Carl Wernicke: Pensacola History Is American History

Jul 22, 2015

Credit IHMC

Pensacola prides itself on its long history, but it has been hard to translate that into real interest from visitors. Our local history has always taken a backseat, in terms of an active tourism draw, to places like the beach, Fort Pickens or to the Naval aviation museum, which is of course history, but not so much local history.

The archaeology work done by the University of West Florida helped strengthen interest in local history, but it still seems to be more interesting to scholars than to your average visitor. They might visit a downtown museum to see displays on local history once they are here, but they are unlikely to base a visit on that the way they would a visit to the beach, or the aviation museum.

But a new book might help. It’s titled “Independence Lost, Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution.” It was recently featured here on WUWF on the Diane Rehm show from NPR. The book examines how the American Revolution affected people along the Gulf Coast, and Pensacola has a big role.

The author is Kathleen DuVal, an up and coming historian at the University of North Carolina. She focuses on how major historical events affected people at the time, and how these people, little known today, affected historical events.  DuVal writes exceptionally well, and really makes 18th-century history on the Gulf Coast come alive. You get a real sense of the people and the times.

Her book also highlights what has been for too long the under-appreciated 1781 battle between the Spanish and British in Pensacola. The winning general was Bernardo de Galvez, who has become something of a hero in Pensacola, with his bust at the Fort George replica on Palafox Street, his own day, May 8, the date of the British surrender, and honorary citizenship awarded by Congress.

Galvez led more than 7,000 troops into the battle following his earlier success in capturing Mobile.  The siege took place on what is today North Hill, and ended when the British powder magazine exploded. Any remnants of that day have long been covered up by time and the homes in the North Hill neighborhood, the memory kept alive by historic markers and the fort replica.

The late J. Earle Bowden, editor emeritus of the Pensacola News Journal, complained for years that the battle was much more important than historians gave it credit for, and he worked hard to ensure that Galvez and the battle were remembered locally.

DuVal’s book should go a long way toward vindicating Bowden. She points out that a major result of the Spanish victory is that it freed the Spanish fleet to relieve a French fleet from duty in the Caribbean, allowing it to sail up the East Coast to directly support George Washington’s defeat of the British army under Cornwallis at Yorktown, Va. This defeat heavily influenced Britain to negotiate an end to the conflict, and formally recognize the United States as an independent nation.

DuVal wrote that, “The siege of Pensacola decided the fate of an important part of the British empire, for the next few decades at least. The victory was a startling reversal from British dominance in 1763,” which was when Britain had assumed sovereignty over Pensacola.

“Yet,” DuVal writes, “the siege of Pensacola has not taken its place alongside Yorktown in the written histories of the American Revolution’s weighty events.”

Maybe that’s finally ready to change.