Spain and the Hispanic Contribution to U.S. Independence
The independence and birth of the United States, a historic event of huge importance, would not have been possible without French and Spanish help. When the Thirteen Colonies rebelled against Britain – then the world’s greatest military power – they had no weapons, no gunpowder, and no money to wage war. Between 1775 and 1781, Spain sent thousands of weapons, blankets, uniforms and cash loans for Washington's army; their total value amounted to over 3 million pesos (more than US$ 3 billion at today's exchange rates). Thousands of Hispanic soldiers and sailors, born in both Europe and America, contributed with their lives to the birth of the new nation.
The project Desvelando memorias [Unveiling Memories] seeks to reappraise • this shared Hispanic and American history •, showcasing the contribution made by Spain and the Hispanic world to the independence of the United States of America. Spanning a whole range of initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic, project activities include events in museums and both private and official institutions, exhibitions, publications, commemorations, online resources, support for training, teaching and research, as well as collaboration with the media. The project is led and sponsored by Iberdrola and its subsidiary Avangrid.
and the Project
the Salted Rifles
Diego de Gardoqui was a Spanish businessman from the city of Bilbao, who enjoyed close links with American merchants. In Marblehead, a town specializing in the cod trade, his correspondents were Jeremiah Lee and Elbridge Gerry.
In late 1774, Jeremiah Lee sent an urgent request for weapons and gunpowder to Gardoqui. In a letter dated 17 April 1775, Gardoqui replied that he was sending 300 muskets with bayonets and 600 pairs of pistols. On 5 July 1775, Elbridge Gerry ordered "good pistols" and gunpowder. These were the first foreign weapons to reach the American revolutionaries.
The Count of Aranda was Spain’s ambassador to France at the time the Thirteen Colonies declared independence, and he advised the Court of Madrid to lend them its support. At the insistence of Aranda and the French foreign minister, Charles Gravier de Vergennes, King Louis XVI of France and King Charles III of Spain each agreed in Paris to hand over 1 million French livres in July 1776 for the purchase of war material for the American rebels. This significant aid, sent secretly by both countries, contributed to the first rebel victory in Saratoga in 1777.
That same year, George Washington wrote to Congress: “My soldiers lack everything needed for the war”. In an attempt to tackle this serious situation, the Colonies sought international assistance. Arthur Lee was sent to Spain as a representative of the Continental Congress. Lee met secretly in the city of Vitoria with Diego de Gardoqui, at his wife Brigida's family home, highlighting the importance of the various roles played by women in the war.
In the course of 1777 and 1778, by then officially commissioned by the Spanish government, Gardoqui sent further numerous shipments of rifles, together with tens of thousands of blankets, boots and fabrics for uniforms, that did much to alleviate the plight of Washington's troops. He also sent naval supplies to America, payment for which was made partly in cash and loans, and partly in kind, in the form of tobacco, tar and bitumen.
New Orleans provided several shipments of material and money, which in fact came from Cuba and Mexico. In 1778, for example, Captain James Willing collected “a large quantity of blue, red and white cloth, 6 crates of quinine, 8 boxes of various medicines, 10,000 kg of gunpowder in 100 kegs and 300 rifles with bayonets”. In 1778 and 1779, uniforms and other supplies were also sent to George Rogers Clark's troops operating north of the Mississippi River, Illinois.
In June 1779, as Aranda had advised, Spain joined France in the war against Britain.
John Jay, New York congressman and second envoy to Madrid, received large sums of money in the course of 1780-81, either directly from Gardoqui or via other Court figures. A shipment of over 4,000 uniforms, captured from the British by the Spanish Armada, set out from Cádiz bound for Salem, Newbury and Boston, where it arrived in the spring of 1781. Once dyed brown, the uniforms were distributed among Washington's troops.
and we shall do for them everything that circumstances permit”.
By the spring of 1781, the Continental Congress – which met at Philadelphia – was bankrupt. The Superintendent of Finance, Robert Morris, asked the French for help, but they had their own problems, since their general, Comte de Rochambeau, needed to pay his soldiers on American territory.
