Monday, July 4, 2016

The Kingdom of Spain in the American War for Independence

In any history of the American War for Independence the emphasis tends to be placed on the fight in what became the United States, which is probably because of how powerful the U.S.A. eventually became. However, the British Empire was the strongest power in the world at the time and, unfortunately, one thing that comes with being on top is that everyone else is looking to take you down (something modern day Americans should be able to understand very well). Before it was all over, the Kingdom of France, the Kingdom of Spain and the United Provinces of the Netherlands had all decided to take advantage of the opportunity the war in America presented by going to war against Great Britain. Even the Empress of Russia was quick to recognize the United States as they too, at that time, had interest in North America. While the focus is usually on battlefields along the American east coast, the fighting actually carried over to the periphery of the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, Europe and even as far away as India. While the contribution of the French, at least in regards to the fighting in North America, is fairly well known, the part played by the Kingdom of Spain is seldom mentioned.

King Carlos III
At the time of the outbreak of rebellion in the British American colonies, Spain was under the rule of His Catholic Majesty King Carlos III, who came to the Spanish throne in 1759, already famous for his conquest of Sicily and Naples in southern Italy. He brought about a revival in Spanish fortunes with his, sometimes positive and sometimes negative, style of “enlightened absolutism”. So, he fostered greater freedom of speech, opinion and inquiry, private property rights, more freedom of religion and a greater emphasis on science and practical knowledge in education. He lowered taxes, promoted trade and business, furthered industrialization, which were good things, but he also banned bullfighting, considering it a brutal and barbaric sport, and expelled the Jesuits from Spain, partly due to accusations against them and probably influenced by a dispute he had with the Pope over his gaining of the crown of Naples and Sicily. Nonetheless, he was a devout Catholic which no one ever doubted. When war broke out in the British colonies, King Carlos III was, like King Louis XVI of France, reluctant to look favorably on the rebel colonists for fear that his own colonial subjects might follow their example but he was ultimately persuaded to join their cause.

King Carlos III had signed the “Family Compact” with the Kingdom of France and the results of the relatively recent French and Indian War had made him very nervous about the British. He feared that the British Empire was growing too powerful, that it would upset the balance of power in Europe and that a victorious Britain would conquer the Spanish colonies in America just as they had taken Canada from France in the last war. On May 8, 1779 the Kingdom of Spain declared war on Great Britain and Ireland, though as an ally of the Kingdom of France rather than the fledgling United States outright. The goal of the King of Spain was to weaken Britain on the world stage and recover lands that the Spanish had lost to Britain in the French and Indian War. His troops did not fight alongside the American colonists as the French did but the Spanish declaration of war had a major impact on the American cause. It greatly enlarged the scope of the conflict for Britain, removed the comfortable supremacy the British had enjoyed in the naval war and forced the British military to mostly go on the defensive in America while they redeployed forces to guard against attacks from the Spanish around the world.

The Anglo-Spanish conflict got off to a good start for Spain when, in September of 1779, Spanish troops and Louisiana militia seized the British garrison at Baton Rouge, taking them by surprise as they had no idea as yet that Britain and Spain were at war. A large Franco-Spanish fleet, filled with soldiers, had actually assembled that summer with the intention of invading Britain but, while they gave the British authorities a good scare, they ultimately called off the expedition. They were confident that they could defeat the British and land their forces but were not so confident that they could maintain naval supremacy and feared losing their whole invasion force if they were left isolated in enemy country. The longest and most intense military operation of the conflict began almost as soon as Spain issued its declaration of war which was the siege of Gibraltar. The British rushed help to the embattled garrison but it only arrived in early 1780, after the garrison had endured a brutal winter in miserable conditions. The two sides remained locked in combat in what would be the longest siege British military forces have ever endured.

Don Bernardo de Galvez
On the North American mainland, the leading Spanish official was the Governor of Louisiana, Don Bernardo de Gálvez. His mission was to secure Spanish control of both banks of the Mississippi River (of which the seizure of Baton Rouge was a good start) and to reclaim for the Spanish Crown their lost province of Florida. Fortunately for Spain, Gálvez proved to be a very capable man. He had good contacts with the Americans, had sold them guns, powder and loaned them money for other supplies. He was in touch with the American leadership and, perhaps most importantly, he had an established network of spies and informants thanks to his uncle, the Spanish Minister for the Indies, so that he was quickly made aware of British activities in the Caribbean and the Gulf coast. After organizing the first cattle drive in Texas history, moving 10-15,000 head of cattle from Goliad to Louisiana to feed his army, Gálvez launched a successful offensive against the British in the region. Throughout 1779 and 1780 his Spanish troops captured Natchez, Louisiana and Mobile in what is now Alabama.

