When many imagine the American Civil War, they tend to think of the blue and gray clashing on the battlefields of Gettysburg or Antietam. Many imagine soldiers of either Anglo or African descent. However, many do not conjure up soldiers who were descendants of Spanish ancestry fighting in the American Civil War.
This part of the American Civil War is often overlooked but was a crucial part of the great American conflict. Not only were the contributions of Hispanic Americans crucial to the war effort but they also had a great impact on the lives of their Hispanic descendants. Many of these Hispanic Americans’ lineage was connected to the Spanish explorers who arrived to explore and conquer North America. Other Spanish Americans were descendants of Spanish and Latin American immigrants.
Hispanic Americans were divided along North and South lines just as their fellow Anglo Americans were.
The Spanish had been in America long before the outbreak of the American Civil War. Spaniards began trying to claim the “New World” for Spain in 1565. The Spanish created the first permanent colony in the modern United States when they established St. Augustine in Florida. Following the establishment of St. Augustine, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado left Mexico and traveled through what is today the southwest United States. Then in 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo began exploring California. As these Spanish explorers explored more of the United States, they created trading posts, colonies, towns, and missions. By the 18th century, Spain had made a claim to much of the United States.
On the greatest day in American history, July 4th, 1776, the Spanish established the town of San Francisco. By the time the 19th century arrived, the majority of the Spanish claims made in the 16th and 17th centuries had been erased. However, just because the Spanish claims were gone, did not mean that the Spanish people were.
After the Spanish lost their control in America, their influence was still felt. At the outbreak of the war, a notable portion of Spanish Americans lived in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The Spanish Americans living in this Gulf Coast Region had a mixture of cultures including, Spanish, Caribbean, American Indian, French, Anglo American, African, and German. This mixture of culture became known as “Creoles.” These Hispanic “Creoles” worked as planters that owned plantations or as merchants. Many of these “Creoles” had wealth and therefore were slave owners.
In New Orleans, a Confederate slave state, around 800 Hispanics joined the “European Brigade” and helped to protect the Confederate port city. There were also Hispanic “Creoles” in the “Louisiana Tigers.” These famous brigades fought in important campaigns such as Gettysburg and Antietam. However, these were not the only Hispanic Americans to serve in the Confederate army.
Several of the Gulf Coast states also raised Hispanic soldiers. The Spanish Guards from Alabama were composed of only Hispanic soldiers. The 55th Alabama Infantry also was made up of a large percent of Hispanic soldiers.
Ambrosio Jose Gonzales was a Hispanic immigrant born in Cuba who served for the Confederates. Ambrosio was sent to New York city to be educated. He finished school at the University of Havana and became a college professor. Gonzales attempted to overthrow the Spanish rule of Cuba. During the war, Gonzales joined the Confederacy and oversaw the bombardment of Fort Sumter. He became the Chief of Artillery and was in command of rebel artillery at the battle of Honey Hill.
There was also a group of Hispanic descendants called the Minorcans, many of whom served for the rebel forces. Most famous was Stephen Vincent Benet. Benet attended and graduated from West Point in 1849. He taught gunnery at the academy during the Civil War.
Many Hispanic Americans also served on Confederate ships. These soldiers played a key role in helping to break the infamous blockade of the southern states.
Captain Michael Usina is one of the most famous of these Hispanic ship captains. Usina was born in St. Augustine and was only a private when the war broke out. He was wounded at the battle of Manassas, after which he made the switch from infantry to the navy. While the captain of a blockade runner, Usina managed to not be captured by the Federal ships and was successful in many of his missions to break the blockade.
Hispanic men were not the only ones who fought for and supported the Confederacy. Lola Sanchez, a Hispanic woman of Cuban descent, became a Confederate spy after her father was accused of doing so. She would listen to the Union soldiers who were occupying her house and give the information to Confederate soldiers.
Hispanic Americans in the Union Army
While we looked first at Hispanic Americans in the Southern army, there were also many Hispanics who fought in the Union army.
A large number of Northern Hispanic soldiers lived in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. For these Hispanic Americans, the war was a way to gain racial equality. This meant they had even more reason to serve in the war than their Anglo counterparts.
Lt. Augusto Rodriguez of the 15th Connecticut Regiment, was one Hispanic soldier who fought for the North. Augusto attended West Point. Rodriguez also helped defend the Northern capital of Washington D.C. and fought in the Battle of Fredericksburg. Rodriguez survived the war and lived the rest of his life as a firefighter in New Haven.
