The Mexican Contribution to American Independence

Leading American academicians such as Harvard’s late Samuel P. Huntington and the Hoover Institute’s Victor Davis Hanson have proclaimed that Mexicans are the greatest threat to American ideals and sovereignty.

American history, however, contradicts these men of letters.

Centuries of European domination of North and South America began to erode and eventually mostly disappear when a courageous group of English subjects signed their names to a proclamation written by Virginia slave-owner Thomas Jefferson on the 4th of July 1776. The world would change forever when that declaration was signed.

Its worldwide effect is best described by Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis, Spanish diplomat and finance minister to the West Indies, who said, “What is not being thought about at present, what ought to occupy the whole attention of politics, is the great upheaval that in time the North American revolution is going to produce in the human race.”

The first to break away from European domination was America, soon to be named the United States. Next came Mexico in 1810 and then the Central and South American countries eventually named Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and the other Spanish and Portuguese colonies south to Argentina.

The key link between hemispheric colonialism and independence was Mexico and Mexicans. Yes, calling it Mexico before that country’s independence from Spain is derided by critics steeped in traditional dislike of anything Spanish, Roman Catholic or American Indian, but not calling Mexico Mexico before its 1810 revolt for independence is like not calling America America before 1776.

The spirit of American independence didn’t register in the minds of France’s Bourbon royalty or its Madrid incarnation in 1779 when France and Spain declared war on England. Their concern was great-power politics. But the revolution was sincerely felt in the Spanish and French territories of Cuba, New Spain (Mexico) and New Orleans.

The newly appointed Spanish Governor General Bernardo Vicente de Galvez y Madrid had surreptitiously helped American rebel forces since 1775. Authorized by Spain’s King Charles III, American agent Oliver Pollock could buy military supplies including gunpowder in New Orleans. Boatloads of critical materiel were shipped up the Mississippi River by Spanish boats and boatmen to American rebel forces.

General Galvez enthusiastically joined the formal war against England by initially enlisting a force that included 300 recruits from Mexico, free blacks, 500 experienced Spanish infantrymen, volunteers from the American colonies and Louisiana’s German and Acadian communities, and American Indians.

The Spanish government built up its military in America then demanded that Great Britain recognize the rebel “United States of America.” When that demand was rejected, Spain declared war.

With numbers eventually totaling 8,000 and equaling those of France helping Washington in New England and Virginia, Galvez routed the British from their strongholds in Baton Rouge and Mobile Bay and at the massive fortress at Pensacola.

The British army commanded by Lord Cornwallis moved south from the New York area to encamp on the Yorktown Peninsula in the hope of winning the war there. The American cause’s future was not bright at the time; mutinies by American troops were occurring with frequency for lack of pay, food, and supplies.

The Continental Congress could not provide the required hard currency, as its continental currency was worthless. Any possible American victory was in jeopardy for lack of money.

Luckily the needed funds were raised by the Spanish in Cuba in an emergency collection from the people of Havana. Washington’s soldiers and French sailors were paid, the British surrendered, and the United States of America was born, paid for with Mexican silver and gold — eight years after the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Six decades later, Mexicans and Americans fought a border war that resulted in a huge expansion of the U.S. and a shrinking by half of Mexico. Over 100,000 Mexican citizens automatically became U.S. citizens per the Treaty of Guadalupe that ended the war in 1848.

Many of them would don U.S. uniforms and fight in and during the Civil War. Their war contribution was a Mexican-American cavalry brigade in California that defended the country west of New Mexico. It was commanded by the highest-ranking Hispanic in the Union ground forces, Brigadier General Romualdo Pacheco. The highest ranking Hispanic naval officer of the war, Admiral David Farragut of “damn the torpedoes” fame, was offered the Republican nomination for President in 1868.

More than 20,000 Hispanics served in the Civil War from private to general and admiral, and Hispanics have continued to distinguish themselves serving in America’s armed forces. The wartime honor roll includes:

  • Boxer Rebellion — Marine Pvt. France Silva became the first Mexican-American to be awarded a Medal of Honor.
  • World War I — Army Pvt. David B. Barkeley Cantu from Texas was awarded a Medal of Honor posthumously; the Army did not know he was Mexican-American until decades later. Army Private Marcelino Serna, born in Mexico and living illegally in the United States, was the first Mexican to earn the Distinguished Service Cross. He was also Texas’ most decorated veteran of the war.
  • World War II – Seventeen Hispanics were awarded the Medal of Honor including the war’s second most decorated fighting man, Texan Cleto Rodriguez, the most decorated fighting Mexican-American ever. Two of those honored were actually Mexican citizens.
  • Korean War – Fifteen Hispanics were awarded the Medal of Honor, including 10 Mexican-Americans and five Puerto Ricans.
  • Vietnam — Twenty-two Hispanics, including four Puerto Ricans, three Mexican citizens and 15 Mexican-Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor.

Despite Huntington and Hanson’s negative views of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, objective observers might declare them to be the most lethal enemies of America’s enemies.

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The Hispanic Flank of the American Revolution

From the cannons mounted on the roof of Fort Conde, now surrounded by modern high-rise buildings in downtown Mobile, Alabama, it’s hard to envision the time when it was under siege by Spanish and Latin American troops. But it’s even harder for many Americans to understand that those Latinos were keeping the British from George Washington’s flanks and helping him win the American Revolution.

