Thayer's Note: The reader can follow the narrative on the author's maps and a modern map, collected in a single webpage: they will open in another window.
Although successful in obtaining the governor's signature and approbation to their lengthy and all encompassing ordinances, the members of the convention did not immediately return to their homes. Much more had to be done. First and foremost they must select the new officials named by the ordinances who would governor the province "in the name of the people." Care was needed in these selections for, while some of the friends of the governor should be recognized in the appointments, it was vitally necessary that the majority be chosen from among those whole-heartedly in sympathy with the "for freedom" movement.
Forsaking the Saints John Plains for Baton Rouge and holding their meeting in the principal store in the village, one kept by an Irishman named Egan, the delegates, desiring to recognize the valuable services that John H. Johnson had given the convention proceeding, wanted him to take one of the principal judicial offices, but he refused, as did William Barrow and Judge Rhea.
It was the 25th of August before the delegates finished their labors and advised Governor de Lassus of their selections. Transcribed directly from the original document, it reads:
"To His Excellency Charles Dehault Delassus, Colonel of the Royal Armies, Governor Civil and military of the place and jurisdiction of Baton Rouge, &c.
"The Representatives of the people of this jurisdiction in convention assembled make known to your Excellency that agreeable to the provisions of the 'ordinance providing for public safety, and for the better administration of justice within the Jurisdiction of Baton Rouge in West Florida,' they have made the following appointments, viz. :
"Robert Piercy of New Feliciana, Fulwar Skipwith of Baton Rouge, and Shephard Brown of St. Helena, to be associate Judges of the Superior Court; Joseph E. Johnson of New Feliciana, Sheriff; and Andrew Steele of Baton Rouge, Register of land claims for this jurisdiction.
"Gilbert Leonard of Baton Rouge, Bryan McDermott of New Feliciana and Daniel Rainer of St. Helena to be Civil Commandants and Daniel Rainer of St. Helena to be Civil Commandants each for the district in which he resides.
"Officers of Militia
Philemon Thomas, Brigadier General.
Isaac Johnson, Major of Cavalry.
1st Regiment of Infantry:
Samuel Fulton, Colonel.
George Mather, Junr., first Major.
Reuben Curtis, second Major.
William Spiller, Colonel.
Joseph Thomas, first Major.
Abraham Spears, second Major.
p90 3rd Regiment:
Aquila Whitaker, Colonel.
Robert McCausland, first Major.
John M. Pickford [?], second Major. [His name is crossed out in the original.]
"Baton Rouge, 25 Augt.
First, consideration was given the three who were to compose the superior court. The appointment of Shepherd Brown of Tickfaw, the alcalde of the St. Helena district, was unquestionably a sop thrown to Governor deLassus. The delegates were not unanimous in wanting Brown on the bench of the high seat of justice; those from Feliciana were suspicious of him and were outspoken in their belief he would not prove faithful to or sympathetic with the cause of the people. Their suspicions were soon justified.
Robert Percy, chosen as member of the superior court from the Feliciana district, was a retired British naval officer. He was born in Kilkenny, Ireland, in 1762, and the son of Charles Percy, a former British army officer who came to West Florida in 1776 and settled in what is now Wilkinson County, Mississippi. Robert chose the sea for a career and entering the King's navy as a cadet rose to the rank of lieutenant. A the death of his father (who committed suicide by throwing himself into a stream which still bears the name of Percy's Creek), Robert Percy came to Louisiana in 1796 to settle his father's estate and reach a property division with his half brothers and sister, for Charles Percy had married again. Liking this new country, after his return to England Robert Percy obtained a leave of absence from the navy and in 1804 with his wife, Jane Middlemist, and oldest children, he settled in Spanish West Florida. Here, in Feliciana, on the Loyal Bayou Sarah, he erected "Beech Woods" plantation where he reared his numerous family and left behind him a splendid name borne today by many in Louisiana. Although a sturdy Britisher at heart, Lieutenant Percy became a staunch backer of the Convention movement.
Fulwar Skipwith, whose name later blazed bright in the annals of the tiny Republic of West Florida, was an American and, even in 1810, he was a man of note in national afters. He had been in the Baton Rouge district only a short time when he was called to the bench. He was born in Dinwiddie county, Virginia, February 21, 1765, and died at "Montesano" plantation, just above Baton Rouge, January 7, 1839, at the age of 74 years. In 1790 Skipwith had been appointed by President George Washington, American consul to a small group of West Indian islands, including Martinique, Guadaloupe, and Sainte Lucie, etc. Ten years later, President Thomas Jefferson made him Consul General of the United States to France, with headquarters in Paris. While carrying on the functions of this office, during the trying days of the French Revolution, the Directory and Empire,a the French, displeased with the p91 United States, refused to hold communications with American ambassadors, consequently Skipwith was the sole commercial and diplomatic representative of his country in France, and during the existence of Napoleon's Milan and Berlin decrees, he was compelled to draw heavily upon his private purse to relieve American shipmasters and sailors detained in French ports by the embargoes — a sum, by the way, which he never recovered.
In 1809 Fulwar Skipwith appeared in Spanish West Florida to settle on a plantation on the Montesano Bluffs, near that one operated by the Herries brothers. He had failed to get on harmoniously with General John Armstrong, the American minister to France, so had resigned and left Paris. It was his intention in coming to West Florida to regain his fortune by operating a sheepwalk but George Herries soon convinced him that the operation of a cotton plantation would prove more lucrative, consequently he became a cotton planter. With him came his wife, a Flemish countess named Vanderclooster,1 his daughter, Lelia, who had been educated in France, and his other children. The daughter, Lelia Skipwith, later became the wife of Thomas Bolling Robertson, who was governor of Louisiana in 1820‑24.
Fulwar Skipwith, according to his nephew, was "endowed with more than average intelligence, well cultivated by a collegiate study, and by his cosmopolitan associations in different climes. Of splendid physical development, he was •more than six feet tall, straight as an arrow, with exactly enough flesh for his bone and muscle." Another friend wrote that Skipwith was "quite celebrated for his high-bred courtesy, his general literary accomplishments, and his splendid style of living. When he came to West Florida he brought back with him from Paris French politesse and French notions and habits. He drove into Baton Rouge from his palatial residence in the country in a splendid coach and four, with outriders and lackeys to match."
