Spanish Participation in the American Revolution

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Spanish Participation in the American Revolution

SPANISH PARTICIPATION IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. Spain played a signal role in the American Revolution as a supply source for munitions and other material for the Americans. After 1779, Spain's military forces won significant victories against Great Britain, thereby helping to bring the war towards a conclusive defeat of the British. Spain, along with her ally France, had been a traditional and long-standing international rival of the British since the beginnings of the colonial era. These powers had fought a series of European intercolonial wars from the late 1680s until the 1760s. This heritage of warfare guaranteed that Spain would view the American Revolution as an opportunity to weaken, if not destroy, the British Empire. However, as a major colonial power herself, Spain had no sympathy for the rebel goals. The Spanish king and his ministers absolutely did not support the concept of colonials who might revolt against the authority of a sovereign. Spain therefore adopted a bifurcated policy: she would support the American cause as a mechanism to damage the British Empire; but she would not form an alliance with the infant United States until after the American Revolution. Given this policy, Spanish involvement in the American Revolution fell into two distinct eras. First, from 1775 until 1779, Spain secretly furnished badly needed supplies to the Americans in order to animate them in their revolt against British colonial authority, but in so doing refused to ally with the rebels. Second, after the summer of 1779, Spain entered the wider European war as a combatant against the British, but did not sign an alliance with the Continental Congress or coordinate her military campaigns with those of the infant United States.


Spanish Louisiana and Cuba served as important centers for Spain's participation in the Revolution, especially regarding the respective cities of New Orleans and Havana. Spanish officials in both ports played significant roles at every stage of Spain's involvement in the revolt.

Louisiana, along with its capital New Orleans, had only recently become a Spanish colonial possession when the French king transferred it to his Bourbon cousin at the treaty negotiations that occurred during the Peace of Paris in 1763. As part of this settlement, the Isle of Orleans which contained the province's capital, along with all lands on the west bank of the Mississippi River, became part of the new colony of British West Florida after 1763, with its capital at Pensacola. This meant that towns north of New Orleans, including Baton Rouge and Natchez, became British, along with Mobile and the other settlements along the Gulf Coast. Respective colonies in North America belonging to Spain and Great Britain thus touched as contiguous territories along the lower Mississippi for the very first time since the beginnings of European colonization in the New World. This geographical reality would have profound implications for Spanish participation in the American Revolution. A Spanish governor based at New Orleans served as the civil and military commander of the colony, serving in that regard as the subordinate of the Captain-General of Cuba. Located at Havana, the Captain-General commanded all of Spain's military forces throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, making him an important figure in Spain's involvement in the American Revolution.


Both of these Spanish officials became aware of the governmental problems in British America during the late 1760s and early 1770s as controversy brewed between the English colonists on the Atlantic coast and the home government in London. The governor of Louisiana, Luis de Unzaga y Amezaga, routinely heard reports about events in America from his neighbors in West Florida. He dutifully passed this news on to his superiors in Cuba and Spain, where the highest level of policy makers in the king's inner circle of advisors considered this information. In addition, the Captain-General of Cuba regularly heard reports about the growing crisis in the British colonies from the maritime traffic in the region.

By 1770, these two officials had decided to create a secret intelligence network in the lower Mississippi valley, along the Gulf Coast, and in the Caribbean for the purpose of gathering news and information about the expanding crisis in the British colonies. They did so with the full approval of the Spanish court, where the king and his ministers were primarily concerned about the military defense of Spain's colonies in the face of an open colonial war in British North America. As part of this espionage network, the Captain-General routinely dispatched Cuban fishing boats to the South Atlantic coast in order to scout the sea-lanes and talk to the masters of ships sailing to and from ports in the British colonies. He also recruited two Spanish subjects who were living in British West Florida to provide regular intelligence about English naval and troop movements in the region. One of them, Father Pedro Camps, was a Roman Catholic Priest living at New Smyrna. While the other, Luciano Herrera, resided at St. Augustine.

Herrera, a Spanish merchant who continued to reside in East Florida after the British took it over, had many contacts among English officials and residents in the city. Both of these men proved to be fruitful sources for Spain about events in North American all during the course of the Revolution. While the Captain-General was occupied with the sea lanes around East Florida, the governor of Louisiana continued to monitor events in West Florida while he routinely interviewed English ship captains passing New Orleans on the Mississippi about occurrences in the British colonies of the Atlantic coast. He also permitted Louisiana merchant vessels to call at Pensacola and Mobile under the guise of conducting illegal trade, with their true purpose to gather information of events in the British colonies. In 1772, Governor Unzaga dispatched a confidential agent from Louisiana to New York and Philadelphia for the secret purpose of learning about recent events there. This person, Juan Surriret, was a prosperous merchant who had many commercial ties to mercantile houses in major ports of the Atlantic coast. Surriret employed these contacts as sources of information while he visited with them under the ruse of conducting private commerce. Returning en route to New Orleans from the east coast, he stopped at Pensacola, observing much British naval activity that proved useful to the Spanish. Surriret's mission was a great success.

