Illuminations: The Siege of Pensacola

Mike Finn BylineIlluminations: The Siege of Pensacola
By:  J. Michael Finn

The Regimiento Hibernia (Hibernia Regiment) was one of the Spanish army’s foreign regiments.  Known in Spain as “O’Neill’s Regiment,” it was formed in 1709 from Irish exiles that were forced to flee Ireland due to the Flight of the Earls and the effects of the penal laws in Ireland. These exiles were often known as the Wild Geese.

Although the Wild Geese are more associated with the French Army and were the originators of the French Foreign Legion, the Hibernia Regiment was one of many foreign regiments to serve in the Spanish army. Spain recruited Swiss, German, Italians and Belgians, but particularly favored Irish recruits because of their reputation as fighters.

Arthur O’Neill was born on January 8, 1736 in Dublin, Ireland (although his family originally came from County Tyrone). He was the third of five children of Henry O’Neill and Anna O’Kelly. His family lost their lands in Ireland, forcing them to immigrate to Spain.

In 1753, O’Neill joined the Hibernia Regiment, to which he belonged for the next twenty-eight years of his military career. He was sub-lieutenant for nine years.

His military skills enabled him to gain a promotion to Assistant Major of the Hibernia Regiment in 1764. In addition, in 1773, while serving in Pamplona, Spain, O’Neill gained the rank of captain of the regiment. He was known by his Spanish title of Arturo O’Neill de Tyrone y O’Kelly.

Spanish King Carlos III was determined to eliminate British power in Florida and the Caribbean. On May 8, 1779, Spain declared war on England. Spain was, at that time, an ally of France and a supporter of the American Revolution.

Spain’s war against England secured the southern route for supplies and closed off the possibility of any British offensive through the western frontier of the United States via the Mississippi River. Spain’s contribution to the American Revolution is often overlooked.

The British had split their new possession of Florida into two colonies: East Florida and West Florida. Pensacola was the capital of the new colony of West Florida, which included the Florida panhandle as well as slices of former French territories in what are now parts of Alabama and Mississippi. West Florida stretched from the Apalachicola River as far west as the Mississippi River.

The Battle of Baton Rouge
Bernardo de Gálvez, Spanish governor of Louisiana, had been planning for the possibility of war since April. He intercepted communications from the British at Pensacola indicating that the British were planning a surprise attack on New Orleans.

He decided to launch his own attack first. In September 1779 Gálvez gained complete control over the lower Mississippi River by capturing the British Fort Bute on the Mississippi. He then obtained the surrender of the remaining British forces in the area following the Battle of Baton Rouge.

Gálvez followed up these successes with the capture of the British fort at Mobile on March 14, 1780, after a brief siege. In order to secure the balance of West Florida, the only remaining obstacle was the British installations surrounding Pensacola, but attacking Pensacola would require additional Spanish troops.

In April 1780, Arturo O’Neill accompanied both battalions of the Hibernia Regiment when they sailed from Cadiz, Spain bound for Havana, Cuba. Gálvez also sailed to Havana and organized an invasion fleet in order to attack Pensacola. Only a few hours out of the bay, a fierce hurricane struck the invasion fleet and scattered the ships. 

O’Neill and the Hibernia regiment had remained behind in Cuba, and O’Neill thought the fleet had been lost. A month later he was surprised to see Gálvez aboard his frigate sailing back into Havana Bay with two captured British frigates in tow. The Pensacola invasion had only been delayed by the storm.

On February 28, 1781, O’Neill and 319 men of the Hibernia Regiment sailed out of Havana Bay for Pensacola. Santa Rosa Island, off the coast of West Florida, came into view on the afternoon of March 9, 1781, and O’Neill led his grenadier company ashore, quickly securing the fort at Siguenza Point. The Spanish force found that the British battery was not operational.  If it had been functioning, it could have raised havoc with the invasion. 

Gálvez had so much faith in O’Neill that he named O’Neill as aide-decamp and commander of the patrol scouts. Gálvez captured the entrance of Pensacola Bay on March 18, 1781 despite a furious barrage from the English battery. The following afternoon, O’Neill sailed through a similar barrage unscathed, as the remainder of the fleet joined Gálvez inside the bay, and the full siege began.

Pensacola was protected by a series of British forts surrounding the town. Once the bay had been entered, O’Neill’s scouts landed on the mainland and blunted an attack by 400 mainly pro-British Choctaw Indians on the afternoon of March 28. The Irish scouts soon linked with fresh Spanish troops arriving from Mobile.

More Spanish ships arrived in the bay, carrying a total of 1,700 sailors and 1,600 soldiers, bringing the total Spanish force at Pensacola to an unstoppable 8,000 men. The British force at Pensacola amounted to only 1,800.

On May 8, a Spanish howitzer shell struck the magazine in Fort Crescent, exploding it and sending black smoke billowing. Fifty-seven British troops were killed by the demoralizing and devastating blast.

Surrender of Fort George
Colonel José de Ezpeleta quickly led the light infantry in a charge to take the stricken fort. The Spanish moved howitzers and cannons into what remained of it and opened fire on the next two British forts. Pensacola’s defenders returned fire from Fort George, the main fort, but were soon overwhelmed by the massive Spanish firepower.

Two days later, realizing his final line of fortification could not survive the barrage, British General John Campbell reluctantly surrendered Fort George. The garrison raised a white flag over Fort George on May 10, 1781 ending British sovereignty in West Florida.

More than 1,100 British and colonial troops were taken prisoner, and 200 casualties were sustained. The Spanish army lost seventy-four dead, with another 198 wounded. A British flag captured at Pensacola is displayed at the Spanish Army Museum in Toledo, Spain.

After serving with distinction during the siege, O’Neil was promoted to Colonel of the Hibernia Regiment. O’Neil was also appointed the first Spanish governor of West Florida by Gálvez and served until 1793.

O’Neill proved to be an effective diplomat and able administrator. His brilliant career continued as captain general of Yucatán, lieutenant general, minister of the king’s Supreme War Council and finally as a hero in the war against Napoleon.

Arturo O’Neill de Tyrone y O’Kelly died in Madrid, Spain on December 9, 1814, and was buried in Spain in the cemetery of the Puerta de los Pozos. He was unmarried and had no children.

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected]

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