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Blankets and Pesos for Washington’s Army

"The United States have already received 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"

At one of North America’s well-known museums, a current visitor will read that Spain provided “indirect assistance” to the cause of U.S. independence. From a diplomatic and strategic point of view, “indirect” may be the right word, but for the soldiers who received the muskets, blankets, boots, and money in the field of battle, the Spanish assistance could not have been more direct.

Opinions that minimize the importance of the support rendered by Spain are based on a total lack of historical perspective. The American Revolution was not simply an affair between Great Britain and the United States, fought on American soil. It was, in fact, a world war. The American campaigns comprised a relatively small piece of a much wider global conflict between Britain and five separate nation-states—France, Spain, the USA, the Dutch Republic, and the Kingdom of Mysore—much of it fought in and around international waters. The largest and longest siege of the war was not Yorktown but Gibraltar, which turned out to be of far greater importance to both Spain and Great Britain than America was.

Spain was directly allied with France and fought Britain on terms agreed upon by France and North America: no British surrender without the recognition of U.S. independence. Bernardo de Gálvez’s campaigns in Florida and Louisiana not only caused the British to regroup and recast their entire Caribbean strategy, but also allowed the French admiral Count de Grasse to move his entire fleet to the Chesapeake and defeat the English fleet there, thus sealing British General Cornwallis’s fate at Yorktown. The presence of a large Spanish fleet and thousands of troops in the Gulf of Mexico was a constant threat to British strategy and caused the loss of Florida and the Bahamas. Jamaica was saved only by the end of hostilities.

There were as many Spanish and French soldiers and sailors fighting against Britain (around 250,000) as there were Americans fighting in 1781.

Spain lent large sums of money and sent large quantities of military equipment. The first muskets received by the rebels arrived in Massachusetts from Bilbao in 1775. Between 1777 and 1781, Spain provided thousands of blankets and items of clothing, among many other articles. In 1781, the French fleet received more than 1,000,000 pesos in Cuba to assist in the battle of Yorktown and in subsequent campaigns. Many of the uniforms and weapons sent from French ports or using phantom companies like Roderique Hortalez et Cie. were actually paid for by the Spanish monarchy.

Alliances are always about overlapping interests; they are never purely altruistic. Lafayette and his compatriots did not “fight for American Liberty”; they fought for France, whose interests in defeating Britain aligned with those of the Americans. By the same token, Americans in the World Wars did not “fight for European liberty”; they fought for the United States. No leader worth the name would ever send troops into battle unless national interests were at stake.

To deny the importance of the Hispanic contribution to the history of the United States is to fragment a past that is actually common to millions of people inside and outside the country.

Spain’s support of the United States War of Independence is largely an unknown topic among the general public. American history books make reference to French aid and to such figures as Lafayette, but one does not find the names of Gálvez or Gardoqui, two of the Spaniards who contributed most notably to the success of the American Revolution, in their pages. Why is this the case? A number of reasons come to mind: the frontier clashes between the two countries shortly after U.S. independence, the religious and cultural differences between their leaders, the negative view of anything Hispanic held by the American political and cultural establishment during the 18th and 19th centuries, the covert nature of the alliance and the secrecy that veiled the aid being provided, and lastly, Spain’s own lack of interest in divulging its role in the United States.

The people who provided aid to the American Revolution came from numerous parts of Hispanic America. Juan de Miralles was from Alicante; Juan Manuel de Cagigal, from Cádiz; Francisco de Miranda, from Caracas; Jorge Farragut, from Menorca; civil servants, soldiers, common women and men of all races came from places we know today as Mexico (which included Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica), Guatemala, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. They fought in Florida, Louisiana, and the Caribbean coast of Central America. They fought on land and on sea; they spied on the enemy; they shed blood in combat, tilting the balance in favor of the operations being waged by Washington’s troops.

Between 1781 and 1782, Indians, African Americans, Creoles, and Mexican mestizos all contributed money to a collection set up to cover the expenses of the war against England. The assistance also extended to the allied French fleet. In Cuba, merchants, landowners, and even a Marchioness, Bárbara de Santa Cruz, raised funds to help the allied troops fighting in Yorktown.