Rochambeau sent a message to Admiral Comte de Grasse, who, with his squadron, was arriving in the West Indies from France. He asked him to procure money from the French colony of Santo Domingo or to request it from the Spanish. But, on his arrival in Santo Domingo, Grasse secured hardly any money.
At that point, a key figure stepped in: Francisco de Saavedra, the King of Spain’s special commissioner in Cuba. Saavedra authorized the loan of 1 million pesos. Part of that money was collected in Havana in just forty-eight hours, and left on board the frigate Aigrette on August 17. Another portion of it came from Mexico.
Rochambeau’s treasurer, Claude Blanchard, tells in his memoirs how the weight of the silver coins broke the floor of the Williamsburg house where they were stored. On September 5, Morris finally received the 26,000 pesos needed to pay Washington’s soldiers. It was the first time most of them had seen cash since they enlisted.
Following the defeat of the English fleet in Chesapeake Bay and the subsequent Franco-American siege of Yorktown, the final decisive victory came in October; Spanish support and Spanish money played a major role in winning the war – a role today almost forgotten.
Between late 1781 and 1782, a further 2 million pesos were given to the French, from funds raised through the “Donativo Universal”, a collection organized by Viceroy Martín de Mayorga in New Spain (today Mexico, Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica). This exceptional Hispanic contribution included money given by Indians, Mestizos, Creoles and Europeans in order to ensure the defeat of Britain and the independence of the United States.
very considerable aid from the Court of Madrid.
Much more, however, is expected; and in time to come these services will be repaid with honor, as they are now acknowledged with gratitude”.
The Spanish ambassador in London delivered the declaration of war against Britain in June 1779. Shortly afterwards, several major military operations were launched in coordination with France. The aim was to open new fronts against Britain in what was to become a global conflict, waged not only in America, but also in Europe and throughout the Atlantic.
Spain’s objectives were, in Europe, to reclaim Gibraltar and the island of Menorca and, in America, to expel the British from the Mississippi River, from Florida, Honduras and Nicaragua; at the same time, Spain hoped to take the Bahamas and Jamaica.
In 1779, a Franco-Spanish naval squadron made an unsuccessful attempt to invade the British Isles, and renewed the siege of Gibraltar. A fleet of French ships carrying around 3,000 soldiers was sent to America, but failed to record any decisive engagements. Gálvez attacked the British in Louisiana.
In 1780, it was agreed that the main focus should shift to America. In April, the Expedition Particuliére set sail from Brest, taking some 4,000 French soldiers to fight alongside the Continental Army. In May, the 12,000-strong Ejército de Operación left Spain to fight in Florida and the Caribbean. Francisco de Miranda was among the troops carried by a fleet of 80 vessels under the command of Admiral José Solano.
French Soldiers in America
Army under D’ Estaing (1779)
Army under Rochambeau-Grasse (1780)
Roughly 2100 soldiers
Spanish Soldiers in America
Ejército de Operación (Solano-Gálvez)
Roughly 2500 soldiers
Juan de Miralles, a Havana-based shipowner and entrepreneur with extensive trade dealings throughout the Caribbean, was Spain's first representative to Congress; he forged friendships and maintained frequent contacts with George Washington, the French ambassador and many other political and military figures. Through his New Orleans partner Oliver Pollock, the inventor of the dollar sign, he successfully urged the governor of Spanish Louisiana, Bernardo de Gálvez, to secretly provide aid to the rebels.
In August 1779, Bernardo de Gálvez set our from New Orleans at the head of a ragtag army of about 1,500 men. The goal of his famous march was to capture the English forts established upstream on the Mississippi River.
Gálvez met with Native American leaders in a bid to enlist their support. In Florida he befriended the Choctaw and Chickasaw peoples, who helped him in his campaigns and agreed to forgo their custom of killing prisoners. For their part, the Creeks remained allies of the British.
In 1789, an important treaty was signed recognizing the rights of the Indian Nations in Spanish Louisiana and Florida.
