Spain and Cuba in the Independence of the United States

During the Revolutionary War of the United States the Spanish help to the colonists was considerable, and in many cases decisive. However, American historians, with notable exceptions, have ignored this fact, referring only to the French contributions. There is always the doubt about whether the reason for this omission could be the ignorance by American historian of foreign languages or the traditional Anglo-Saxon hostility against Spain. Whatever the reason the fact is that most Americans do not know about that fundamental aspect of their history. It is also fair to add that there is a similar ignorance in Spanish America and the Spanish speaking population of the United States, in spite of a growing bibliography on the subject.

The historical and political antecedents of the French and Spanish help can be found in the Seven Years War (1756-1763). In that war France and Spain were defeated by England and lost among other possessions Canada and Florida. However, as a compensation to her ally, France ceded Louisiana to Spain. When the colonists revolted against England, France and Spain saw the possibility of revenge, of recovering their possessions and of neutralizing the English power. Both France and Spain were ruled by the house of Bourbon and were united by a family pact which was, in fact, a military alliance. Consequently the Revolutionary War turned out to be a desired opportunity.

Although France and Spain began their economic aid the year of the Declaration of Independence, there were some differences in the foreign policy of the two Bourbon families. In France, the ideological influence of the encyclopedists and the attractive personality of Benjamin Franklin--representative of the Continental Congress of Philadelphia--made the American Revolution very popular. In Spain, on the contrary, there was a more conservative and cautious political philosophy because of the possible damage the English naval power could inflict on the Spanish American colonies and the Spanish maritime commerce.

The main difference in the political courses followed by the two allies were as follows: in regard to France, the recognition of American independence in December of 1777 and, scarcely more than two years later, the arrival of the first French expeditionary force under the command of the Count Rochambeau; with respect to Spain, a constant economic and military aid kept secret for a long time and delivered through France, but a refusal to recognize the independence of the thirteen colonies. It should be added that the Spanish government gave all its help aware of the possible liberal influence of an independent and republican state near its American colonies.

The Spanish contribution to the independence of the United States had three main aspects: asylum given to American ships in peninsular and colonial ports, as well as payments made for needed repairs of the ships; the use of armed forces in attacking the English possessiones in the Gulf of Mexico; and finally, throughout the whole duration of the Revolutionary War, numerous financial donations and loans for payments and supplies to the Continental Army.

Very soon after the beginning of hostilities in North America the Spanish peninsular ports of Bilbao, el Ferrol and Cadiz, among others, became safe havens for the patriots' ships, while in the Americas Havana, which had a magnificent navy yard, and New Orleans were the main ports of refuge.

It is necessary to stress that the participation of Cuba was very important in all the different aspects mentioned above. Because of its geographic situation and its safe harbors, even before 1776, the island had legal and illegal commercial relations with the thirteen colonies. But from that year on it became the Spanish strategic center for operations on the continent against England. For that reason the Cuban merchant from Havana, Juan de Miralles, was the first Spanish representative to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Appointed by the governor of Cuba, don Diego José Navarro, Miralles developed very close relationships with some of the members of the Congress and with George Washington. As the Cuban historian Herminio Portell Vilá says, the Cuban envoy became very enthusiastic about the colonists' cause and with the possibility of a free republic without commercial restrictions. He also was an ardent supporter of the war against England.1 When Miralles became sick in Washington.s camp, he was attended by the general's physician, but died a few days later. He was buried with military honors, and Washington wrote moving letters of sympathy to his relatives and the governor of Cuba.2

Miralles had been in favor of an immediate declaration of war against England, but it finally took place in June of 1779. At that time Louisiana was under the jurisdiction of Cuba's Captaincy General. That historical circumstance was another of the causes that linked the island to the independence of the United States.

