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Two Armadas Bring Britain to the Peace Table

One of the least recognized yet most important aspects of the War of American Independence was the naval coalition between Spain and France, which was the principal contributing force behind the defeat of the British. The Combined Armada, the collective forces of the Spanish Real Armada and the French Marine Royale, was based upon the Bourbon Family Compacts, a series of three treaties between France and Spain that spanned the 18th century. These treaties and the resultant Armada were the concrete recognition that Britain was the common enemy of the two Bourbon powers. The first efforts and joint operations during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and the Seven Year War (1756-1763) were poorly coordinated and did not help either France or Spain in their fight against Britain. However, after the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Spain and France exchanged engineers and shipbuilders “to form a single Armada” [como formando una sola Armada], as Spain’s chief naval constructor, the French-born Francisco Gautier, made clear. During the War of American Independence (1775-1783) their decade-long labors bore fruit as the two nations overcame early logistical and operational difficulties to form an effective coalition navy. From the planned invasion of Britain in 1779 to the Battle of Pensacola in 1781 and the capture of Menorca in 1782, the Combined Armada overwhelmed the British Royal Navy and brought that nation to the peace table.

When America began its war of independence from Great Britain in 1775, it was stunningly incapable of fending for itself; it had no navy, little in the way of artillery, and a ragtag army and militia bereft of guns and even gunpowder. The Americans knew that without the help of France and Spain, they could not survive. In 1775, the colonial leaders reported to a secret French envoy to Philadelphia that “they are convinced they cannot defend themselves without a seafaring nation to protect them, and the only two powers which are able to help are France and Spain.” At first, the two Bourbon powers provided materiel support to the United States, which had declared its independence in 1776, but by the following year it became apparent to them that the Americans could not win the war without their direct military intervention. France agreed to an alliance with the United States in February, 1778, after which it sent naval forces under the Count d’Estaing to assist in the fighting. But during his campaigns in the summer and autumn of 1778, d’Estaing failed to recapture either Newport or Savannah as he intended, which left the Americans despairing for a French-Spanish alliance. As George Washington told the Congress that November, “The truth of the situation will depend entirely on naval events… France and Spain should unite, and obtain a decided superiority by sea.”

Spain had opted to stay out of the alliance in 1778. The Spanish had a treasure fleet at sea carrying the equivalent of 50 billion dollars in silver and did not want to risk an attack on it by the British navy. But once the fleet was safely in port at the end of the year, Spain was free to reactivate the mutual assurance clauses of the Bourbon Family Compact in a treaty signed in Aranjuez on April 12, 1779. The French and Spanish ministers Count de Vergennes and Conde de Floridablanca dusted off invasion plans for Britain that had been developed a decade earlier and drew up a new invasion scheme. French and Spanish ships of the line would rendezvous off the northern coast of Spain and form a combined fleet before turning towards Britain. Once sea control had been established in the Channel, smaller vessels would transport a 30,000-strong Army of Invasion from Brittany and Normandy for an amphibious descent on Britain’s southern coast.

In preparation for the assault, France and Spain stepped up dockyard activities to ready their ships for service. In Spain, Minister of the Navy Castejón and his chief constructor Gautier had overhauled and improved the dockyard system, so that fast warships based on French design principles were steadily coming off the slipways. In France, Minister of the Navy Sartine was rushing to build the number of ships needed for the naval campaigns. But both navies were delayed by an even larger problem, one which also afflicted the vaunted British navy: a lack of manpower. They were short 4,000 sailors, which the navies had to supplement with inexperienced army men drafted at the last minute, many of whom boarded the ships already ill from a dysentery epidemic. Under the naval flags of Admirals d’Orvilliers (France) and Córdova (Spain), the combined fleet of 150 vessels (more numerous than the 128 ships of the original Spanish Armada of 1588) left Galicia on July 29, 1779, bound for the English Channel. Almost immediately, the crews began succumbing to the dysentery outbreak, and within a few days, 80 were dead and 1,500 ill. On top of this, it took the fleet a full two weeks, fighting calms and contrary winds, to round the Brittany peninsula, before finally entering the English Channel on August 16.