Meanwhile the British, anxious to prevent Spain from using the upper Mississippi to aid the rebels, attacked the Spanish settlements from the north. The most notable action in those sparsely-inhabited northern areas was the defense of San Luis (now Saint Louis, Missouri) in May 1780. Though he had only a handful of defenders, including the wives of some soldiers and settlers, Captain Fernando de Leyba managed to hold off the enemy.
strategies in the
Spain and the Indian Nations
Gálvez met with Native American leaders in Louisiana, in a bid to enlist their support.
In Florida he befriended the Choctaw and Chickasaw peoples, who helped him in his campaigns and agreed to forgo their custom of killing prisoners. For their part, the Creeks remained allies of the British.
In 1789, an important treaty was signed recognizing the rights of the Indian Nations in Spanish Louisiana and Florida.
A hurricane made it impossible for Gálvez to attack at the end of the year. But in February 1781, he set out again from Havana to take Pensacola, trusting that the English would not in turn attack the island of Cuba.
Since many of the soldiers who had arrived from Europe the previous year had by now died of tropical diseases, Gálvez was forced to enlist troops from Cuba, Louisiana and Mexico.
On March 18, the fleet entered Pensacola Bay under enemy fire. Gálvez was sailing at the head of the fleet, setting an example aboard his brig, the Galveztown.
Six weeks of marches, trench work and fighting followed. With the arrival of a timely reinforcement of ships, troops, and even French soldiers, Gálvez now had more than 7,000 men to set against the 3,000 British troops entrenched in the three forts defending the city.
In the face of casualties, shortages of food and ammunition, and frequent storms, Gálvez – who had been wounded – was fully aware that one final effort was required if the siege was not to be abandoned.
Luck was with him. At six o'clock in the morning of May 8, a ball fired from one of his cannons hit the powder magazine of the enemy's central fort, blowing it up and wiping out its defenders.
On May 9, General Campbell and Governor Chester surrendered, handing over their weapons and flags.
In total, Galvez took 1,250 prisoners and 150 cannons. The British and their allies had suffered 219 casualties. The Spanish, around 300. This was one of the fiercest battles of the war in America.
The first-ever joint action by the Spanish and American navies took place in 1782, when they succeeded in putting an end to the British presence in the Bahamas, a constant threat to navigation in the area. The combined naval squadron arrived off Nassau city, on the island of Providence, on 23 April. After heavy exchanges of cannonfire, on May 8 the British raised the white flag.
Gálvez's Multicultural Army
Veteran soldiers from the Príncipe, España and Fijo de La Habana regiments
Recruits from the Louisiana Fixed Regiment
Militiamen from New Orleans
Acadian (Canadian), German and French volunteers
American Indians from the Opelousa and Atakapa nations
After the war, Washington was keen to improve the breeding of the few mules he had at his plantation at Mount Vernon, Virginia. Spain boasted one of the best donkey breeds, the Zamorano, which, when mated with mares, yielded excellent mules.
Washington discussed the matter with his friend Diego de Gardoqui, then ambassador of the Kingdom of Spain to the United States. Gardoqui prevailed on the Spanish Secretary of State, the Count of Floridablanca, o inform King Charles III, who agreed to authorize the dispatch of a pair of jackasses as a personal gift. Although one died during the voyage to America, with the survivor, which reached Virginia on December 19, 1785, Washington began a profitable mule breeding operation.
Honorary Citizen of the United States
In 2014, President Barack Obama signed Public Law 113/229, posthumously conferring honorary citizenship on Bernardo de Gálvez, who “played an integral role in the Revolutionary War and helped secure the independence of the United States”.
This official recognition is held by only eight other world figures. The law also states, among other things, that Gálvez “was wounded during the Siege of Pensacola, demonstrating bravery that forever endeared him to the United States soldiers”.
Also in 2014, his portrait was hung in an office in the Congress building, thus fulfilling an agreement made more than two centuries earlier by the Founding Fathers.