Before the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, Spain was already sending weapons and other provisions to the Thirteen Colonies. Diego de Gardoqui, a native of Bilbao, owned a shipping company, Joseph Gardoqui and Sons, which traded in cod, tobacco, and other goods with England and with North American ports. As early as February, 1775, Gardoqui sent 300 rifles from the Royal Factories in Placencia, the first foreign arms to be used in the war for independence. He was responding to a request made by Jeremiah Lee and Elbridge Gerry, from Marblehead. Both men, who corresponded with Gardoqui, were members of the Massachusetts Congress, charged with equipping the Continental Army. Additional shipments of Spanish muskets, pistols, and 21 tons of gunpowder arrived in Massachusetts in July, 1776.

Shortly afterwards, Thomas Jefferson, the governor of Virginia, sent his representatives to meet with the Spanish governor in New Orleans, Luis de Unzaga, and his successor, Bernardo de Gálvez, both from Málaga. They solicited financial aid, arms and provisions, and safe passage on the Mississippi. In response, Unzaga and Gálvez sent money, weapons, and gunpowder upriver to the Thirteen Colonies. In 1776, France and Spain each paid 1,000,000 French pounds (livre tournier) to cover the first major joint shipment of arms. The following year, in a letter to Spain’s ambassador in Paris, the Aragonese Count of Aranda, Benjamin Franklin thanked Spain for an additional loan of almost 200,000 pounds in cash, “as well as naval supplies from its ports”.

But the relationship between the North American envoys to Spain and the local authorities was not easy. To begin with, Arthur Lee was authorized to deal with the former Prime Minister, Jerónimo Grimaldi, and with Diego de Gardoqui only in Vitoria, so that the British would not learn of his presence in the country. At this time, Spain was still attempting to leverage her neutrality in order to achieve the return of Gibraltar by diplomatic means. Over the course of several meetings held in March and April, 1777, in the family home of Gardoqui’s wife, offers were made to supply the North American rebels with loans and provisions.

Between January and July, 1777, Gardoqui, who had been assigned officially by the king to handle the negotiations, sent cloth and metal buttons for military uniforms, as well as two boxes of quinine and thousands of blankets manufactured in Palencia and Burgos. Some 24,000 rifles also were sent from the Royal Factories of Placencia (Guipuzcoa). These supplies would help Washington’s ill-equipped Continental Army to endure the harsh winter encamped in Valley Forge (Pennsylvania).

In November, 1777, the Congress sent urgent instructions to its envoys in Europe to pursue further assistance. Arthur Lee turned once more to Diego de Gardoqui for additional supplies. Between July and December, 1778, several ships set sail from Bilbao and Santander to ports in New England, particularly Boston and Portsmouth, where they would unload 30,000 blankets, “sturdy footwear”, cloths, and uniforms.

During his stay in Madrid, John Jay, the next North American envoy, was unable to extract a firm commitment from Spain or an official recognition. The Spanish monarchy was wary that the revolution would spread to its own possessions in America, and it also feared a British attack on its cities and ports in that hemisphere. As a result, its approach to the rebel requests for assistance was far more cautious than that of the French, who had no territories to lose in America. Yet, in reality, the secret Treaty of Aranjuez, signed by France and Spain on April 12, 1779, stipulated in Article 4 that the Spanish monarch would not enter into any negotiations “without coordinating (with France) any matter that might relate to the (United States) independence,” an implicit acknowledgment of the sovereignty of the new nation. Spain’s formal recognition of the United States finally occurred in 1785, when Diego de Gardoqui was appointed charge d’affaires (in effect, ambassador) and attended the inauguration of George Washington as the nation’s first president.

John Jay and William Carmichael, his assistant and successor to the post, both received substantial loans from Spain for the purchase of provisions. Oddly enough, in his memoirs, Jay never acknowledged the importance of the aid he had received from Spain, records of which can be found in numerous documents in the National Archives. For example, thousands of uniforms were sent from Cádiz and are known to have arrived in Boston and Salem in the spring of 1781. We also know that they were distributed among Washington’s men in the fall of that year.