American history has a way of whitewashing the contributions made by Latinos even for more than two centuries before the American Revolution. But for those who never saw this part of our Hispanic history in their American school textbooks, inside the Fort Conde Museum, there is an impressive scale model that illustrates the magnitude of the Hispanic fight for America’s independence.

Some background: The present Fort Conde is a model of about one-third of the original structure, which was built by the French in the 1720s and named Fort Conde in honor of King Louis XIV’s brother. The stronghold was renamed Fort Charlotte when France lost all its possession in North America at the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. The former La Louisiane became part of British West Florida, which then stretched from Apalachicola to the Mississippi River.

The British flag flew over the fort for the following 17 years, and the scale model in today’s Fort Conde illustrates the battle that brought it down. In it there are some 1,000 mostly Latino troops surrounding the British fort.

“British Colonial period on the Gulf Coast ended in spectacular fashion during the American Revolution,” the exhibit explains. “In March 1780, Don Bernardo de Galvez, the Mexican governor of Louisiana, led more than a thousand troops to Mobile and laid siege to Fort Charlotte … For 14 long days, Spanish guns battered the old fort. Faced with the complete destruction of his ragtag army of 300 men, including armed slaves and volunteers from the town, Captain Elias Dumford surrendered Fort Charlotte.”

Under Spanish rule, the former Fort Conde and Fort Charlotte became Fort Carlota.

“Galvez continued eastward toward Pensacola,” the exhibit adds. “Soon all of British West Florida was under Spanish control.”

In Pensacola, where Galvez led some 3,000 men and 32 battleships and won his most decisive battle against the British, his contributions to the success of the American Revolution are properly recognized at both the prestigious T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum and Fort George Memorial Park — as noted in this column two weeks ago.

But my Great Hispanic American History Tour was headed westbound and the next stop was New Orleans, where numerous victories by Galvez’s troops along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast “contributed greatly to securing independence for the United States,” according an exhibit at The Cabildo, the Spanish government building erected in the latter part of the 18th century and still one of the centerpieces of the downtown French Quarter.

The exhibit explains, “Spain benefited, too, acquiring West Florida and reclaiming East Florida from the British according to the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution in 1783.” Drafted with Galvez’s input, this is the treaty that set up the boundaries for today’s State of Florida, sold by Spain to the United States in 1821.

The Cabildo exhibit also notes that while the Spanish troops were heavily outnumbered by the British in all the Gulf Coast battles, “Spain, however, had to go on the offensive against well-defended British strongholds.”

But who were these men fighting with Galvez? The Cabildo exhibit notes that they were “troops from Louisiana, Cuba, Mexico, and other Spanish colonies; white militia comprised of Germans, Acadians, Canary Islanders, Frenchmen, and Spaniards; free black militia; black slaves; and Native Americans.”

In fact, the large majority were Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans and Mexicans who — from here — inspired freedom movements throughout the Americas. Most people don’t know that even before Latinos fought for their own homelands’ independence from Spain, they fought with Spain against Britain in the American Revolution and that it was the American Revolution that ignited Latin America’s quest for independence.

One of the names that stands out is that of Juan Manuel de Cagigal y Monserrat, who was born in Cuba, became second-in-command to Galvez during the entire Gulf War against the British and was reportedly “the first to storm the breach at the walls of Pensacola.”

As Cuba’s first criollo captain general and governor of La Habana, Cagigal also helped to organize a massive fundraising campaign among Cuba’s social elite. It was Cagigal who had received a plea for help in a letter from French admiral Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse on behalf of the American insurgents, and it was he who mobilized the so-called Ladies of Havana to give up their jewelry and raised enough funds to give George Washington’s troops the margin of victory at Yorktown, according to some historians. They say the late injection of funds from Cuba allowed Washington to equip thousands of additional troops and go on to win the decisive battle of the Revolution. They say the Spanish silver dollars Washington received from Cuba — the equivalent of $28 million in today’s money — “must be considered as the ground whereon was erected the American independence.”

Bottom line: Our Latino ancestors financed and fought for American independence and we, too, are the sons and daughters of the American Revolution.

Aside from defeating the British all along the Gulf Coast and, in effect, eliminating the possibility that Washington’s troops could be attacked from the rear, aside from allowing Washington to concentrate only on the war’s eastern front, Galvez also had been sending weapons, medicine, uniforms and other goods to Washington’s army. They went up the Mississippi River and Ohio River, across Pennsylvania and on to Washington’s needy troops — some $70,000 in goods in 1777, according to one estimate.

Unbeknown to most Americans, Washington invited Galvez to march with him in the great victory parade of July 4, 1783. The Continental Congress also recognized his great achievements.

Feliz Cuatro de Julio! Viva la Independencia!

Raoul Lowery Contreras is a political consultant and the author of “The Armenian Lobby & American Foreign Policy” and “The Mexican Border: Immigration, War and a Trillion Dollars in Trade.” Frank D. Gomez is a retired senior foreign service officer.
Miguel Perez
Journalist Miguel Pérez, an award-winning columnist and popular radio and television talk-show host, has spent his 30-year career covering the issues and concerns of America’s burgeoning Latino population. In his columns, he looks at Latino contributions to American society, the fight to protect democratic rights in Latin America and immigration trends across the United States.

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