At the same time, Gálvez was the primary source of munitions and supplies for the American expedition into the Midwest led by George Rogers Clark. The British had few military resources in the region but Governor Hamilton worked to rally the Indians to supplement his small force of redcoats to deal with the Americans as well as to attack Spanish outposts in the region. In 1780 a force of around a thousand Indians under British command attacked St Louis, Missouri, Fort San Carlos, defended by around 300 Spanish troops, mostly militia, under Captain Fernando de Leyba, the lieutenant governor. Although greatly outmatched, the Spanish had worked to fortify the area and with the support of the local French population they managed to repel the Indian attack and so secured Spanish control of the upper Louisiana territory from the British for the rest of the war. The following year the Spanish launched a counter-raid into British territory taking Fort St Joseph in what is now Niles, Michigan, probably the farthest north that Spanish forces ever fought in the Americas.

Capt-Gen of Guatemala Matias de Galvez
The British, however, did not rest solely on the defensive although they were limited due to the large number of enemies they had to guard against. In 1780 an expedition was planned by the Governor of Jamaica to use limited resources to achieve a dramatic result. His plan was to attack the Spanish in Central America, moving up the San Juan River to Lake Nicaragua to attack Granada, cutting Spanish America in half and giving Britain access to the Pacific Ocean. The Spanish had only a minimal military presence in the area and would be vastly outnumbered by the British led by Colonel John Polson in charge of the land forces and a young Lt. Horatio Nelson commanding the naval escort. In April they attacked Fort San Juan (aka Fortress Immaculate Conception). The Spanish held off superior forces for some time but finally surrendered, however poor planning meant that the British began to run out of vital supplies and tropical disease took a heavy toll with most of the Blacks and Miskito Indians they had recruited to provide the bulk of their manpower abandoning the expedition. In the end, the British failed to reach Lake Nicaragua and the whole expedition was abandoned and thereafter deemed the costliest failure of the entire war with Spain.

That same year, Don Bernardo de Gálvez made an effort to take Pensacola, Florida, the last major prize yet to be won in his campaign along the gulf coast. However, a hurricane intervened and ruined the expedition. 1781 was to be different. Of course, students of U.S. history will remember that it was in that year that the American War for Independence reached its climax with the siege of Yorktown, Virginia. Most know that the siege would not have been won without the assistance of considerable land and naval forces from the King of France but not many are aware of the Spanish contribution. Direct military assistance was not possible (nor needed obviously) but it was the Spanish who managed to raise funds amounting to 500,000 silver pesos in Havana, Cuba to buy vital supplies for the American forces and to pay the Continental Army (which had long been a huge hardship for the fledgling American government). The surrender of the British army under Lord Cornwallis was a devastating blow to the British war effort but was even worse for morale at home. It was the largest mass surrender of British troops in history up to that time and would remain so until World War I but in the aftermath Britain still held all of the most vital, strategic points in the American colonies.

Spanish troops at the siege of Pensacola
Because of the intervention of the French, Dutch and Spanish, however, Britain had more than the thirteen colonies to worry about and the people at home and certainly the politicians were weary of the conflict. Nor was it the only disaster London had to deal with. Prior to the siege of Yorktown, Gálvez had managed to reform his invasion fleet in Cuba that had been scattered by a hurricane the previous year. In February, with a force of about 7,000 men, Gálvez set out to capture the port of Pensacola. His army consisted of about 1,300 regular soldiers (including several hundred Irish exiles) as well as a great many militia from Cuba (including mixed race African-Cubans), New Orleans and Mobile. Opposing him was British General John Campbell who had 3,000 regulars but fewer troops overall with the remainder numbering only a little over 500, most of whom were Indians but including a few American loyalists as well. Gálvez conducted a classic siege operation, engineers digging trenches to advance his lines, heavy use of artillery, grenades and so on as the attackers inched ever closer to the British fortifications. Gálvez himself was wounded by enemy fire and had to turn over command to Colonel Jose de Ezpeleta.

