SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Few courageous stories of New Spain personalities surpass the brilliant career of General Bernardo de Gálvez (1746-1786). A man of such rare courage, King Carlos III awarded him the royal motto “Yo Solo”. While that may seem too bold a slogan, he earned it justly.
However, what is it he did to garner such a robust title? Who was this man of history?
Bernardo de Gálvez de Madrid was born in Macharaviaya, Málaga, a mountain village in southern Spain. He was the son of Matías de Gálvez and nephew of José de Gálvez, both powerful Spanish officials in New Spain. Trained in military school, he joined the Spanish Army in his teens. He served ably while in Spain, but was posted to Mexico in 1762.
Bernardo’s leadership career in America began in earnest in Sonora and Nueva Vizcaya where he led Spanish soldiers and Native American allies against Apaches. He was wounded several times in battle. Soon, he was promoted to the rank of Commandant of Troops of both provinces. Bernardo accompanied José de Gálvez, his uncle to Spain, where he continued to fine-tune his military skills. He was severely wounded in a military campaign in Algeria. For his bravery, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and spent time recovering from his wounds as a professor of military science at the prestigious military school in Ávila.
As a 29-year old in 1776, his uncle named him Governor of Spanish Louisiana and so he returned to America. An astute military thinker, he was a savvy diplomat as well. Careful to walk the narrow path of being loyal to Spain’s monarchial American empire (Colonial New Spain), he at the same time championed the thirteen U.S. colonies’ independence from England and the independence fervor sweeping across America. Bernardo Gálvez wrote often to Patrick Henry, Governor of Virginia, by which they exchanged ideas in fighting the British.
Soon after arriving in Louisiana, the king sent word that the English must be driven out of Spanish territory. Thus, Governor Gálvez organized a Spanish Army and attacked the English fort in West Florida. Facing a much larger force, Gálvez’ strike was quickly decisive and he drove the British out. By late 1779, he pushed his objective even further toward Mobile and Pensacola, also held by English troops. His army would ultimately reach over 7,000 troops.
First, Gálvez defeated English units in Baton Rouge and Natchez, resulting in the capture of hundreds of soldiers and several vessels. Using his trademark military tactics, he succeeded in defeating a well-defended English Fort at Mobile. However, it was in the taking of Pensacola where he excelled the most. Having amassed a strong flotilla of ships and gunboats sent by the king to assist his mission, Gálvez was disappointed that naval commanders were still far off from the battle front; hesitant in entering the narrow harbor. The Spanish admirals pleaded with him to wait, while others tried using their own favor with the king as leverage. Gálvez was not impressed. Timidity in war was not something Governor Gálvez was ready to accept.
Leading by example, he took command of one of his ships, raised his own coat of arms on its mast. With two gunboat escorts, he entered the unfriendly harbor himself, facing fire from several land positions. Watching Gálvez’ incredible single-handed act of courage embarrassed the still hesitant senior naval officers so much that each began to steer their ships in his direction. The English fort was soon in flames, forcing the English general surrendered. The brilliantly executed Battle of Pensacola was won, ridding the Gulf of Mexico of the English presence.
King Carlos III was magnanimous in recognizing his gratitude toward Bernardo de Gálvez. The honors were many. He was given the prestigious title of Count, promoted to, general, field marshal, and given command of all Spanish expeditionary forces in New Spain. Still, King Carlos wished to distinguish Gálvez’ rare display of single-handed bravery in the face of enemy guns. Thus, he granted the motto “Yo Solo” to be placed on the Gálvez Coat of Arms.
General Galvez returned to Spain and again led military expeditions. In 1785, his father died and Bernardo replaced him as Viceroy of New Spain. The gregarious general had great plans for New Spain. However, in 1786 he became ill and died on November 30 of that year. Although Bernardo de Gálvez was only 40 years old when he died, his life proves that it’s not necessarily how long one lives, but it is in what one does while living.
Both France and Spain helped the U.S. colonies drive for independence. However, U.S. history books primarily give credit to French general Marquis de Lafayette. In truth, Gálvez’ direct contributions to George Washington were incalculable. Only recently has this hero come to the attention of mainstream historians. Although author historians, such as Robert H. Thonhoff have done their best for years to help the general public understand the New Spain role in U.S. history. His book, “The Texas Connection with the American Revolution” skillfully explains the story.
In summary, many generations of Mexican-descent Texas students have longed to learn about their ancestors in the classroom. Parents, be aware that since 2010, the state-approved STAAR curriculum has included some pre-1836 people places, and events in Texas history. So, don’t be bashful. Ask your fourth- and seventh-grade students’ teachers to include more lessons on the Spanish Mexican founders of Texas. Also, the next time one of your kids asks you to recommend a topic for a history book report, tell them to look up the inspiring story of Spanish-speaking Bernardo de Gálvez, a mega hero in U.S. history.
José “Joe” Antonio López was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and is a USAF Veteran. He now lives in Universal City, Texas. He is the author of three books: “The Last Knight (Don Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara Uribe, A Texas Hero,”, “Nights of Wailing, Days of Pain (Life in 1920s South Texas)”, and “The First Texas Independence, 1813”. Lopez is also the founder of the Tejano Learning Center, LLC, and www.tejanosunidos.org, a Web site dedicated to Spanish Mexican people and events in U.S. history that are mostly overlooked in mainstream history books.