Once hostilities against England broke out, Bernardo de Gálvez, the governor of Louisiana, created an army with natives of the Canary islands, residents of the colony, troops from Mexico y local militia of whites and blacks. With this small force in less than a month--from September 7 to October 5 of 1779--he captured Fort Manchac, to the west of Lake Pontchartrain, and the city of Baton Rouge, forcing also the surrender of Fort Panmure in Natchez. These victories not only displaced the English from the lower Mississippi but also broke their communications with their armies in the north and with their Indian allies along the river. But since his main objectives were the cities of Mobile and Pensacola, he began in haste the preparations for their conquest. With his army of little more than 700 men, which then included troops from Havana and some American volunteers. Gálvez took Mobile March 14, 1780, just before the arrival of an English army coming from Pensacola to help the city. On this occasion he would complain that the hesitation of the captain general of Cuba in sending more reinforcements had stopped him from defeating that army and capturing Pensacola.3

During the years of these campaigns, Gálvez' tenacity surpassed many other obstacles, including the damages suffered by his forces of land and sea by various storms.4 However, by February 24 of 1781, the Spanish troops from Mobile, New Orleans and Havana had established their camp in the vicinity of Pensacola, and the next day they began the initial maneuvers for the siege of the city. The Spanish fleet from Havana, together with a few French ships, had brought more than 1,600 men under the command of Field Marshal Manuel de Cagigal. One of his aids was Francisco de Miranda who years latter would be the "precursor" of Spanish American independence.5 Cagigal had been born in Santiago de Cuba and according to Francisco Calcagno in his Diccionario biográfico cubano "was the first one to break through the fortifications of the city,"6 but we have not been able to find any other reference to confirm it. Among the expeditionary forces from Cuba were a light infantry brigade, , companies of dragoons, fusiliers, sappers and volunteer militia, which included a Battalion of Free Mulattos and Blacks.7 The opportune arrival of the fleet and troops from Cuba was an important factor in the capture of Pensacola, on May 9, 1781, as Gálvez himself recognized on two occasions at least (Reparaz, 220, 222). A particularly interesting aspect related to Gálvez' troops--usually unknown--is that their descendants are eligible for membership in the Sons of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the American Revolution, "even though neither Gálvez nor any of his men ever wore an American uniform."8

With the victory of Pensacola, and the previous victory at Mobile, England was completely expelled from its bases in the Gulf of Mexico, and Spain was in control of the land from the Apalachicola River in western Florida to the Mississippi. If Gálvez' campaigns increased the prestige and possesions of the Spanish monarchy, they were also of consirable benefit to the American colonists. As the American historian Caughey observed, Gálvez "victories inclined England toward greater generosity to the United States with respect to the Trans-Alleghany West".9 From an ampler perspective N. Orwin Rush noted:

Since our American history books barely, if at all, mention it, most Americans know very little about the battle which may have been the most important one of the American revolution.

As we look at the wider and most comprehensive picture today, we begin to see more clearly the significance of the battle of Pensacola as a decisive factor in the outcome of the Revolution, even though none of the thirteen colonies in the rebellion was involved. . . .

In spite of Great Britain's military defeat by the American colonists. it takes very little imagination to see the possibilities of a decisive military squeeze that the mother country could have executed against the rebellious colonies by attacking simultaneously with recuperated and strengthened troops from Canada and Florida. One could easily go a step further and speculate on what might have been a very different outcome of the War of 1812, had Pensacola remained in British hands at that time. 10

Rush indicates that the poet William Cullen Bryant and the editor Sidney Howard Gay were exceptions among American writers in giving great importance upon the outcome of the battle in their book A Popular History of the United States (1881). The words of those two writers, reduced to their main idea, would be as follows: "Had England been in possesion of the Mississippi as well as of the St. Lawrence, at the negotiation of peace . . . it is not difficult to see that the United States would have had, in all human probability, quite another destiny.11

In 1946 the Sociedad Colombista Panamericana placed a plaque on the wall of the old navy yard of Havana which mentions two of the previous methods of help to the rebellious colonists: the asylum given to their ships and the expeditionary troops in Gálvez' campaigns. As an exponent of the times the inscription is worth remembering. It says:

