Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid
Important American Ally in the Revolutionary War
Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid was born on July 23, 1746, in the province of Malaga in southern Spain. He was the first child of Mariá Josefa de Madrid and her husband Matías de Gálvez, a Spanish general who would later become the Captain General of Guatemala and the Viceroy of New Spain. His Uncle José de Gálvez, a lawyer, would eventually become Spain’s Minister to the [West] Indies. The Gálvez family was highly esteemed by the Spanish crown for their services to the colonial empire, and the young Bernardo’s other uncles included a field marshal and an ambassador. Among them, the boy was closest to his Uncle José.
Bernardo’s military and government career began during the Seven Years War, when he aided military operations against Portugal on behalf of Spain at the age of sixteen. Following the war he accompanied his Uncle José to the Americas in 1765, José acting as the inspector general of New Spain. While there, Bernardo was commissioned as a captain under General Juan de Villalba and rose up in the ranks, stationed in what is now Southwest Texas. He led Spanish attacks against Native American nations, most notably the Apache in 1770 and 1771.
In 1772, Bernardo and José returned to Spain where José was appointed to the Council of the [West] Indies, helping to organize colonial administration from Spain. As Minister of the Indies, José would later be responsible for determining many Spanish objectives over the course of the war. While José had no direct authority over the Spanish army or navy, his powers of patronage allowed him to appoint officers to a variety of posts, including Bernardo’s eventual appointments. Following his return to Europe, Bernardo spent three years with the French Cantabria regiment in Pau, France, to refine and expand his military experience. This is also where he learned the French language, and generally became familiar with French culture. Bernardo was transferred back to Spain in 1775, where he was wounded during a Spanish assault against the city of Algiers. Not long afterwards, he was transferred yet again—this time to command a regiment in New Orleans as a lieutenant colonel. Shortly afterwards, at the age of thirty, Bernardo was appointed governor of Louisiana at the behest of his uncle.
Previously a French territory, Louisiana had been given to Spain as a concession for its defeat during the Seven Years War. Because of how recently the territory changed hands, those living in Louisiana were predominantly French. Because of this, the time he had spent in France aided Bernardo in establishing a rapport with the locals in his new position. When the American Revolution began he helped to establish New Orleans as a supply base and refuge for the American rebels. Trade with the British colonies of North America had been illegal under the previous governor’s policies, but Bernardo opened trade with both French and rebel Americans, taking in goods stolen from British ships.
New Orleans was in an excellent strategic position for such a base of operations, as the city controlled ocean access to the Mississippi River. Bernardo also helped to disguise trade between the Spanish and the United States from the British, and at times allowed American forces to cross through Spanish territory unimpeded. From 1776 to 1779, he was responsible for funnelling supplies along the Mississippi to American armies in the northwest. Bernardo also further strengthened the defences of New Orleans itself in case of British attack, and began to plan offensives against the British in Florida in the event that Spain joined the war officially. It was also during this period he married his wife, a young widow by the name of Marie Felice de Saint-Maxent d’Estrehan, whose first husband was the son of a high-ranking French official in the area and whose sister was the wife of Luis de Unzaga, the governor of Louisiana prior to Bernardo de Gálvez.
The Spanish King Charles III reacted cautiously when the American rebellion began, but came to see the conflict as an opportunity to reclaim territory lost to Britain. In addition, France’s entrance into the war in 1778 brought with it pressure from the French King Louis XVI for Spanish involvement. As a fellow colonial power the Spanish were cautious of appearing to condone a colonial rebellion, and when they did join the conflict in 1779 it was by declaring war against Great Britain rather than expressing support for the independence of British colonies.
With war declared Bernardo quickly moved to reconquer Spanish territories that had been lost to Britain during the Seven Years War, despite the absence of promised reinforcements from Spanish Cuba who were delayed by storms. Hoping first to recover the colonies of East and West Florida for Spain, Bernardo began in 1779 by taking back a number of British-held forts along the Mississippi River, including Baton Rouge for which he was promoted to Brigadier General. The following year the city of Mobile in what is now Alabama became Bernardo’s next target. The first attempt was cancelled when most of Bernardo’s fleet was grounded in a storm, but nevertheless Mobile fell before the end of the year. As a colony that had only recently been given to Great Britain, many native West Floridians had little motivation to fight on behalf of the British against the Spanish.
Bernardo was appointed as commander of an expeditionary army stationed in Havana, and began to plan a siege against the West Florida capital of Pensacola. Despite poor weather and conflict with government officials in Cuba, Bernardo was able to obtain enough ships and troops to attack the city of Pensacola, where Spanish ships arrived on March 9, 1781 and soon began the attack. With Bernardo himself on the flagship San Ramon, his Spanish troops and ships laid siege against the city, joined by French reinforcements midway through April. Two months after the beginning of the siege, on the evening of May 8th, Bernardo’s howitzers scored a direct hit on the British powder supply—this destroyed most of the powder magazine and killed more than one hundred soldiers. On May 10, 1781, the city surrendered to Bernardo. Over the course of the siege against Pensacola more than seventy of Bernardo’s soldiers were killed, with dozens more dying from disease.
Only five months later, the British General Cornwallis was forced to surrender his army at Yorktown, Virginia. Following British expulsion from the Gulf Coast, Bernardo returned to Havana and shifted his focus. He was aware that negotiations had begun in Europe between the American rebels and colonial powers, and hoped to claim everything he could for Spain before a finalized treaty marked the end of the war, disallowing further military strikes. Bernardo’s forces took the Bahamas and the island of Minorca from Great Britain, but The Treaty of Paris was signed before a strike was made against Jamaica and the attack was called off.