By the time of Lexington and Concord (April 1775), Spanish officials in North America and in Spain had become reasonably well-informed about the unrest in the British colonies. Governor Unzaga at New Orleans heard early reports of the outbreak of fighting in Massachusetts within weeks of the events while the Captain-General quickly confirmed these reports as both men continued to gather news about the revolt during the ensuing months and years. By mid-1775, all of the information from the rebellious colonies had permitted the Spanish king and his ministers to craft a well-reasoned, official foreign policy and international response to the American Revolution. The Spanish would remain neutral in the ensuing conflict, and openly refused to engage in any action that might cause the British to turn their wrath against Spain or her new world colonies. The king and his ministers did not believe that their military had been adequately prepared for war. They feared that the rebellious British colonies might well lose their revolt, thus freeing a mobilized English army and navy to attack Spain or her possessions, especially if Spain politically supported the rebel colonists. Neutrality would give Spain the opportunity to prepare her military for eventual participation, should the opportunity for open conflict with Great Britain later present itself. At the same time, however, Spanish officials, including King Charles III, secretly wished for a rebel American victory, since such an occurrence would seriously damage the rival British Empire. For that reason, the Spanish decided to assist the rebels with all possible secrecy and confidentiality. The Spanish king's resolve to follow this risky policy increased when he learned that France had also decided on a similar response to events in British North America.


An unexpected opportunity for Spain to assist the American rebels came in the summer of 1776, when Captain George Gibson arrived at New Orleans in command of a company of soldiers from Virginia. They had floated down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers under the pretense of being merchants engaged in frontier trade. They carried a confidential letter from General Charles Lee, who served as George Washington's second-in-command. Lee, who pointed out that, since Spain was Britain's long-standing international enemy, the Spanish might furnish a stream of badly needed supplies, including weapons, munitions, medicines, and other items. These could be shipped to New Orleans where they would be transferred to boats that would be poled up the inland rivers to Fort Pitt. Governor Unzaga, who had no instructions from Spain on these matters, quickly reported this request while he temporized with Captain Gibson, permitting the American officer to purchase gunpowder and other materials already on hand in the Louisiana capital.

While making his purchases, Captain Gibson made contact with Oliver Pollock, a Scot-Irish merchant who lived in New Orleans. A native of Ulster, Pollock had migrated first to Pennsylvania and then, in 1762, to Havana, where he found great prosperity as a merchant. He moved to New Orleans in the late 1760s, took Spanish citizenship, and had become one of the wealthiest merchants in Louisiana by the time of the American Revolution. Pollock quickly embraced the rebel cause, for which he manifested a great fervor and enthusiastic support. Pollock eagerly sold Captain Gibson the desired supplies and arranged for them to be shipped to Fort Pitt. Pollock also wrote a letter to the Continental Congress, which accompanied the shipment of supplies, in which he pledged his support for the Revolution and offered his services as the American supply agent at New Orleans. The Secret Committee of Correspondence of the Congress accepted Pollock's offer and, in the following year, appointed him as its official supply agent at New Orleans. For the next several years, Pollock shipped dozens of boatloads of material up the rivers to Fort Pitt while he liberally paid for much of this merchandise with personal drafts on his own accounts, pending eventual reimbursement from the Congress.

In the meantime, Unzaga's sending of Gibson's letter to his superiors in Madrid set in motion a larger, centrally directed effort by which Spain began to supply the Americans surreptitiously. A meeting of the king and the Spanish council of ministers resolved to create a regularized supply network in order to assit the rebel Americans. They dispatched a Cuban, Miguel Antonio Eduardo, to New Orleans with additional military supplies that soon found their way into American hands. The Spanish court also enlisted the services of a Spanish merchant from Bilbao, Diego de Gardoqui, who spoke fluent English and who had extensive mercantile experience in trading with the British Atlantic ports.

At the suggestion of the Spanish chief minister, Gardoqui formed a dummy merchant house under the guise of seeking quick profits from private trade with the rebels. In reality, all of the military supplies that his firm shipped to the rebellious Americans through Havana and other ports in the Caribbean were secretly supplied from the Spanish government as unofficial aid to the American cause. An additional chance to assist the Continental Congress occurred when an American envoy, Arthur Lee, appeared in Spain. The Marquis de Grimaldi, the Spanish minister of state, met secretly with Lee and publicly rebuffed his requests for aid, in keeping with Spain's official policy of neutrality. In secret, however, Grimaldi arranged for an under-the-table loan in the amount of one million dollars, which the Americans used to purchase additional supplies from other European sources.

