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Spain in Missouri: the Defense of St. Louis

It was in the third year of the American War for Independence, June 14, 1778, when Captain Fernando de Leyba took command of the western part of the Illinois Territory. He was the third Spanish officer to serve as lieutenant governor at St. Louis, the northernmost post of the province of Louisiana. The captain had not yet reached his destination when already a neighbor on the British side dispatched a letter to Detroit with news of his arrival:

The Convoy is arrived, that is two Boats, one with a new Governor for the Spanish Side, the other under his Cover for the Americans with liquors & 150 Bails broad Cloth, blue, white & red.

Indeed, the effects that Leyba was bringing constituted the first of five deliveries that were to come that spring with articles for Washington’s Continental Army: military stores, uniforms, blankets, and medicines. In fact, thanks to the ingenuity of Governor Gálvez in New Orleans, it wouldn’t be liquor that Leyba transported in those barrels, but gunpowder. The political climate of the time, the geographical situation of his command, and his coinciding with the famed George Rogers Clark would make Leyba’s term in St. Louis unique, characterized from beginning to end by his support of the American troops.

Leyba had left the capital in mid-March with two bateaux, one carrying his family and belongings and another chartered by the American agent Oliver Pollock. Each was equipped with a flag bearing the Royal Arms and a swivel gun to ward against searches as he passed the British posts of the lower Mississippi. The captain also had with him a set of instructions from Gálvez for his new command in the Illinois with two important provisions regarding the war:

Confidential. He shall endeavor to learn all the news occurring in the English part (of Illinois), concerning the war of this power with the colonists, the situation of both parties and their plans so as not to allow himself to be surprised in case of any unforeseen design… Confidential. If he should have correspondence with any American chief of the American provinces, he shall observe the greatest secrecy, and report same to me; and in case he should receive letters for me, he shall send them to me by the first opportunity or by a special courier if so instructed.

Such were Leyba’s orders when, three weeks into his new command, the Virginia troops of George Rogers Clark’s Illinois Regiment arrived at the opposite shore. In the early morning hours of July 5, they captured the British posts of Kaskaskia and Cahokia. Three days later, Leyba addressed a letter to his new American neighbor conveying his congratulations and informing him of the effects for the United States that he had in his possession.

A close partnership thus commenced between Leyba and Clark, one that mirrored the union that already existed between their governments and that offered “every Assistance & friendly Interchange of good offices”. While Leyba and Clark were very different in character and did not agree on some issues, they maintained a good rapport. “The resorts are consonous” said Leyba, for each with regard to the other had the same instructions from their bosses. Over the next two years, they would serve together as a liaison between New Orleans in the south and Williamsburg in the east, using the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to ship supplies, exchange information, and send documents that could not be trusted to sea transport. While the river route was longer, more expensive, and perhaps even more dangerous on account of the Indians, it was a viable alternative to the Atlantic shipping routes that were carefully monitored by the British navy.

As a matter of fact, the assistance that Leyba provided to the rebel army went beyond the mere fulfillment of his duties. When Clark’s men were unable to purchase provisions due to the exorbitant Illinois prices and the devaluation of their own Continental currency, Leyba ordered that the men be provided for on his own credit. “What was I to do,” he explained, “seeing how even their principal leader, no matter how many American papers he brought, was unable to get a shirt to cover his nakedness, if not come to their aid?” But this act of hospitality would be his undoing. In addition to the enormous debt he incurred, his wife became so upset at the prospect of never retiring to Spain that she was overcome by a deep melancholy and died some days later. After Leyba’s death, their two young daughters would be obliged to live off the charity of others.

During the early years of the American Revolution, Spain endeavored to maintain an appearance of neutrality, but the protection and aid she afforded to the rebels were impossible to hide. When Spain entered the war as an ally to France in June, 1779, she positioned herself openly on the side of the Americans. This was just the excuse Great Britain needed, not only to recover the posts lost to Clark, but also to take possession of the entire Mississippi River valley.

