Film spotlights swashbuckling South Carolinian

Ambrosio Jose Gonzales ranks as one of the more interesting characters in two places filled with interesting characters - Cuba and South Carolina.

Yet major historical works on his native country or his adopted state give him scant attention. He is mentioned in the South Carolina Encyclopedia only as the father of the brothers who founded The State newspaper. He deserves more recognition, according to filmmaker Virginia Friedman.

Her documentary, "In Search of Ambrosio Gonzales: Soldier Under Two Flags," will air on ETV stations at 10 p.m. Thursday, putting a spotlight on what she called "a life of intrigue and swashbuckle and daring."

Friedman traveled to Cuba as part of a College of Charleston cultural/educational program and fell in love with the country and its rich history. Then she read historian Antonio Rafael de la Cova's 2003 book "Cuban Confederate Colonel: The Life of Ambrosio Jose Gonzales."

"I came across this book and couldn't believe it," she said. "His story went untold by historians for the most part."

Born in Cuba in 1818, Gonzales was educated at a private school in New York after his mother died during his youth. He returned to Havana for high school and to study law at the University of Havana.

He later joined Cuba's independence movement. While some in the movement sought full independence for the island, Gonzales favored annexation into the United States.

Historians point to freedom fighter Gen. Narciso Lopez's failed incursion at Cardenas in 1850 as the first battle in the Cuban independence effort. Gonzales was his second-in-command and was shot in the thigh by Spaniards early in the fight, thus becoming the first Cuban to shed blood for the country's independence.

Lopez's forces eventually retreated to the U.S. to plan future incursions. Recovering from a bout of malaria, Gonzales missed the first wave of forces during Lopez's second Cuban incursion in 1851. He was supposed to be in the second wave, but there was no second wave, as Spanish troops captured Lopez and executed him in Havana.

After the failure of Lopez's effort, Gonzales settled in the U.S. and married Harriett Rutledge Elliott, the daughter of prominent plantation owner and politician William Elliott. The family ties and his passion for independence drew Gonzales into service for the Confederacy as the Civil War began.

Col. Gonzales served as chief of artillery for South Carolina, Georgia and Florida and played pivotal roles in battles at Battery Wagner in Charleston harbor and Honey Hill in Beaufort County.

After the war, he struggled with little success as a farmer and businessman.

"In some folks' eyes, he was considered a failure," Friedman said. "I don't see his life as a failure because he stood up for what in believed in. There's honor in that.

"He had a true love for Cuba, and he grew to love South Carolina."

His progeny were more successful, as Ambrose, Narciso and William Gonzales founded The State newspaper in 1891. But Gonzales had a falling out with the Elliott family later in life, and he was buried in 1893 far from South Carolina - in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

As de la Cova researched his book, he visited the cemetery.

"I wondered if the tombstone contained information I did not have," de la Cova wrote in the introduction to his book. "To my surprise, Gonzales lay in an unmarked grave."

De la Cova contacted surviving family members, who asked him to write the epitaph for a tombstone for Gonzales. He selected two descriptions: Cuban freedom fighter Jose Marti's reference to Gonzales as "the first Cuban wounded in combat for the liberty of Cuba" and Jefferson Davis' description of Gonzales as "a soldier under two flags but one cause; that of community independence."


"In Search of Ambrosio Gonzales: Soldier Under Two Flags" debuts at 10 p.m., Thursday,ETV stations