Therefore, the planters had picked a distinguished-looking and, mentally and by experience, a well-equipped individual to help Percy and Brown govern the province from the bench of justice.
For the sheriff of the whole province, which now consisted of the districts of Feliciana, Baton Rouge, Ste. Helena, and Saint Ferdinand (this last, named for the Spanish King then in durance vile, was to consist of all territory "east of Ponchitoola, including Chiffonta, Bogcheto and Pearl River settlements"), the delegates had selected a native son of Feliciana, Joseph Eugenius Johnson, a brother of delegate John. The important post of Register of Land Claims was given to Dr. Andrew Steele, who had acted as secretary of the convention.
For the three civil commandants the delegates designated Bryan McDermott for the Feliciana district; Daniel Raynor was selected to preside over the Ste. Helena and Saint Ferdinand districts, and for the Baton Rouge sector the governor's comptroller, Gilbert Leonard.
These selections gave the friends of liberty a two-to‑one majority on the high tribunal, and the same advantage among the civil judges, for McDermott and Raynor were heart and soul for the convention. The sheriff and land office registrar were also "loyal to liberty."
When it came to selecting militia officers the conventionalists took no chances . . . threw no sops! For the commandant, brigadier general they named him, the unanimous choice was Philemon Thomas, later to be termed by Governor Claiborne as the "Ajax of the Revolution." He was a native of Virginia, born in Orange county, Feb. 9, 1764, who at the age of 17 ran away from home to join the American Revolutionary army, in spite of the fact his father, fearing such a move, had locked up his clothes. He bore a distinguished part in the battles of King's Mountain, Eutaw Springs, and Guilford Courthouse, and eight years after he had fled the parental roof to "jine the sodgers" his father and mother beheld a strange young man ride up to the home, dismount and proclaim himself their son Philemon.
In 1805 he moved to West Florida and settled in the Baton Rouge village. He married in Kentucky, first, Elizabeth Craig, daughter of one of the two dissenting ministers whom Patrick Henry defended when charged with preaching the Gospel without a license from the Church of England, and second, Fannie Thomas. His boys were all girls,º two of whom married Thomases, and two became Gales. Thomas, who lived at the corner of America and St. Ferdinand streets, was colonel of the militia of the jurisdiction of Baton Rouge, for under the Spanish laws all men were compelled to be part of this citizens' corps. He has been described as a Baptist, tall and with a powerful frame, with red hair, and clear blue eyes, and known to be the possessor of unquestioned courage. At the time of these disturbances, according to Henry L. Favrot, Philemon Thomas kept a grocery store or "doggery" and one of the signs on his place of business proclaimed he had "Coughpy for Sail," while another stated there could be found "Akomidation fur Man & Beest." While unlettered there is no doubt that he possessed native military acumen, which stood the revolting planters in good stead.
Thomas was one of the most conspicuous and remarkable of the many taking part in the revolt, according to W. H. Sparks, who in his "The Memories of Fifty Years," which has preserved for us many interesting facts and incidents connected with the revolt, wrote: "He was almost entirely without education; but was gifted with great good sense, a bold and honest soul, and a remarkable natural eloquence. His manner was always ancestral and genial, never, under any circumstances, embarrassed or affected; and, in whatever company he was thrown, or however much a stranger to company, somehow he became the conspicuous man in a short time. The character in his face, the flash of his eye, the remarkable self-possession, the natural dignity of deportment, and his great good sense, attracted and won everyone. In all his transactions, he was the same plain, honest man, never, under any circumstances, deviating from truth — plain, unvarnished truth; rigidly stern in morals, but eminently charitable to the shortcomings of others. He was, from childhood, reared in a new country, amid rude, uncultivated people, and was a noble specimen of a frontier man; without the amenities of cultivated life, or the polish of education, yet with all the virtues of the Christian heart, and these, perhaps, the more prominently, p93 because of the absence of the others. It is frequently remarked of him that he did not think education would have been of any advantage to him. It enabled men, with pretty words, to hide their thoughts, and deceive their fellowmen with a grace and ease he despised; and it might have acted so with him, but it would have made him worse and a more unhappy man. He never did or said anything that he was ashamed to think of. He did not want to conceal his feelings and opinions, because he did not know how to do it; and he was sure if he attempted it he should make a fool of himself; for lies required so much dressing up in pretty words to make them look like the truth, that he should fail for want of words; truth was always prettiest when naked."
Isaac Johnson, who already had recruited the "Bayou Sarah Horse," and was spoiling for an opportunity to display the abilities of his men a‑horseback in a brush with the uniformed regular soldiers of Spain, was given the commission of major of cavalry. With Joe Johnson as sheriff of the entire jurisdiction, and Isaac placed in command of the fast-moving fighters of Feliciana, the Johnson family was well represented in this move for independence, even if Brother John, the "brains" of the movement, refused an office. The other militia officers appointed were known and tested "patriots."
These important appointments made, the delegates prepared to disperse to their several homes, planning to meet again the first Monday in November. They had assumed control of the purse, the sword, and the scales of justice, giving nothing to Governor de Lassus except an annual salary of three thousand dollars.
What had transpired was immediately transmitted to Washington by Governor Holmes, who had kept in close touch with all going on "below the line." The Mississippi executive informing Secretary of State Robert Smith that, "contrary to general expectations," de Lassus had sanctioned the ordinances of the convention and in so doing had "divested himself of most of the powers of his office, retaining only title and salary." Holmes also wrote it was necessary to add that "this surrender of authority was not a matter of choice on his part" and predicted, as this apparent harmony was a forced one and that as a majority of the people favored the intervention of the United States, that the agreement would be of short duration. Holmes knew whereof he wrote.
The Mississippi governor believed, as did many others, that the new order of things could not long maintain a separate existence if the inhabitants should finally declare for independence, nor could the leaders of the movement escape the resentment of Spain should that power regain control. Holmes further informed the Washington government that the leaders and the people behind them were determined to hazard everything rather than submit to Spanish officials. There need be no fear of the French, as Napoleon's government was so obnoxious to everyone concerned that it scarcely had an advocate in the province. The friends of Great Britain, however, were numerous, intelligent, and p94 active in seeking proselytes, and were continually representing the commercial advantages to be gained by a union with England, so warned the Mississippi governor.
