What is the Battle of Saint-Louis?
Long before the Gateway Arch welcomed visitors to St. Louis, a tower and trench in the same area were used to keep visitors out. In 1780, Saint-Louis was a modest fur trading village under Spanish rule. Its local leader, Fernando de Leyba, was a Spanish army officer whose cold approach to governance made him unpopular among the townspeople. De Leyba’s role at St. Louis was already a challenge. And then the British invaded.
On May 26, 1780, the hamlet became the scene of an improbable but crucial battle during the War of Independence: the Battle of Saint-Louis. Earlier that spring, de Leyba had learned of a British plan to attack the city and take control of the Mississippi River and surrounding valley. For this mission, the British recruited local Native American tribes to bomb St. Louis on their behalf. Without forts or defensive structures, de Leyba recognized that the city would be particularly vulnerable. He therefore quickly considered the construction of several limestone towers. Due to time and budget constraints, however, only one was built, Fort San Carlos. It was three stories high and about 30 feet wide, standing approximately on the current ground of the Ark. For additional protection, de Leyba also had a 2,000 meter trench constructed, from which the militia could defend the village.
When the British force of Native Americans charged from the north that afternoon, the battle was on. As the clash unfolded, St. Louis Militia began firing cannons at the invaders to stem their advance. The sound and force of the cannons shocked Native Americans, some of whom later referred to the tower as a “house of thunder.” The invaders quickly recognized that they were not equipped to withstand the guns and withdrew. Although the fighting only lasted a few hours that afternoon, 21 St. Louis residents are believed to have died and another 25 were captured.
Even the victory was not enough to repair de Leyba’s reputation among the locals. They blamed him for the loss of their livestock and crops, which were set on fire by the retreating Native Americans. De Leyba was incredulous. He had gone bankrupt preparing for battle by spending his own money on supplies and defense. Only weeks after the battle, de Leyba died destitute.
Today, this little-known part of local history has received its due, thanks to the book The Battle of St. Louis, the Attack on Cahokia, and the American Revolution in the West by Stephen L. Kling Jr., Kristine Sjostrom and Marysia T. Lopez, plus the 2021 documentary by Paul Schenkman house of thunder. As Schenkman noted upon the film’s release, the battle was “much bigger than anyone had ever imagined”.
By the ballpark
A historical marker commemorating the site of the Battle of St. Louis can be found at the corner of Walnut and Downtown Broadway, outside the Hilton at Ballpark. The plaque, donated in 1946 by the General Society of the Sons of the Revolution, reads:
Near this place stood Fort San Carlos erected in 1780. It was attacked in May , 1780 by the British and Indians, and successfully defended by the Spanish garrison under Captain Fernando de Leyba. This victory prevented Britain from gaining control of the Mississippi Valley in the final years of the American Revolution. War.