Another Hispanic soldier who served was Lt. Col. Julius Peter Garesche. At the battle of Stones River, he served as the Chief of Staff to Lt. General Rosecrans. It was during this battle that Lt. Rodriguez was decapitated by a cannonball and killed.
The infamous “Battle of the Crater ” was devised by a Hispanic soldier. Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants was born in Argentina. Pleasants came to America when he was 13 years old. When he was in America, he studied to be a mining engineer. When the Federal troops under Ulysses S. Grant arrived near Petersburg, Pleasants came up with the idea to dig tunnels underneath the Confederate forces, to fill it with four tons of gunpowder, and then blow up the powder. This plan was ultimately unsuccessful and resulted in a disaster for the Union. Still, Pleasants was awarded a brevet to Brigadier General for devising this plan.
Luis F. Emilio was another Hispanic American who fought for the 23rd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Emilio was only 16 years old, so he had to lie about how old he was in order to serve in the American Civil War. Emilio was promoted to sergeant and was then chosen to be an officer in the 54th Massachusetts (an all African-American regiment). Luis was present at the famous attack of the 54th on the Confederate Fort Wagner.
Another Hispanic American who served for the Federals was Cavada. Cavada was not born in the United States but in Cuba. After his father’s death, he decided to move to Philadelphia. Since he was not born in the United States, Cavada remained closely tied to his homeland of Cuba. Cavada also opposed slavery. Cavada went from an engineer to a lieutenant colonel. At the battle of Chancellorsville, he commanded the 114th Pennsylvania.
Perhaps the most famous Hispanic American to serve in the American Civil War was David Farragut. Farragut’s father was Spanish and his mother was American. Farragut had a long history of military service having served in the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American war. He chose to remain loyal to the United States when the Civil War began even though he was residing in Virginia at the time. He won a victory for the Union in New Orleans and he was awarded the rank of vice admiral. Farragut then captured Mobile Bay in 1864 and famously stated, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” After the Civil War, Farragut was made a full admiral.
These are just a few examples of individual Hispanic Americans who joined to fight for the Northern cause. In regiments like the 39th New York Infantry, Hispanic soldiers joined and served in large numbers. This regiment was present at Gettysburg among many other battles.
Soldiers in the Southwest
The area of the Civil War that saw the most Hispanic soldiers fighting was in the Southwest United States. This land had been acquired from Mexico during the Mexican-American war and contained more than 100,000 Mexican citizens living there. These new Mexican Americans were forced to choose a side when the Civil War began.
Many of the Hispanic people living in the Southwest opposed the expansion of slavery into the territory because it had already been outlawed in Mexico. Still, there were Mexican American farmers in this region who relied on the use of American Indian slave labor for their farms and, therefore, supported the South and the extension of slavery. Other Mexican Americans supported the South because they harbored ill feelings towards the United States government as a result of the Mexican-American war.
This led to a split in Hispanic loyalty to the Union and the secession states. This region became of particular interest to both the North and South.
The Confederates wanted to take control of the California gold and silver supplies. In order to do this, they needed to take control of New Mexico. Shortly after the outset of the war, Lt. Col. John R. Baylor took his 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles to the Southwest and held the town of Mesilla. Once Baylor held Messila, he announced that New Mexico was now the Confederate Territory of Arizona and that Messila was the capital.
The Union forces did not put up a lot of resistance in New Mexico. Federal soldiers in Arizona also had been directed to abandon their forts, which they burned down to prevent the enemy from taking control of them. Once the Union forces left the region, the citizens living there were left unprotected from Apache raiders, as well as the outlaws that terrified the Southwest. This left the citizens with no option but to turn to the Confederate soldiers and the safety that they could supply.
In February of 1862, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, accepted the Territory of Arizona into the Confederate States.
The Confederacy then began to recruit soldiers from this Southwest region.
However, even though this land was claimed by the South, soldiers still volunteered to fight for both sides. These troops were called “Nuevo Mexicanos.” While these volunteers had not been trained in an institution like West Point, they still knew the land, had experience fighting Native American tribes, and were phenomenal horsemen. The regiments that joined from New Mexico were usually led by Hispanic officers. This valuable land soon became a focal point for struggle between North and South.
In 1862, a Confederate general named Henry Hopkins Sibley left Fort Bliss in Texas and headed toward New Mexico. General Sibley’s objective in New Mexico was to capture Fort Craige for the Confederacy. Fort Craig was situated on the Rio Grande river which gave it great strategic importance.
This fort was under the command of a Union force at the time. Col. Edward R.S. Canby was the commander of Fort Craige. These Northern and Southern troops engaged on February 21, 1862.