Secretary of State for the British Colonies, Lord George Germain, quickly put together a plan for the western territories. It hinged on two important maneuvers: one, an expedition commanded by General John Campbell that would march from Pensacola to take New Orleans and the Spanish posts along the lower Mississippi; the other, an expedition commanded by trader and former military officer Emmanuel Hesse that was to move down from the Great Lakes and take the Illinois settlements (Spanish St. Louis and Ste. Genevieve and their American counterparts on the other side, Cahokia and Kaskaskia). A Sioux chief named Wapasha was to continue down the course of the Mississippi, wreaking havoc along the way, as far as Natchez, where he would join Campbell.

At the same time, in Spain, Carlos III issued a Royal Order authorizing his subjects in America to commit hostilities against the British by land and by sea. The news of this decree never reached Leyba in Illinois, and neither did official news of the Declaration of War against Great Britain until the very last hour. What a surprise to him when, in March of the following year, he heard from travelers and from Americans on the opposite shore that an army led by British regulars and made up of natives and Canadians was coming from the north to attack them! Only then did he believe the rumors of war to be true.

The defensive situation of Illinois left a great deal to be desired. On his arrival, Leyba had proposed a plan for its fortification, but the lack of resources in the province rendered the plan impossible. Two small forts at the mouth of the Missouri River, built in 1767 by order of Louisiana’s first governor Antonio de Ulloa, who considered this location the northern key to the colony and frontiers of New Mexico, had been reduced to ruins by the harsh Illinois winters. The towns of St. Louis and Ste. Genevieve completely lacked defensive structures, such as stockades, and St. Louis had only five 2-pounder cannons, five small mortars, and perhaps a swivel gun or two. The garrison consisted of only 24 infantry soldiers divided among the towns and forts. The number of militiamen in St. Louis amounted to 218 (167 infantry and 51 cavalry) and in Ste. Genevieve, to 175. Not all would have been present at a given time for sundry reasons.

With these considerations in mind, Leyba proposed a plan of action. First, he suggested the building of four stone towers, one on each side of the town. This idea was well received by the townspeople, who eagerly pitched in according to their means. They volunteered 400 hours of labor and managed to scrape together 600 pesos which, along with 400 more that Leyba contributed, amounted to 1,000 pesos for materials. However, this was only enough for one tower and the foundation of another. The first stone of this first tower, which was to be raised on a hill west of the town, was blessed on April 17, 1780, and named for the Spanish monarch. The tower was thereafter known as “San Carlos”.

One month later, on May 9, Leyba received word that the approaching army, composed of 900 Indians and 300 British and Canadians, was just 80 leagues away. He immediately sent to Ste. Genevieve for reinforcements: 60 militiamen, two boats, and any available swivel guns and provisions. They were to join the St. Louis garrison now under the orders of Lieutenant Silvio Francisco de Cartabona. Hunters were called in from the rivers, up to 20 leagues away, and lodged in private homes. This increased their numbers to about 300.

Leyba also arranged for the detection and warning of the enemy’s arrival. He sent a detachment of 40 militiamen in three pirogues to reconnoiter for five or six days at a distance of up to twelve leagues, and he sent two canoes with six hunters each to post themselves twenty leagues upriver until the enemy appeared.

In the meantime, Leyba sped up work on the tower, laying the top floor, on which he positioned five cannons (two 6-pounders and three 4-pounders) brought from the Missouri forts. To protect the remaining sides of the town, he ordered that entrenchments be built extending northward and southward from the tower to the river, a length of almost 2,000 meters.

On May 23, with the parapets of the tower still unfinished, Leyba was notified that the enemy was just twenty leagues from the gates of St. Louis. On the 24th, a merchant arrived from New Orleans with an official copy of the Declaration of War, which the lieutenant governor read the following day in the public square. It was none too soon. On the 26th, the enemy fell upon the town “with unbelievable boldness and fury, dreadful cries and a terrible firing.”

It would later be known from British sources that the attacking force consisted of warriors of the Winnebago, Sioux, Ottawa, Chippewa, and Iowa tribes, as well as some Outagamies, Sacs, Mascoutins, Kickapoos, and Pottawatomies. There were also, in smaller numbers, Canadian volunteers, fur traders, and their servants. One part of this army detached for a simultaneous attack on the American settlement at Cahokia across the river, while an estimated 600 to 750 stormed St. Louis.