Before concluding their labors the members of the convention composed a written, but evidently never printed, justification of their activities in meeting and drawing up ordinances for a people's government of the province. Their original draft reads:
"To the Inhabitants of the Jurisdiction of Baton Rouge:
"The Convention of your Delegates being about to Adjourn until the first Monday in Nov. feel it their duty to lay before their Constituents the subject of their proceedings, that the impression made on the minds of many by reports in some cases accidental, in others wilfully False, may be removed. When entering upon the important duty assigned to our care, the prospect was awful & embarrassing. The embarrassment of Gov[ernment], owing to the almost total subjection of the Spanish Empire, is well known, and the Leniency of justice, in a manner, dried up; the Spirit of the Law Lost, Corruption had crept into almost every Department. The benevolent intention of our Monarch to grant his Lands to Inhabitants & imigrantsº of good character had been entirely frustrated, and they have been abandoned as Lawful Pillage to the Wealthy Stranger & indigent Adventurer thro bribery and intrigue. This, as well as other Regulations prevailing, for those of worth among us while the profligate and [lawless] found a ready asylum, and like Birds of Prey Prowle on the peaceful Inhabitants. The arm of Gov[ernment] paralised & a Scene of Chaos and Anarchy approaching.
"In the course of their deliberations the Convention of Delegates have invariably directed their attention to the Public Good. They have endeavoured while correcting abuses to preserve the integrity of the Government. How far they may have met the wishes of their Constituents remains for the expression of the Public Will to decide. The Convention invite this expression. They are anxious to know how far their Conduct gives Satisfaction to the People."
The rough draft was obviously written on the 25th of August, a day that, evidently, found every delegate with a crow quill in his hand and an ink horn at his elbow, busy filling sheets of paper with words.
However, with the news of the adoption of the ordinances and the issuance of the joint proclamation of governor and delegates, a quiet settled over the province, and even in heretofore turbulent Feliciana a decided calm took the place of the storm that had so exercised the planter folk for months. As proof of this the "Louisiana Gazette" published the following extract of a letter:
"Bayou Sarah, Sept. 9th, 1810.
"Confidence is at length restored here. We now have some security for our persons and property, and justice will be administered in due form, and according to our system of laws. The proceedings of the convention so far, have given universal satisfaction, and sanguine expectations are entertained of the happiness we shall enjoy, and the great prosperity of the country under the system adopted.
"I have long wished to have you my neighbor, convinced your removal here would tend greatly to your interest, p95 as it is well known the lands of your low country are not equal to ours for the culture of the cotton tree.º A very short time will make the district of Feliciana, the garden spot of the Floridas, possessing the many advantages which it does. Many rich and respectable emigrants are now coming in here, and our lands are augmenting in price. Lands which a short time since were selling at four and five dollars per acre have within a few days been sold at six and seven dollars, and must continue to increase in value; this circumstance alone bespeaks the increasing prosperity of our country."
Which would indicate that the Feliciana folk aside from winning liberty, and the right to happiness, were also going to profit through rising land values.
The governor, although he did not hesitate to place his signature and flowing paraph on the many new ordinances, proved to be a trifle stubborn about affirming the selection of the new officers that the delegates had selected to govern the province under the provisions of the ordinances.
On the 25th of August de Lassus penned communication to the "Señores diputados" in which he refused to confirm the appointment of Fulwar Skipwith to the high court, and also balked at giving Philemon Thomas the title of "brigadier general," suggesting that he could retain the title he already had, that of colonel of the militia. His translated words read:
"In reply to your letter of this same date may I explain that the arms stored in this place are intended for use in the defense of this fort and the country, the command of which has been intrusted to me against the enemies of our flag; and you may be assured that, as soon as I am informed of the forces actually in existence and of the individuals who do not have arms to defend the cause of our legitimate sovereign, Ferdinand 7th, I shall make the proper arrangements for them to be so provided and in the manner which you have asked.
With regards for the plans for the defense, I myself being responsible for them, and the officers of the General Staff having been appointed, and after each of them shall have been installed each in his post, I shall make arrangements for all such dispositions which you do not treat of in your aforementioned letter.
"Inasmuchº there has not been presented to me, even in translation, your deliberations, I do not find myself sufficiently well informed regarding them to make replies and observations which might occur to me to promote the general good of this jurisdiction, as I shall duly express to you on the day when they shall be presented to me; nonetheless I approve the suggestions which you make to me that I should give approval to the different officers, civil as well as military, which your second letter dated today contains.
"I must call to your attention that while I believe Don Fulwar Skipwith has all the qualifications necessary to discharge the duties of the post for which you recommend him, our laws prohibit any foreigner who has not resided in the province two years and has not taken the proper oath p96 of loyalty to the government, from enjoying and profiting from the privileges of a subject of Spain, and, additionally, this same Skipwith has stated to me that he would accept no appointment; therefore it is necessary that you elect someone else in his place.
"As there does not exist, and as I myself do not recognize in our military ordinances, the post of 'brigadier general', it appears to me that Mr. Philemon Thomas can take the same post with the title of colonel commandant of the whole militia in this Jurisdiction, with the approbation of his Excellency the Captain General.
"God preserve you many years.
"Carlos Dehault Delassus."
The refusal of de Lassus to place his official "O. K." on the former American consul at Paris and his further disinclination to invest Philemon Thomas with any title that had "general" to it, especially when the best the governor could do was to rise to the rank of colonel in the armies of Spain, rather nonplussed the convention delegates who were preparing to quit Baton Rouge. Once again the whole was summoned into meeting and, three days later, they answered Don Carlos' letter with a letter of their own. The reader, by this time, will not have failed to gather the impression that all concerned in this remarkable political upheaval delighted to write long letters, filled to the brim with flowery expressions and honeyed words! What must their speeches have been!
What the governor had said about Skipwith's standing in the community was true enough. When he arrived in West Florida he applied, as every foreigner had to do, for the right to remain in the province for six months preparatory to taking out regular citizenship papers. For some not known reason, Governor De Lassus had denied Skipwith these documents, although he allowed Skipwith to invest his scanty funds in the "Montesano" plantation, just above the Herries brothers' saw mill and their projected new town. At the time he was named judge he had, in fact, outlived his legal stay.
