Sailors: North and South
Hispanics fought with valor in the navies of both sides as some of the most dramatic fighting of the Civil War occurred on the high seas. Dozens of Hispanic sailors served on Confederate ships attempting to “run” the Union blockade of southern ports. Capt. Michael Usina was one of the of the most daring Confederate Navy officers. Born to Spanish parents in St. Augustine, Florida, Usina began the war as a private in the 8th Georgia Volunteer Infantry. He joined the Confederate Navy after suffering serious wounds in the war’s first battle at Manassas. As “captain of a blockade runner, Usina made several harrowing escapes, always managing to avoid capture on his many successful missions” to supply the southern cause with food and war material.
Hispanic sailors “served the Union with equal bravery and distinction. Spanish immigrant John Ortega enlisted in Pennsylvania and served as a seaman on the USS Saratoga. He risked his life on two occasions as he fought to maintain the Union blockade against the efforts of men like Usina. Philip Bazaar, of Chilean origin, faced a different danger.” As a seaman on board the USS Santiago de Cuba, he was one of only six men to breach the Confederate works during the failed assault of Fort Fisher, North Carolina, on Christmas Day 1864. He also “courageously delivered critical dispatches” under heavy fire during the battle. Both Ortega and Bazaar were awarded the Medal of Honor for their valor “above and beyond the call of duty.”
Immigrants Fighting Under Different Flags
As with other Americans, Hispanics’ personal motives and desires determined which side they supported during the Civil War. Hispanic citizens of the United States “often acted to preserve a lifestyle and defend lands that they had occupied for generations. Immigrants often had to choose based upon newly established ties. The examples of Federico Fernandez Cavada and Ambrosio Jose Gonzalez demonstrate that men of similar backgrounds often found themselves on very different paths.”
Born in Cuba in 1832, Cavada moved to his American mother’s hometown of Philadelphia after the death of his Spanish father. Raised and educated in the City of Brotherly Love, he developed a fierce hatred of slavery so, when the Civil War began, he enlisted in the US Army. Beginning “his service as an engineer, the talented Cavada quickly rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He commanded the 109th Pennsylvania Infantry in the battle of Chancellorsville and the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry at Gettysburg, where he was captured by Confederate forces.” He was sent to the Libby Prison for Union officers in Richmond, Virginia. Cavada smuggled out notes and sketches scrawled on pieces of newspaper while imprisoned. Released in 1864, he soon published them in a book about his incarceration, offering the proceeds to widows and orphans of fellow prisoners.
Ambrosio Jose Gonzales was born to a prominent family in Matanzas, Cuba. His father sent him to school in New York following his mother’s death. After completing his education at the University of Havana and beginning his career as a professor, Gonzales participated in the movements to liberate Cuba from Spanish rule. He developed ties with Americans, mostly Southerners, who wanted to annex Cuba to the United States. Cuban efforts to overthrow the Spanish failed during the 1850s, and Gonzales settled into exile in Beaufort, South Carolina. He married into a wealthy Southern family. Gonzales joined the Confederate army when the war came, earning a colonel’s commission. He earned “commendation for his conduct in the bombardment of Fort Sumter and was soon promoted by Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard to Chief of Artillery for the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.” Gonzales, who also served as a special aide to the governor of South Carolina, submitted plans for the defense of the coastal areas of his homeland state. On November 30, 1864, Gonzales served as artillery commander at the Battle of Honey Hill, the third battle of Sherman’s March to the Sea. Confederate President Jefferson Davis denied six requests to promote Gonzales to general because of Davis’ dislike for Beauregard.
Soldiers in the Southwest
Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., wrote in his excellent “The Civil War in the American West”: “When the drums of the American Civil War of 1861—65 fell silent, the states from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi Valley had acquired a sacred heritage of great battlefields, legendary armies and leaders, and home-front sacrifice and travail that has lived as a legacy for their sons and daughters and for the reunited nation as a whole. It was in that eastern half of the country – containing the hearths of secession, slavery, and antislavery, the bulk of the population, and the seats of the Northern and Southern governments – that the great campaigns had to be, and were, fought and supported, and where the war had to be decided.
“In contrast, comparatively little notice has been paid to the Civil War as it was fought in the huge western reaches of the country – that is, from the western fringe of the Mississippi Valley to the Pacific Ocean – all of it at that time also a part of the United States. Almost every general broad-gauged history of the Civil War, with the point of view that everything west of the Union campaigns to secure Missouri and the Mississippi River was of little or no strategic importance to the outcome of the struggle has simply ignored the events of the conflict in the western sections of the nation.”
Indeed, Confederate leaders had grand ideas regarding the Western Territories. They wanted, especially, Colorado’s silver and California’s gold, and planned, according to Ray C. Colton, “The Civil War in the Western Territories,” “to annex a corridor from the Rio Grande in Texas to the California coast. Thus they would have had a pathway to the Pacific Ocean, areas rich in minerals, new territory for the expansion of slavery, and valuable military stores and equipment. They soon found that the land was more difficult to conquer than they had anticipated. The people of the Western Territories for the most part remained loyal to the Union, and the Confederate vision of empire failed to materialize.”
By far, the highest levels of Hispanic participation in the Civil War occurred in the states and territories of the Southwest. Following war with Mexico (1846-1848), the victorious United States acquired approximately 55 percent of that vanquished nation’s territory, comparable in size to Western Europe. More than 100,000 Mexicans lived on these lands and with “the stroke of a pen became citizens of the United States.” These residents of Texas, California, Arizona, and New Mexico soon “found themselves immersed in a national dispute over the expansion of slavery into the West. When war erupted, they had to choose sides.”