Spain in the American Revolutionary War

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Anglo-Spanish War
Part of the Anglo-Spanish wars
Combate de Santa María.jpg
Combat of Santa María between the squadron of Admiral Rodney and Commodore Juan de Lángara (16 January 1780)
Date June 1779 – 3 September 1783
Location English Channel, Straits of Gibraltar, Balearic Islands, Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, The Bahamas, Central America, British West Florida, Upper Louisiana (New Spain).
Result Spanish victory, Treaty of Versailles
East Florida, West Florida, and Minorca annexed by Spain
 Spain  Great Britain
Commanders and leaders
Bernardo de Gálvez
Matías de Gálvez
Luis de Córdova
Juan de Lángara
George B. Rodney
Richard Howe
George A. Eliott
John Campbell

Spain's role in the American Revolutionary War was part of a conflict over colonial supremacy between the Kingdom of Spain and the Kingdom of Great Britain while Spain supported the Thirteen Colonies during the War of American Independence. It was a conflict that lasted from 1779 to 1783. In 1776, Spain began joint funding Roderigue Hortalez and Company, a trading company which provided crucial military supplies to the American Revolutionaries. Spain also financed the 1781 Siege of Yorktown with a collection of gold and silver from Havana.[1] Like France, Spain saw the Revolution as an opportunity to weaken the British Empire because it had given Spain substantial losses in the Seven Years' War. However, many in Spain believed that the new country (a descendant of Great Britain) would share the British Empire's aggression and imperial ambitions, trying to capture long-held Spanish territories. As a result, the Spanish did not forge a direct military treaty with the United States, instead, allying with France through the Bourbon Family Compact.[2]

Aid to the colonies: 1776–1778[edit]

Spanish aid was supplied to the colonies through four main routes. One route was through French ports funded by Roderigue Hortalez and Company. Another route was from New Orleans and up the Mississippi River. Additionally, warehouses in Havana supplied aid, as well as Bilbao through the Gardoqui family trading company.

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

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

Declaration of war[edit]

The Spanish had sustained serious losses against the British during Europe's Seven Years' War (1756–1763), and these losses influenced the country's timing in entering the American Revolutionary War. During the Seven Years' War, the British attacked and occupied two of Spain's key trading ports in 1762: Havana (in Cuba) and Manila (in the Philippines). In the 1763 peace agreement, Spain recovered Havana by ceding Florida (including St. Augustine, which they had founded in 1565). Spain later recovered the Philippines. The Spanish ministers were concerned about its geographic neighbor Portugal (a British ally) and Spain's wealthy treasure fleet, which was due to sail from Havana.

Former Spanish prime minister and then-Ambassador to the French Court, Jerónimo Grimaldi, summarized the Spanish position in a letter to Arthur Lee. Lee was an American diplomat in Madrid who was trying to persuade the Spanish to ally with the fledgling United States. Calculating by nature, the Genoese-born Grimaldi demurred: "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, stores of clothing and powder were deposited in New Orleans and Havana for the Americans and shipments of blankets were being assembled in Bilbao.

By June 1779, the Spanish had finalized their preparations for war and the British cause was apparently ebbing. Spain joined France in the war, implementing the Treaty of Aranjuez signed in April.

European waters[edit]

As in the Seven Years' War, Spain's primary goals were the recovery of Gibraltar and Minorca from the British (who had owned them since 1704) and to damage British trade through privateers. In 1780 and 1781 Luis de Córdova y Córdova's fleet captured America-bound British convoys, damaging British military supplies and commerce.

The siege of Gibraltar, from June 16, 1779 to February 7, 1783, was the longest-lasting Spanish action of the war. Despite the larger besieging Franco-Spanish army (at one point numbering 33,000 soldiers), British troops under George Augustus Elliott held out in the fortress and were resupplied three times by sea. De Córdova y Córdova was unable to prevent Howe's fleet from returning home after it resupplied Gibraltar in October 1782.[7] The Franco-Spanish 1781 invasion of Minorca was more successful and Minorca surrendered the following year[8] It was restored to Spain after the war, nearly 80 years after its capture by the British.[9]

West Indies and Gulf Coast[edit]

Painting of Spanish troops charging over wounded and dead British solders
Spanish forces overran the British lines during the 1781 Siege of Pensacola.

