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March 31, 2016

Tidbits from History – On Failures

Bernardo de Gálvez Symposium

General, Governor, Viceroy Bernardo de Gálvez

And once again, Bernardo de Gálvez offers us insights on learning from past mistakes. One wishes our current would-be-leaders might learn to do the same.

Yesterday, we talked about Bernardo’s victories over the Apache and the British. He had also had numerous defeats. He had learned about the terrible feeling of a crushing rout during his early career in the military. These were lessons he did not wish to repeat.

Young Bernardo had lived in Macharaviaya until his father entered the military. Sometime during his early years, he and his parents made a brief sojourn in Madrid. While there, Bernardo’s mother died, either in childbirth or soon thereafter. A younger brother also died, leaving Bernardo with only his father to care for him.

Bernardo had no choice but to exist immersed in military life. Spain seemed to be involved in wars all the time. His father was ordered to the Canary Islands during the French and Indian War (1756-1763), better known in Europe as the Seven Years’ War. Spain had entered on the side of their cousins, the French. The Spanish military, including Bernardo’s father, spent most of their time fighting overseas.

By the time Bernardo turned 16 in 1763, he joined the Spanish army to fight the Portuguese. In the ensuing battles, Spain was defeated by an irregular militia force of Portuguese rebels. The Spanish generals had counted on being able to scavenge food from the peasants in the country side but the constant raids by the rebels and the opposition of the local people had left the Spanish soldiers without food or supplies. They retreated in defeat. Lesson # 1 – Militias made up of local people defending their own lands are highly motivated.

Almeida, Portugal was a town protected by a fort known as La Doncella (the Virgin), so named  because it had never been captured. In the fall of 1763, at last, Bernardo was part of the force that  defeated the Portuguese forces and took the fort. It must have been a heady feeling. Lesson # 2 – Winning is better than losing.

During the remainder of the campaign, however, the Spanish faced a string of defeats. Unable to get food from the countryside, or avoid the irritating attacks of the Portuguese militia, Bernardo suffered from starvation and disease along with the rest of the soldiers. The generals at last gave up their efforts to take Portugal and retreated. Lesson # 3 – Always carry your supplies with you. It was a bitter lesson for Bernardo and the Spanish.

While in Texas, after his capture of the Apache on the Pecos River, Bernardo also learned a hard lesson. His troop had gone out after an Indian raiding party while Bernardo was in church. When he received word, he mounted and rode out with two of his men to join them. Five Apache caught them unawares and killed both his soldiers. They wounded Bernardo in the chest and thigh, leaving him for dead. He returned to Spain to recuperate. Lesson # 4 – Never underestimate your enemy.

A few years later, Bernardo led a platoon of soldiers in a Spanish attack on the Moorish forts at Algeciras on the African coast. He was part of an army under the command of an Irishman named General Alejandro O’Reilly. The Spanish failed to reconnoiter the area before attacking and were caught in an ambush. Wounded in the leg, Bernardo refused to leave his men. He got them all back on board their ship and out of range of the Moorish land batteries. Lesson # 5 – always know the territory you are going to conquer.

By the time he reached New Orleans in 1777 and faced the British in battle two years later, he was cautious but insistent that he could defeat them. He had sent spies to map out the area, he amassed plenty of supplies, and he had certainly not underestimated the British. When he was ready to attack, however, Mother Nature gave him another lesson by sending a hurricane. Lesson # 6 – you can’t control Mother Nature.

Humbled but unbowed, he raised his ships, refurbished his supplies and set out again. As we saw yesterday, he defeated the British up and down the Mississippi in 1779. The next year, another storm caught him off of Mobile just as he attacked. This time he was ready. Nothing daunted, he led the attack and won.

The following year, he suffered through several storms during his 3-month siege of Pensacola. There was nothing he could do about the storms but prepare his men to endure them. He, too, endured. He had suffered a wound in the hand and had been put to bed. While he was recuperating, a storm blew his tent down around him but he hung on and did not give up. He eventually defeated the British, too.

Victory, as Bernardo learned, always exacts a price. When he lost, he never gave up. It’s not how many times you are defeated. It’s how many times you get back up afterward that is the key to eventual victory.

About Caroline Castillo Crimm
Retired Professor Emeritus from Sam Houston State University, interested in writing novels and speaking about topics such as the history of Latin American. Would like to share the AMAZING world of the 18th century in Northern New Spain, that's Spanish Texas and Mexico!
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