The delegates did not take kindly to the demand of de Lassus that they select some one else for the high court. They recalled countless other occasions when the established laws of the province had not been so strictly observed in appointing "aliens" to office. In consequence, on August 28th, they sent the governor the following rejoinder:
"The Convention of Representatives in reply to the communication of your Excellency of the 25th Instant have to observe that although it is not intended to make any unnecessary innovations in the existing laws of the country, yet at the present crisis in which the preservation of the Province becomes the primary object of attention, we conceive it our duty to deviate in some points of minor importance from the established laws, when some important advantage may result from the change. The appointment of Mr. Skipwith to be one of the judges of the Superior Court, we consider to be justifiable on this principle, although he be not entitled to that office, from the time of his residence amongst us. To obtain a gentleman of his capacity and good character in that station we believe ourselves justifiable at the present moment in deviating a little from ancient forms.
p97 "The change which you propose of the title of the Commanding officer of the Militia we have no objection to make, as it will in no wise affect the general regulations of the organization of the Militia, to conform in this instance to the established military ordinances of the country."
Recent discovery of papers handled by the delegates indicates that the conventionalists proposed additions to the communication printed in full above for a rough draft, on the back of another letter reads:
"Your Excellency having expressed your readyness to commission the officers of the militia proposed by the Convention on the 24th ult. and a speedy organization of the militia being an object of the first importance for the preservation of the Province, the Committee request your signature to the letter enclosed herewith if the same should meet with your approbation, as an authority for the said officers to exercise their respective offices until commissions can be obtained in due form."
Although the delegates wanted to reorganize and arm the militia, which, according to the new ordinances, would be under the jurisdiction of the convention, it was evident should they press the governor on this point, it might prove disastrous through arousing his suspicions. It will be noted that de Lassus, while he craftily agreed to the proposals of the delegates, always held in reserve the fact that anything he agreed to must have the approbation of the Captain General, the Marquis de Someruelos, in far-off Havana, Cuba. In other words, de Lassus had an ace up his sleeve.
About the middle of September a Spanish army officer, Captain Louis Piernas, appeared in Baton Rouge from Pensacola. A few weeks before he had arrived at Pensacola from Havana with fifty thousand pesos for Governor Vizente Folch to pay the soldiers serving in West Florida. Folch immediately dispatched Captain Piernas to Baton Rouge with six thousand pesos for de Lassus, and instructions to observe conditions which he was to report in detail on his return.
Piernas found Baton Rouge quiet and peaceful. At some length Governor de Lassus explained what he had been forced to do in the circumstances in order to preserve public tranquility, and that all he had done was to agree with the delegates pending the decision of El Marqués de Someruelos, the Captain-General of Cuba. However, other officers of the Baton Rouge garrison told Piernas another story and gave it as their opinion that matters were not as de Lassus represented them to be.
About the time Captain Piernas was preparing for his return trip to Pensacola, Governor de Lassus, in a letter addressed to the whole convention, advised that he desired an important change made in the ordinances. As they were written, in case of his absence or inability to act, the senior judge of the Superior Court would govern. The governor wished that article changed so that one of his own military officers would act in his stead should he be compelled to leave the seat of government or suffer any disability. Because the convention as a whole p98 had dispersed, de Lassus sent his demand to the committee, Philip Hicky, Manuel Lopez, and Thomas Lilley, designated to act with the governor in administrative matters until it should reassemble. Wrote the governor:
"Attending to the critical circumstances of this province, and the declaration of the council of the officers of the date of the 21st of August last with the subjects expressed in my proclamation signed by the representatives of the people on the 22d of the same month; and being assured by all the declarations of the inhabitants who have ever manifested their attachment to our government, that there is no other method to preserve the tranquility of this territory, against either foreign or domestic enemies, whose perverse machinations were at the point to revolutionize, and kindle the flame of rebellion which would have destroyed this part of the Dominions of His Catholic Majesty Ferdinand 7th, and which through the Divine goodness appears to have subsided since my said proclamation. I find myself imperiously compelled to approve these laws, as I promised in that proclamation, that they may have their complete operation until the approbation of his excellency the Captain-general of the Province: and as the representatives have pledged themselves not to neglect their duty or molest the authorities but on the contrary to support them. Relying on this declaration, thinking it my duty to refuse the salaries offered to me, which I do not accept until the approbation of his Excellency aforesaid, as I have always declared, I will only observe that in case of my absence or infirmity as expressed in the 3d section of the Article provided for the better administration of justice, the senior officer present will of right represent the superior authority in my place.
"And moreover the lands of the Royal domain which may be vacant will be preserved in statu quo until the approbation of the Captain-general aforesaid.
"In Baton Rouge signed with my hand and sealed with the seal of my arms and certified by the undersigned Secretary, 12th Sept. Anno Domini 1810.
Carlos Dehault Delassus.
Raphael Croker, Secretary."
This move on the part of the governor, to provide that his senior officer should act in his stead, so he assured the three committeemen, would make no substantial change in the form of government outlined in the ordinances, consequently he hoped they would agree to it. Unquestionably this sudden move by de Lassus was prompted by something Captain Piernas suggested during their conferences.
However, (so we find in the Papeles de Cuba, Legajo 1857, where complete copies of the correspondence have been preserved), Hicky, Lilley and even Lopez objected to this, pointing out that such an inferior would perform military as well as judicial functions! This was the one thing that planters objected to! The committee agreed to submit the matter to the whole membership of the convention and pointed out that there was no hurry to do this as the superior tribunal was not scheduled to hold its initial session before the convention would again meet. To this de Lassus, balked in his first intention, acquiesced; although in his p99 letter of reply on the 14th he reiterated his stand not to accept salary until permitted to do so by the Captain-general, and should any vacancy occur on his staff, he agreed that he and the deputies should determine the successor until the convention again met in regular session or the Captain-general should decide otherwise. In this exchange of notes there was the usual and mutual beseeching of the Almighty to "preserve" each "many years!"
When Captain Piernas quitted Baton Rouge he carried with him a long explanatory letter which de Lassus had penned to his superiors. The Spanish army officer also carried another letter back to Pensacola. It had been written by William Cooper, delegate to the convention from the Chefuncté region and dated September 12. In penning his missive Cooper said he felt in duty bound to report the dangerous situation then existing at Baton Rouge. He told of the calling of the convention and how the inhabitants of the Bayou Sarah region, which had been in a rebellious condition since the first of the year, had wanted to declare for independence but that he, with some other members "constituting a vigorous minority," had declared for the Spanish régime. Cooper then charged the majority with making up a code of laws which deprived the Spanish officials of all power, and from that moment on he was certain that "the aim of the malcontents was that of overthrowing the existing system."
