Spain and the American Revolutionary War

Spain's role in the independence of Britain's Thirteen Colonies was part of its dispute over colonial supremacy with the Kingdom of Great Britain. Spain actively supported the Thirteen Colonies throughout the American Revolutionary War. Beginning in 1776, it jointly funded Roderigue Hortalez and Company, a trading company that provided critical military supplies. Spain also provided financing for the final Siege of Yorktown in 1781 with a collection of gold and silver in Havana, Cuba.[1] Spain was allied with France through the Bourbon Family Compact and also viewed the Revolution as an opportunity to weaken the British Empire, which had caused Spain substantial losses during the Seven Years' War. As the newly appointed Prime Minister, José Moñino y Redondo, Count of Floridablanca, wrote in March 1777, "the fate of the colonies interests us very much, and we shall do for them everything that circumstances permit".[2]

Aid to the Colonies: 1776–1778

Spanish aid was supplied to the colonies through four main routes: from French ports with the funding of Roderigue Hortalez and Company, through the port of New Orleans and up the Mississippi River, from the warehouses in Havana, and from Bilbao, through the Gardoqui family trading company.

Smuggling from New Orleans began in 1776, when General Charles Lee sent two Continental Army (the army of the Thirteen Colonies) officers to request supplies from the New Orleans Governor, Luis de Unzaga. Unzaga, concerned about overtly antagonizing the British before the Spanish were prepared for war, agreed to assist the rebels covertly. Unzaga authorized the shipment of desperately needed gunpowder in a transaction brokered by Oliver Pollock, a Patriot (Revolutionary) and financier.[3] When Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid, Count of Gálvez was appointed Governor of New Orleans in January 1777, he continued and expanded the supply operations.[4]

As the American diplomat Benjamin Franklin reported from Paris to the Congressional Committee of Secret Correspondence in March 1777, the Spanish court quietly granted the rebels direct admission to the rich, previously restricted port of Havana under most favored nation status. Franklin also noted in the same report that three thousand barrels of gunpowder were waiting in New Orleans, and that the merchants in Bilbao "had orders to ship for us such necessaries as we might want."[5]

Declaration of war

The Spanish had sustained serious losses against the British in the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), and these losses less than two decades earlier had heavily influenced their timing in entering the American Revolutionary War in the 1770s. During the Seven Years' War, the British had attacked and occupied two of Spain's key trading ports: Havana (in Cuba) and Manila (in the Philippines) in 1762. In the peace settlement of 1763 Spain recovered Havana by ceding Florida, including St. Augustine, which the Spanish had founded in 1565. Spain recovered the Philippines later. The Spanish ministers had concerns about Spain's geographic neighbor Portugal, an ally of the British, and about Spain's immensely wealthy treasure fleet that was due to sail from Havana.

The former Spanish Prime Minister and then-Ambassador to the French Court, Jerónimo Grimaldi, 1st Duke of Grimaldi, summarized the Spanish position in a letter to Arthur Lee, an American diplomat in Madrid who was trying to persuade the Spanish to declare an open alliance with the fledgling United States. Genoese by birth and a shrewdly calculating politician by nature, Grimaldi demurred, replying, "You have considered your own situation, and not ours. The moment is not yet come for us. The war with Portugal — France being unprepared, and our treasure ships from South America not being arrived — makes it improper for us to declare immediately."[6] Meanwhile, Grimaldi reassured Lee, stores of clothing and powder were deposited at New Orleans and Havana for the Americans, and further shipments of blankets were being collected at Bilbao.

By June 1779 the Spanish had finalized their preparations for war. The British cause seemed to be at a particularly low ebb. The Spanish joined France in the war, implementing the Treaty of Aranjuez signed in April 1779.

European waters

The main goals of Spain were, as in the Seven Years' War, the recovery of Gibraltar and Minorca from the British, who had owned them since 1704 and to damage British trade through the actions of privateers.

In 1780 and 1781, Luis de Córdova's fleet captured America-bound British convoys, doing much damage to British military supplies and commerce.

The siege of Gibraltar, June 16, 1779 to February 7, 1783, was the longest lasting Spanish action in the war. Despite the larger size of the besieging Franco-Spanish army, at one point numbering 33,000, the British under George Augustus Elliott were able to hold out in the fortress and were resupplied by sea three times. Luis de Córdova y Córdova was unable to prevent Howe's fleet returning home after resupplying Gibraltar in October 1782.[7]

The combined Franco-Spanish invasion of Minorca in 1781 met with more success; Minorca surrendered the following year,[8] and was restored to Spain after the war, nearly eighty years after it was first captured by the British.[9]

West Indies and Gulf Coast

In the Caribbean, the main effort was directed to prevent possible British landings in Cuba, remembering the British expedition against Cuba that seized Havana in the Seven Years' War. Other goals included the reconquest of Florida (which the British had divided into West Florida and East Florida in 1763), and the resolution of logging disputes involving the British in Belize.

