On December 16, 2014, the United States Congress finally recognized Spanish General Bernardo de Gálvez for his heroic service to our nation during the U.S. War of Independence (1775-1783).
With appropriate pomp and circumstance General Gálvez belatedly received honorary U.S. citizenship on that special day. Truthfully, it’s a most worthy homage because only eight other foreign individuals have been so privileged.
The rationale for the honor may surprise many in the U.S. general public. It rests on the fact that his singularly distinctive bravery helped herald the sound of liberty throughout the young U.S.
Clearly, with July 4th Independence Day ceremonies fast approaching, I invite readers to reflect on this iconic date’s lesser known aspects. Most fittingly, they help to remind us that our Spanish Mexican ancestors gave substantial blood and treasure during the U.S. independence war.
To be sure, it’s not that we’ve learned the wrong U.S. history. No, it’s just that we’ve been taught an incomplete perspective, where historians typically reject Spain’s (and New Spain’s) essential support.
Truly, in spite of the recent tribute, General Gálvez’ crucial role in gaining U.S. independence from England is not yet fully understood, recognized, or taught in mainstream U.S. history books. In short, without Spain’s alliance, there’s no doubt freedom for the U.S. colonies would have at best been hindered for years.
Most certainly, the early days of the struggle were unclear, with factions embracing one of two main camps; those supporting the status quo under England or those wanting change. Still, among the various military principals leading the independence cause, the coordinated efforts of an unlikely threesome were extraordinary: Spanish General Bernardo de Gálvez, George Rogers Clark, and most importantly, the revolution’s commander-in-chief, General George Washington.
Essentially, their energy covered the colonies with a triangular-shaped blanket, with Gen. Gálvez operating in the south, George Rogers Clark in the west, and Gen. Washington to the east. Please note that two of those war fronts (south and west) were under Spain’s jurisdiction.
Consequently, the superb three-prong attack discouraged, delayed, and eventually defeated the English forces in America. (For brevity’s sake, the following summary is limited to military operations only.)
By the time the U.S. fight against England began, Spanish King Charles III had ordered General Gálvez to remove the British presence in the Gulf of Mexico. As proven shortly after by the king’s rewards and bestowing the motto “Yo Solo” (I Alone) to be included in Gen. Gálvez’ coat of arms, the general didn’t disappoint his king.
As Spain’s Governor of Louisiana, he oversaw the Gulf of Mexico land mass from the Texas-Louisiana border to Florida. Plus, through capable Spanish officers, he controlled access to the entire Mississippi River. Thus, General Gálvez had ample resources at his disposal, consisting of an impressive force of Spanish officers and men ready, willing, and able to defeat England. In carrying out his orders, he operated his war strategy in two phases.
Phase 1. His brilliant military strategy expelled the British from the Gulf of Mexico. In his book, “The Hispanic Presence in North America”, Author Carlos M. Fernández-Shaw cites Historian Buchanan Parker Thomson to describe Gen. Gálvez’ impact: “… this young Spaniard had given the most vital aid contributed by any one man to the struggling American colonies. In winning this triumphant victory …, he had not only served his king to the limit of his strength but had made to the United States the most important gift an ally could offer: the security of their southeastern and western frontiers.”
Phase 2. Personally, leading battles in the Gulf of Mexico area, he entrusted Don Fernando de Leyba, Upper Louisiana Governor, and his staff to work with and assist the U.S. colonists in Missouri. It’s in this theater of operations where we meet the second member of the trio.
George Rogers Clark was from all indications highly admired among his contemporaries, such as Daniel Boone. Aided by substantial Spanish financing, Rogers Clark led his army in Missouri and helped end the British threat in the region. Had the British been allowed access to the river, they would have outflanked General Washington’s army from the west. For his courageous efforts during these military engagements, he was nicknamed “Conqueror of the Old Northwest”.
Yet, even though he was promoted by President Jefferson to general, Rogers Clark’s early military feats were forgotten after the revolution. He was heavily criticized by political enemies, and his life spiraled downward from one controversy to another. That may be why today he is not warmly embraced by mainstream U.S. historians.
As for the third member of the heroic triangle, General George Washington has truly earned the distinction of “Father of the country”. He deserves the credit for successfully binding all the elements of war against England. His is an impressive military résumé beginning in 1776 with leading several battles, among them, Boston, New York City, and Trenton.
Valley Forge, just outside of Philadelphia, deserves special mention. It was here where the Continental Army camped for the 1777-78 winter. The men suffered greatly due to winter’s bitter cold, disease; resulting in the death of thousands of patriots. Yet, they endured and finally achieved victory over the British at the Battle of Yorktown, Virginia, ending in October 1781.
Indeed, there is much that mainstream historians choose to ignore in rendering U.S. history, such as the specific aid to the U.S. by civilian Spanish subjects who lived faraway in New Spain (Mexico). Their help was crucial in the financing and equipping of the Continental Army.
President George Washington never forgot it. He often mentioned his deepest gratitude to Spain through his ample correspondence and personal contact with Diego de Gardoqui, Spain’s chief minister, General Gálvez, and other high-ranking Spanish government officials.
It was no accident that General Washington placed General Gálvez on his right as they stood in review of the troops during the first July 4th parade in Washington, DC. He meant to (1) show his personal gratitude to his brother in arms, and (2) officially recognize Spain for its vital financial and war materiel support.
Finally, Spanish-surnamed U.S. citizens must learn to value the fact that the U.S. independence equation has a distinctive Spanish component. In particular, they must find comfort knowing that General Gálvez’ army included recruits from New Spain (Mexico).
That’s why, regardless of negative U.S. media coverage, Spanish Mexican-descent citizens must view July 4th Independence Day celebrations in this new light. Clearly, their ancestors helped create the young U.S. nation, years before many of today’s U.S. citizens’ European immigrant families reached America’s Ellis Island. That’s the bottom line.