Wayback Wednesday

Wayback Wednesday is a weekly series featuring historical figures with a record of military service and a connection to the arts.

This week features Bernardo de Galvez and his men, the shadows of whom still live on in the corners of the Marine Hymn.

Adopted in 1929 as the official song of the United States Marine Corps (USMC), the Marine Hymn is the oldest official song of the US Armed Forces. It is usually sung by the Corps at attention as a gesture of respect, and most adults in the US can readily recognize the song and provide a few of the lyrics. The song begins:

From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine.

Like the whole of the song, a great deal of history of the USMC and the country they fight to protect is caught up in the very first line, ‘From the Halls of Montezuma.’ This opening line is a reference to the September 12-13, 1847 Battle of Chapultepec, during which 400 Marines on detached duty led the storming of an imposing bastion at what would prove to be the defining moment of the Mexican War. Chapultepec was a fitting place for the fight, given its connection to an iconoclastic Spanish Viceroy and a band of militia in the American Revolution.

In 1785, the construction of Chapultepec Castle was ordered by newly appointed Viceroy Bernardo de Galvez as a summer home for the Viceroyalty. Galvez had earned the posting through his actions as governor of Spanish Louisiana. The strategic port of New Orleans, a back door to the colonies, proved critical in the early years of the Revolution as a road for smugglers and haven for privateers.

As Governor-General, Galvez carried out with enthusiasm his government’s desire to covertly support the Americans. Working with an agent of the fledgling United States, Oliver Pollock, Galvez strove to ensure the efficient acquisition and transport of supplies up the Mississippi River, commissioning new trails to make the trip easier. As Spain was ostensibly neutral, New Orleans could not be blockaded and the British had too much already on their hands to protest too strongly Galvez’s protection of privateers and smugglers. Things became more complicated in 1779 when Spain, like France and the Netherlands, entered the war on the side of the Thirteen Colonies.

Days after Spain’s declaration of war on Great Britain, a letter was sent from King George III and Prime Minister Lord St. Germain to General John Campbell at Pensacola in British Florida, instructing him to begin organizing an attack on New Orleans. The letter fell into allied hands, and was brought to Galvez. The British campaign was to be dependent on gathering forces from across the Caribbean; Galvez quickly and quietly began organizing an expedition to attack first.

On August 21st, Galvez set out from New Orleans with a force of 520 regulars (2/3rds recent volunteers), 60 militiamen, 80 free blacks, and 10 American volunteers led by the intrepid Mr. Pollock. Journeying north to attack the British stronghold at Baton Rouge, local Creoles, Indians, Tejanos, and Hispanics swelled his numbers to 1,400. After a delaying action by the British at Fort Bute, Galvez pressed on to besiege the 400 British soldiers at Baton Rouge. After eight days, caught off guard and not expecting to be on the defensive, the British surrendered. Having secured the lower Mississippi against British interference, Galvez garrisoned his newly won territory and returned to New Orleans.

On January 20, 1780 Galvez set sail with a force of 1,300 men, which he soon had ashore below Fort Charlotte on the approaches to Mobile. The British force of 304 soldiers and militia put up a spirited defense, but was forced to surrender after the walls were breached by Spanish artillery.

In the fall of 1780, the British at Pensacola, now their last stronghold in the region, were given extra time to prepare their defenses when Galvez next assault expedition was dispersed by a hurricane. Galvez was not delayed long, regrouping and getting an army to Pensacola by March 1781. General Campbell had thought, following the hurricane, that he had an opportunity to seize the initiative and was caught with some of his forces away from Pensacola’s fortifications. Still, Campbell had pulled together a total of 1,300 regulars, Indians, and militia. While the Spanish started with only a small advantage in numbers, Galvez had arranged for the flood of reinforcements, supplies and laborers needed for a long siege. By May of 1781, the Spanish had overwhelming force available. Under ever heavier bombardment, with their outer fortifications having fallen to the Spanish force, the British garrison surrendered on May 8, 1781.