Cooper claimed that the people of the province in general, were opposed to this attempt on the part of the Feliciana people, but that de Lassus' agreement had prevented those loyal to Spain from resisting. Therefore, these loyal folk desired the immediate presence of Governor Folch. Cooper warned the Spanish executive that at its next meeting the convention would overthrow the last vestiges of the Spanish system. This was his reason, and the reason of Captain Michael Jones (a "damned old Tory," according to the Feliciana folk), for wanting Folch to hurry with considerable force "to save the unfortunate but well-disposed inhabitants of the province."
This appeal, which was in Folch's hands the first week in October, determined him to go at once to the disaffected region, and he ordered a force of one hundred and fifty men to prepare to move immediately. But before he could get started distressing tidings came to the governor of West Florida!
The quiet that pervaded Baton Rouge was, as future events proved, only the calm that precedes the hurricane. Don Carlos was positive that he was cunningly concealing his real sentiments from the conventionalists, while the delegates, although they declared they were satisfied with the adoption of the new laws, felt that, in spite of the time and attention they had given the construction of the ordinances, some other course must be adopted. So both sides sparred for time. Time for what?
Rumors began to steal into the province, into Baton Rouge, into Feliciana, into the Ste. Helena district. From the district where Bill p100 Cooper and Michael Jones were holding forth came the whisper that "the violent aristocrats and the old American Tories" were arming and recruiting men so as to join the force of Spanish soldiers that Folch, at the behest of de Lassus, was then marching on from Pensacola.
At Springfield, John Ballinger, who had recently emigrated there from Kentucky, was told that Michael Jones and William Cooper were "erecting a fort on the Nictalbany" under the instructions of Shepherd Brown so that a fortified base, from which Folch could operate, would be ready when he and his veteran troops arrived. In relaying this news to Philemon Thomas, Ballinger urged that the conventionalists act at once and capture Baton Rouge, and added another rumor, believed by many, that the Spanish governor planned to stir up the slaves, and the Indians would also be urged to rise. Ballinger claimed such news came to him from responsible sources.
Shepherd Brown's conduct was open to suspicion. Designated a member of the high court, he put off his acceptance from day to day. As he procrastinated, Brown moved about the Baton Rouge village smiling and assuring the others that he was in full accord with the new measures. But he would not take the oath of office. Finally he returned to St. Helena, telling the governor and close friends that he preferred to retain his office as alcalde of his district. Just before he quitted the fort, in conversation with the commander of the artillery there, he gave it as his opinion "the Bayou Sarah people would be the better for having a little blood drawn."
The actions of de Lassus were also open to suspicion, too, consequently Philip Hicky and George Mather conferred with the governor. Was his procrastination in not signing certain documents sent him by the committee of the convention due to any change of mind? Don Carlos blandly denied this was so. Was the governor engaging in double-dealing? No, no — on his honor, no! The delegates had nothing but their suspicions to make them believe that he was.
A week passed. At Bayou Sarah, on the morning of September 20, Major Isaac Johnson called upon Commandant Don Tomas Estevan. Exhibiting written orders from the convention which instructed the Spaniard to turn over all property and stores held by him and to betake himself and his soldiers to Baton Rouge, Major Johnson told "El Capitán" to get busy, whereupon the right arm of Spain did not protest nor did he stand upon the order of his going, but went at once! The next morning, with his "garrison" Francisco Glavan, Manuel Villanueva, Francisco Ximenez, Alexandro Lopez, Manuel Matamoros, and Pasqual Polonesa, we find him going downstream in the goleta "Proserpina," and in the prow of the barge was a passenger, the cura Francisco Lennán, who had decided that Saint Francisville was no longer a safe place for him. When all reached Baton Rouge, safe and sound, Don Tomas Estevan repaired to the Real Hospital, he was sick, he told the physician in charge, and went to bed.
On the night of this same Thursday, the 20th, Governor de Lassus p101 gave another of his "peace dinners" to which he invited the representatives of the convention. Hicky and Lilley were not present but Manuel Lopez attended and among the dozen or so guests were the Mathers, father and son, and "Colonel" Philemon Thomas, who listened to the governor's protestations of friendship with a grim smile and gleaming blue eyes; his red hair seemed redder than usual. Thomas was still smiling when de Lassus ordered another salute of twenty-one guns from the fort to again "commemorate the perfect harmony" existing between the chief executive and the people of Feliciana since he had signed the ordinances.
Philemon Thomas had a reason for smiling. Only that morning some of his trusted men had intercepted a messenger that de Lassus had sent to Shepherd Brown during the night. The dispatch-bearer carried communications that Brown was to forward to Pensacola. In them Governor de Lassus implored Governor Folch to dispatch an armed force to his assistance at once, so that he, de Lassus, could quell an absolute insurrection of His Catholic Majesty's subjects! He informed his superior that he had been deprived of all authority vested in him by the King and had been superseded by self-constituted officers. Although he had not yet been placed in confinement, such a close watch was being kept over him that he feared at any time he would be thrown in gaol and the fort occupied.
Don Carlos, in the other letter found on the messenger, urged Shepherd Brown to hurry with his preparations to arm every loyal citizen he could muster, to erect forts, and be ready to lend all assistance possible when he, governor, would give the word to strike. Then, the ringleaders would be rounded up and punished. At last! Proof of de Lassus' duplicity; proof of Shepherd Brown's treachery!
When these communications were read to General Thomas, for he himself was unable to do so, his lack of education did not prevent him from knowing what to do in the circumstances. He placed the governor's messenger in close confinement, then quietly apprised Philip Hicky of what he had uncovered. Thomas planned to dispatch couriers to the Feliciana district so the leaders of the liberty movement could be informed of the governor's deception and intention of hanging the convention delegates higher than Gilroy's kite.
Philip Hicky, however, volunteered to carry the information himself, and was soon in the saddle. When he paused at The Plains and delivered his budget of news to Thomas Lilley and Richard Devall, Lilley joined him. The two galloped their horses over the road, stopping at friendly plantations to exchange their blown mounts for fresh horses, splashed through the ford at Thompson's Creek, and then up the hill to "Troy" plantation.
