A look at a hero of Altar and Throne in the Revolutionary period in Spain and Mexico.
From The Mad Monarchist (27 February 2014)
Felix Maria Calleja del Rey was born on November 1, 1753 in Medina del Campo, Valladolid, Spain. He led a rather ordinary childhood, typical of his social standing and, not surprisingly, decided on a military career early in life. His exceptional intelligence was noted from the start and he began to specialize in military cartography. Unfortunately, his early career was not marked with much success. In 1775 he participated in a failed expedition against Algiers. In 1782 he was on hand for the successful capture of Menorca Mahon harbor but the same year was among the Spanish forces thwarted in the siege of Gibraltar. After serving a few years as head of a military academy, the fortunes of Captain Calleja del Rey would begin to change with his transfer to the New World. In 1789 the Count of Revillagigedo went to Mexico City to take up the post of Viceroy of New Spain and Calleja del Rey was among his party. Colonial service allowed for more rapid promotion and soon he was commanding an infantry brigade in San Luis Potosi and under the orders of Viceroy Miguel Jose de Azanza he successfully suppressed insurgent Indian forces in the area. This was a time when rebellion was becoming a major problem across New Spain and when elements in the United States were eager to take advantage of the misfortune of Spain to try to grab Texas.
When American filibusters (land pirates) allied with Mexican revolutionaries invaded Texas, Calleja del Rey was among those Spanish officers who led royalist troops to victory against them. Many of the officers under his command would go on to great fame in Mexico with some, like Ignacio Allende, fighting for the revolution against the monarchy and others, like Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, fighting for both. In 1811 and 1813 he successfully suppressed rebellions against royal authority and even found the time to marry a local girl, Francisca de la Gandara, daughter of the owner of the hacienda de Bledos. These years gave him valuable experience in putting down revolution, impressing upon him the importance of well cared for and disciplined troops as well as making an example of rebels. In time, he would be key in eliminating the three most famous Mexican revolutionaries against Spain and establish a reputation as one of the most brilliant and successful commanders to ever see action on the battlefields of Mexico. The most famous insurgent leader of all (and the man still hailed as the “Father of Independence” in Mexico today -which is odd given that he was defeated long before independence was actually achieved) was the heretical priest Father Miguel Hidalgo who incited a major rebellion with his famous Grito de Dolores on September 16, 1810.
This was a combination of political rebellion and race war with Padre Hidalgo inciting the most heavily mixed race elements to rise up and kill those of Spanish blood. Huge mobs took to the streets and across New Spain city after city fell into rebel hands. Mexico City fell into a panic as Padre Hidalgo defeated the royalist army and marched toward the capital with 80,000 men. However, at the critical moment, the Padre lost his nerve and ordered a retreat. Calleja del Rey was, at the time, a brigadier general in command of a cavalry division at San Luis Potosi and Viceroy Francisco Javier Venegas summoned him to come to the aid of Mexico City. It was the start of a masterful campaign. Calleja del Rey and his royalist forces first met the rebels on November 7, 1810 on the plains of San Jeronimo Aculco and completely wiped them out. On November 25 his royalist forces re-captured Guanajuato and on January 21, 1811 liberated Guadalajara. The rebels retreated, despite their still swelling ranks, and Calleja del Rey gave chase. On January 17, 1811 at the battle of Calderon bridge, his tiny force of 6,000 royalists attacked and routed an army of 100,000 rebels in a stunning victory that ensured the revolution would be crushed and put off the independence of Mexico for another ten years.
In the aftermath of this victory, Calleja del Rey took 4,000 men and made them the core of the new Army of the Center that crushed the remaining rebel forces. Padre Hidalgo was captured and executed, however, another renegade priest; Father Jose Maria Morelos, continued the resistance and managed to repel Calleja del Rey in the 72-day siege of Cuautla, forcing the royalists to fall back to Mexico City. Among the royalists and aristocrats of Mexico, discontent was growing against the leadership of Viceroy Venegas who was accused of mismanagement and neglecting the army. Calleja del Rey became a focus of this discontent and his home was often a meeting place for disgruntled royalists. They finally appealed to the regency in Cadiz for new leadership, arguing that the insurgents could be suppressed and Mexico restored firmly to Spanish rule if only the right man were put in charge. The government seemed to agree and on January 28, 1813 Calleja del Rey was appointed to be the new Viceroy, taking up the post on March 4. He inherited a colonial government that was broke, drowning in debt and an army that was woefully ill-equipped and owed about two million pesos in back pay.
Nonetheless, Calleja del Rey showed himself more than up to this formidable challenge. As the Spanish Inquisition had been abolished by the Constitution of 1812, he alleviated some of the immediate financial problems by confiscating their property in New Spain. Using his meager forces, he reestablished order so that postal service and regular commerce could be resumed, he set up a strict system of financial oversight for the treasury, keeping a close account of all income and expenses, cut out waste and hired a private third party to collect the sales taxes all of which greatly increased revenues. With this he was able to turn his attention to the army and ensure that the military was properly funded, well disciplined, well equipped and promptly paid. It really seemed that a page had been turned in the history of New Spain and that Spanish power in America was on the rise again. Unfortunately, there were some problems totally beyond the control of the new Viceroy. Toward the end of 1813 a massive epidemic broke out that took tens of thousands of lives and that same year the renegade Morelos captured Acapulco and later the Congress of Anahuac declared the independence of Mexico in Guerrero.
Back in Spain, His Catholic Majesty King Fernando VII was restored to his throne and he abrogated the 1814 Constitution, returning to the former absolute monarchy of 1808. He also reestablished the Spanish Inquisition and in 1816 allowed the Jesuits to return to Mexico. In New Spain (Mexico) divisions hardened in response as liberals were enraged by this reactionary turn of events while conservatives were encouraged by it. Calleja del Rey continued his program of improving public services, firmly dealing with armed resistance and exiling captured rebels to Cuba and later the Philippines. It seemed to be working. Revolutionary forces were defeated yet again, Morelos himself was captured and executed in 1815 but it seemed every time the Viceroy solved one problem a new one would spring up elsewhere. After the elimination of Morelos, Vicente Guerrero launched a new uprising in the south and the increasing unrest forced Calleja del Rey to take more harsh and repressive measures to maintain order. The revolutionaries feared him most of all but there was also opposition to his rule even among the more liberal royalists who accused him of aiding the revolutionaries (unwittingly of course) through his brutal methods. They took their argument to the Spanish government that if the Viceroy had only shown a softer hand after the death of Morelos, the revolution might have ended then.
No one can long endure against enemies to the front and rear and so it is not surprising that Calleja del Rey was dismissed as Viceroy on September 20, 1816. Still, his magnificent service was not forgotten and when he returned to Spain he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Royal and Military Order of San Hermenegildo and the Royal American Order of Queen Isabella the Catholic as well as being given the title of First Count of Calderon for his stunning victory at Calderon Bridge. The Count of Calderon continued in his career, becoming military commander in Andalucia and governor of Cadiz. However, removing the most gifted general in Mexican service proved not to be a wise move and rebellion and disorder increased in his absence. Soon, he was charged with organizing a new Spanish army to be sent to New Spain to restore royal authority. However, that project was interrupted by unrest at home as liberals in Spain rose up against King Fernando VII in 1820. The Count of Calderon met the crisis with his usual zeal and was able to capture Rafael del Riego, the instigator of the liberal uprising. He joined the list along with Hidalgo, Allende and Morelos of prominent enemies of the Spanish Crown brought to justice by the Count of Calderon. However, that was to be his last major prize before his death in Valencia in 1828.