The British had learned of the combined fleet setting sail and sent out their Channel fleet under Vice Admiral Hardy to intercept it. Although the British ships were also undermanned and their crews sickly, they nevertheless sallied from Portsmouth to stop d’Orvilliers before he could enter the Channel. But the long-anticipated showdown between the Spanish-French and British fleets never came. Resupply ships never made their rendezvous, leaving the Armada increasingly short of victuals and water. Meanwhile, dysentery continued to ravage the crews. On August 18, a gale from the east blew the combined fleet out of the Channel. A week later, they finally encountered Hardy’s flotilla, but the engagement was indecisive, and soon after, the combined fleet returned to port with 8,000 sick and dying sailors aboard, and only one captured British ship to show for their efforts. The planned invasion of Britain, which had been the centerpiece of the entire Bourbon strategy and the culmination of a 15-year naval buildup, had simply fizzled out.

Despite the failure of the invasion scheme, France and Spain were still committed to their Combined Armada, for neither nation could take on the British navy by itself. Over the course of the next year, they perfected their joint strategies. By 1780, the two navies were operating regularly from one another’s ports and being refitted in each other’s dockyards, both in Europe and the Caribbean. At sea, it was common for French captains to take orders from Spanish fleet commanders and vice versa. Sixteen French ships of the line joined Córdova’s fleet, making several sorties into the Atlantic in order to intercept British ships cruising off the Spanish coast. One of those sorties departed Cádiz on July 31, 1780, with 24 Spanish and 6 French ships of the line. Owing to good intelligence passed on to him by Floridablanca, Córdova knew that a massive, lightly escorted convoy was en route to the East and West Indies, and he went on its search. In the pre-dawn darkness of August 9, Spanish frigates glimpsed a cannon flash; one minute later, they heard a boom, which Córdova’s chief of staff Mazarredo argued had to be the convoy just ten miles away, and not the Channel fleet. Córdova duped the convoy into following him by using the stern lamp of his flagship Santísima Trinidad, which the British mistook for their own escort, the 74-gun HMS Ramillies. Dawn saw the 55 merchantmen under the guns of the combined fleet; however, the copper-bottomed Ramillies was able to outrun its pursuers, much to the dismay of the French captains, whose uncoppered ships were left in its wake. The combined fleet returned to Cádiz with an enormous haul. It was the single largest loss of ships the British navy would experience in the war, with over 3,000 soldiers, 80,000 muskets, and 1.6 million pounds sterling in gold and silver (worth 17 billion dollars today) now in Spanish hands.

In January, 1781, Chevalier de Monteil, in command of the French fleet based at Martinique, brought his nine ships of the line to the Havana dockyard to be careened and scraped. The Spanish governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Gálvez, was also in the city, planning his assault on the capital of British West Florida at Pensacola. Monteil was eager to assist the Spanish maneuvers and anxious to go into action, before he was forced to return to Martinique to protect French commerce from British attacks.

The Spanish fleet in Havana was still undergoing repair from a devastating hurricane just months earlier. Nevertheless, Gálvez was eager to press the attack and convinced the military leaders in Havana to mount an undermanned and undergunned expedition, with the promise that reinforcements would come as soon as they were ready. Gálvez’s fleet departed Havana on February 28, 1781, and began the assault of Pensacola on March 9. On April 19, a support fleet of 28 ships under Monteil, with the Spaniards, Admiral Solano and General Cagigal, brought additional troops, cannons, mortars, and gunpowder. The combined Spanish-French army began its assault on the fortress on April 24, backed by naval artillery from the combined fleet. On May 8, Gálvez’s combined army forced the British commander to surrender all of West Florida. With Britain no longer a threat in the Gulf, the Spanish navy was also able to guard the French Caribbean islands, thus allowing the Count de Grasse, who had arrived there during the summer, to take his entire French fleet and surround the British general Cornwallis at Chesapeake Bay in August. This resulted in the defeat of the British fleet in September, which led to the critical French-American victory over Cornwallis at Yorktown in October. During the following months, Grasse conducted naval operations in the Caribbean, taking several British outposts. But in April, 1782, Admiral Rodney defeated the French fleet at the Battle of the Saintes, preventing the long-planned combined attack on Jamaica, which was to be launched under the command of Gálvez.