On the night of September 21, six members of the convention were gathered at "Troy" plantation, just outside Saint Francisville. They were, John Hunter Johnson, William Barrow, John Rhea, John Mills, Thomas Lilley and Philip Hicky. The two latter had delivered their p102 budget of news and echoed Philemon Thomas' warning that their necks were now in danger. They grimly acknowledged that the Spanish governor had outwitted them and therefore they must act quickly. The futility of continuing their mock allegiance to Spain was apparent to each. A quick, decisive blow for liberty must be struck at once, even if they had not yet secured muskets from the fort for the militia. Pistols, fowling pieces, knives were at hand, with stout arms, and stout hearts behind the arms, to wield them. Post haste messengers were supplied with fresh horses and sent back to Thomas with the convention's orders. These orders were that he should arm all the men available and storm the fort at Baton Rouge as quickly as forces could be assembled, the latter to be done secretly. The militia leader was assured he could expect armed assistance from Feliciana to join him in the attack.
From now on it was to be war! The sword was to take the place of the crow quill!
Saturday, September 22, was a day of activity in and about Baton Rouge. While the governor bustled about the fort and the village, Philemon Thomas dispatched riders to Daniel Raynor in Ste. Helena ordering him to amass loyal planters and march to an appointed place just outside the village.
In the Feliciana country Major Isaac Johnson and Captain Llewellyn C. Griffith rounded up their dragoons and early that day the clattering hoofs of their mounts on the dusty road leading to Baton Rouge gave notice that the "Bayou Sarah Horse" was on its way. At the head of the column rode a flag-bearer. The banner that waved in the early morning breeze from the staff he carried was a strange one, all blue, like the azure of the sky, in its center a single five-pointed gleaming white star. It had been made, several days before, by Isaac Johnson's wife, Melissa, and represented the "five points of fellowship" under which the Feliciana planters had first gathered in secret session to confect their plans for liberty in West Florida.
The Bonnie Blue Flag
The blue banner of the Feliciana patriots which replaced Spain's red and yellow ensign September 23, 1810, when the fort at Baton Rouge was taken by assault, was the first "lone star flag" in the history of the United States, thus antedating the famous flag of Texas by 26 years. It waved over the "free and independent state of West Florida" for 75 days until hauled down by Governor Claiborne at Saint Francisville, December 7, 1810. The white star represented the "five points of fellowship" under which the ringleaders of the rebellion held their secret gatherings. Masonic in character, it is the same emblem that gave the Order of the Eastern Star its title.
While the Feliciana dragoons were on their way, Philemon Thomas himself went to Springfield as fast as horseflesh could take him there and assisted John Ballinger to muster the grenadier company. When this "army" took up the line of march, forty-four armed men tramped behind their commander as he turned back towards Baton Rouge, all "fit to fight a battle for the freedom of the world."
It was an hour after midnight before two columns met just outside the village. Impatiently Commander Thomas awaited the arrival of the third column due from Ste. Helena. His present army consisted of the 21 mounted men from Feliciana, there were 44 from Springfield, and eight or ten "patriotic gentlemen" who brought the effective force up to about 75 men. Additional men from Ste. Helena were on their way but whether they would arrive before daylight was problematical. A few of the Ste. Helena patriots had arrived on their piney-woods tackies. They were headed by a quaint character named Larry Moore, who was spoiling for a chance to fist-fight those in the fort. It might be pointed out that neither Mr. Moore or his companions ever referred to Spaniards, p103 officials or private citizens, as Dons or Hidalgos. To these hardy sons of the piney woods such humans were either "yaller bellies" or "pukes".
While the patriots were secretly gathering and making ready for the onslaught, Spanish officers in the fort were making that place ready for any possible trouble. Early Saturday morning a horseman had dashed into the village seeking the governor, he told Lieutenant Morejon that he had been sent from Bayou Sarah to advise the authorities that the Feliciana people were arming and securing horses for a descent on the fort. In the late afternoon another messenger, dispatched by John Murdock, arrived and informed the governor of the suspicious movements of those who had backed the convention. To make sure his message would reach the governor, Murdock had sent another courier by water. Quietly the fort was put in readiness to relieve the delegation with appropriate ceremonies.
The fort at Baton Rouge was situated on a piece of ground that overlooked the Mississippi river, an elevation •ten or fifteen feet higher than the surrounding land. The fort was surrounded by high cypress pickets, which were set so they slanted outwardly, and then enclosed about •three acres of ground. Behind them banks of clay, nearly as high as the cypress pickets had been thrown up so as to form a solid rampart. The stockade itself was square with four small bastions at the corners. The fosse or ditch, •about nine feet deep and fifteen feet wide, was dry but it would hinder, in spite of its lack of water, an attacking party from investing the fort on the land side. The fort would prove, to a force not supplied with artillery, a difficult nut to crack.
There were several well-appearing houses within the enclosure, one being a rather substantial blockhouse. Facing the river were mounted about a score of guns, all apparently in good condition, whose mouths gaped on the turgid flow of the mighty Mississippi; scattered about the grounds were a number of rusty old cannon, of many fashions and of varying calibres, mounted on decrepit carriages, the whole looking for all the world like a gathering of cripples home from the wars.
But the main gates, which faced south and the village, were flanked by four cannon, which Lieutenant Metzinger saw were well loaded with grape. Any attack from the land side would result in the charging columns being swept with a hail of lead. It was from the direction of the village that an attack, if any, would be made, so the soldiers decided and they were prepared.
Surrounding the parade ground were the blockhouse, with many musket portals; a well-buttressed arsenal, and a thick walled storehouse. In the center of the presidio or parade ground rose the tall white-painted staff from which floated the red and yellow banner of Spain.
If there was blood to be let, then the soldiers of Castile and Leon were ready to let it, and let it flow from the bodies of those who would dare flout the dignity and authority of His Catholic Majesty, Ferdinand VII, of Spain!
On this September Saturday, while the Dons were on the qui vive for eventualities, Sub-Lieutenant Don Louis Antonio de Grand Pré, eldest son of the late governor Don Carlos de Grand Pré, left the fort and was rowed across the river to the American side. He went to the plantation of Don Pedro Favrot, a former French and Spanish army officer, where he had promised to spend the Sabbath.
Don Pedro Favrot, (in the days of the French domination of Louisiana he was called Pierre Joseph de Favrot), was a native of Louisiana, who served in the French colonial army until his native land was ceded to Spain. In 1778 he was allowed to hold his same commission in the Spanish colonial army and was in charge of Fort Saint Philip on the Mississippi in 1803, when the Louisiana Purchase was consummated and the province passed under the control of the United States. Thereupon Don Pedro forsook his military career, retired to a plantation he had purchased on the west bank of the Mississippi nearly opposite Baton Rouge, and with his wife and children prepared to live out the rest of his life in peace and contentment as an American citizen.
