“Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” So the Civil War’s most famous Hispanic, Rear Admiral and fleet commander David Farragut, shouted through a trumpet from his flagship after one of his ships struck a tethered naval mine, known as torpedoes, and sank during his greatest victory – the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864. The son of a Spanish father, a Minorcan immigrant from the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean, and an American mother, Farragut, raised in Tennessee and New Orleans, began his naval career at the age of nine. He served in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War and was 60 when the Civil War erupted in April 1861. Though he lived in Virginia at the time, he remained loyal to the Union. Farragut won fame for commanding the successful naval expedition against New Orleans, which reestablished Union access to the Mississippi River Valley. The U.S. Navy rewarded Farragut with the newly established rank of vice admiral. His success in taking Mobile Bay, the Confederacy’s last major port open on the Gulf of Mexico, led to his being promoted to full admiral on July 25, 1866, a rank the Navy again created especially for this national hero.
Admiral Farragut may have been the most famous, but by the close of the war, more than 20,000 Hispanics, either newcomers from or descendants of immigrants from Spain, Portugal, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, “had participated in the bloody conflict and thousands of Hispanic civilians had lent hearts and hands on the homefront, weaving their own individual stories into this important national fabric.
“From the first shots at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, to the last action at Palmito Ranch, Texas, on May 12-13, 1865, many Hispanics made a conscious decision to join the fight: some for the Union and some for the Confederacy. They responded to a variety of motives, public and private. They represented all socioeconomic levels, from wealthy aristocrats fighting to preserve a way of life to impoverished laborers seeking to improve their fortunes. Patriotism, personal gain, regional conditions, and history all played a role in their decisions.”
Soldiers in the Southeast
In the Southeast, Hispanics primarily supported the Confederacy. Many of Spanish ancestry lived in the Gulf Coast region of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, whose population represented “a rich mixture of cultures and languages: French, Spanish, Caribbean, American Indian, African, German, and Anglo American. These ‘Creoles’ were often well-to-to planters with plantations or established merchants with homes in the bustling ports of New Orleans and Mobile. Many held slaves. Others made their money through the cotton trade that relied on the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery. Part of the aristocracy of the region, these citizens joined their like-minded southern neighbors and actively fought to preserve their way of life.
“Many Hispanics in Louisiana had immigrated from the Canary Islands in the late 1700s. New Orleans mustered nearly 800 Hispanics as part of the ‘European Brigade,’ a home guard of 4,500 to keep order and defend the city. The brigades of brigadier generals Harry T. Hays and William E. Starke, known as the ‘Louisiana Tigers,’ included native Louisianans of Anglo and Creole descent, plus men from Spain, Cuba, Mexico, and other Latin American countries.” Both brigades campaigned with Major General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and fought in the major battles of the eastern front – Seven Days, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Overland Campaign – Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, siege of Petersburg, and Appomattox.
Other Gulf Coast states mustered Hispanics into the military. One Alabama company, the Spanish Guards, was made up exclusively of men of Spanish ancestry and served as the city of Mobile’s home guard. Alabama’s 55th Infantry, which served in the Vicksburg, Atlanta, and Nashville campaigns, and Florida’s 2nd Infantry, which fought at Antietam and Gettysburg, included large numbers of Hispanic soldiers
The Hispanic woman, Lola Sanchez, from a large Cuban family living near St. Augustine, Florida, became so angry after Yankees accused her father of being a Confederate spy, that she became one. When Union troops occupied her home, she overheard their plans and informed nearby Confederates of the pending raid. The forewarned Johnny Rebs captured the Billy Yanks.
Descendants of the Minorcans, the Spanish group from the Balearic Islands who the British helped colonize parts of Florida in the mid- to late 1760s, served on both sides. One of the most notable Union men, besides Farragut, was Stephen Vincent Benet. Born in St. Augustine, he graduated from West Point in 1849. He taught gunnery science there during the war, and in 1874, the U.S. Army appointed him Chief of US Army Ordnance. His grandson, named for him, went on to write significant prose and poetry about the Civil War.
Soldiers in the North
Northern states had substantial Hispanic communities with many members supporting the Union war effort. Most came from large urban centers such as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Many of these “newcomers sought to integrate themselves into the society of their homeland but faced daunting racial prejudices. Serving in the uniform of a US soldier was the quickest and best way to reach their goal of becoming an ‘American.’”
Puerto Rican immigrant Lt. Augusto Rodriguez served in the 15th Connecticut Regiment, which helped defend the Union capital of Washington, D.C. He “courageously led his men in battle at Fredericksburg.” He left the army after the war but continued his life of service as a fire fighter for the city of New Haven.
Cuban born and West Point educated Lt. Col. Julius Peter Garesche made the ultimate contribution. While serving “as Chief of Staff to Lt. Gen. William S. Rosecrans during the battle at Stones River, Garesche was decapitated by Confederate cannon fire – a great personal loss for Rosecrans, whose friendship with Garesche was magnified by a deeply shared faith.
Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, born in Argentina to a Hispanic mother and a Pennsylvanian father, devised an unusual plan to help his men escape their exposed position outside Petersburg, Virginia. Pleasants, who came to America at age 13 and became a mining engineer, proposed digging a mineshaft under the Confederate line and blowing up their fortifications with four tons of gunpowder. The “well conceived but poorly executed ‘Battle of the Crater’ failed, resulting in another eight months of fighting. For his ingenuity, Pleasants was promoted to Brevet Brigadier General, while the commanding officer was relieved of duty.”
Lt. Joseph De Castro fought at Gettysburg, carrying the flag of the 19th Massachusetts Infantry. His regiment faced the fury of Pickett’s Charge against the Union positions on Cemetery Ridge on the third and final day of the great battle on July 3, 1863. Under withering fire, “De Castro charged forward and captured the enemy flag. He then broke through the lines and without saying a word handed the prize over to Col. Arthur Devereux before rushing back into the fight. It was an emblematic moment in one of America’s most epic battles. On December 1, 1864, De Castro became the first Hispanic to be awarded the Medal of Honor.”