Spanish espionage efforts also continued as supplies began to flow from Spain. Both the governor of Louisiana and the Captain-General of Cuba sent additional agents to various locations on the Atlantic coast to gather information about the revolt. Juan de Miralles, a Cuban merchant from Havana, proved to be the most important of these confidential agents. At the specific request of the Spanish court at Madrid, the Captain-General dispatched Miralles to Philadelphia to report on events at the Continental Congress. He left Havana in late 1777, landed at Charleston, and visited along the route with various American leaders as he traveled to the meeting place of the Congress. Miralles claimed to be a private merchant interested in fostering trade relations with the infant United States. His distinguished demeanor, official bearing, and extensive correspondence with individuals in Spain and Cuba, however, made his true status obvious to Congress and its members.

As the months progressed, the Americans increasingly treated Miralles as if he were Spain's unofficial envoy in the United States capital, which increasingly became an accurate description of Miralles's true role in Philadelphia. By 1778, the Spaniard enjoyed in a de facto manner all the rights and privileges normally accorded to an authorized diplomatic envoy. Miralles obliged by speaking for Spain at the Continental Congress, while he continued to fulfill his initial mission by sending a steady stream of news and information to his superiors.


While Miralles established himself at the Congress, the American Revolution came to the lower Mississippi valley when a rebel expedition floated down the river to attack British West-Florida. Early in 1778, Pennsylvania Captain James Willing led a company of armed men on an attack against British settlements along the river. He took the town of Natchez, captured British ships that were plying the Mississippi, and sacked plantations belonging to West Floridian residents.

Willing arrived at New Orleans in the mid-spring of 1778, anxious to sell his plunder in order to raise money for the United States. Oliver Pollock, as the congressional agent in the city, eagerly assisted in the sales and, importantly, convinced the governor to offer Willing and his men protection. Louisiana had a new governor, Bernardo de Gálvez, who was very much a partisan of American independence. The son of a powerful Spanish family, Governor Gálvez saw the revolt as a way to defeat the British and end the centuries-old rivalry with them. He therefore welcomed the American expedition to New Orleans and rebuffed British complaints about the courtesies he extended to Willing and his men. Gálvez's support ensured that Oliver Pollock would be able to increase the amount of supplies being shipped from New Orleans, and that city became an important supply depot for the American cause.


The Franco-American Alliance of February, 1778 (which partially resulted from the victory at Saratoga), radically changed the nature of Spanish participation in the Revolution. France, a European power traditionally allied with Spain, joined the conflict as an official ally of the United States and as a belligerent to Great Britain. This development forced Spain to continue its policy of neutrality alone. High-ranking ministers at the Spanish court therefore debated during the spring of 1778 about joining France and declaring war on Great Britain. After lengthy discussion, the Spanish king and his ministers decided to continue their neutral policies. They reasoned that the Spanish army and navy was not yet ready to achieve the specific war goals they wished to gain in a conflict with Great Britain. Specifically, Spain wanted to regain possession of Gibraltar, drive the British from both East and West Florida, sweep the English settlements from the Logwood coasts of Central America and end definitively the special trading concessions for British merchants in some Spanish colonies which had been a provision of the Peace of Paris, 1763.

Spain would thus only enter the conflict when her ministers and king believed the military was strong enough to achieve these objectives. Even then, Spain might not risk a formal diplomatic alliance with the United States, as France had done when it entered the conflict. Important figures at the Spanish court, including the powerful Conde de Floridablanca who served as chief minister of the state, worried that the westward expanding young United States would replace Great Britain as a territorial rival for Spain in North America. Floridablanca, as Spain's highest ranking royal advisor, resolved that even if his nation entered the conflict as a belligerent, it would not sign a treaty of amity or commerce with the United States.

The successful campaigns of George Roger Clark in the Illinois country of the Mississippi valley confirmed these fears for Spain. Floating down the Ohio during the summer of 1778, Clark and his men won a series of victories at Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes that swept the British from the region by early 1779. These conquests would not have been possible without the aid and support provided to Clark by Oliver Pollock at New Orleans. He liberally supplied anything the American general requested to hold the Illinois country, to the point of making possible the first settlement by the United States on the Mississippi River. This was at Fort Jefferson, established in 1780 near the confluence point of the great river with the Ohio on the northern edge of Spanish Louisiana. Spain's reaction to George Rogers Clark's conquest of western territory became apparent at Philadelphia in late 1779, when Juan de Miralles began to argue informally that, should the United States win the war, Spain might not grant it free navigation rights on the Mississippi as had been the case for Great Britain.

