphin Island with 150 soldiers on board three man-of-war ships, two of which, the 'Phillippi' and the 'Toulouse' were carrying 24 guns each. The French fleet arrived at Pensacola by sea just as Bienville's army reached the rear of the Pensacola settlement, taking the Spanish completely by surprise. When Governor Matamora of Pensacola saw that Pensacola was surrounded, he surrendered at 4 o'clock in the afternoon without a fight.

The Spanish garrison was taken aboard the 'Toulouse' and the 'Mareschal de Villars' and transported to Havana, Cuba as prisoners of war. However, when they arrived in Cuba, the governor there promptly ordered seizure of the ships and imprisoned the French soldiers and crew.

The Cuban governor manned the two French ships with soldiers and sailors, and sent them back to Pensacola accompanied by a Spanish man-of-war, nine brigantines, and 1800 men to retake the city. Arriving at night, they waited for daylight to attack. Bienville had returned to Mobile, leaving his brother Chateaugue in command. Upon seeing the Spanish force, fifty Frenchmen immediately deserted and joined the Spanish, thus forcing Chateaugue to surrender. During the seizure, the store ship 'Dauphin' was accidentally destroyed by fire, and the 'St.Louis' was captured by the Spanish fleet as well.

Then Spain turned her eyes toward Dauphin Island, sending two well-manned brigantines, in August, from Pensacola under the command of St. Denis, to capture the island. Seeing the French ship 'Phillipe' anchored in the harbor, the Spanish commander sent a demand for her surrender, but the captain of the 'Phillipe' sent the message to the commander of the fort on the island, Serigny, who refused to surrender and decided to fight.

During the night, the two Spanish brigantines entered Mobile Bay, and landed 35 men on Mon Luis Island, halfway between Dauphin Island and Mobile, to burn and destroy the inhabitants' dwellings. While the Spanish were wildly pillaging, a force of Canadians and Indians whom Bienville had sent from Mobile, attacked the invaders. Indians killed 5 of the Spanish and promptly scalped them. Six Spanish drowned trying to swim back to their ship. French forces captured eighteen Spanish troops, which included some of the French soldiers who had deserted Chateaugue in Pensacola. The Indians bound them and took them to Mobile, where Bienville decapitated 17 of them, sending the other one to hang on Dauphin Island as a warning against treason.

Two days later, a Spanish squadron arrived and fired on the 'Phillipe', still anchored in the harbor, in front of the fort on Dauphin Island. Serigny, with 160 soldiers and 200 Indians, plus the officers and crew of the 'Phillipe', vigorously returned fire. After four days of bombarding the island, the Spanish fleet set sail and returned to Pensacola.

As the Spanish ships headed for open sea and the safety of Pensacola, the captain of the lead ship shouted to his crew "Olvidarse de los Frances! Rapidamente vamos!" which, loosely translated, means "Dam*n the French, full speed ahead!".

But the conflict was not over. In early September, help arrived from France in the form of five ships under the command of Champmeslin. The Spanish brigantines, which were still cruising in Mobile Bay beween Mobile and Dauphin Island, saw the French ships and quickly escaped to sea and returned to Pensacola.

Bienville and Serigny boarded Champmeslin's ships and convened a council of all the sea captains in port. They decided to again capture the Spanish squadron and fort at Pensacola. Allowing time for the ships to discharge their cargo and take on fresh food and water, Bienville assembled Indians and Canadians for the upcoming battle. When all was ready, the 'Phillipe' and the 'Union' joined the other ships, with their 250 new troops. As before, Bienville and his troops sailed up the Perdido River and joined 500 more Indians who had marched overland from Mobile. Bienville sent an advance force to invest the fort at Pensacola and prevent it from preparing a defense.

Meanwhile, Champmeslin, with his fleet of five ships, entered Pensacola harbor. A sixth ship, 'Hercules', drawing twenty-one feet, was in danger of running aground at the bar at the mouth of the harbor. The large ship carried sixty-four guns, with 32 to a side.

Seeing the plight of the 'Hercules', a Canadian pilot declared that he could take the big ship across the bar. Under full sail, with the skilled pilot at the helm, the ship glided safety into the bay and opened fire on the Spanish fleet, the two forts of San Carlos and a new gun battery recently built. After only two hours of battle, the Spanish fleet and the new battery surrendered.

Bienville, with his army, was in the rear of the San Carlos fort, preparing to attack. With war whoops and screaming, the Canadians and Indians attacked the fort's walls. Unable to capture the fort with the first charge, they regrouped, but before they could mount a second attack, a white flag of surrender appeared above the fort's walls. The French had captured four ships, six brigantines in the bay of Santa Rosa Island, the small battery called Principe d' Asturias, and the large well-manned fort of San Carlos.

On September 19, 1719, the French were once more in command of Pensacola.

The commander of the Spanish fleet, Don Alphonzo, presented his sword in traditional act of surrender, but in a magnificent gesture, Champmeslin said he was worthy to keep it and returned the sword to Alphonzo. The treatment of Governor Matamora was not so noble, for the French had not forgotten that he had acted so shamefully in May by pretending to surrender while leading the courageous Frenchmen into a Cuban trap. Champmeslin severely reproached Matamora for his unmanly conduct and disgraced him publicly by orderting a common soldier to disarm him.

Bienville and Champmeslin sent 360 prisoners to Havana in exchange for the French prisoners who had been held there since the first battle.

An uneasy lull in the fighting lay like a heavy black cloud over the two colonies that had previously lived as neighbors, assisting and trading in the business of settlements. The threat of war continued along the gulf coast through the autumn of 1719. The possibility of Spanish ships from Cuba launcing an invasion at any time, kept the French on edge in their insecure hold on Pensacola and Mobile Bay.



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