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May 22nd, 2013
Bartee Haile: The Spanish hero who made a lasting impression

This Week in Texas History:
A column

Landing at the port of Veracruz on May 26, 1785, Bernardo de Galvez set out for Mexico City to take his dead father’s place as viceroy of New Spain.

The Spaniard destined to play an important part in the American Revolution and to leave a lasting impression in Mexico, Texas and Louisiana was born in a mountain village in 1746.  As a member of an influential family devoted to serving king and country, his life was already laid out for him before he could even walk.

Bernardo de Galvez

Bernardo de Galvez

For a male Galvez that meant a career in the military, and Bernardo began his as a 16 year old lieutenant.  He got his first taste of combat in the 1762 invasion of Portugal, an inconclusive clash between the Iberian neighbors, as well as his first promotion.

Capt. Galvez accompanied a high-ranking uncle on the long sea voyage to the New World in 1767.  Once their inspection tour of the enormous colony was complete, the nephew was sent to the northern frontier of Mexico to put the Apaches in their place.

Even though that objective proved to be beyond his reach, as it had for every Spaniard before him, Galvez did manage to mount one of the few successful campaigns against the red raiders.

With 135 soldiers and 50 Indian allies, he crossed the Rio Grande in October 1770 in search of his elusive prey.  Thanks to a guide, who knew his way around the unfamiliar country along the Pecos River, and the commander’s bold initiative, the Spaniards surprised the sleeping Apaches with a pre-dawn strike.

The final count heavily favored Galvez and his men.  They killed 28 Apaches, took 36 prisoner and captured their entire herd of horses without suffering a single fatality.  In the process Galvez put the family brand on the Texas landscape by naming the site of the initial crossing of the Pecos for his father and the location of the return trip for himself.

Subsequent expeditions, however, were nothing to write home about.  The Apaches showed Galvez they were no push-over and gave him several scars to remember them by before his return to Spain in 1772.

Galvez spent the next three years in France learning the language, which soon would come in handy, and customs and probably keeping a close eye on the French war machine.  Then came the military misadventure that nearly cost him his life.

Anxious to drive the Turks out of Algiers, King Carlos III ordered Irish-born Alexander O’Reilly to take every ship, sailor and soldier he needed to do the job.  But the botched invasion resulted in the biggest black eye for Spain since the British and Mother Nature destroyed the Armada in 1588.

Seriously wounded at Algiers, Galvez recovered to reap the rewards of his bravery in the battle.  He was raised in rank to colonel and within two years appointed governor of Louisiana, which France handed over to Spain in 1763 to make up for the loss of Florida to Great Britain in the Seven Years War.

While Spain waited until 1779 to officially pick a side in the American Revolution, King Carlos and his governor left no stone unturned in providing support for the colonists’ cause.  With the full backing of Madrid, Governor Galvez closed the New Orleans gateway to the British and allowed only Spanish, French and American ships access to the Mississippi River.  Furthermore, he sent huge amounts of military supplies and thousands of Texas cattle and horses to Gen. George Washington over the inland lifeline.

When Spain at last declared war on Great Britain in March 1779, Galvez sprang into action inflicting decisive defeats on the British at Manchac, Baton Rogue and Natchez before the end of the year.  In March 1780, Fort Charlotte at Mobile succumbed to a Spanish siege led by Galvez as did Fort George at Pensacola 15 months later.

The Revolutionary War ended with Florida and the whole Gulf Coast back in Spanish hands.  Galvez was hailed as a hero not only in his homeland but also by the grateful Americans, especially General Washington.

After a short stint as governor of Cuba, Galvez succeeded his father as viceroy of New Spain.  But his arrival in Mexico City coincided with a famine caused by a freak August freeze and a plague epidemic.

At a time when one peso bought 100 pounds of corn or 200 pounds of beans, Galvez spent 12,000 pesos of his personal fortune to feed the starving masses.  After the crisis passed, he started the reconstruction of the Castle of Chapultepec, today a national treasure, and completed the Cathedral of Mexico, largest in the hemisphere.

Then, on Nov. 30, 1786, the people’s viceroy died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 40.  Some suspected he had been poisoned to prevent the spread of the democratic “infection” he may have contracted in his dealings with the Americans.

Despite his enemies’ efforts to erase him from history, permanent reminders of Bernardo de Galvez remain.  Galveston Bay and Galveston Island are named for him as are Galvez Street in New Orleans, Galvez Plaza and the Galvez Building in Baton Rouge and St. Bernard Parish.

Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or

San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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