This battle saw Col. Canby’s 3,800 Union soldiers fighting General Sibley’s 2,500 Confederate troops. This battle was a victory for Sibley and the Confederate forces. However, in the face of extremely high casualties, the Confederate force decided to give up their mission to capture Fort Craige.
While the fight for Fort Craige was raging, there was a battle for Tucson, Arizona, raging as well.
The Gettysburg of the West (Glorieta pass)
A Union Colonel named James H. Carleton led his “California Column” towards the coveted city. This column of Federal soldiers was being led by Hispanic guides who were familiar with the region.
This Union column ran into Confederate soldiers on April 15, 1862, and clashed around Picacho Pass, near Tucson. The Confederate force won this battle, however, this did not stop the Federal advance. This battle at Picacho Pass was the westernmost fighting that took place during the Civil War.
General Sibley, after the battle of Valverde concluded, took his Confederate soldiers north to take command of Fort Union. Sibley learned that there were 2,000 volunteers headed from Colorado to reinforce the Union soldiers. Another battle between North and South broke out on March 28, at Glorieta Pass. The fighting raged and moved to Apache Canyon where the rebel force was finally defeated.
This battle at Glorieta Pass has been compared to the battle of Gettysburg and earned the nickname of the “Gettysburg of the West.” This was the beginning of the end of Confederate control in the Southwest United States much as the battle of Gettysburg was a turning point in the Eastern Theater. After one more skirmish, the Confederates retreated and headed back to the South.
There was still one state in the Southwest that remained under Confederate control. That state was Texas. The state had seceded when its fellow southern states had decided it was time to disband the Union. Texas was crucial to the Confederates.
The Lonestar State was unique in that it saw “a civil war within a civil war.” Texas saw “Tejano” and “Tejano” Hispanic Americans fighting against one another. Here, some “Tejano” people supported the Confederacy because they opposed the U.S. after fighting during and after the Mexican-American war, beliefs in Mexican Federalism, and ties to the slave-owning Hispanic Americans in the South. Still, some “Tejano” people supported the Union and were opposed to slavery.
This led to full engagements taking place in the state. The state also saw a blockade of its ports by the Union navy. In response, pro-Southern people began making the trip to the east to bring the valuable cotton that the rebellion so desperately needed. Blockade running Texas ships also went past the Union boats untouched because they sailed under the flag of Mexico. This was due to the Hispanic Americans who supported the Confederacy.
The Union attempted to cut off this supply of cotton coming from Brownsville and Laredo, Texas, and sent Federal soldiers into the state. In 1863, Union soldiers captured Fort Brown (in Brownsville). The Northern army then set its sights on Laredo. However, the Union force was defeated.
The Northern soldiers withdrew and went back east to fight in the main theaters of the war, though a small detachment of soldiers were left behind.
This small group of Northern soldiers would fight in the final battle of the Civil War that occurred after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. This battle took place from May 12-13 and resulted in a Confederate victory, though the war was already lost. This battle was called the battle of Palmito Ranch.
Impact of Hispanic Americans
The Civil War and the end of slavery in America had a major impact on Hispanic peoples.
The liberation of the African-American slaves in America gave hope to the people of Cuba that they too could be successful in their endeavors to end the wicked institution.
Mexico also turned to the United States for support and aid when attempting to overthrow the occupation of the French.
Though the U.S. was a symbol of freedom and liberation to the rest of the world, there were still troubles that Hispanic Americans faced in the homeland.
Even after the Civil War, Hispanic Americans were kept in economic chains. The peonage policy kept Hispanic Americans in debt and forced them to use their labor to pay the debts off. This turned into virtual slavery as landowners raised the prices of housing and food so that the workers could never gain freedom.
It was not till the end of the war in 1865, that the peonage system was addressed. This came in the form of the Thirteenth Amendment. This amendment stated, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude… shall exist in the United States.” Congress went even further to eliminate Peonage when they passed the Anti-Peonage Act in 1867.
However, as we would see with African-Americans, these promises were not always kept. Peonage continued as did hate crimes, racial segregation, and unjust imprisonment. Eventually, by the 1930-40s, the system of peonage did finally disappear in the North.
In the South, it would take till the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s to see real progress made. The Jim Crow system continued to terrorize minorities in the South and still has lasting impacts to this day. This can be seen in economic disparities between white and minority groups and unequal representation in the prison population.
While Lincoln sought to end the slavery question once and for all, it continues to live on today in new forms. We owe our forefathers who laid down their lives in the American Civil War, fighting for freedom and unity, to make that dream a reality.
Hispanics and the Civil War. [electronic resource] : from battlefield to homefront. (2011). National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior.