Read the Revolution
Bernardo de GálvezSeptember 8, 2021
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While France’s role as a vital ally of the fledgling United States during the Revolutionary War is often remembered, other European countries also had a hand in helping to achieve victory over the British. A series of new posts accessible on the Museum’s website highlight the contributions of several of these countries, including Spain. Although Spain was not a formal ally of the United States during the American Revolution, it did take a stand, providing money and supplies to the American revolutionaries and launching military campaigns against British settlements on the Mississippi River, preventing Britain from concentrating all of its North American military and naval forces on the fight against the Continental Army. In a recent biography, Bernardo de Gálvez: Spanish Hero of the American Revolution, Dr. Gonzalo M. Quintero Saravia traces the life of Gálvez, who led the Spanish forces in North America as supreme commander, and later served as viceroy of New Spain, providing a reinterpretation of the international factors involved in the Revolutionary War. Extensively researched through Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. archives, Dr. Quintero Saravia’s portrait of Gálvez won the 2019 Distinguished Book Award in Biography from the Society for Military History.
In 2014, a joint resolution of the U.S. Congress conferred honorary citizenship on Bernardo de Gálvez, an honor that has only been granted eight times in the history of the United States. This honor reflects the contributions that Gálvez made to the early years of American history, despite his short life – he died at forty. Who was Gálvez and how did he come to hold such a prominent role in North America? How did family ties and Enlightenment ideas come together to allow Gálvez to make his mark on Spanish and American history? Dr. Quintero Saravia’s biography explores these questions and more, placing the man in the context of his time and assessing the impact of his life.
Read two excerpts, first from the Introduction to learn about the reforms that Gálvez was able to achieve through his governance of Louisiana and New Spain, and second from Chapter 5 about how Gálvez used a hurricane and his network of spies to plan a surprise attack on the British in Louisiana in 1779.
Aside from being a rousing good tale, Bernardo de Gálvez’s life offers a view of an individual deeply influenced by Enlightenment values. Gálvez’s professional and social successes were possible only because of the political and social reforms that took place in the Spanish Empire during the second half of the eighteenth century. The rise of the Gálvez family, spurred mainly by the brilliant career of Bernardo’s uncle José de Gálvez, minister of the Indies between 1776 and 1787, is an outstanding example of increasing social mobility in eighteenth-century Spain. José de Gálvez’s patronage of his nephew was indispensable to Bernardo’s success, as it allowed him to reach important positions at a young age and in so doing demonstrate his unusually strong military, administrative, and political talents.
Bernardo attended the Royal Military Academy of Avila, where young officers of the Spanish army were instructed in the principles of the new enlightened kind of modern warfare. There he joined the “mystery of Avila,” a select group of determined, hardworking, and scientifically inclined young officers, whom their enemies called the barbilampiños or “beardless ones.” Their baby faces were hated by the so-called mozos viejos or “old boys,” who had no regard for newfangled things and insisted that promotions should be made on the basis of either seniority or courage in battle. The beardless ones favored a new model of warfare based on Frederick II of Prussia’s scientific approach. They believed that merit, and merit alone, should be the criterion for advancement both in the army and in the state bureaucracy.
In the alliance between empire and science that emerged during the eighteenth century, military and naval officers were often at the forefront of the pursuit of useful knowledge for their countries. Their exploits created among other military and naval officers a sense that it was among their duties to be up to date and actively involved in the latest scientific and philosophic advances. In this context Bernardo de Gálvez pursued his own scientific interests. While in Madrid awaiting a new assignment in 1783–84, he devoted his free time to experimenting with military applications of the latest fashion among the educated class: hot-air balloons. But soon Gálvez had to abandon his technological pursuits since he would be busy upon his appointment as capitán general (governor) of Cuba.
Well before that posting, though, Gálvez, on January 1, 1777, assumed his office as acting governor of Louisiana and colonel of Louisiana’s Fixed Infantry Regiment.
In administering Louisiana, Gálvez left no branch of the government unshaken. Under his governorship, new towns were founded and new crops introduced. Hundreds of settlers migrated from the Canary Islands and Malaga. Existing military units were reorganized and new ones created. Royal legislation against contraband was strictly enforced against British smugglers, while a much softer hand was applied against French ones. A policy of de facto religious toleration, unknown in the rest of the territories under Spanish rule, made it possible for non-Catholic citizens to prosper.
During his extremely short tenure (1785–86) as viceroy of New Spain, whose territory included today’s southern United States, Mexico, and all of Central America to present-day Panama, Gálvez designed and implemented a vast array of reforms. For example, when dealing with the consequences of disastrous weather that caused the failure of most of the viceroyalty’s crops and left the population on the verge of starvation, he put his Enlightenment ideals into practice by focusing on the welfare of poor peasants. He adopted the principle of “public happiness” (felicidad pública), a term that also included a unique sense of responsibility by the government toward the governed, especially those on the bottom rung of the social ladder.
One of Bernardo de Gálvez’s most important and long-standing legacies as governor was his Indian policy. Building on his experience as captain of a small cavalry detachment fighting the Apache in the northern provinces of New Spain, he instituted a new Spanish policy toward indigenous groups living in the borderlands of the Spanish Empire in the Americas. Indeed, his Noticia y reflexiones sobre la guerra que se tiene con los indios apaches en las provincias de Nueva España (Account and reflections on the current war against the Apache Indians in the provinces of New Spain) still is one of the most important sources of knowledge about the eighteenth-century Apaches. Instead of succumbing to the warmongering attitudes prevalent in the region, he demanded from his countrymen that they “be impartial and acknowledge that if the Indians are not our friends, it is because they do not owe us any benefits, and if they take revenge on us, it is only in just compensation for the affronts we have caused them . . . , the lies we have told them, and the tyrannies they have suffered from us.” He states clearly that the main cause of their war against the Spaniards was either “hatred or necessity”—that is, a hatred born of a desire for vengeance for the affronts they had suffered or a necessity rooted in “the extreme need in which they live.” On their reputation for cruelty, he wondered “what their [the Apaches’] opinion is of us, most probably it would not be better, [and] for much better reason.”