On the mainland, the governor of Spanish Louisiana, Count Bernardo de Gálvez, led a series of successful offensives against the British forts in the Mississippi Valley, first capturing Fort Bute at Manchac and then forcing the surrender of Baton Rouge, Natchez and Mobile in 1779 and 1780.[10] While a hurricane halted an expedition to capture Pensacola, the capital of British West Florida, in 1780, Gálvez's forces achieved a decisive victory against the British in 1781 at the Battle of Pensacola giving the Spanish control of all of West Florida. This secured the southern route for supplies and closed off the possibility of any British offensive into the western frontier of United States via the Mississippi River.

When Spain entered the war, Britain also went on the offensive in the Caribbean, planning an expedition against Spanish Nicaragua. A British attempt to gain a foothold at San Fernando de Omoa was rebuffed in October 1779, and an expedition in 1780 against Fort San Juan in Nicaragua was at first successful, but yellow fever and other tropical diseases wiped out most of the force, which then withdrew and returned to Jamaica.

American Midwest

Bernardo de Gálvez, Count of Gálvez

At the end of the Seven Years' War, France gifted the Mississippi Valley to her ally Spain, in order to prevent it from coming under British control at the Treaty of Paris (1763).[11] The Spanish assisted the Thirteen Colonies in their campaigns in the American Midwest. In January 1778, Virginia Governor Patrick Henry authorized an expedition by George Rogers Clark, who captured the fort at Vincennes and secured the northern region of the Ohio for the rebels. Clark relied on Gálvez and Oliver Pollock for support to supply his men with weapons and ammunition, and to provide credit for provisions. The credit lines that Pollock established to purchase supplies for Clark were supposed to be backed by the state of Virginia. However, Pollock in turn had to rely on his own personal credit and Gálvez, who allowed the funds of the Spanish government to be at Pollock's disposal as loans. These funds were usually delivered in the cover of night by Gálvez's private secretary.[12]

The Spanish garrisons in the Louisiana region repelled attacks from British units and the latter's Indian allies in the Battle of Saint Louis in 1780. A year later, a detachment traveled through present-day Illinois and took Fort St. Joseph, in the modern state of Michigan. This expedition gave Spain some claim to the Northwest Territory, which was thwarted diplomatically by Great Britain and the young United States in their separate peace in the Treaty of Paris (1783).[11]

Siege of Yorktown

Main article: Yorktown Campaign

The Spanish also assisted in the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, the critical and final major battle of the North America theater. French General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, commanding his country's forces in North America, sent a desperate appeal to François Joseph Paul de Grasse, the French admiral designated to assist the Colonists, asking him to raise money in the Caribbean to fund the campaign at Yorktown. With the assistance of Spanish agent Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis, the needed cash, over 500,000 in silver pesos, was raised in Havana, Cuba within 24 hours. This money was used to purchase critical supplies for the siege, and to fund payroll for the Continental Army.[13]

Antilles War

After Spain entered the war, Major General John Dalling, the British governor and commander-in-chief of Jamaica, proposed in 1780 an expedition to the Spanish province of Nicaragua. The goal was to sail up the San Juan River to Lake Nicaragua and capture the town of Granada, which would effectively cut Spanish America in half as well as provide potential access to the Pacific Ocean. Because of disease and logistical problems, the expedition proved to be a costly debacle.[14][15]

The expedition sailed from Jamaica on February 3, 1780, escorted by twenty-one year-old Captain Horatio Nelson in the Hinchinbrook. Nelson was the highest-ranking officer present, but his authority was limited to naval operations. The overall commander was Captain (local rank of major) John Polson of the 60th Regiment, who recognized young Nelson's abilities and worked closely with him. Polson had about three to four hundred regulars of the 60th and the 79th Regiments, about 300 men of the Loyal Irish Corps raised by Dalling, as well as several hundred local recruits, including blacks and Miskito Indians.

After many delays, the expedition began to move up the San Juan River on March 17, 1780. On April 9, Nelson—in the first hand-to-hand combat of his career—led an assault which captured a Spanish battery on the island of Bartola. The siege of Fort San Juan, located five miles (8 km) upstream and manned with about 150 armed defenders and 86 others, began on April 13. Because of poor planning and lost supplies, the British soon began to run low on ammunition for the cannons as well as rations for the men. After the tropical rains started on April 20, men began to sicken and die, probably from malaria and dysentery, and perhaps typhoid fever.