His eldest child was Joséphine, described as a beautiful and talented Creole. Her betrothed was young Louis de Grand Pré. They were childhood sweethearts, for Carlos de Grand Pré and her father had been companions-in‑arms in both the French and Spanish colonial troops. Joséphine Favrot and Don Louis were Louisiana-born French Creoles and pardonably proud of this distinction. When Louis announced the fact he would be unable to pay his regular Sunday visit to the Favrot plantation, regret was expressed, and the young officer in the service of Spain was urged to stay for the night.
Don Louis said that, as much as he desired to remain and court his lady love, his duty made it imperative that he return to the fort for, should anything occur in his absence, he would never forgive himself. The Favrots pointed out to him that he was too loyal to the Spain that had cast such a stigma on the name of his honored father. To this Louis replied that he must prove by his devotion to the Spanish cause that the charges against his father had been baseless. So he ordered his men to row him back to the fort where he arrived soon after darkness fell.
Upon reaching the fort, Don Louis sought out his friend Lieutenant Metzinger, the artillery officer. He was told that everything was quiet and, in the estimation of all in charge of the fort, the reported uprising would prove untrue. All the regular soldiers were instructed to sleep on their arms, however, and the night guard was cautioned to be extra alert and report any suspicious movements. Sentinels paraded the ramparts and Metzinger saw to it that the guns were in readiness to repel any attack.
At midnight, when the sentries patrolling the ramparts were calling into the star-studded night: "¡Ave Maria purisima! Las doce de la noche y sereno. ¡Salve Espana!" a third messenger from John Murdock reached the fort. He was in search of Tomaso Estevan and was conducted to the bedside of the former commandant of Bayou Sarah, who p105 was being treated in the Real Hospital. Murdock's message was to the effect that he had positive information that the Feliciana mounted men, under Major Isaac Johnson and Captain Griffith, had left Saint Francisville to attack on the fort. The sentinels were reenforced, the guard called out, artillerymen were ordered to their guns, officers sleeping outside the stockade were summoned to the fort, and word was sent to de Lassus, who was abed in his house, which was only two hundred paces away.
A half hour later the governor was at his post where he waited from two in the morning until nearly four. A slight fog was rising from the surface of the river. Anxiously the officers paced up and down the stockade. Would there be an attack? Scarcely at night, they reasoned, and besides, it was now Sunday; would the Feliciana planters desecrate the Sabbath by war? Unthinkable!
The governor, after satisfying himself that the guards were alert, returned to his house and his interrupted sleep.
Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the village, in the dark, the forces of the patriots were gathering. The Ste. Helena contingent was slow in arriving and the leader feared the sun would be up before they would join his forces. Philemon Thomas had marched his Springfield foot soldiers •forty miles in the space of thirteen hours. Isaac Johnson, with his one score and one of mounted men, had reached the designated rendezvous on time and with him rode a number of planters and convention delegates who had hastily armed themselves with pistols and fowling pieces. The delegates were as ready to participate in the coming physical encounter as they were to write laws.
How was he to crack the fort with the least harm to his men? This was Philemon Thomas' problem at that time. Informed of the preparations made within the fort to receive his forces, he realized that to march directly on the stockade and force the main gate would merely mean his men would be raked by a killing fire from the four cannon whose grape-filled muzzles faced the port. Thomas' force was small, not many more than sixty-odd, he was without artillery, and he knew that the Spanish inside the fort would have the advantage should he elect to take the place by storm.
At this point Larry Moore, a Kentuckian by birth, and settler in the Ste. Helena district, a close friend of Philemon Thomas, as illiterate as he was bold, but as cunning as a piney-woods fox, spoke up and claimed he knew how to "git inter that dinged ol' fort." He explained that the cows, such supplied the garrison with fresh milk, always entered and left the fort through an opening in the cypress palisades on the river side. As this opening was opposite the commons, Larry claimed that those on horseback could sneak in. "Ef them cows kin git in thar an' outen again, I knows my pony kin tote me in the same way, an' do h'it as easy as fallin' offen a log."
Isaac Johnson was immediately interested and he secured permission from the commander to try entering the fort by this round-about p106 ruse. Led by the tobacco-chewing Larry Moore, the Bayou Sarah cavalry set off to circle the fort, approach it by the river bluffs, and approach the fort by the cow path and enter it through the broken cypress pickets, while the defenders were keeping vigilant watch on the main gate.
In single file the horsemen urged their mounts up the steep river bluff and threaded their mounts through the herd of feeding milk-cows; the cow path was distinct in spite of the thickening fog that hung close to the surface of the wide Mississippi, for day was about to break. The opening in the cypress palisades was found just as Larry Moore had predicted and so quietly did the horsemen make their way into the fort that they were lined up on the edge of the parade ground before the sentry, Corporal José de la Polvora, who first the stamping of horses' hooves, cried: "¡Ole! ¡Qué es eso!" Getting no reply to his inquiry, the sentry yelled "¿Quien vive?" and then, like rapid shots, the shrill "¡Alerta! ¡Alerta! ¡Alerta!" of the other sentinels tore into the black morning air to apprise the rest of the garrison that the Gringos were inside the fort!
Sharp commands in purest Castilian ordered out the guard and Louis de Grand Pré dashed into the guardhouse and then out of it with the Cuerpo de Guardia at his back. The intrepid young Creole made straight for the line of mounted men now forming the width of the parade ground. Waving his sword and bidding his men follow, Don Louis reached the invaders. "Mis amigos" he called in Spanish, "my friends we are more numerous than you; we do not want to hurt you!" As he spoke, he started slashing with his sabre, at the flanks of the horses within reach of his blade as though to turn them back the way they had come.
But the mounted men only urged their horses on towards the blockhouse. Don Louis ran back to his guardsmen, and as he reached them he shouted "¡Fuego! ¡Fuego!"
