Battle of Fort Charlotte

Fort Charlotte, 1820 Against the backdrop of the American Revolution, the Battle of Fort Charlotte in colonial Mobile occurred in March 1780 during the Anglo-Spanish War of 1779-83, in which Spain allied with France against Great Britain. Spanish general Bernardo de Gálvez and Col. José Manuel de Ezpeleta y Galdeano defeated the outnumbered and unprepared British garrison led by Capt. Elias Durnford, who surrendered to Gálvez on March 14, 1780. At the time, Mobile was part of British West Florida, and Fort Charlotte was the last stronghold from which the British could threaten New Orleans in Spanish Louisiana. The ongoing Revolutionary War left British West Florida weak and unprepared for Spanish invasion. The Spanish victory at Fort Charlotte secured the western shore of Mobile Bay, which became known as the Mobile District. This success opened the way for Spanish operations against Pensacola in 1781.

Originally named Fort Condé, Fort Charlotte was built in 1723 by the French as part of French Louisiana. After the French defeat in the French and Indian War (1754, 1756-63), the fort fell under British command in 1763 and was renamed Fort Charlotte. The British recognized the importance of Mobile Bay early on as a strategic site for their naval presence. But during the Revolutionary War, Fort Charlotte fell into disrepair as Great Britain focused its miliary power outside of Mobile. Led by Durnford, the fort primarily housed the Sixtieth Regiment and Loyalists from Maryland and Pennsylvania. After Gálvez secured a British defeat in the Battle of Baton Rouge in 1779, Durnford directed improvements for the fort's defenses.

Bernardo de Gálvez As the governor of Spanish Louisiana (later the 1803 Louisiana Purchase), Gálvez began offensive operations against Great Britain after Spain entered the Revolutionary War in 1779 as an ally of France. On January 11, 1780, Galvez sailed from New Orleans with a small fleet of 12 ships towards Mobile. Gálvez and his troops sailed through the mouth of the Mississippi River on January 18 and were joined by Continental Navy captain William Pickles and his 58 men on January 20. As the Spanish fleet headed towards Mobile, they encountered a series of problems that delayed their attack. On February 6, a storm separated Gálvez from Pickles's ship, the brig Gálveztown, the former HMS West Florida that Pickles had captured in the September 1789 Battle of Lake Pontchartrain. Once they arrived in Mobile Bay on February 9, they struggled to get across the shallow sandbars and lost several of their ships. Gálvez managed to salvage guns and other materials from the wrecks that he later used to set up gun batteries during the siege. On February 20, reinforcements from Havana arrived to bolster the Spanish forces to more than 1,200 men. Five days later, the Spanish landed at Dog River, about ten miles from Fort Charlotte, where a British deserter informed Gálvez that the British garrison had fewer than 300 men. Recognizing their advantage, Gálvez sent a letter to Durnford on March 1 requesting that the British surrender. After receiving the letter, Durnford wrote to Gen. John Campbell in Pensacola, the capital of British West Florida, to request assistance. Expecting reinforcements, Durnford rejected Gálvez's offer. Although additional troops from Pensacola headed towards Mobile on March 5, they were delayed when crossing the river and failed to arrive in time. As the Spanish moved closer to Fort Charlotte with artillery fire over a period of two weeks, Durnford directed his troops to burn Mobile as a last resort to prevent the Spanish from taking cover. On March 12, the Spanish artillery breeched the fort's walls, prompting Durnford to surrender and the British to leave Mobile on March 14.

As the British military retreated to Pensacola, the Spanish garrisoned Mobile and renamed the site Fuerta Carlota. As the deteriorating fort provided little defense, Gálvez ordered a palisade fort constructed on the bluff across Mobile Bay on land that is today the city of Spanish Fort. It was then known as La Aldea (the Village or Village of Mobile) and was successfully defended in January 1781 by Spanish soldiers garrisoned there by Ezpeleta against a far larger force of British troops, loyalists, mercenaries, Choctaws, and possibly other Native Americans. The Spanish did not immediately turn their attention to Pensacola after the British defeat, as the British capital was well-armed and defended. Gálvez, joined by forces led by Ezpeleta, waited for reinforcements from Havana before attacking Pensacola in 1781. The Spanish victory during the Siege of Pensacola resulted in total Spanish control of West Florida.

Condé-Charlotte House and Museum During the War of 1812, Spanish captain Cayetano Pérez surrendered Fuerta Carlota in 1813 to U.S. general James Wilkinson, who led a far larger force. In 1820, Congress authorized the fort's demolition, as it was no longer needed for defense. In 1822, the location became the site for Alabama's first courthouse and jail. A replica of the fort, known by the colonial French name Fort Condé, was built in 1976 for the nation's Bicentennial and is now part of the History Museum of Mobile. In 1849, Jonathan Kirkbride and his family purchased the building and converted the courthouse and jail to the kitchen wing for their family home. In 1940, the Historic Mobile Preservation Society purchased the house to be used for educational purposes. Today, the house is known as the Condé-Charlotte House and is operated by the Alabama chapter of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America.

Further Reading

  • Holmes, Jack. "Alabama's Bloodiest Day of the American Revolution: Counterattack at the Village, January 7, 1781." Alabama Review 53 (July 1976): 208-219.

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