The Spanish assault on Pensacola
The siege began on March 9, 1781 and was a long and brutal affair. General Campbell did not simply remain on the defensive but launched several attacks of his own on the Spanish lines. As time dragged on, bad weather forced the Spanish fleet to withdraw, there were supply shortages and heavy rains forced the men to fight in trenches flooded with water. Somewhat to his surprise, Gálvez was approached by a number of Indian chiefs offering to sell food to the Spanish army, even though many Indians of the same tribes were fighting with the British. Gálvez accepted their offer and also asked them if they might be able to persuade their countrymen to abandon the British and stop attacking his lines! They would have been well advised to escape as the Spanish received reinforcements, bringing their total number up to about 8,000 men, and began the formal assault on Pensacola on April 30 with a large-scale artillery bombardment. On May 8, a shell hit the magazine in Fort Crescent, killing many British troops. Spanish light infantry (los Cazadores) charged forward, through the smoke and debris and captured the fort, moving in canon to fire on the two adjacent British forts. The concentration of firepower soon convinced General Campbell that Fort George could not hold.

British troops sortie at Gibraltar
On May 10, 1781, after suffering 200 casualties, Campbell surrendered his remaining 1,100 troops along with Ft George, the Prince of Wales redoubt and all of West Florida to the Spanish. It was the crowning achievement for Don Bernardo de Gálvez and his campaign along the gulf coast. For his victory, King Carlos III promoted him to lieutenant-general and awarded him the governorship of west Florida along with that of Louisiana. All throughout the Americas, Spanish forces had been successful in their major operations while also managing to defeat British attacks on their own territory. Closer to home, the “Great Siege” of Gibraltar continued to drag on with no sign of the British defenders cracking (many of the defenders were Germans from Hanover) but the island of Minorca was a different story. From August 1781 to February 1782 a Franco-Spanish force landed on the island and besieged the main British garrison at Fort St Philip. The fight was largely a massive artillery duel but eventually British defenses were reduced and, more critically, the garrison began to fall victim to scurvy and other symptoms of privation until finally their commander agreed to surrender.

The embattled garrison was shown great honor and respect by the Franco-Spanish forces and many wept in sympathy as they marched out of the ruined fort, haggard and sickly but with their heads still held high. The commander of the Spanish forces, Louis des Balbes de Berton de Crillon, duc de Mahon (a Frenchman but serving in the Spanish army) was then chosen by King Carlos III to take charge of the still on-going efforts to regain Gibraltar. That would ultimately end in disappointment but an unauthorized Spanish attack on The Bahamas was successful, the British garrison surrendering without a fight. Gálvez had also planned an ambitious effort to conquer Jamaica but a British naval victory followed by the British agreement to end the war put a stop to this. In the subsequent Treaty of Paris, the British were able to mitigate their losses to Spain somewhat by granting more favorable terms to the Americans, such as in ceding the North American Midwest to the United States, keeping it out of Spanish hands. The Bahamas were handed back to Britain by Spain in exchange for East Florida, which, combined with the Spanish conquest of West Florida, saw the entire region restored to the Spanish Crown.

The King & Queen of Spain visit Washington's tomb
In the end, Spanish involvement in the American War for Independence had been a brilliant success. With the exception of Gibraltar, which successfully withstood the Spanish siege, King Carlos III had gained everything he had hoped to achieve by backing the United States against Great Britain. Florida had been regained, as had Minorca and while the lands east of the Mississippi had been ceded by Britain to the United States, Spanish territory had been secured from the British, the British threat to Spanish dominance of Central America had been defeated and Spanish holdings in the Caribbean escaped unscathed. Spanish attacks on British positions, particularly those which the Americans could never hope to have threatened, played a major part in the winning of independence for the United States, as did the contribution of funds, military supplies and foodstuffs to the American forces. Although not often as well remembered, the Spanish contribution was ultimately as vital to the American victory as was the more well known assistance of the Kingdom of France.


  1. Again, I seem to recall bits and pieces of this Spanish history in America.
    Thank you so much for clearly explaining this important history
    in the greatest possible way!
    Appreciative, I am,
    Observer Jules

  2. I have an idea for the next project of genealogy (as interesting in its own right, but also as source for stats of life spans in the pre-industrial past). Thank you very much!

  3. You said action in India concerning the US War of Independence?

    1. Yes, not much talked about in America but the French, who came into the war on the side of the American colonies, had holdings in India back then just as the British did and the two sides and their local proxies were at war there as well. Specific to the area this is sometimes called the Second Anglo-Mysore War but it was part of the larger war that started with the rebellion in America.


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