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The American Revolution's Forgotten Spanish Hero

How Bernardo de Galvez turned the tide against British supremacy on the continent.

Capture of Pensacola.
Spanish Siege of Pensacola (March 9-May 8, 1781), engraving by Vernier from 1st edition of Jean B.G. Roux de Rochelle's Etats-Unis d'Amerique in 1837. Spanish edition, printed in Barcelona, 1850. (Prisma/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

An equestrian statue of Spaniard Bernardo de Gálvez has presided over D.C.’s Memorial Park since the mid-1970s. A lot of people don't know why. Spain contributed three crucial things to the American revolutionaries, without which the independence of the United States would have taken many more years to come about: arms, money, and brave men. Among these last was Bernardo de Gálvez, who at 33 years of age led an assault on Pensacola, Florida, wearing down the English and strengthening the American rebels.

In recent years Spain has had pro-American governments, such as that of José María Aznar; anti-American governments, such as that of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero; and irrelevant ones, such as the current social-communist one led by Pedro Sánchez. In 2004, Zapatero decided it was a good idea to remain seated in front of the American flag during the parade of the Armed Forces on Spain's National Day as a way of showing his rejection of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. He was foolish enough to believe disrespecting the flag only disrespected the president, and not some 300 million Americans. The truth is that the friendship between Spain and the United States is much deeper than the stupidity of some of our leaders, and as far as independence is concerned, there are ties of brotherhood woven by our forefathers that we should not forget.

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At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the Congress of Philadelphia sent out four emissaries into the world: Benjamin Franklin to France, John Adams to Holland, and Arthur Lee and John Jay to Spain. The French soon made their contribution, while the Spanish secretly supported independence by sending Spanish dollars and delivering the first foreign arms Americans would receive for their liberation, to Marblehead, Massachusetts. The Count of Aranda, Spanish ambassador in Paris, made a secret shipment of cannons, mortars, rifles and bullets for George Washington's army that made possible the first victory of the rebels, the Battle of Saratoga. Soon after, as you know, both the French and the Spanish decided to join the party against England.

Bernardo de Gálvez was then governor of La Luisiana, and he helped support the American rebels with supplies. This made the English extremely angry—back then it was easier to anger an Englishman—and they planned the invasion of La Luisiana. However, it never happened, because Gálvez, a great strategist, decided to go ahead and attack the English positions in Baton Rouge, knowing that the dominion of the Mississippi would be a key in the war. Thus, in 1780 a water highway was opened, ideal for the supplying of the rebels.

Gálvez was ambitious and wanted more, though. He decided to recover La Florida for Spain. The enterprise was a bit too big for him. In fact, from the time he planned it until he achieved it, several extra months passed because Spanish commanders in Havana, who were to accompany him, considered it sheer madness to cross Pensacola, where England had a crossfire line that would leave the Spanish fleet like the Titanic in less than a quarter of an hour. Even after Gálvez convinced his own people, chief of the Spanish naval forces Calvo de Irazábal dispatched an order to abort the assault after his flagship ran aground in a slew of English gunfire. 

But Gálvez, playing the typical Spaniard, far from surrendering, decided to board the ship Galveztown—a gift from the Americans—and hurl himself against Pensacola on his own. First though, a little humor: he sent a messenger with an English cannonball to Calvo with a note that read: "This is like the ones that are handed out by the fort at the entrance. Anyone with honor and courage, follow me. I’ll lead the way with the Galveztown to take away your fear.” Galvez managed to cross the barrier of fire without damage, trailed by the rest of the fleet, causing the surrender of the English and the fall of all Florida. It was May 9, 1781. Great news for the United States: the American rebels saw their combat front reduced and the English were plunged into a deep melancholy. 

Months later, the Spanish Crown delivered hundreds of thousands of silver pesos collected in Havana to pay the back wages of Washington's army, allowing them to fight and win the decisive victory at Yorktown. In the memoirs of Count Rochambeau's treasurer, who was in charge of delivering the money, a peculiar fact is mentioned: the weight of the Spanish silver coins broke the floor of the Williamsburg house where they were stored. In any case, in September the dough was delivered to Robert Morris, the financier of the American Revolution, who was thus able to pay Washington’s soldiers, who had not seen a penny since the beginning of that campaign.

Although it may not be our most important contribution, we Spaniards also sent a donkey to the United States during the Revolutionary period. Spain had great donkeys—we still do, take a look at our government—and General Washington commented to his friend Diego de Gardoqui, the Spanish ambassador to the United States, that he needed to improve the breeding of mules for his plantation at Mount Vernon. King Charles III of Spain, informed of the matter, decided to send two donkeys as a personal gift, but unfortunately one of them was killed halfway through the journey. The other arrived in Virginia in December 1795, however, allowing farmer Washington to significantly improve the breeding of these animals.

While today the left struggles to erase the traces of any heroic past throughout the West, others still work to keep history alive. Recently, the Spanish Naval Museum opened an exhibition about the Spanish Navy’s role in the American War of Independence, with Galvez as the protagonist. I commend the effort made by the Unveiling Memories project (an initiative of electric company Iberdrola), which is taking exhibitions and displays on Spain's contribution to America’s independence to museums in the United States. In times when statues and heroes are torn down, conservatives should spend our days raising them again.

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