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Bernardo de Galvez

by C. F. Eckhardt
The United Colonies, soon to be known as the United States, began a revolt against the mother country, England, in 1776. We all know about Lexington and Concord and all that, but what did it have to do with Texas?

Actually, quite a bit. As a matter of fact, if it hadn’t been for a Spaniard named Bernardo de Galvez—and yes, Galveston is named for him—the United States might not exist.

England and Spain hadn’t liked each other for quite a while. The depredations of English sea-dogs—pirates—like Francis Drake, on the cities and plate fleets of the Spanish Main, and Spain’s attempt to avenge itself in 1588, when the Grand Armada came to grief off Ireland’s coast, thanks in part to a Gulf hurricane that was somewhat off course, had sort of poisoned the atmosphere between the two countries. Added to that was the fact that Spain was the most aggressively Catholic country in Europe—the Spanish Inquisition being part of the aggressive nature—and England, having had religious wars, was the most aggressively Protestant country in Europe. It all added up to the fact that if Spain could do anything to cause problems for England it would, and the feeling was mutual.

Bernardo de Galvez was the descendant of ancient Spanish nobility. He chose a military career. He immediately distinguished himself as an aggressive and effective Indian fighter. When he was only 24 he led one of Spain’s most successful campaigns against the Apaches on the northern frontier, in what is now southeast Arizona.

Galvez was sent back to Spain for further schooling. In 1776, at 28, he was made colonel of the Spanish regiment stationed in Louisiana. He had barely arrived when he was appointed acting governor of the territory. Part of his duties as Governor of Louisiana was conducting clandestine espionage in the English colonies to the east. In this he had considerable help, for Americans were coming down the Mississippi—ostensibly as ‘traders’—and contacted him regularly. In 1776, before Galvez took office as governor, Spain had already supplied the Americans with five tons of gunpowder, all but a half-ton of it going up the Mississippi and overland to Virginia.

Galvez was even more enthusiastic a supporter of the Americans than was his predecessor. By mid-July of 1777 he’d sent 2,000 barrels of gunpowder (about 50 lbs per barrel), a lot of bar lead, and a lot of clothing to the Americans. He’d also been instrumental in arranging a secret loan of 1,000,000 reales from the King of Spain’s private funds to the Americans. By the end of the year he’d sent the ‘colonists’ literally tons of gunpowder, thousands of muskets, and tons of clothing. He also declared New Orleans a free port to Americans and allowed American privateers to sell their prizes there.

On May 8, 1779, Spain declared war on England ‘in support of the American states.’ England at that time had posts along the lower Mississippi at Fort Bute, where Manchac, Louisiana now stands, at Baton Rouge, and at Natchez, Mississippi. Word reached Galvez of the declaration of war in August. He immediately attacked and captured Fort Bute. Parties under his subordinates captured English outposts between Baton Rouge and Natchez.

Baton Rouge was well defended. In stead of assaulting directly, Galvez sent a detachment into a grove of trees in front of the fort. They were to chop down trees, dig ditches, fire at the fort, and make sure the English were watching them. While the English were wasting gunpowder and attention on the decoy, he moved his artillery to a grove of trees behind the fort, quietly dug it in, and the next morning blew down the back wall. Baton Rouge surrendered in half a day, and the English commander there included Fort Panmure, at Natchez, in the surrender. George Rogers Clark—supplied mainly by Galvez—had already opened the upper Mississippi. Trade and supplies could move up and down the river unhindered.

In January of 1780 Galvez, responding to Royal orders, moved on the British at Fort Charlotte, on Mobile Bay. He began his move in January, actually attacked Fort Charlotte on March 9, and on March 14 the British surrendered. Again, deception and the masterful use of emplaced artillery won the day.

Galvez’s next target was Pensacola, where the English had another fort. Galvez wanted to move immediately, but bureaucracy in Havana was delaying him. He personally went to Havana, apparently planted a small but highly efficient boot in the bureaucratic backsides, and got things moving. Unfortunately, by that time hurricane season had come on, eliminating all sea and most land travel along the Gulf Coast.

The following spring Galvez, in one of the largest military operations undertaken on the North American continent up to that time, besieged Fort George, at Pensacola, with a 7,000-man army. Inside a month Fort George surrendered.

While Galvez was aiding the Americans militarily, the province of Tejás o Nuevas Filipinas—Texas—was aiding in another way. Galvez sent Francisco Garcia to San Antonio de Bejár with a request that the Governor of the province, Domingo Cabello, send beef to the army. Cabello responded by having about 1,000 beef cattle from the ranchos in the area sent, together with an escort of soldiers from Presidio San Antonio de Bejár, to Galvez in Florida. Before the war ended nearly 10,000 head of Texas beef—the first great cattle drives in North American history—had been driven east to feed Galvez’s soldiers. Some of the Texas soldiers remained with Galvez, aiding the Americans by keeping a lot of English forces tied up in the south.

Those drives were not without incident. Comanches, who’d been moving south from their home ranges in Kansas, raided several of the drives. As a result there was a short but considerable war with Comanches around Bejár. It was, in effect, part of the American Revolution.

In the course of his campaigns against the English—the English and Spanish did not sign a treaty until 1783, two years after Yorktown—Galvez captured not only all the English forts along the Gulf Coast and in Florida, but the English Bahamas as well, and was poised to take Jamaica when the war ended. After the war he returned to Spain. He was promoted to Brigadier General—at the age of 36—and then was made governor of Cuba. Following the death of his father, Matias de Galvez, then Viceroy of New Spain, he was named Viceroy. Bernardo de Galvez was immensely popular with the people of New Spain, as his father had been. He seemed destined for a long and successful career as Viceroy. Then, on November 30, 1786, barely 18 months after arriving in Mexico, he died of a fever at the age of 38.

Bernardo de Galvez was a brilliant soldier—perhaps the best in New Spain—and an able administrator as well. Though his aid to the Americans was hardly altruistic—Spain wanted England out of the Gulf and Caribbean, and aiding the Americans seemed to be a way to accomplish that—it could well be that without his aid the American Revolution would have died a-borning. Spanish powder loaded American muskets—which might have come from New Spain—and propelled Spanish lead at the English. Spanish shoes and blankets kept many an American marching. While Texas beef didn’t get to Washington’s army, it did feed his allies along the Gulf Coast, which took a lot of pressure—which might have been used otherwise—off the battered and beleaguered Americans just when it counted.
© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
June 7, 2010 column

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