This was the arsenal of democracy during the Revolutionary War of the Unites States--1778-1781--. The "Medley", the "Carolina" and other ships of commodore Alexander Gillon's squadron were repaired, armed and supplied in this arsenal, and from this place departed the expeditions commanded by Juan Manuel de Cagigal, in which took part the Cuban militia who fought for the independence of the United States in Louisiana and Florida. 12

        A third way of help, not as obviuos as the previous ones, in a number of occasions meant the difference between the impossiblity of continuing military opperations, because of scarcity of resources, and victory, after receiving supplies.

        Donations and loans made by the Spanish government, coming from peninsular Spain, Havana, New Orleans, and Mexico, as well as all kinds of military supplies, began to support the colonists' cause before the beginning of their struggle against England. However it is difficult to estimate the total value in currency and various types of articles. Constant deliveries of money were made through France or representatives of the thirteen colonies. And sometimes it happened that those representatives incurred debts not previouly approved by the Spanish officials, although they were finally accepted.13

        In June of 1776, Charles III approved a credit of 1.000,000 "livres tournois" to buy armaments and clothes which were sent the colonists from French ports.14 According to the list of contributions compiled by Juan F. Yela-Utrilla, from 1776 to 1779, the main sums sent to the thirteen colonies from Spain were 203,000 pesos and 1,210,000 "livre tournois," which included the credit approved by Charles III, To these amounts should be added, in November of 1778, a request for 30,000 blankets made by the revolutionary general Charles Lee (2:375-377). Besides all this help Morales Padrón mentions other considerable sums in 1781 and later (38-39).

        The aid to the colonists, which began in Louisina at the end of Luis de Unzaga's government (1770-1776), continued and increased with his succesor Bernardo de Gálvez (1776-1785). Besides the asylum given to revolutionary ships and his military campaigns, his monetary help amounted to 73,905 pesos between 1778 and 1781 (Yela-Utrilla, 1:376-378). But if his victories against England in the south were of capital importance to the independence of the United States, significant also was the direct assistant to the colonists in their difficult moments. In 1777, when General Charles Lee was in great need of military supplies in Fort Pitt (today Pittsburgh), Gálvez sent him 10,000 pounds of powder in a ship that eluded English fortifications and, sailing up the Ohio river, arrived safely at the fort. That powder "will make possible the defeat of the English forces in the campaigns of the region" (Reparaz, 18).

Next year, in Illinois, the situation of General George Roger Clark was also very critical when he failed to obtain supplies requested from the state of Virginia. And again, although Spain was still officialy neutral in the conflict, Gálvez sent money and enough aid for the revolutionary army to gain control of the region north of the Ohio river (Portell Vilá, Historia, 78; Reparaz, 19-20) It must be added that a good part of Gálvez' help came from Cuba and it reached the colonists through Oliver Pollock, the representative of the Congress of Philadelphia.

         In the majority of sources examined, the financial contributions of Cuba do not seem to be important. There is the usual mention of a Royal Order of March 27, 1778, giving the governor of the island the authority to lend the Congress of Philadelphia up to 50,000 pesos with the assurance of other later sums. But there is also evidence that in Havana, the commander of the South Carolina naval squadron, Alexander Gillon, received somewhat more than 14,424 pesos for expenditures incurred in two emergency arrival at the port. It should not be forgotten, however, that that amount was reimbursed later by the Continental Congress to Juan de Miralles (Yela-Utrilla, 2:378) What is not generally considered is Cuban assistance through a third party and, especially, the help given by private funds. Portell Vilá mentions "great amounts of money advanced by the Cuban government," as well as military supplies, sent to Oliver Pollock and Bernardo de Gálvez in Louisiana. He also refers to some cases like that of Juan de Miralles, who assumed reponsibility for letters of credit "with his own funds, or in cooperation with merchants and shipowners from Havana, when it was very difficult for the Continental Congress to obtain money (Los cubanos, 8). Private was also, to a great extense, Cuban monetary aid so important in the decisive victory of Yorktown.

