Bernardo de Gálvez

Bernardo de Gálvez
Bernardo Vicente Apolinar de Gálvez

What historical ties does a Spanish governor of Louisiana have with British St. Augustine? What ties unite Pensacola, Florida; Mobile, Alabama; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Natchez, Mississippi? During the American Revolution, these towns, like St. Augustine, were all part of British Florida, and all but St. Augustine were captured by General Bernardo de Gálvez, the governor of Spanish Louisiana, and his Spanish armies. Does this come as a surprise? We hear a lot about Lafayette and the French aid to the American colonies, but few people know that Spain was involved as well. So, who was General Gálvez, and what role did the Spanish play in the American Revolution?

Bernardo Vicente Apolinar de Gálvez was born in 1746 in Málaga, Spain, the son of a career military man. Also choosing a military career, sixteen-year-old Bernardo participated in his first campaign against Portugal during the conflict known as the Seven Years' War in Europe and the French and Indian War in North America.

Over the next fourteen years, Gálvez gained further valuable military experience fighting the Apaches in New Spain (today's Mexico and southwestern US) and another posting in North Africa where he proved his valor when he refused to abandon a position about to be overrun by the enemy, even though he was badly wounded.

At age twenty-nine in 1776, Bernardo de Gálvez was appointed governor of Spanish Louisiana. (In 1762, nearing the end of the Seven Years' War, France ceded Louisiana to Spain in a secret treaty.) His mission, as top military and civilian authority of this land which stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rockies, from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, was to deal fairly with the French Creole population, promote commerce, fight smuggling, cultivate friendship with the Indians, build up the population, and in case of war against Great Britain, he was expected to attack and take British West Florida, all with only 500 soldiers.

Gálvez Assists the American Colonies
When the American colonies began their revolt against Great Britain, both they and the British wanted something from Spain. The British wanted neutrality. The colonies wanted money, military supplies, and even military intervention. A sympathizer of the American cause, Gálvez tried to assist the colonies while appearing to remain neutral. In 1777 he sent $70,000 worth of goods (medicine, uniform fabric, weapons, cartridge boxes) up the Mississippi River to the Ohio to Pittsburgh, and on to Philadelphia.

In August 1779, Spain finally declared war on Great Britain and Gálvez was free to act openly. He knew that his best chance of success was to strike first by surprise. Within a month he had captured all four British forts in the lower Mississippi including Baton Rouge and Natchez. He captured 550 enemy soldiers and two naval vessels, one of which was captured from land. (At one point, the British ship had to pass through a narrow channel, and the Spanish jumped aboard.) He did this all without suffering a single defeat. His success was even more remarkable because a hurricane had sunk his supply ships.

The next March he moved against the seaport of Mobile. Again, his fleet wrecked at the mouth of the bay and most of his supplies were lost. However, Gálvez figured that since they were there, they might as well fight. When he learned that British reinforcements were coming from Pensacola, he pressed his siege, and Mobile surrendered in less than a day. The British reinforcements were so devastated by the news that they turned around in retreat

The British flag captured by Gálvez in the Battle of Pensacola
The British Flag Captured by Gálvez in the Battle of Pensacola.  (Now in a museum in Spain)

On to Pensacola
His next target was Pensacola, the capital of West Florida. However, due to several hurricanes and storms, he had to wait until the next March to attack this target. Pensacola had a narrow entrance to its bay, and this entrance was guarded by a British fort. The first Spanish ship was fired upon and ran aground. The rest of the fleet retreated back to sea. Gálvez was head of the ground forces, but for this campaign Havana had sent Admiral José Calbo de Irazabel to be in charge of the navy. Gálvez kept urging the admiral to press the attack, but the admiral kept making excuses.

Gálvez knew that the British fleet was on its way, so he decided to take the matter into his own hands. He took his own four ships, hoisted his personal flag in the lead ship, stood on the prow with his sword raised, and ordered a 15-gun salute fired as he led his ships through the pass.

When the rest of the fleet saw this daring move, they urged the admiral to give the order to follow. Still, Irazabel hesitated. Finally he told the other captains, "Do whatever you want." The other ships followed Gálvez. Irazabel returned to Cuba and was never heard from again.

After two months of fighting, the British finally surrendered in May 1781. The Battle of Pensacola was one of the longest battles of the American Revolution; yet, it rarely appears in our history books.

In July 1781 British troops began to arrive in Yorktown, the final engagement of the war. Think how much impact Gálvez and his troops had. Not only had he kept the British occupied on a second front throughout the war, but also imagine how much impact the loss of Pensacola had on the number of troops and ships the British could send to Yorktown. Imagine what course the American Revolution might have taken without the help of this able Spanish general.

Gálvez had proved himself an able commander and leader. He led international forces during his campaigns to help the Americans. Along with professional Spanish soldiers, he led French, German, and Native American militia from Louisiana and black, white, and mestizo militia from Cuba, Mexico and elsewhere in the Caribbean. An Irish regiment and an Italian regiment, both in the Spanish service, also were part of his troops.

Statue of Gálvez in Washington, DC
Statue to Bernardo de Gálvez in Washington, DC, Virginia and 22nd Streets

Sculpture by Juan De Avalos

The place of Don Bernardo de Gálvez in American history rests not only on his military conquests but on the man himself—what we might call his style. There was something quintessentially American about him. The emergence of such a man from Spain’s rigid empire stirs thoughts about such personal elements as chance, destiny, and luck. Unquestionably, Bernardo de Gálvez was the right man in the right place at the right time—for the United States of America.

For his efforts, King Carlos III of Spain made Gálvez a count, a lieutenant general in charge of all Spanish military operations in the Americas, and the governor and captain general of Louisiana and West Florida. He was granted his own coat-of-arms. Yet, how is he recognized in the United States whom he aided so much? Only the large city of Galveston, Texas and the small town of Galveston, Louisiana bear his name. There is a statue to his memory in Washington, DC and a plaque in Natchez, MS. Yet, how much different American history might have been without him!

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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