The general and governor of Spanish Louisiana who's been "grossly overlooked by mainstream history in the United States" is the subject of a new book, Bernardo de Gálvez: Spanish Hero of the American Revolution by Gonzalo M. Quintero Saravia.
- by John Sledge
Don Bernardo de Gálvez has long been celebrated on the Gulf Coast. Galveston, Texas; Galvez, La.; St. Bernard Parish, La.; and Galvez Street in New Orleans are all named for him. There are statues in his honor at Pensacola, Mobile, and New Orleans (Spanish Plaza at the foot of Canal Street, removed for restoration).
On the literary front there are children’s books; John Walton Caughey’s dated 1934 Bernardo de Gálvez in Louisiana, 1776-1783 (reprinted by Pelican Publishing); a raft of scholarly articles; and even a one-man play, Chaz Mena’s “Yo Solo: Bernardo de Gálvez on the Stage of the American Revolution” (2011).
In 2012, the Florida Department of State declared Gálvez a “Great Floridian,” and two years later President Barack Obama signed a joint congressional resolution designating him an honorary U.S. citizen.
Despite all, the dashing Spanish general remains, in the words of his latest biographer Gonzalo M. Quintero Saravia, “grossly overlooked by mainstream history in the United States.”
Saravia’s big book isn’t likely to make Gálvez a household name, unfortunately. With 348 pages of text, 32 pages of appendices, 110 pages of double-columned endnotes, and 84 pages of closely-spaced bibliography citing works in English, Spanish and French, it is no beach read. But it is absorbing and will undoubtedly appeal to Gulf Coast history aficionados, no small tribe.
Saravia comes to his task with impeccable credentials. He is a native Spaniard with an S.J.D. in International Law and a Ph.D. in American history and is a former fellow at Harvard University's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.
He owns a thorough familiarity with colonial American source materials scattered from New Orleans to Seville and understands both the military and administrative aspects of his subject. Like many biographers he is entranced by his hero, which is good. As Henry James said over a century ago, "I hold any writer sufficiently justified who is himself in love with his theme."
Bernardo de Gálvez was born 1746 in southern Spain. Fortunately for his future career, his family included some extraordinary achievers. Foremost were his father, who joined the army and rose through the ranks to become a general and eventually viceroy of New Spain (Mexico today), and an uncle who held numerous important governmental positions until his appointment as the Minister General of the Indies in 1775. These connections certainly helped, but there was no doubting Gálvez’s courage and ability.
Young Gálvez joined the army, served for a time with the French and was promoted to lieutenant. In 1769 he traveled to New Spain and won distinction battling the Apache. He was an inspiring leader, willing to put himself at risk if necessary. Once, when his small detachment reached the banks of the Pecos River, Gálvez harangued the troops with what became his catchphrase, “Alone I will go, if no one is found to accompany me.”
His most memorable deeds came during the American Revolution. Saravia makes it clear that the Spanish supported the Americans for their own interests rather than any love of liberty, but the end result was the same — France, Spain and the infant United States arrayed against Great Britain, the world’s foremost military power. Spain’s wartime goals included winning back Gibraltar, clearing the Mississippi River, capturing Mobile, and retaking Pensacola, the latter three all part of British West Florida.
Gálvez was then governor of Spanish Louisiana, perfectly placed to tackle some of these objectives. He wasted no time in doing so. When he heard the British were going to attack New Orleans, he immediately took the offensive, toppling their Mississippi River outposts in a nearly bloodless campaign. Following that stunning success, he advanced farther east. Saravia describes the sieges of Mobile (1780) and Pensacola (1781) in satisfying detail, buttressing the narrative with contemporary artwork and maps. An appendix even includes the names of Gálvez’s support ships and their captains.
Pensacola was the toughest nut. It was better fortified and garrisoned than Mobile and enjoyed further protection by Royal Navy ships and Indian allies. When the Spanish fleet admiral refused to assay the tricky harbor mouth, Gálvez again displayed his signature decisiveness. Seizing the moment, he proceeded unsupported with his smaller flagship.
He told his men shortly thereafter, “I, my sons, went alone to sacrifice myself, so as not to expose a single soldier, not a man of my army, and so the navy could see that there is no danger such as they say.”
The effect was electric. In due course Pensacola was pounded into submission and the British swept from the Gulf Coast.
Saravia pays equal attention to Gálvez’s later assignments, including his service as the Viceroy of New Spain, where he more than filled his deceased father’s shoes. Just as on the Pecos River and at New Orleans, Mobile and Pensacola, Gálvez proved to be a popular leader.
Saravia demonstrates that he was also remarkably farsighted for his time. He insisted on merit-based military promotion, for example. There were many free black and mixed-race soldiers in Spain’s armies, and Gálvez wanted them promoted when they excelled.
As he explained, “neither his dark skin nor the circumstances of his birth should be relevant [for the appointment] of a sergeant or an officer, only his merits, fortitude, courage, knowledge, experience, and aptitude for war, and also his ability to command.”
He also attempted an ambitious reform agenda, until death cut him short in 1786 at only 40 years of age, one of the last victims of that year’s typhus epidemic.
Lastly, this book’s amazing cover is noteworthy. It features a Gálvez portrait created by two friars in 1796. Their artistic technique, sgraffito (Italian for “to scratch”), involved incising a top layer of glaze with a design to reveal parts of the base color. The General’s face, hands, and hat are painted, while his uniform and prancing horse are a depicted by a dizzying assortment of white spirals, loops and squiggly lines. The effect is more modern than 18th century and, like this book’s astonishing subject, rewards the closest attention.
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John S. Sledge is senior architectural historian with the Mobile Historic Development Commission and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He is the author of seven books, including Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart, The Mobile River, and The Gulf of Mexico: A Maritime History, all from the University of South Carolina press. He and his editor wife, Lynn, live in Fairhope, Ala.
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