When the war ended in 1783, Galvez was in the process of planning the conquest of British Jamaica. His efforts and those of his men denied the British the possibility of a second front against the colonists, ensured supply lines to the Continental Army through the Gulf or Mexico, and effected the forces on both sides during the final battles of the war. Additional French and Spanish soldiers and ships were available for the Yorktown campaign, while the British had to contend with reinforcing their now vulnerable Caribbean possessions.

For his efforts, Galvez was recognized by the Continental Congress and by General George Washington himself. He is remembered through a smattering a street names in Louisiana and Florida, a statue in Washington DC erected in 1976 for the centennial, and in one large city that bears his name (Galvezton, TX). He was rewarded with the Viceroyalty of Cuba and then of all New Spain in 1783. In addition to commissioning Chapultepec Castle, Galvez sponsored a botanical expedition, patronized the arts, donated a portion of his annual salary to charity, and in general continued to be an energetic and effective leader.

Alas, Spain’s imperial decay began to catch up with him. In a weakening empire, the best and brightest were increasingly subject to official skepticism and sanction. Before the full weight of official displeasure could catch up with him, Galvez died at the age of 40 on November 30th, 1786. Suspicions of possible poisoning persist to this day, though a typhoid epidemic was likely the culprit. In 2014, he became one of only eight individuals in history awarded honorary United States citizenship. In his energy, curiosity, and lack of concern for those conventions that he deemed unhelpful, Galvez was perhaps better representative of the New World than the Old that he had pledged service to. As for the troops that fought with Galvez, they would wait close to 25 years before securing their portion of the freedom won in the war they had fought. With the 1804 conclusion of the Louisiana Purchase, they gained their American citizenship.

A bit messy and somewhat unlikely, like the United States itself, today for #waybackwednesday we honor Galvez and his men, the shadows of whom still live on in the corners of the Marine Hymn.

U.S. Marines storming Chapultepec castle under a large American flag, paving the way for the fall of Mexico City By E.B. & E.C. Kellogg

Update: A quick note following up on Wednesday’s posting, regarding the Marines who participated in the assault on Chapultepec. A total of 400 Marines were present with General Winfield Scott in 1847 as he attempted to take the capitol of Mexico City by circling to the west. Chapultepec Castle, on a rise of 200 feet, guarded that approach and would have to be taken. After having to persuade most of his officers that attacking the imposing height was advisable, Scott set the attack for September 13th. September 12th was spent in bombardment and positioning troops. Three enveloping forces totaling 2,000 soldiers, under Generals Gideon Pillow, William Worth, and John Quitman were to go forward. Preceding these troops were two storming parties of 250 men each, commanded by Major Levi Twigg and Captain Samuel MacKenzie. These two parties, which included 40 Marines with Twigg, were considered ‘forlorn hopes’ intended to come to blows with the enemy as quickly as possible and draw almost certainly fatal amounts of the defender’s attention.

They indeed took hideous casualties, but proceeded on ahead of the attack rather than falling back. Upon reaching the walls of Chapultepec, hideous hand to hand fighting ensued with neither side seeking or giving quarter. It was here, having reached the walls, where the Marines tenacity helped carry the day. At the forefront of the push into the castle itself, the famed ‘Halls of Montezuma.’ When General Scott entered the castle after the battle, he found the streets inside guarded by the surviving Marines. A remarkable testament, given their exhausting contribution to the fight, the chaos and disorganization that usually accompanies a hard fight for any strong point, and the fact that 90% of the Marine officers and noncommissioned officers who participated in the fight were casualties.

In addition to the reference in the Marines Hymn, the scarlet ‘blood stripes’ were added to Marine dress uniforms in memory of the fallen at Chapultepec.  The Marines had been around since their formation by an act of the Second Continental Congress on November 10th, 1775 (thus preceding the Declaration of Independence). As odd as it may sound today, the USMC lacked in its early history the esprit de corps and hard-hitting aura that it possesses today. It was not long before the American Revolution, after all, that Samuel Johnson expressed the opinion of many in the English speaking world about service aboard a ship when he wrote, “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned… a man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.” The reputation of the United States Marine Corps was earned, not given, in hard fighting and blood. Some done in battles remembered still in song, such as Chapultepec, and others in fighting that is today largely forgotten.