Nonetheless, Clark's victories in the Mississippi valley served as a motivating factor that pushed Spain towards declaring war on Great Britain. In the late spring of 1779, the Spanish colonial minister warned Louisiana governor Gálvez to prepare for an imminent declaration of war, which came officially on 21 June. True to established policy, Spain declared war against Great Britain, but did not recognize the United States as an ally. Nonetheless, both nations agreed to exchange informal envoys who would serve as the recognized spokespersons of their respective governments. Juan de Miralles became the recognized "Spanish observer" at the Continental Congress, while that body dispatched a New Yorker, John Jay, to Spain as its envoy. Jay had instructions to negotiate an alliance with Spain, but no such treaty came to pass during the two years of his residence at Madrid because the Spanish court refused to consider it.

Spain's entrance into the war began a series of military victories between 1779 and 1781 that fulfilled many of its war goals, especially along the Gulf coast and the lower Mississippi valley. Bernardo de Gálvez had astutely prepared the Spanish military forces in Louisiana for successful attacks on West Florida. During the fall of 1779, Governor Gálvez and his forces captured the British post at Baton Rouge. Natchez surrendered soon thereafter. The following spring Mobile fell to the Spanish. Then, in the spring of 1781, Gálvez led a combined army and navy attack against Pensacola, the British colonial capital. Spain also enjoyed successes further to the north when, in 1780, the Commander turned back a British attack on St. Louis. Spain's efforts to block additional British attacks on the Mississippi valley met with further good fortune when a Spanish force captured Fort St. Joseph in present-day Michigan, thereby thwarting additional English incursions into the region from Detroit.

Spain also met with limited success in dislodging the British from their establishments in Central America. In 1779, an army commanded by Matias de Gálvez, the father of the Louisiana governor, captured the British posts at Belize and Rotan. He also withstood an English counter-attack against Spanish positions in modern Nicaragua. In the Caribbean, a 1782 Spanish naval expedition commanded by Juan María de Cagigal forced the British surrender of New Providence Island.

In spite of these victories, however, Spain failed to achieve her major goal of reacquiring Gibraltar. In cooperation with French forces, Spain laid siege to the British fortress at Gibraltar in June of 1779, as soon as war had been declared. More than five thousand British forces, led by General George Elliot, held the great rock's impenetrable defenses with steadfast resolution. The British could easily secure needed foodstuffs and supplies from Moroccan smugglers from across the Straits, which ensured that the siege of Gibralter would be the longest running military engagement of the American Revolution.


The siege lasted until 1783, and Spain proved incapable of dislodging the British from their Mediterranean strong-hold. By 1782, the Spanish king and his ministers were growing weary anyway of continuing major military operations against the British. The surrender at Yorktown had effectively settled the outcome of the Revolution in favor of the Americans. Thereafter, Floridablanca and his fellow Spanish ministers mostly fretted about the potential of the United States to become a new rival on the borders of Spanish America. For that reason, Spain began to plan her diplomacy to gain as much as possible from the forthcoming peace negotiations that would end the worldwide conflict in 1783.

The fact that each participating nation signed a separate, bilateral treaty at the Peace of Paris of that year was a diplomatic development that worked to Spain's advantage. Her diplomats at Paris were able to obscure the boundaries between Spanish Florida and the territories to the north that were claimed by the United States. The border asserted by Spain in its treaty with the United States placed the boundary line at one place while Spain's accord with Great Britain, the previous maser of the whole territory, drew it at another latitude. This gave Spain the opportunity after the war to maintain a large hegemony in the lower Mississippi valley and Gulf Coast regions than would have been the case had the treaties been more straightforward.

Hence, during the years following the American Revolution, Spain maintained cordial, yet less that cooperative, relations with the United States. In the year after the Peace of Paris, 1783, Spanish officials closed the free navigation of the Mississippi River to United States citizens. The arrival of Diego de Gardoqui, in his capacity as Spain's first accredited Charge d'Affairs at Philadelphia in 1785, did not result in a formal treaty between Spain and the United States over western boundary issues and American navigation rights on the Mississippi. An accord on these matters did not come until the Treaty of San Lorenzo in 1795.This agreement finally did settle the boundary question, permitted United States citizens free navigation of the great river, and granted them the "right of deposit" at New Orleans coming down the river for transshipment to international markets.

Nonetheless, the secret support that Spain gave to the United States during the American Revolution proved to be a decisive factor in sustaining the rebel cause. Once the Spanish entered the conflict in 1779, their campaigns also assisted the United States, even though the two nations never coordinated their military actions. The pressure of Spain's attacks against the British in the Mississippi valley, the Gulf coast and the Caribbean, along with the siege of Gibraltar. diverted British military resources that otherwise would have been directed against the rebel Americans and the fighting that took place in North America.

SEE ALSO Pensacola, Florida; Pollock, Oliver.


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                      Light Townsend Cummins