In the Caribbean, the main effort was to prevent British landings in Cuba. Spain remembered the British expedition against Cuba which seized Havana during the Seven Years' War and did not want this to happen again. Other goals were the reconquest of Florida (which the British had divided into West and East Florida in 1763) and the resolution of logging disputes with the British in Belize.

On the mainland, Spanish Louisiana governor, Bernardo de Gálvez, led a series of successful offensives against British forts in the Mississippi Valley. De Gálvez captured Fort Bute at Manchac and forced the surrender of Baton Rouge, Natchez and Mobile in 1779 and 1780.[10] Although a hurricane halted an expedition to capture Pensacola (the capital of British West Florida) in 1780, Gálvez's forces prevailed over the British in the 1781 Siege of Pensacola and gave the Spanish control of West Florida. This secured the southern supply route, ending the possibility of a British offensive on the western frontier of the United States via the Mississippi.

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

American Midwest[edit]

Portrait of a standing, mustachioed man holding a staff
Bernardo de Gálvez, Count of Gálvez

At the end of the Seven Years' War, France awarded the Mississippi Valley to her ally, Spain, to prevent it from coming under British control in the 1763 Treaty of Paris.[11] The Spanish aided the Thirteen Colonies in their Midwestern campaigns. 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 River for the rebels. Clark relied on Gálvez and financier Oliver Pollock for weapons, ammunition and credit for provisions. Although Pollock's credit to purchase supplies for Clark was supposed to be backed by the state of Virginia, he had to rely on his personal credit and funds Gálvez loaned him from the Spanish government. These funds were usually delivered sub rosa by Gálvez's secretary.[12]

Spanish garrisons in Louisiana repelled attacks by British units and their Indian allies in the 1780 Battle of St. Louis. 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 a claim to the Northwest Territory, which was diplomatically thwarted by Great Britain and the United States in the 1783 Treaty of Paris.[11]

Siege of Yorktown[edit]

Main article: Yorktown campaign

The Spanish assisted the 1781 Siege of Yorktown, the Revolution's final major battle. French general Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, commanding his country's forces in North America, appealed to François Joseph Paul de Grasse (the French admiral designated to assist the colonists) to raise money in the Caribbean for the Yorktown campaign. With the assistance of Spanish agent Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis, the needed cash (over 500,000 pesos in silver) was raised in Havana within 24 hours. The funds were used for supplies crucial to the siege and to pay the Continental Army.[13]

Antilles War[edit]

In 1780, after Spain entered the war, Jamaican governor John Dalling proposed an expedition to the Spanish province of Nicaragua. His goal was to sail up the San Juan River to Lake Nicaragua and capture the town of Granada, cutting Spanish America in half and providing access to the Pacific Ocean. Due to disease and logistical problems, the expedition was a costly debacle.[14]

The expedition sailed from Jamaica on February 3, 1780, escorted by 21-year-old Horatio Nelson in the Hinchinbrook. Although Nelson was the highest-ranking officer, his authority was limited to naval operations. The overall commander was John Polson of the 60th Regiment, who recognized Nelson's ability and worked closely with him. Polson had three to four hundred regulars from the 60th and the 79th Regiments and about 300 men from the Loyal Irish Corps, raised by Dalling. There were also several hundred local recruits (including blacks and Miskito Indians).

After many delays, the expedition began moving 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. Five miles (8 km) upstream was Fort San Juan, with about 150 armed defenders and 86 others. The siege on the fort began on April 13. Because of poor planning and lost supplies, the British soon began to run low on ammunition and rations. After the tropical rains began on April 20, men began to sicken and die (probably from malaria and dysentery, and perhaps typhoid fever).

