Ambrosio José Gonzalez seemed to have life made in Cuba. Born into a wealthy family in Havana, his parents were able to send him off to prestigious private schools in Europe and New York from a young age.
His father was a schoolmaster who also founded the first daily paper in Havana, and his mother came from a well-off and prestigious local family. However, the young Ambrosio would soon develop a rebellious streak that would last throughout his lifetime.
At the age of 30, he joined the Havana Club, a group that wished to have Cuba annexed by the United States as a way to escape what they saw as tyrannical Spanish rule and the threat of Spain abolishing slavery. The Havana Club found allies in the Filibuster movement of the American South.
The Filibusters were a pro-slavery movement that wished to annex lands in Latin American in order to expand slavery. They hoped that these new territories would become slave states and help keep the balance of power in Congress in the South’s favor – much as the annexation of Texas had done.
Due to his time in the United States as a child, Gonzalez was able to obtain American citizenship in 1849. His goal was to meet up with Mexican-American war veterans in the United States and to convince them to join the Cuban annexation effort.
He met General William Worth, and the two soon began to work on plans to gather around 5,000 US veterans to land in Cuba and help cells of native Cubans overthrow their government. However, Worth unexpectedly died, along with their plan.
Undeterred, Gonzalez continued to work with the Cuban revolutionaries, most notably General Narciso López, to launch a filibuster invasion and uprising.
He and López attempted such an invasion in 1849. With financial backing from prominent Mexican-American War veterans, including former U.S. General John Quitman, Gonzalez and López launched a new force toward Cuba with the goal of eventually capturing the governor’s palace in Havana and overthrowing Spanish rule.
Their plan was to begin with an attack on Cardenas, where they would attempt to capture the Lieutenant Governor and gain local support before advancing on Havana. However, their ship ran aground while trying to land. Despite this setback, the crew was able to get ashore without much difficulty. The Filibuster forces soon began an advance on the city, where, with the element of surprise, they encountered only sparse resistance.
While walking across a plaza to demand that the Lieutenant Governor surrender, Gonzalez was shot twice in the thigh by the Spanish forces located in the city, thus becoming immortalized as “the first Cuban to shed blood in the effort to oust the Spanish”.
Despite the success of their initial attack, support did not emerge from the local population, and Spanish reinforcements arrived the next day to push them back. Gonzalez and López managed to escape on the ship Creole with their men and eventually outran the Spanish to return to Florida.
Gonzalez received urgent medical care and eventually recovered from his wounds. In the United States, both were tried for violating international neutrality agreements but were not convicted.
With return to Cuba now impossible, Gonzalez decided to settle down in the United States. During this time he continued to create and call upon his political connections to gain support for annexing Cuba.
At one point he even met with President Franklin Pierce, and, perhaps more importantly for his future, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. While living in South Carolina, he married Harriet Elliot, the daughter of a prominent local planter and State Senator.
As conflict between the American South and North began to seem more inevitable, Gonzalez quickly took a side. He began demonstrating and selling various types of firearms to state governments throughout the South so their armories would be filled when war began.
When the war began Gonzalez was quick to volunteer for General P.G.T. Beauregard, who he knew from his childhood education in New York. He was soon put in command of artillery attacking Fort Sumter. He was mentioned in a dispatch from Beauregard, which reads:
“To my volunteer staff, Messrs. Chisolm, Wigfall, Chesnut, Manning, Miles, Gonzalez and Pryor: I am indebted for their indefatigable and valuable assistance, night and day, during the attacks on Sumter, transmitting, in open boats, my orders when called upon, with alacrity and cheerfulness, to the different batteries, amidst falling balls and bursting shells.”
Gonzalez later submitted his ideas for the coastal defense of South Carolina, and he was commissioned as Lieutenant Colonel of artillery and assigned to duty as an inspector of coastal defenses. Major Danville Leadbetter remarked that “The project of auxiliary coast defense herewith, as submitted by Col. A. J. Gonzalez, though not thought to be everywhere applicable, is believed to be of great value.” In 1862, he was promoted to Colonel and became Chief of Artillery of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
The unique genius of Colonel Gonzalez’ plan was that he placed heavy artillery on specially modified carriages that increased their mobility. This increased mobility allowed his forces to hold off attempts by Union gunboats to destroy important infrastructure like railroads and ports along the Southern coast. He would next see action as artillery commander at the Battle of Honey Hill in 1864, successfully, although only temporarily, defending against Sherman’s March to the Sea.
Colonel Gonzalez, despite being a generally well-regarded commander, would never be promoted above the rank of Colonel. This was largely because of Jefferson Davis’ personal grudge against General Beauregard. As a part of Beauregard’s command, and a personal friend of the general, Davis’ well-known nepotism worked against Gonzalez as well. Nonetheless, Gonzalez was the highest ranking Cuban in the American Civil War.
After the war
After the South’s defeat, Gonzalez was left to try to get his life back together, and launched many financial ventures to attempt to reclaim his former wealth and standing. Ultimately, he was successful enough to give his children a chance to become successful in their own right. Several of his sons went into the newspaper business, following in the footsteps of their grandfather. Following generations of the Gonzalez family became successful and well respected in the city.
Colonel Gonzalez died on July 31st, 1893, just five years from being able to see the successful United States invasion and conquest of Cuba in the Spanish-American war. History will remember Colonel Ambrosio José Gonzalez as an idealistic and brave man who ultimately suffered and fought for causes he would never see succeed.