- Bernardo de Gálvez: Spanish Hero of the American Revolution by Gonzalo M. Quintero Saravia
During the first years of our war for independence, Spain supplied American military forces with munitions and other supplies while remaining officially neutral. Informed Americans at the time knew of this aid and that the campaigns of Bernardo de Gálvez that captured Baton Rouge, Mobile, and Pensacola had, in some way, contributed to the US-French victory over Great Britain. Relatively few Americans knew that a Spanish agent had raised a large loan at Havana, Cuba, that made it possible for the French fleet to sail to the Chesapeake Bay and bottle up Lord Cornwallis’ army, hastening the end of the war. After the war, disputes over which of the supplies had been gifts, which had been provided on credit, and who “owned” the Cis-Mississippi West and the Floridas eroded the good will that Spanish aid to the American revolutionaries and support for the French war effort (and thus indirectly for the US) had created. Public memory of Spain’s activities during the war largely vanished.
In 1925 Spanish historian Juan F. Yela Utrilla’s España ante la independencia de los Estados Unidos (2 vols., Lérida, Spain, 1925) began what has since been a fairly consistent effort in Spain to reclaim public memory there and in the United States of the events sketched above. Historians in the United States interested in the borderlands joined the party during the 1930s, notably with John Walton’s Caughey’s Bernardo de Gálvez in Louisiana, 1776–1783 (Berkeley, Calif., 1934).
The claiming for Bernardo de Gálvez, and thus for Spain and Spaniards, of an important role in the history of the United States during our revolutionary war became a cottage industry around [End Page 69] 1976. It culminated in a congressional resolution that conferred honorary citizenship on Don Bernardo in 2014.
This new biography, based on the author’s Ph.D. thesis at the Universidad Compultense (Madrid), continues that line of argument, proudly proclaiming Gálvez a “Spanish Hero of the American Revolution.” Only deep into the book does the author note that what Gálvez did was in Spain’s interest, as Thomas E. Chavez has correctly argued in his Spain and the Independence of the United States: An Intrinsic Gift (Albuquerque, N.M., 2002), and that US authorities were unhappy that he paroled British prisoners taken at Pensacola to New York without restricting them from rejoining the British effort to suppress the American rebellion (230–32). That was prelude to disagreements and poor diplomatic relations during the following decades, even though at the end of the war George Washington acknowledged the Spanish contribution and the activities of Gálvez. An alternative reading of the story makes Bernardo de Gálvez not a hero of the American Revolution but an example of the new generation of able Spanish officials trying to reclaim Spain’s international position as one of the great powers. Bernardo’s efforts incidentally helped the new United States achieve independence from Great Britain, a common enemy, though he and his royal masters did not have that intention. Spain never formally allied with the new US government.
The importance, quality, and contributions of this new biography of Bernardo de Gálvez can best be appreciated by comparing it to Caughey’s book, long the standard work in English. Where Caughey begins with a discussion of the French and initial Spanish periods in Louisiana and then a brief discussion of Bernardo’s military expeditions against the Apaches in 1770–71, Quintero Saravia provides what little is known about Galvez’s youth and family and a brief-but-detailed discussion of the Apaches and their raiding of Mexico’s northern frontier before getting to Bernardo’s three sorties against them. Quintero Saravia follows this by showing that from 1772–1776, Gálvez spent time at the new Spanish military academy, not in...