For Bernardo de Gálvez, his victories did not go unnoticed in Spain, particularly his efforts during the siege of Pensacola. Spanish campaigns, many led by Bernardo de Gálvez, made it possible for Spain to obtain the Mississippi delta region and part of Florida in the eventual peace settlement, the 1783 Treaty of Paris. Following the end of the war, Bernardo returned to Spain to help direct Spanish foreign policy in Louisiana and Florida. From there he was briefly appointed the General Governor for Louisiana and Cuba, staying in Havana for a few months before returning once again to Louisiana. In 1785, Bernardo was appointed Viceroy of Mexico following the death of his father Matias, the previous Viceroy.
Bernardo de Gálvez died of an illness in Mexico City in November of 1786, only a few months after his 40th birthday; his time as Viceroy was successful but brief. His third child with Marie Felice, named Guadalupe, was born only two months after his death. Bernardo was considered to be one of the finest military leaders in New Spain. His military successes in Florida and the Mississippi delta region rank among the greatest military achievements by America’s allies during the war against Great Britain, while the siege of Pensacola became one of the greatest victories for the Spanish during the American Revolution. His military campaigns kept British forces tied down in Florida that might otherwise have been deployed in the Southern States.
Primary Source Documents
Excerpts from a letter written to Barnardo de Gálvez by Thomas Jefferson on November 8th, 1779, inquiring about a loan from Spain to the North American rebels.
…The Accession of his most Catholic Majesty, since the Date of those Letters to the Hostilities carrying on by confederate powers of France and North America against Great Britain, thereby adding to their efforts, the weight of your powerfull and wealthy Empire, has given us, all the certainty of a happy Issue to the present Contest, of which human Events will admit…
…From New Orleans alone can they be tolerably suppl[ied] with necessaries of European Manufactures, and thither they will carry in Exchange Staves and Peltry immediately, and Flour pork and Beef, as soon as they shall have somewhat opened their Lands. For their Protection from the Indians, we are obliged to send and station among them, a considerable armed Force; the providing of which with cloathing, and the Friendly Indians with necessaries, becomes a matter of great Difficulty with us…
…Young as we are in Trade and Manufactures, and engaged in war with a Nation whose power on the Sea, has been such as to intercept a great proportion of the Supplies we have attempted to import from Europe, you will not wonder to hear, that we find great Difficulties in procuring either money or Commodities to answer the Calls of our Armies, and therefore that it would be a Circumstance of vast relief to us, if we could leave our deposits in France for the Calls of that part of our State which lies on the Atlantic, and procure a Suspension of the Demands from Your Quarter, for supplies to our Western Forces one, Two, or three Years, or such longer Time as could be obtained; With this view Governor Henry in his Letters of January 14, and 26th 1778 solicited from Your Nation a loan of money which your Excellency was so kind, as to undertake to communicate to Your Court..
…As we flatter ourselves that the Application thro’ the intervention of your Excellency may have been successful, and that you may be authorized to advance for us some loans in money, I take the Liberty of soliciting you in such Case, to advance for us to Mr. Pollock Sixty five Thousand Eight Hundred fourteen & 5/8 Dollars…
The diary kept by Gálvez during the siege of Pensacola in all likelihood was not written by him but by his aid-de-camp, under Gálvez’s supervision. The first copies may have been printed at Pensacola by a small printing press that was usually carried by certain naval vessels. However, the exact printing date, and the whereabouts of the original manuscript is not known. Even though the diary was not written by Gálvez, it was still a first-hand account. The diary also includes personal letters written by Gálvez during the course of the battle. In all, Gálvez’s diary was the most important and famous account from the siege of Pensacola.
[March 15, 1781] At five in the afternoon the General decided to go in a boat to the Perdido River to instruct Ezpeleta personally about his plans. For this purpose he embarked with his aids and left the harbor, showing thus that the same possibility that there was to enter, there was to leave; but the contrary winds and the currents there both forced him to return to the camp at eleven at night.
On the morning of March 20, Gálvez sent an officer to go to Pensacola with a letter for General Campbell conceived these terms:
Dear Sir: The English in Havana made known with threats that the buildings and ships of the King or of individuals would not be destroyed, burned or sunk without the penalty of being treated with the greatest severity. The same warning I give to you and the others against whom I compete, with the same conditions. May God keep you many years. Camo of Santa Rosa Island, 20th of March, 1781. Your most attentive servant, Bernardo de Gálvez. Most excellent Senor Don Juan Campbell.
Letter to Governor Chester, March 22, 1781:
Dear Sir: I regret that since yesterday circumstances have changed so much here that now I cannot, neither ought to, answer the proposals which you made to me in your letters on the matter of prisoners and families of Pensacola; if the fortune of the last interest you, as is likely, deal with General Campbell, since all depends on the good or evil conduct which he observes. I personally am your most attentive servant, Bernardo de Gálvez. Senor Don Peter Chester.
P.S. I enclose for you a copy of that which I wrote to General Campbell, for your information.
May 5, 1781, less than a week before the surrender.
The fire of the enemy was fairly vigorous and after the Angelus they aimed all of it on the left, causing us some dead and wounded.
At night a very bad storm of wind, thunder and rain came over which inundated all the camp and especially the trench, for which reason all work was suspended; and the squadron which was anchored near the shore found it necessary to let go its moorings and to set sail, fearing being dashed against it.
The sixth, in the morning, in consideration of the bad night which the troops in the trench had passed, the General ordered that they be relieved to dry their clothes and that they be given a ration of brandy.
For Further Reading
Orwin Rush, The Battle of Pensacola (1966).
Ernest Dupuy, The American Revolution: A Global War (1977).
James Lewis, The Final Campaign of the American Revolution (1991).