The Spanish Contribution to the American Revolutionary War

Spanish Contribution to the American Revolutionary War

    Spain's role in the American Revolutionary War was extremely important throughout the New World, but particularly in the military conflict in the present American Gulf-coast/ southern states.  The Spaniards officially declared war against England in June 1779, but the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Galvez y Madrid, with the unofficial approval of higher-level officials in Havana, Mexico City, and Madrid, had been providing the American patriots with arms, uniforms, gun powder, and other military supplies since 1777.  Intermittent shipments of supplies were smuggled to the colonists from Havana as well.  Indeed, many of the uniforms that one sees General Washington and his staff wearing were Spanish officers' uniforms shipped up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis and th en eastward to the patriot armies.  In addition, in this nearly two-year quasi-war period, the Spanish port authorities ignored the international laws that prevented the use of neutral ports by participants in a war, and allowed American privateers to use their ports as supply bases in their attacks on British cargo ships. Because of the Spanish logistical support, and the possible active use of the Spanish navy for attack on the British colonies in the Caribbean area, even before the declaration of war,  the English authorities had to dilute the size of their army and navy units actually fighting in the colonies to provide  protection of  their interests elsewhere in the New World. 
However important logistics and the threat of conflict might be in a war, it is "boots on the ground" and ships fighting at sea that ultimately determines the outcome of a war.  The Revolutionary War was no different.  A crucial figure in the actual Spanish war-fighting was the previously-mentioned Colonel (later General) Bernardo de Galvez.  Some authorities with a tendency toward  hyperbole call him, "America's Spanish Savior."  By looking at Galvez, a truly remarkable figure, one can best understand the Spanish war effort in what is now the United States.  He faced immense challenges in his military campaigns in the modern Gulf states (Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida).  This was one of the most backward regions in the Spanish empire, Louisiana had only recently,( in the Treaty of Paris, 1763) been transfered from French control to Spain, and the British, who had gained control of the rest of the area in that Treaty had largely  ignored the region.  Galvez was a well educated, youthful military officer and political official, who had amassed a lot of military experience fighting against  the Apache Indians, also in North Africa, as well as in Europe prior to his posting in New Orleans.  He had to deal with a lack of roads, several devastating hurricanes, long exposed and vulnerable supplies lines from Cuba and Mexico, as well as campaigning in the heat, humidity,  insects, and snakes which makes the summers in this region nearly impossible.  Galvez led an army composed of Spanish regular soldiers, militia men both French and Spanish, Americans, Germans, Cubans, Canary Islanders, free blacks, and native Americans which made his communications with his troops a problem.  Since there were few roads in this region, he had to hack roads through the dense forests and to rely on rivers which were uncharted, so campaigning with marches of many hundreds  of miles between battles made his leadership a real challenge.  There was inadequate local food available to feed his army, so he had his vaqueros create the first long cattle drive from Texas to his battle area in the Gulf Coast( which is nearly 500 miles in length) to have the necessary food to keep his troops fed.  Such were the challenges facing de Galvez and such were his creativity in solving them.  His victories at Baton Rouge, Mobile, and Pensecola, Florida, drove the British and their American loyalists and Native-American allies from the area.  In doing so, he protected and facilitated the supply line that kept the colonial armies supplied.  Elsewhere his troops defeated the British and drove them from East Florida and the Bahamas Islands.    
After the fighting ended, he helped draft provisions for the Treaty of Paris, 1783, which officially ended the American Revolutionary War and redistributed the lands east of the Mississippi.  Bernardo de Galvez was promoted to Lt. General, given a title of nobility, and given the choice job of Viceroy of New Spain with his capital in modern-day Mexico City. (This was a very important post with responsibility for all of Spanish North America and most of Central America).
In his brief rule there, he continued the policy of expanding into what is now California and the Southwest.  He died when he was only 40 years of age, possibly poisoned by those lessor, more traditional Spaniards in high governmental office, who disliked him and found him too liberal in his treatment of Native Americans as well as too favorable to the new United States.  He and his and predecessors in Mexico City helped to authorize the forts in California which include the Santa Barbara Royal Presidio, the last one constructed in Spanish America.  

Why did the Spaniards support the Americans in their revolution?  In a sense, their support of the Americans in their revolution was counter productive to Spain for the following reasons: 1) the  germ of revolution planted in the United States  would be  one of the causes that did bring their own empire to an end nearly 30 years later, 2)  the costs in both lives and pesos which were considerable and were to cause long-lasting financial problems for Spain in the near future and in so doing weakened its ability to defend itself against Napoleon's conquest nearly 20 years later.  The Treaty of Paris that  ended the war and Spanish participation in it clearly did not provide much immediate benefit to Spain and its empire other than the return of a few not very important Spanish colonies. Therefore the  answer is complex: 1) It was a kind of revenge and retaliation against the British for the harsh terms imposed upon Spain in the last two international wars between the two nations; 2) It did provide some security for Spanish colonies from English pirate attacks; 3) There were diplomatic reasons, particularly a binding treaty that obligated Spain to fight in any war in which France participated; and 4) The work of American diplomats who persuaded the Spaniards to honor their above-mentioned  treaty obligations  to fight the British.  So, the Spanish war effort was more of a case  to punish England for a long list of wrongs (from the Spanish perspective) than the love of the American patriots and their desire for independence.    

By Dr. George Frakes -   

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