In 1779, the main theater of operations in the North American War of Independence moved to the southern colonies. After three years with neither resounding victories nor abject defeats, the British army was exhausted. The Spanish attacks along the Mississippi and in West Florida had worsened its strategic position and allowed the French-American forces to take the offensive.
But the war cost money, and in the spring of 1781, the Continental Congress was bankrupt. Robert Morris, Superintendent of Finance, pulled every available string to raise funds, in order to feed and clothe George Washington’s troops. But there was a general mistrust in the value of vouchers or letters of credit, which made the task nearly impossible. Morris approached the French ambassador, Count La Luzerne, for help.
The French, however, needed 50,000 pesos to cover the salaries and expenses of their own soldiers every month and hence had no money to spare. According to General Rochambeau, Commander in Chief of the French army in America, by the end of August, 1781, they had less than 120,000 pesos on hand. Even the Gazette Françoise de Newport, the official newspaper of the French army in America, had ceased publication for lack of funds—and paper. Rochambeau wrote to Admiral Count de Grasse, who was on his way from France to the Antilles at the head of his squadron, to do battle in American waters, and asked him to raise money in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, or to ask the Spaniards for it. But, upon his arrival in Saint-Dominique, Grasse discovered he could not mobilize any of the treasury authorities or the common inhabitants of the French colony in his favor.
On July 4, Morris wrote to John Jay, the American representative in Madrid, asking him to obtain “at least 5,000,000 pesos, to be deposited preferably in Havana.” He had made the same request to Francisco Redón, the Spanish representative in Philadelphia, “that we might oppose the same enemy.” In response, Redón had gone directly to the captain general of Cuba asking him for money. Unfortunately, the frigate Trumbull, which Morris sent to Havana, was captured by the British.
In a letter to Morris dated August 27, Washington would write, “these troops have not been paid for a very long time and they have shown signs of discontent.” In fact, the regiments of Connecticut and Pennsylvania had risen in mutiny. On September 6, he wrote again, more insistently, soliciting “at least one month’s pay, as quickly as possible.”
One man would contribute decisively to the solution of this grave problem. His name was Francisco de Saavedra, and he had arrived in Cuba the year before as special envoy of the king to oversee Spanish military operations in America. Saavedra and Grasse agreed that Spain would loan the rebels 500,000 pesos, and on August 17, the money, which was raised within 48 hours from organizations and individuals in Havana, left Cuba on the frigate Aigrette. Also on board, with Saavedra’s approval, was a reinforcement of 3,000 French soldiers, under the command of Marquis de Saint Simon. They had been with Gálvez’s troops, ready for a possible invasion of British Jamaica.
Grasse reached the coast of Virginia on August 30, and on September 5, the treasurer of the French army handed Morris 26,000 pesos with which to remunerate Washington’s men. It was the first time many of them had been paid. On September 22, the French army stationed in Williamsburg received several barrels and crates filled with cash. The French commissioner of finances, a man named Blanchard, recalls that the floorboards of the house where the money was taken crashed under the weight of the containers.
The military operations were now able to proceed against the English general Lord Cornwallis, who was now, in effect, surrounded in Yorktown. Washington’s North American troops and Rochambeau’s French forces, with the vital reinforcement by the 3,000 men authorized by Saavedra and Gálvez, laid siege to the city until October 17, when the British raised the flag of surrender. It was the decisive victory of the war, which would end formally with the peace treaty signed in Paris on September 3, 1783.
Rochambeau’s army received further consignments of money from France in the months to follow. However, Grasse, who had to pay and feed more than three times as many men in his fleet, had to turn once more to Spain for assistance. Again, Saavedra came to his aid, this time with a total of 2,000,000 pesos collected in Mexico between September and December, 1781.
The financial situation improved only marginally for the Americans. On October 17, Robert Morris wrote Washington the following: “the little money that is available to me is lost in a thousand different directions and will soon be fully spent.” Morris approached the Spanish governor of Cuba once more, and on January 31, 1782, the two frigates Duc de Lauzun and Alliance set sail from Havana with 72,447 pesos on board, which were unloaded in Newport (Rhode Island) twenty days later. It is clear, from some of Washington’s complaints about “the lack of rum, wheat, and vinegar…” for his soldiers, that supply problems persisted through the summer of 1782. Luckily, at the end of the previous year, he had received a large shipment of uniforms from Spain and at least was able to use these to outfit many of the men in the Continental Army.
Spain honored its alliance, not only with the blood shed by its men, but also with silver collected in Cuba and in New Spain (now Mexico, Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica), and with the participation of Indians, mestizos, Creoles, and Spaniards, in what was an exceptional Hispanic contribution to the defeat of Great Britain and the independence of the United States.