The economic condition of the Continental Army was usually very precarious during the war against England, in spite of the frequent financial and military assistant of France and Spain. During the years 1780 and 1781 conditions became worse, to the point of being desperate on some occasions not only for Washington's forces but also for the French expeditionary army of Marshal Rochambeau. This is well attested to by the many letters written to Washington by Jefferson, Lafayette, and a great number of generals, governors, and members of the government.15 A good example is the letter of General Nathanael Greene, dated December 7, 1780:

Nothing can be more wretched and distressing than the condition of the troops, starving with cold and hunger, without tents and camp equipage. Those of the Virginia line are, literally, naked; and a great part totally unfit for any kind of duty. . . . (Sparks, 3: 166)

        In August of 1781 the French officer Ludwig von Closen described in a similar manner the miserable conditions of Washington's army while crossing the Hudson River at the beginning of its march to Virginia and Yorktown. In what can be considered an abbreviated version of his sentiment von Closen's words were as follow "These brave fellows made one's heart ache"16

        In a letter to George Washington dated in Trenton, October 23, 1780, Governor William Livingston expressed his fear that the war with England would "become the measuring of the length of our respective purses, instead of that of our swords." For that reason he was convinced that success depended on forcing the enemy "to a speedy peace" (Sparks, 3: 125-126). From a military point of view many of the colonists considered that three elements were neccesary for victory: naval supperiority in the coast of the thirteen colonies, enough supplies of arms, clothes and ammunitions, and the acquisition of money.17 The conjunction of these factors became very possible, in 1781, with the impending arrival in the Antilles of a French fleet under the command of Count De Grasse. Considering the critical conditions of the Continental Army and his own expeditionary forces,18 Marshall Rochambeau decided to write to Cap Haitien, the expected destination of the fleet in Haiti. Between May 28 and July 11 he sent three letters describing the situation and urgently requesting help from de Grasse's fleet to establish naval superiority in the American seas, troop reinforcements from the French colony and the considerable sum of 1,200,000 pounds. Although the letters indicated that De Grasse could decide his destination in the North American coast, Chesapeake Bay, in Virginia, was suggested as the place of disembarkation.19

        At the beginning of August, 1781, after a few months of campaigning in Virginia, the English general Charles Cornwallis established his camp in the town of Yorktown. As an outlet to the Atlantic Chesapeake Bay would allow him to maintain communications with the army of New York and later obtain the neccesary forces for the occupation of Virginia. His plans were based, of course, on England's dominion of the sea. This assumption and the arrival of the French fleet at Cap-Haitien, with its various consequences, were to alter the strategic situation of the moment in favor of the thirteen colonies. The new possibility of a naval blockage of Cornwallis, combined with a siege by land, made Washington and Rochambeau desist from attacking the strong defenses of New York to bring enough of the revolutionary army against the English general. At the same time Lafayette with his Virginia regiments and some other units began the neccesary maneuvers for the encirclement of the enemy.

        Meanwhile Count De Grasse, having found Rochambeau's letters upon his arrival in Cap-Haitien, set out inmediately to obtain what was so urgently requested of him. Although his main mission in America was to conduct join naval operations with the Spaniards in the Antilles, the significance of the attack against Cornwallis persuaded him to use the power of his fleet for a short period, as well as to obtain the required military and economic help from the colonial authorities. It was fairly easy to secure an army of 3,000 men with artillery under the command of the Count of Saint-Simon, later to be a famous philosopher and social reformer. But what turned out to be an insurmountable difficulty was the acquisiton in Haiti of the 1,200,000 pounds to bear the expenses of the expedition and the armies in the field.20