While the Battle of Pensacola was being waged, a combined Spanish-French fleet was preparing to retake Menorca. On July 21, 1781, under the flags of Córdova and the French admiral Count de Guichen, 58 ships of the line and 75 transports carrying 8,000 troops left Cádiz. The troops would be led by the Duke de Crillon, who had been a French lieutenant general in the first part of the Seven Year War, before being transferred, with the same rank, into Spanish service in 1762. The British navy was spread out across Europe, the Americas, the Caribbean, and Asia; there were no other ships left to confront such a massive fleet, or to reinforce Lieutenant General Murray’s garrison on Menorca.

On August 19, the invasion fleet established its beachhead at Mesquida, just north of the port of Mahón. Murray was caught so off guard that his 2,700 troops barely had time to retreat to the citadel of Fort San Felipe, having to abandon essential stores, provisions, and 53 arms magazines, which could have allowed the British troops to withstand the siege. Crillon quickly captured the port of Mahón, then Ciudadela and two forts the next day. More Spanish and French reinforcements arrived in October. Crillon now had 14,000 men to occupy the entire island and lay siege on Fort San Felipe. On November 11, the Spanish began bombarding the fort with mortars, slowly destroying the remaining British artillery pieces. More reinforcements came in January, 1782, and the bombardments increased. Meanwhile, the Spanish blockade was so effective that no British supply ships could get through, and Murray’s garrison was succumbing to various diseases like scurvy. When Murray finally hoisted a white flag on February 4, 1782, only 600 men were fit enough to walk out unaided. The victors were appalled by the near-skeletons they had to carry out of the citadel and nurse back to health.

With the fall of Menorca, the only British stronghold left in the Mediterranean was Gibraltar, and now the Spanish and French turned their attention to concluding the blockade and siege that had begun back in 1779. In June, 1782, the Duke de Crillon was appointed to lead a large-scale naval and land assault, and he began building up the Spanish siege forces with thousands of French and Spanish troops under Córdova and Guichen, who had just conquered Menorca. On September 13, 1782, the combined assault using floating naval batteries and land-based artillery began. Over 40,000 artillery rounds were expended during the day-long battle, almost one for every second of the fight. Yet when the smoke and wreckage cleared, the British garrison at Gibraltar remained intact and would remain so through the end of the war.

Even as the battle was raging, the British navy had already sent a convoy, led by Admiral Howe aboard HMS Victory, to supply the Gibraltar garrison. They arrived on October 10 during a fierce storm which scattered the French and Spanish ships defending the bay. Hence, the British were able to enter unopposed and offload the much-needed provisions. A week later, Howe’s fleet departed Gibraltar. By then, having restored their fleet, Córdova and Guichen gave chase. But the coppered British fleet was able to stay out of the range of the uncoppered Spanish-French fleet. When the two fleets finally met off Cape Spartel in Morocco on October 20, 1782, they exchanged a few desultory rounds before Howe ordered a general retreat. The last major European battle of the War of American Independence ended with a whimper, not a bang.

What Howe, Córdova, and Guichen could not know is that even as the Battle of Cape Spartel was being fought, representatives of their three governments were already at Versailles, hammering out the details of a series of peace treaties that would end the war and secure the independence of the United States. These treaties were finalized just in time to prevent a massive Spanish-French fleet, 40 ships of the line, from departing Cádiz in early 1783 for a rendezvous with more than 50 French and Spanish ships in the Caribbean, to finally capture Jamaica, the jewel in Britain’s Caribbean crown. That invasion would never come to pass. The Combined Armada had successfully fought the British navy across the globe and forced London to sue for peace, thus paving the way for full recognition of the United States as a sovereign nation.

Larrie D. Ferreiro
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