Nelson, one of the first to become ill, 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 Indians abandoned the expedition due to illness. Although Dalling persisted in trying to gather reinforcements, sickness continued to take a heavy toll. The expedition was abandoned on November 8, 1780, and the Spanish reoccupied the remnants of the fort after the British blew it up before their departure. More than 2,500 men died, which "made the San Juan expedition the costliest British disaster of the entire war."[15]

Following these successes, an unauthorized Spanish force captured the Bahamas unopposed in 1782. The following year, Gálvez prepared to invade Jamaica from Cuba, but his plans were aborted when Britain sued for peace.

Peace of Paris[edit]

Main article: Peace of Paris (1783)

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

Contribution to victory[edit]

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


Spain's involvement in the American Revolutionary War was widely regarded as successful. The Spanish took a gamble in entering the war, banking on Great Britain's vulnerability (caused by the war with its North American colonists in addition to a global war, on several fronts, against a coalition of major powers). This helped Spain acquire some relatively easy conquests.

The war increased the kingdom's prestige, which had suffered from the losses to Britain in the Seven Years' War. Although Spain's most-coveted target (Gibraltar) remained beyond its grasp, the country recovered Minorca and reduced the British threat to its colonies in and around the Caribbean (seen as vital to Spanish interests).

Spain received tangible results from the war, especially in contrast to its ally France. The French king, Louis XVI, had invested large amounts of manpower, money and resources for little clear military (or economic) gain. France was left with crippling debts, a major cause of the French Revolution. Spain paid its debts more easily, partly due to increases in silver production from mines in Mexico and Bolivia.[16] Prime Minister Floridablanca's position was enhanced, and his government continued to dominate Spanish politics until 1792.

Don Diego de Gardoqui, of the Gardoqui trading family, 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's inaugural parade. King Charles III of Spain maintained communications with Washington, sending him Spanish livestock that Washington had requested for his farm at Mount Vernon.[17]


  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. ^ Spain & the Independence of the United States; An Intrinsic Gift. Thomas Chavez P.86
  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. ^ a b 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. ^ This account follows John Sugden, Nelson: A Dream of Glory, 1758–1797, ch. VII.
  15. ^ Sugden, p. 173
  16. ^ In the mid-18th century, production in Mexico increased by about 600%, and by 250% in Peru and Bolivia. Castillero Calvo p. 193
  17. ^ Chávez p. 2


  • Calderón Cuadrado, Reyes (2004). Empresarios españoles en el proceso de independencia norteamericana: La casa Gardoqui e hijos de Bilbao. Madrid: Union Editorial, S.A. 
  • Castillero Calvo, Alfredo (2004). Las Rutas de la Plata: La Primera Globalización. Madrid: Ediciones San Marcos. ISBN 84-89127-47-6. 
  • Caughey, John W. (1998). Bernardo de Gálvez in Louisiana 1776-1783. Gretna: Pelican Publishing Company. ISBN 1-56554-517-6. 
  • Chartrand, René (2006). Gibraltar 1779-83: The great siege. Osprey Campaign. ISBN 1-84176-977-0. 
  • Chávez, Thomas E. (2002). Spain and the Independence of the United States: An Intrinsic Gift. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-2794-X. 
  • Dull, Jonathan R. (1975). The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 
  • Fernández y Fernández, Enrique (1885). Spain's Contribution to the independence of the United States. Embassy of Spain: United States of America. 
  • Harvey, Robert (2004). A Few Bloody Noses: The American Revolutionary War. Robinson. ISBN 1-84119-952-4. 
  • Mitchell, Barbara A. (Autumn 2012). "America's Spanish Savior: Bernardo de Gálvez". MHQ (Military History Quarterly). pp. 98–104. 
  • Sparks, Jared (1829–1830). The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution. Boston: Nathan Hale and Gray & Bowen. 

External links[edit]

[[Category:Wars involving Spain