Nelson was one of the first to become ill, and he was shipped downriver on April 28, the day before the Spanish surrendered the fort. About 450 British reinforcements arrived on May 15, but the blacks and the Indians abandoned the expedition because of illness and discontent. Although Dalling persisted in trying to gather reinforcements, sickness continued to take a heavy toll, and the expedition was abandoned on November 8, 1780. The Spanish reoccupied the remains of the fort after the British blew it up on departure. In all, more than 2,500 men died, which "made the San Juan expedition the costliest British disaster of the entire war."[16]

Following these successes, an unauthorized Spanish force captured the Bahamas in 1782, without battle. In 1783 Gálvez was preparing to invade Jamaica from Cuba, but these plans were aborted when Britain sued for peace.

Peace of Paris

Main article: Peace of Paris (1783)

The reforms made by Spanish authorities as a result of Spain's poor performance in the Seven Years' War had proved generally successful. As a result, Spain retained Minorca and West Florida in the Treaty of Paris and also regained East Florida. The lands east of the Mississippi, however, were recognized as part of the newly independent United States of America.

Contribution to victory

The involvement of other European states in the war contributed significantly to British defeat. Spain's contribution was just as significant as France's due largely to its extensive interests in the region. By allying themselves with foreign monarchies, the colonies took advantage of the power struggles within European imperialism and essentially formed a united front against Britain. Despite the aims of the revolutionary colonies, and the republicanism which could threaten Spain's own colonies, and later did, in the Latin American wars of independence, Spain maintained a level of support throughout the war in pursuit of its geopolitical interests.


Spain's involvement in the American Revolutionary War was widely regarded as a successful one. The Spanish took a gamble in entering the war, banking on Great Britain's vulnerability caused by the effort of fighting their rebellious colonists in North America while also conducting a global war on many fronts against a coalition of major powers. This helped Spain gain some relatively easy conquests.

The war gave a boost to the kingdom's prestige, which had suffered from the losses to Britain in the Seven Years' War. Even though Spain's single most coveted target, Gibraltar, remained out of its grasp, Spain had more than compensated by recovering Minorca and by reducing the British threat to its colonies in and around the Caribbean, all of which were seen as vital to Spanish interests.

Spain was seen to have received tangible results out of the war, especially in contrast to its ally France. The French king had invested huge amounts of manpower, funds and material resources for little clear military or economic gain. France had been left with crippling debts which it struggled to pay off, and which would become one of the major causes of the French Revolution that broke out in 1789. Spain, in comparison, disposed of its debts more easily, partly due to the stunning increases in silver production from the mines in Mexico and Bolivia.[17]

One particular outcome of the war was the manner in which it enhanced the position of Prime Minister Floridablanca, and his government continued to dominate Spanish politics until 1792.

Don Diego de Gardoqui, of the Gardoqui trading company that had greatly assisted the rebels during the war, was appointed as Spain's first ambassador to the United States of America in 1784. Gardoqui became well acquainted with George Washington, and marched in the newly elected President Washington's inaugural parade. King Charles III of Spain continued communications with Washington, sending him livestock from Spain that Washington had requested for his farm at Mount Vernon.[18]


  1. Thomas E. Chavez (January 2004). Spain and the Independence of the United States: An Intrinsic Gift. UNM Press. p. 225. ISBN 978-0-8263-2794-9.
  2. Fernández y Fernández, p. 4
  3. Caughey, p. 87
  4. Mitchell, p. 99
  5. Sparks, 1:201
  6. Sparks, 1:408
  7. Chartrand p.84
  8. Chartrand 54-56
  9. Harvey p.532
  10. Harvey p.413-14
  11. 1 2 Collins, William. "The Spanish Attack On Fort St. Joseph". National Park Service. Retrieved 10 March 2012.
  12. Caughey pp. 98–99
  13. Dull p. 245
  14. Coleman, Terry (2004). The Nelson Touch: The Life and Legend of Horatio Nelson. London, UK: Oxford University Press. p. 32. ISBN 978-0-19-517322-2.
  15. This account follows John Sugden, Nelson: A Dream of Glory, 1758–1797, ch. VII.
  16. Sugden, p. 173
  17. In the mid-18th century, production in Mexico increased by about 600%, and by 250% in Peru and Bolivia. Castillero Calvo p. 193
  18. Chávez p. 2


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