Thursday, April 16, 2009

de la Cova: "Cuban Confederate Colonel: The Life of Ambrosio Jose Gonzales"

[Cuban Confederate Colonel: The Life of Ambrosio Jose Gonzales by Antonio Rafael de la Cova (University of South Carolina Press, 2009 - PB reprint). Softcover, 7 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 396/592. ISBN: 9781570038440 $29.95]

Ambrosio Jose Gonzales (1818-1893) was born into a prominent Cuban family. His earnest efforts to oust Spanish rule over his home country led him to the U.S. and involvement in the controversial filibuster movements that dotted the 1850s. Their failure led to a permanent settlement in South Carolina for the Cuban and marriage into the influential Elliot clan. The Civil War years saw Gonzales rise to departmental Chief of Artillery, with responsibility for the organization and placement of almost 700 guns in the states of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. However, the post war years were characterized by both financial and personal disappointment.

Antonio Rafael de la Cova's Cuban Confederate Colonel is the first full biography of Gonzales. The author was able to uncover a large trove of unpublished source material. The assembled bibliography is impressive, allowing de la Cova to piece together a densely detailed biography, one that devotes just as much attention to events preceding and following the Civil War as it does the Confederate years.

Students of the 1850s filibuster movement will revel in de la Cova's accounts of the Narciso Lopez expeditions to Cuba*. The blow by blow account of the May 1850 attack and defense of Cardenas (where Gonzales was seriously wounded in the leg) is among the book's best stretches of historical narrative.

Gonzales spent most of his Civil War career defending the South Carolina coastline. As Chief of Artillery for the department, his efforts are credited by the author with a major role in blunting numerous U.S. naval and amphibious incursions. De la Cova maintains (unconventionally, I think) that the 'Siege Train' concept for the mobile defense of Charleston was designed by Colonel Gonzales. The author also believes that the Cuban's management of the artillery at the 1864 Battle of Honey Hill was a key factor in the Confederate defensive victory. Although much of it is background material, the Honey Hill chapter is quite extensive, making the book a useful resource for that particular battle.

However, not all of his military peers were enamored with the often difficult Colonel Gonzales, whose near constant angling for promotion to general officer rank wore on his superiors's patience (especially President Davis, whom Gonzales unwisely, but rather inadvertently, offended early in the war). The Cuban also feuded with the department's district commanders (most prominently Roswell Ripley), and frequently violated chain of command protocols.

De la Cova's exhaustive biography is a sympathetic, yet balanced new look at an almost forgotten Confederate officer. Students of the mid-19th century American filibuster movements and those readers interested in the Civil War defense of Charleston will appreciate the degree of military detail provided. A major focus of the book, the political and social integration of the Cuban Gonzales into southern high society is equally fascinating. Recommended.

* - The book's two appendices are lists of participants in the 1850 (A) and 1851 (B) filibuster expeditions to Cuba. B is a simple list, but A provides more personal information about each member.

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