SCORECARDS FOR DAUPHIN ISLAND’S FOURTH, FIFTH, SIXTH AND SEVENTH ARMED AMPHIBIOUS INVASIONS
Of all the many overlooked, ignored and misrepresented episodes in Dauphin Island’s colorful and dramatic story, none challenges either the historical importance or the academic indifference produced by Dauphin Island’s four armed amphibious invasions of the Franco-Spanish War(1719-1720) which in our part of the world amounted to “Dauphin Island versus Pensacola.” If the Spanish had succeeded in this war, their attack upon Dauphin Island would have been the beginning of a major military effort to drive the French completely off the Gulf Coast and the cherished French creole influence of our present-day Gulf Coast heritage would have never existed.
Dauphin Island’s Fourth Armed Amphibious Invasion differs from the first three of this most difficult of the operations of war in that our island was not the target of this invasion. For the first time, Dauphin Island launched its own armed amphibious invasion to capture a foreign port: the Spanish harbor of Pensacola.
When Serigny, one of the four famous Le Moyne brothers linked to Dauphin Island, arrived off the island on a company ship from France on April 19, 1719, he brought his brother orders dated January 7, 1719, from the notorious John Law’s Company of the West commanding Bienville to immediately launch an attack upon Pensacola and to take the port for France. Earlier in 1718, France had joined with England, Holland and Austria to form the Quadruple Alliance in order to discourage the Spanish King’s ambitions in France and Italy. Serigny brought the news that France was presently at war with Spain and that it was time for Bienville to launch a preemptive strike on Pensacola.
Regardless of how unprepared and unprotected his forces were in Mobile and on Dauphin Island, Bienville grasped the fact that he now possessed the two greatest elements which can insure the success of most amphibious invasions: the ability to exploit the element of surprise and the ability to capitalize upon the enemy’s weaknesses. Bienville was certainly aware of Spanish weaknesses. There was no way that the Spanish could even imagine an attack coming from Mobile and Dauphin Island in 1719. Pensacola and Dauphin Island acted as mutual aid societies since both of them served as isolated, frontier colonial ports for faraway European monarchs and they were accustomed to maintaining a flourishing contraband trade as both colonies simply tried to survive the twin threats of the unforgiving nature of the Gulf Coast and the constant peril of Indian attack.
The French naval attack on Pensacola embarked from Dauphin Island on May 13 and approached Pensacola Bay the evening of the same day. The French naval force consisted of a squadron of at least three large company ships from France carrying over 600 officers, soldiers and volunteers commanded by Serigny and Larcebault. Bienville commanded the rest of the naval force of 80 men on three skiffs along with some supply barges and initiated the invasion by taking over the Spanish battery located on Santa Rosa Island near present-day Ft. Pickens without firing a shot. The company ships were then free to enter Pensacola Bay and by firing their sixty naval cannon into town for three hours, they silenced the 29 cannon in Pensacola’s Spanish Fort San Carlos.
France had captured Pensacola and intended on making the town Louisiana’s capital and principal port but they could only hold it for about two months. On August 4, a Spanish fleet carrying over 1300 troops and consisting of two captured French ships, a Spanish flagship and nine two-masted coastal schooners forced the French surrender of Pensacola and the French lost their ships anchored in the harbor that were filled with John Law’s Company of the West’s supplies.
The French retreat from Pensacola ended this fifth armed amphibious invasion and led the French to reinforce Dauphin Island’s defenses. This effort was led by the famous French explorer, Louis Juchereau de St. Denis who brought 50 Pascagoula Indians to Dauphin Island on August 13. By August 20, the French had assembled between 200 to 400 Indians between Mobile and Dauphin Island and these natives represented “the backbone of the French defensive forces.”
The Spanish fleet was limited to privateers who sailed from Pensacola on 9 two-masted coastal schooners and two brigantines. The Spanish sent the French on Dauphin Island a message that demanded unconditional surrender and made some violent threats. The French on shore showed their contempt for the Spanish privateers and decided to “make a gallant defense.” Thus began the sixth armed amphibious invasion of Dauphin Island.
After their bluff failed, the Spanish decided to put off a full frontal assault upon the improvised French fortress hastily constructed on the shore near an inlet the French called Trou du Major. The Spanish decided to impose a naval blockade and began to capture all ships bringing supplies to the island. For over two weeks the Spanish privateers continued their blockade on the mouth of Mobile Bay and executed raids on the warehouses and farms in the area. During a raid on a Mon Luis Island farm, the French and their Indian allies captured 18 French deserters who were fighting for the Spanish. One of the deserters was condemned to a public hanging on Dauphin Island which served as a strong lesson in civic responsibility for the islanders and the other 17 were turned over to the Indians so they could be dragged to Mobile to be tortured and killed. When a large French fleet carrying 2000 troops arrived at Dauphin Island on September 1, the few Spanish vessels still maintaining the blockade retreated back to Pensacola.
This French squadron under the command of Commodore Desnos de Champmeslin consisted of the flagship Hercule and four smaller ships. They would make up most of the French fleet that sailed from Dauphin Island to Pensacola. After a brief conference with military and company leaders on September 5, Commodore Champmeslin added eight small boats to his flotilla and sailed toward Pensacola while Bienville marched one hundred troops and almost 500 Indians overland. This was the force that left Dauphin Island for what amounted to launching the island’s SEVENTH ARMED AMPHIBIOUS INVASION.
On September 16, the French fleet was anchored off Pensacola while Bienville and his Indians prepared to attack. On the morning of September 17, Bienville’s Indians and the Canadians began their attack upon Fort San Carlos as the French fleet battled the Spanish ships anchored in the bay. The Spanish commander had “had no stomach for a fight with Indians” and so he surrendered to Champmeslin. The French had lost six men; the Spaniards, a hundred. Bienville also captured 47 French deserters fighting for the Spanish. Twelve of these men were condemned to be hanged from the yardarm of a French ship anchored in Pensacola harbor and the other 35 were sentenced to serve ten years as galley slaves for the Company of the West.
Spain’s long-awaited naval expedition to drive the French out of Louisiana was finally launched in 1720 before news of peace had arrived. It accomplished nothing because Commander Francisco Cornejo “promptly ran his ships aground on the Campeche Banks in a violent storm.”
France continued to hold Pensacola while flying Spanish flags so they could capture Spanish supply ships that took the bait. Finally, on November 26, 1722, the French “destroyed the fort and town and returned the site to the Spaniards in conformity with the peace treaty in Europe.”
Peace had come but Spain had lost a golden opportunity to run the French off the Gulf Coast when they had a chance to do it. Years later Spain would regret once more her failure to drive the French from Dauphin Island in 1719 when Americans in 1803 demanded West Florida from Spain as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
But it is no speculation that members of our present-day Gulf South society can easily understand the importance of the Dauphin Islanders’ resistance to the Spanish siege of 1719 when we consider how much we would have to regret if we had lost the fun-loving impact those generations of French Creoles made upon our Gulf Coast lives today.