Bernardo de Gálvez, on his part, was focused on sending money and supplies from Spanish Louisiana, Havana, and New Spain (Mexico). The rebel forces were particularly grateful for the critical deliveries of gunpowder and quinine, a medicine needed to treat the malaria spreading from Peru. The strategic location of the Spanish city of New Orleans, at the mouth of the Mississippi, was crucial to these transports. The assistance reached the rebel army through the merchant Oliver Pollock, also a business associate of Robert Morris, the Philadelphia entrepreneur who would be known as the “financier of the Revolution”. Another important figure in these activities was Juan de Miralles, a native of Alicante and the first representative of Spain to the Congress.

As soon as Spain declared war on Great Britain in 1779, it launched a series of critical military operations, not only in Europe, but also in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Atlantic. These attacks were carried out in coordination with France and were designed to open a new front against Great Britain in the now global conflict. France sent the Expédition Particulière to North America with over 4,000 soldiers, while Spain deployed its Ejército de Operación, 11,000 strong, to Cuba, to fight in Spanish Florida and the Caribbean. So, the war was not fought exclusively in the territory of the rebellious Thirteen Colonies; it was fought at sea in wide swaths of the Atlantic and in the Caribbean: the takeover of British strongholds along the Mississippi, the victory in Pensacola achieved by the first multiracial army in North America, under the command of Bernardo de Gálvez, the siege of Gibraltar and the repossession of the island of Menorca, the capture of the Bahamas, and the expulsion of the British from Guatemala and Honduras.

On August 30, 1781, Admiral Count de Grasse’s French fleet arrived in Chesapeake Bay with over 3,000 men as reinforcements for the allied army. More importantly, it was carrying 500,000 pesos in back pay for the rebel soldiers and the French-American crewmen, who had not been remunerated for months. This extraordinary economic aid had been collected in Havana and made possible by Francisco de Saavedra, the king’s Seville-born special envoy to Cuba. It would be critical for the decisive rebel victory in Yorktown, where Lord Cornwallis and his British army of 7,000 men were forced to surrender. Saavedra continued to send financial aid to the French allies, over 2,000,000 pesos from Mexico in December of that year, and in January, 1782. It is estimated that Mexico provided more than 37,000,000 pesos to the American war effort between 1779 and 1783. The money was raised through taxes and special collections borne by the entire population and made possible through Viceroy Martín de Mayorga’s impressive cooperation with Saavedra.

In 2010, after years of research in Spanish and American archives, a report (published, in part, by Lancho, 2015) was issued estimating Spain’s contributions to the Thirteen Colonies at 3,266,295 Spanish pesos (the value of one peso was then equal to one dollar), or over three billion dollars, including interest, in current U.S. dollars. This would not include direct payments from Havana and New Orleans, or any assistance provided in kind, such as equipment. In 1789, the United States reimbursed Spain some 342,120 pesos, which was all that could be estimated about the debt at the time. One should also consider that a substantial percentage of the 4,500,000 pesos provided by France had originated in Spanish coffers. It is impossible, however, to determine the exact amount, because of the secrecy surrounding those negotiations.

In the winter of 2014, Joint Resolution 38/214 by both houses of the United States Congress granted Bernardo de Gálvez, posthumously, honorary U.S. citizenship, a distinction he shares with only seven other historical figures, including the Marquis de Lafayette. This accolade represents an official recognition of the important Hispanic contribution to the independence of the Unites States.

Today, a new way to recognize this history has opened up, so that its principal characters, men and women from all parts of Spain and Hispanic America, may be given their rightful place in history books on both sides of the Atlantic. Before too long, they may be celebrated, too—why not?—in monuments and museums, and hopefully in the cinema as well.

José Manuel Guerrero Acosta
La Habana George Washington Arthur Lee Fernando de Leyba Marblehead John Jay Bilbao Oliver Pollock El Conde de Aranda José Solano y Bote El Conde de Floridablanca México Francisco de Miranda Nueva Orleans José Antonio George Farragut Pensacola Bernardo de Gálvez Mobile Juan Miralles San Luis Bárbara de Arias Macharaviaya Diego Gardoqui Nueva York