Later, in his tenure as viceroy of New Spain, Gálvez completely reorganized New Spain’s northern frontier with his Instrucción formada en virtud de real orden de S.M. (Instruction for governing the Interior Provinces of New Spain) of August 1786. In so doing he introduced a new model of relations between indigenous groups and European settlers. He abandoned the centuries-old model of sporadic confrontation, which had an endemic and almost permanent low-intensity warlike situation in which repeated attacks by indigenous groups elicited punitive military campaigns. Instead, Gálvez designed a new policy that aimed to attract indigenous groups by gift exchanges and commerce. The plan intended to make them dependent on the Spanish so that eventually they would be assimilated into Spanish-American society and would increase the state’s presence throughout the region. By controlling both Spanish and indigenous populations, thereby preventing the multiple abuses inflicted on the latter, Gálvez’s reorganization pacified the region for the duration of the Spanish presence in North America. But peace came with a price: since Spanish policies of assimilation were designed to bring indigenous communities into dependency, the Spanish took little or very limited account of indigenous peoples’ interests.
Bernardo de Gálvez was one of those Spaniards who felt more at home in the Americas than in his native Iberian Peninsula. He spent most of his adult life in America, where he found his wife, where his three children were born, and where he decided that he would be buried.
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As time went by, Spanish support for the Americans was increasingly difficult to cover up. The British continued to protest it while the rebels not only acknowledged it but also showed their gratitude. A year before Willing’s raid, the U.S. Congress Secret Committee sent Gálvez a letter stating, “We are informed by means of Mr Oliver Pollock of the favorable disposition of the United, Free and Independent states of America upon every occasion that has presented since your Excellency’s accession to the Government of New Orleans & Louisiana.”
The Committee of Commerce also expressed its gratitude to Gálvez for facilitating the delivery of supplies to U.S. troops through New Orleans. This is the context for the resolution presented by the Board of War and approved by the Continental Congress in October 1778 that “Governor Gálvez be requested to accept the thanks of Congress for his spirited and disinterested conduct toward these States, and be assured that Congress will take every opportunity of evincing the favorable and friendly sentiments they entertain of Governor Gálvez, and all the faithful subjects of his Catholic Majesty inhabiting the country under his government.”
On May 18, 1779, more than a month before the official declaration of war, Spanish officials in America were informed about its imminent launch. On July 17 the news that Spain and Great Britain were at war arrived in Havana and a little later in New Orleans. However, Bernardo de Gálvez did not wait for this official confirmation to begin his long-formulated plan for attack. Despite the fact that during previous years the military forces available in Louisiana had increased in number, they were not enough to guarantee the province’s defense. In a council of war held on July 13, 1779, Gálvez admitted that Louisiana faced a British force “formed of more than 800 veterans, and with the knowledge that mine barely total 500 men, with 330 of them raw recruits recently arrived from Mexico and the Canary Islands.” The unanimous opinion of all officers present was that “if no reinforcements arrived from Havana it was possible only to fortify the city [New Orleans] and to be reduced to the defensive in case war breaks out.” But Gálvez, who in his own words “would rather be accused of being a daredevil than of any other thing,” informed his men that he was resolved to “go and find our enemies in their own fortresses and posts, because if not taken one by one, I knew full well they were going to come find me.”
Bernardo de Gálvez was right, for he had spent considerable time and resources building a network of spies, which had informed him of British intentions to capture New Orleans as quickly as possible. On June 17, 1779, Lord George Germain, the British minister for the colonies, had sent a letter to Frederick Haldimand informing him of the declaration of war and ordering him to attack New Orleans and other Spanish ports along the Mississippi in coordination with an expedition under the command of General John Campbell, which was to be arriving with ships and troops at the Natchez River. In Gálvez’s own words, not taking into account the opinion of the council of war, and trusting to the support of the local population, I made my preparations without public knowledge, and I decided to march on August 22….[But on August 18] a violent hurricane arrived and in less than three hours sank all of the ships…among them the small warships and gunboats I had ordered to be built for the defense of the river. Many houses in the city and most of those around it were also destroyed, supplies lost, trees torn, men dismayed, their women and children wandering through the deserted fields abandoned to the elements, the land flooded, and everything drowned in the river, along with my resources, supplies, and hopes.
Any other governor would have used the hurricane as an excuse for staying in New Orleans while trying to recover. Instead, Gálvez argued that if before the hurricane, the British could hardly believe that the Spaniards were going to attack, now, “because of the destruction caused by the hurricane (destruction that has not affected their [the British] settlements), they will certainly believe that they are almost defeated.” Thus it was the perfect opportunity for a surprise attack.
Gonzalo M. Quintero Saravia, Bernardo de Gálvez: Spanish Hero of the American Revolution (University of North Carolina Press, 2018), pages 327-337 and 140-14.
Read the Revolution is sponsored by The Haverford Trust Company.
Read the Revolution is published biweekly by the Museum of the American Revolution to inspire learning about the history of the American Revolution and its ongoing relevance.