        At this point it is of particular interest to refer to the commentaries made in two contemporary documents.21 In spite of the fact that De Grasse offered as guaranty his properties in the colony and in France, he encountered unacceptable conditions, among them the use of part of his fleet to protect merchandise on its way to France.22 In contrast to the refusal of the colonists from Haiti to lend their wealth to De Grasse, some observations of the first document ("Journal of the Cruise") deserve to be remembered. In it the author calls Cap-Haitien "the handsomest, and next to Havana the richest" city in the West Indies (57), while he goes on to mention the luxurious and licentious life of "more than fifty planters who spend six or seven thousand francs on mulatto girls (58)

        Once convinced of the futility of his efforts in Haiti, De Grasse turned to the Spanish marquis Juan de Salavedra, director general of the Customs of Santo Domingo, residing then in Cap-Haitien, Responding to the urgent request of De Grasse he, according to the second document, agreed to take the Admiral's letter to the governor of Cuba (Juan Manuel de Cagical) and "to do his best to assist the public treasury by the purses of individuals" ("Journal of an Officer", 151-152). In this manner and with the enthusiastic cooperation of a number of Cubans and Francisco de Miranda, the governor's aid-de- camp, the requested funds were collected without delay. Referring to this prompt help given by the residents of Havana the same "Journal" adds: "It must be said, to the honor of the colonists, that all were eager to do so; ladies, even, offering their diamonds" (152).

        The historian Charles Lee Lewis also made reference to that crucial and nearly forgotten episode of Cuban help to the American independence. After mentioning the De Grasse and Salavedra relationship he adds:

The public treasury was assisted by individuals, ladies even offering their diamonds. Five hours after the arrival of the frigate Aigrette, sent by De Grasse, the sum of 1,200,000 livres was delivered on board (138). 23

        Confident that he would receive assistance from Cuba, De Grasse wrote to Rochambeau informing him of the success of his undertaking and announcing his arrival in Chesapeake Bay by the end of August. He sailed from Cap-Haitien August 5, 1781, and, with the help of a Spanish pilot from the city of Baracoa, avoided the most traveled routes to evade English detection. About three miles off the coast of the city of Matanzas the frigate Aigrette joined the fleet "with its precious cargo of 1,200,000 livres" (Lewis, 140-141).24 De Grasse reached his destination in Chesapeake Bay on August 30, landing Saint-Simon's troops without incident (Lewis, 154).

        If De Grasse had failed to obtain the reinforcements from Haiti and the financial assistance from Cuba, the history of the United States would have been different. But once the blockade of the British positions had been established, the reinforcements landed, and the money distributed, the most ardent desires of the colonists were fulfilled. The siege of Yorktown and Cornwallis' surrender some twenty one days later destroyed England's will to continue the war. In the words of Stephen Bonsal the sparce funds left to Rochambeau "and the million that was supplied Saint-Simon to pay his troops by the 'ladies of Havana' (the Spanish treasure at that place beign empty) may, with truth, be regarded as the "bottom dollars" upon which the edifice of American independence was erected (119-120).

        However, it should be said that, with rare exceptions such as those of Lewis and Bonsal, the swift, generous, and crucial contribution of the people of Havana is ignored in the records of American history.

