March, 1781. General Bernardo de Gálvez, governor of Louisiana, has seen enough dithering.
The Spanish fleet is poised to seize Pensacola and wrest control of West Florida from Great Britain, but uncertainty has the ships stalled just outside the bay that protects the strategic outpost. Will they be able to safely navigate the channel? Will they be sitting ducks for British cannon fire?
With British forces, including Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw allies, occupying the Red Cliffs above Pensacola Bay, and additional troops in forts near the town, Gálvez makes a bold move. He boards a six-gun corsair brigantine captained by Pierre Georges Rousseau, an immigrant from France who may very well have spent much of his childhood in Virginia, and orders him to sail directly into the narrow channel, alone.
Why? You can ask him yourself. Actor Chaz Mena will be performing his one-man show, Yo Solo, in which he portrays Gálvez in that moment, this Friday, April 28, at 7:30 p.m. at the Kimball Theatre. It’s a rare opportunity to hear a vital but lesser-known story that helped shape the outcome of the Revolution. Chaz’s performance will be followed by a Q&A.
Friday’s show is the culmination of Chaz’s extended stay in town as Colonial Williamsburg’s second Revolutionary in Residence. The program gives a platform to creative thinkers who offer fresh perspectives on the nation’s founding history.
Chaz certainly qualifies. In addition to extensive film and television acting credits, which include recurring roles on the Netflix series “Bloodline,” USA Network’s “Graceland” and “Burn Notice,” he has developed interpretations of a number of historic personages, including Gálvez.
The story of General Gálvez and the Spanish siege of Pensacola is seldom acknowledged in the traditional narrative of the Revolutionary War. We’re familiar with the stories of the French alliance and the Hessian mercenaries, of men like von Steuben and Kościuszko, but the Spanish role seems even more peripheral.
But Chaz points out that the Spanish played a consequential role. “At times the Spanish even outdid French,” he says, “providing quinine, uniforms, powder, muskets, and other small arms. By 1779 the Spanish government was sending regular shipments from La Coruna (in northwestern Spain), Havana, and New Orleans.
The successful siege of Pensacola which played out in the spring of 1781 gave the Spanish control of the Gulf waters. After the battle Spanish naval forces protected French shipping from West Florida to the Caribbean, which allowed forces under the Comte de Grasse to lend a hand at Yorktown.
If Pensacola had failed, perhaps the war in Virginia would also have played out differently.
After the war Gálvez became viceroy of Mexico, where he instituted significant reforms, addressing labor abuses in the silver and gold mines, instituting public works projects, and moving the state in a more secular direction. In 1786, he died of dysentery at age 40.
Chaz insists that the story of Gálvez adds to our understanding not only of the war, but of who we are as Americans. “In no way does this usurp our American story–it enriches it,” he says. “Men of every nation that fought with us went back to their home countries changed forever by American ideals, with a more enlightened view of humanity.”
Chaz has been busy conducting research, participating in workshops with interpreters, and sharing his perspectives for a couple of weeks already. He’s also trying to find time to research another character, Juan de Miralles, who acted as a de facto ambassador from Spain, reporting to the governor of Cuba and the king. Chaz was excited to learn that Miralles passed through Williamsburg on at least one occasion, meeting with Patrick Henry.
“Miralles became enamored with the American cause and became an intimate friend of the Washingtons,” he explained. “He died of typhus in the winter of 1779 in their Morristown home, with Martha Washington acting as his nurse.” Sounds like another great story to look forward to.
Chaz Mena’s REV Talk begins at 7:30 p.m. April 28 at the Kimball Theatre. and Mena will field audience questions following his performance of “Yo Solo” he will field audience questions. Tickets are $5 and are available online, as well as Colonial Williamsburg ticketing locations, the Kimball Theatre box office, or by calling 1-855-296-6627.