Obeying the order to fire, the soldiers put up their muskets and discharged a volley at the oncoming mounted men. Horses reared and whinnied in pain, but not a Bayou Sarah man was struck by a flying ball. Then, for the first time since entering the fort, Isaac Johnson voiced an order, "Shoot 'em down!" From the men on horseback came the answering hail of lead. The brave young leader of the Spanish guard fell with four balls in his body. Lieutenant Juan Metzinger, endeavoring to wheel his guns into a new position, was struck twice, a bullet punctured his sword arm, while a pistol ball fractured his wrist.
Breaking their silence, whooping with might and main, and shouting "Hurrah for Washington!", Isaac Johnson and his men from Feliciana dashed forward, leaping their mounts over the prostrate forms of the Spanish dead and wounded, for six of the defenders of the fort were rolling and thrashing about in the dust of the parade.
Artillerymen, endeavoring to face their guns in the opposite direction, scattered before the earth-shaking throb of galloping hooves. In a trice the gates were reached and the Spanish foot soldiers guarding the main port were soon madly fleeing for the safety of the guardhouse. p107 To throw open the gates was the work of a few seconds and Philemon Thomas, followed by his foot soldiers, came boiling into the fort. At the first cry from the fort, the shrill "¡Alertas!" of the sentinels informing them that the horsemen sneaking into the fort via the back way had been discovered and then the sound of firing, sent the whole patriot force in a mad rush for the fort to engage in the mêlee.
Governor de Lassus entered the fort to find the whole patriotic force of about 65 men gathered about the blockhouse busily making Spanish soldiers prisoners. Ordered to hand over his sword, the governor refused so one of the Feliciana invaders, who had just wrested a musket from a captured Spanish soldier, knocked de Lassus down with the butt, and would have run the bayonet through him had not Philemon Thomas intervened. As the dazed governor rose to his feet another Bayou Sarah patriot discharged a pistol so close to his bald head, that the power of Spain in the jurisdiction of Baton Rouge near to swooned from fright.
The Spanish defenders were demoralized, not only by the night attack, but by the violation of the recognized rules of warfare, "the capture of a fort by cavalry alone!" These Gringos! The jubilant captors had no time to discuss the amenities, Spanish soldiers had to be disarmed and herded into the guardhouse. The ex-governor was also locked up. Then a hasty survey was made of the attacking force. Not a man had been killed, not a man wounded!
Tenderly, the pain-wracked Louis de Grand Pré was carried into the hospital and a surgeon summoned to attend his hurts. The young Creole's order to his men, "Fire! Fire!", had proved his own death warrant. He had been struck twice in the arm, a ball had broken his thigh, and another had punctured his chest. The victors also carried into the hospital, which had been hastily deserted at the first sound of firing by "sick" Don Tomaso Estevan, a dead soldier, Manuel Matamoros, one of Estevan's force at Bayou Sarah; and two badly wounded soldiers, Francisco Ximenes and Corporal Andres Martinez.
Just as the coming of daylight was being indicated by a pinkish glow in the eastern sky a member of the Bayou Sarah Hospital called Isaac Johnson's attention to the red and yellow banner still floating over the fort that had been taken by force from Spain. It was quickly lowered and Isaac attached his flag to the halyards and a new ensign rose to the top of the staff, the banner blue with a single white five-pointed star. Wild cheers greeted it!
To the very day, exactly thirty-one years before, on September 23, 1779, Spain, represented by the stripling Don Bernardo de Galvez, had forced the capitulation of Colonel Alexander Dickson and his force of regular British troops and had taken possession of this very fortification. Spain's emblem of sovereignty had then replaced the crosses of Saint George and Saint Andrew, the British Union Jack. The Latin had triumphed over the Anglo-Saxon. On this same date, in 1810, the Anglo-Saxons had turned the tables. Certainly, the 23rd day of September p108 should always be printed on Baton Rouge's calendar in bright red figures.
The Lone Star flag unfurled to the river's breezes for the first time, Major Isaac Johnson, in obedience to Philemon Thomas' command, sprang to his horse and made off. He was followed by Larry Moore, Captain Griffith and practically every man of his troop. As he dashed through the gates of the fort and into the village, his men, who for the first time in the annals of war had captured a fort a‑horseback,c were behind him — whooping, yelling, discharging pistols, and "hurrahing for Washington." Trailing ignominiously behind the flying feet of Isaac Johnson's horse, and in the dust of the roadway, was the red and yellow Spanish banner that had flaunted its folds over the Baton Rouge fort a short hour before.
As the cavalcade swarmed into the village in the wake of the desecrated banner, inhabitants were told, with a wealth of expletives, of the fall of the fort, and the Bayou Sarah troopers warned all to surrender to the new masters, to the delegates of the convention, to the Voice of the People! The sun came up over the tops of the forest trees that girded Baton Rouge in the east. A new day had come with its rising — a new Republic had been born!
1 Fulwar Skipwith's wife, Thérèse Josephine Vandenclooster, described in a notarial act as a Belgique,º evidently divorced him and married William Herries of Montesano Plantation, for she is designated as Herries' widow in an act before L. T. Caire, notary public, of Feb. 11, 1834, and Skipwith did not die until 1839. The daughter of Fulwar Skipwith and Dame Vandenclooster, Lelia Skipwith, remarried after the death of her first husband, Governor Thomas Bolling Robinson. Her second husband was Humberton Skipwith of Virginia — by this marriage regaining her maiden name.
a Leaving aside the statement that the French refused to treat with the American ambassador, which I don't think is true but haven't examined: the only place that an American ambassador might have been involved was in France itself; therefore the appointment of Skipwith to Paris is meant. If that appointment was by Jefferson, who took office in March 1801, both the French Revolution and the Directoire were past. Arthur should have written "during the trying days of the Consulate and the Empire".
c The taking of a fort by unaided cavalry is indeed not common, and not being a military buff, I couldn't think of another example; but Maj. Jefferson Figuerres steered me to the aftermath of the battle of Iéna in the Napoleonic Wars, four years earlier than the taking of Baton Rouge, where I find the fortress of Stettin throwing up their hands double-quick when the cavalry brigade of Gen. Lasalle showed up. According to Abel Hugo, France Militaire. Histoire des armées françaises de terre et de mer de 1792 à 1837, Vol. 4, p10, the fort was well munitioned and had one hundred sixty cannon and a garrison of six thousand men.
There must surely be earlier instances, and — noting that the surrender of Stettin didn't involve any action by the cavalry — more clear-cut; if you know of one, drop me a line, of course.
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S. C. Arthur:
West Florida Rebellion
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