1.Historia de Cuba en sus relaciones con los Estados Unidos (La Habana: Jesús Montero, 1838), 1: 82.
2.Herminio Portell Vilá. Los cubanos y la independencia de los Estados Unidos (La Habana: Sociedad Colombista Panamericana, 1946), 7.
3.John Walton Caughey. Bernardo de Gálvez in Louisiana, 1776-1783 (1934; Gretna: Pelican Publishing Co., 1974), 184.
4.It is fair to add that Gálvez' bravery and audacity were not inferior to his tenacity. At the beginning of the siege of Pensacola, impatient with the extreme precautions of the Spanish fleet in forcing the entrance to the bay, he took command of the brigantine Galveztown and followed by the sloop Valenzuela and two flat boats with artillery built in Havana, made his way into the bay. For this action he gained the right to include in his coat-of-arms the emblem "I alone". Carmen Reparaz. Yo solo (Barcelona: Serbal, 1986), 87-88.
5.Reparaz, 138.
6.(New York: Imprenta y Librería de N. Ponce de Leon,1878), 141.
7.Reparaz, mainly pages 127, 163, 209 and 210.
8.N. Orwin Rush. The Battle of Pensacola (Tallahassee: The Florida State University, 1966), 16. Jack D. L. Holmes also refers to that right in his "Foreword" to Caughey' Bernardo de Gálvez in Louisiana, x.
9."Preface", Bernardo de Gálvez in Louisiana, xii.
10. The Battle of Pensacola, 2
11.The Battle of Pensacola, 3.
12.Portell Vilá. Los cubanos, 3.
13.An example is the sum of 100,000 pounds approved by the Congress of Philadelphia in April, 1780,in the name of their representative John Jay, to be paid in six months by the Spanish government. Francisco Morales Padrón. Spanish Help in the American Independence (Madrid: Publicaciones Españolas, 1952), 37. Some other cases may be mentioned related to the same representative of Philadelphia John Jay, according to Spanish communications of February 17, 1781, and from Jay himself of March 14, 1794. Juan F. Yela-Utrilla. España ante la independencia de los Estados Unidos,2nd. ed., 2 vols. (Lérida: Gráficos Academia Mariana, 1925), 2: 336-337, 353-354.
14.Yela Urtrilla, 1: 98-100, 2: 374. The "livres tournois" were silver coins minted in the French city of Tours.
15.Jared Sparks, ed. Correspondence of the American Revolution, 4 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co.. 1853).
16.Stephen Bonsal. When the French Were Here (Garden City, N.Y.:DoubleDay, Doran & Co. 1945), 121. Conditions in the Continental Army were quite dismal in 1781. The paper money issue by Congress was practically worthless and there were no other ways to pay the army. This and some other factors, such as the general lack of supplies and equipment, provoked desertions and mutiny in the troops from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which threatened to spread (Sparks, 3: 195 and 397; Bonsal, 56). Since by the middle of June the French forces under Rochambeau had almost exhausted their funds they were not able to help their allies very much; consequently it was of capital importance to obtain financial assistant from abroad without delay.

17.As representative of this opinion we reproduce the ideas of James Duane, a member of the Congress of Philadelphia, in a confidential communication of December 9, 1780, to George Washinton (Sparks, 3: 169).
18.Bonsal, 117; Charles Lee Lewis. Admiral De Grasse and the American Independence (Annapolis, Md., 1945), 121-122.
19."To Comte de Rochambeau" [June 13, 1781]. The Writings of George Washington. John C. Fitzpatrick, ed. (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1937), 22: 207-209; Memoirs of the Marshall Count De Rochambeau (1838). Trans. by M.W.E. Wright (New York: Arno Press, 1971), 50-51; Lewis, 121-124; Bonsal, 117-118; Eduardo E. Tejera, The Cuban Contribution to th American Independence (Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1971), 24-32.
20.Bonsal, 117; Tejera, 48-49.
21.The Operations of the French Fleet under the Count de Grasse in 1781-1782 as Described in Two Contemporaneous Journals (New York: The Bradfor Club, 1864). The first document, "A Journal of the Cruise of the Fleet of His Most Christian Majesty under the Command of the Count De Grasse-Tilly" (25-133) is undated and the name of the author, the Chevalier de Goussencourt, seems to be a pseudonym. The second document is "Journal of and Officer in the Naval Army in America in 1781 and 1782" (Amsterdam, 1783), 133-185), and does not give the name of the author.
22."Journal of and Officer", 151.
23."The contributions of "the ladies of Havana" and merchants were decisive in the collection of the funds, for due to this generous contribution the larger part of the whole sum was raised. Tejera, The Cuban Contribution to the American Independence, 125.

24.On this occasion De Grasse wrote a letter to Rochambeau mentioning "the generous gesture and solidarity of the Cuban ladies and how they had donated money and jewelry". Tejera, The Cuban Contribution, 130.

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