The guard at the northern entrenchments sounded the alert, “To arms! To arms!”, and to a man, all soldiers, militiamen, hunters, and inhabitants turned out to their designated positions. Women and children fled to take refuge in the Government House, which was being defended by Lieutenant Cartabona and twenty of his soldiers; the militia fought from the entrenchments; and Leyba was taken to the tower (he was gravely ill at the time), along with some soldiers and hunters, to direct the artillery and give his orders.

For over two hours, St. Louis resisted the assault, its muskets and cannons never ceasing to fire. In his report to his superior, Leyba commended the fathers of families who, despite the heart-wrenching screams that reached them from the Government House, held on to their weapons and kept their positions:

Our militiamen and inhabitants have shown prodigies of bravery in the face of the most evident dangers for the defense of the entrenchments, and would have even made a sortie against the enemy, had I not prevented them from it for fear they might succumb under the great number of the enemy who awaited just that moment to force open and enter the village.

The British lieutenant governor at Fort Michilimackinac, Patrick Sinclair, would later recount that it was the treachery of a Canadian trader and his Indian friends, who had hung back, sowing doubt among the rest, that caused the attack to fall apart. Even so, the enemy unleashed their fury in the fields, destroying the crops and killing the animals. They massacred, scalped, or took prisoner the unfortunate souls unlucky enough to have been out tending to the crops. “Oh my General, what a horrible spectacle!” said Leyba, “just telling you of it, I am deeply grieved with the bitterest pain.” The official tally of casualties was 21 dead, 7 wounded, and 25 taken prisoner, with another 46 captured on the river. Twenty oxen and 30 horses were also slaughtered.

While the Illinois inhabitants reeled from this great blow, in Madrid the defense of St. Louis was heralded as a success. In February, the Gaceta de Madrid published an account which exalted the valiant defense made by the soldiers and countrymen. The commanding officers, Captain Leyba and Lieutenant Cartabona, were rewarded with promotions. In Leyba’s case, this recognition came posthumously, for his illness had taken him just one month after the battle, in the early morning hours of June 28, 1780.

The Spanish victory at St. Louis, commonly referred to today as the Battle of Fort San Carlos, represented much more than the saving of the Illinois settlements. It meant the failure of the British to possess the Mississippi River. Despite efforts to raise enthusiasm for another attack in the spring, which kept the new Spanish Lieutenant Governor D. Francisco Javier Cruzat on high alert and the militia active until the end of hostilities in 1783, the Indians had lost interest. They found the enterprise more trouble than it was worth. Nothing came either of Campbell’s southern expedition, which General Gálvez nipped in the bud with his preemptive strike against Mobile, thus reducing Britain’s ability to carry out any plan against New Orleans.

Yet the implications were far-reaching. For Spain, losing the Mississippi River valley would have meant the loss of the entire Province of Louisiana, which served as a buffer between the British domains and the Spanish provinces of Texas and New Mexico. For the American rebels, it would have meant the opening of a new western front to the war. The inability to move men, supplies, and documents on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers would have greatly impaired their ability to win the war. And even if the war were won, as occurred in September, 1783, the Americans would have had no claim to the lands west of the Appalachian mountains, limiting the territory of the new nation to that of the original Thirteen Colonies.

Every year, members of the Missouri National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution (MOSSAR) gather to commemorate the Battle of Fort San Carlos and to remember the courage and sacrifice of those who fought to save the town in 1780. In 2014, the 250th anniversary of the founding of St.Louis, a memorial plaque was dedicated at Ball Park Village, near the site where the tower once stood, exemplifying the efforts of MOSSAR to recognize the Spanish contribution to the American Revolution. In Ceuta, too, on March 13, 2019, the civil and military communities paid tribute to Fernando de Leyba. With the participation of the presidents of the NSSAR and NSDAR in Spain, a monument was unveiled commemorating the role of the Spaniards who served, not only on the battlefield, but also in government, in support of American independence.

Kristine L. Sjostrom
La Habana George Washington Arthur Lee Fernando de Leyba Marblehead John Jay Bilbao Oliver Pollock El Conde de Aranda José Solano y Bote El Conde de Floridablanca México Francisco de Miranda Nueva Orleans José Antonio George Farragut Pensacola Bernardo de Gálvez Mobile Juan Miralles San Luis Bárbara de Arias Macharaviaya Diego Gardoqui Nueva York