Spain's participation in the American Revolution

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1973

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Abstract

The American Revolution erupted in 1776, although discontent had been growing since 1764 and had become progressively more vocal. The rebels knew that foreign support would be essential and immediately sent representatives to Europe to seek allies. France and Spain were the most promising contacts. Both of these countries had suffered a humiliating defeat during the Seven Years War, and both welcomed the opportunity to diminish the power of Great Britain. However, Spain hesitated to support the rebellion openly lest it provide an undesirable example for her own colonies. Consequently, she refused to ally herself to the struggling American nation. France, keenly aware that she could not confront England alone, pressured Spain for an alliance against Britain. Both countries agreed to postpone any action until 1778 but promised to support the revolution by secret loans to the rebels. France followed the policy, but signed an alliance agreement with the United States in 1778 without first notifying Spain. Spain resented the French move but was soon pacified. The two countries entered into a formal alliance against Great Britain by the Treaty of Aranjuez which was signed in April of 1779. Spain withdrew her minister from London the following month, and a declaration of war soon followed. Prior to the Spanish declaration of war, the rebels had received more help from Spain than the secret loans agreed upon by the two Bourbon monarchies. The officials of Louisiana had sanctioned private loans to Oliver Pollock, an American merchant and representative of the Continental Congress in New Orleans. Bernardo de Gálvez became governor of Louisiana in 1777 and had constantly sought to constrain British trade in the Mississippi River. He had seized English ships anchored at New Orleans in August of 1777 and had required all Englishmen living in Louisiana to take an oath of neutrality a year later. This harassment prevented British concentration on the rebellion taking place in the eastern colonies. American merchant shipping had been protected in Spain, Havana, and New Orleans. Besides the protection extended to American ships, Gálvez had also given shelter to James Willing and his group of men after their raids against British settlements along the lower Mississippi. The booty taken during the raids was sold in New Orleans, the proceeds going to the revolutionaries. Most of the goods purchased by Pollock were sent to the American operations in the west. Gálvez alone had contributed an estimated $72,000.00 to the American campaigns. The American offensive against the British in Illinois was led by Colonel George Rogers Clark, and his army received support from both New Orleans and St. Louis. The official entry of Spain into the war opened hostilities in Europe as well as America. France and Spain launched an unsuccessful invasion force against Great Britain in July of 1779. The mission was cancelled in September and the combined navies dispersed, but the English people remembered the threat and demanded that the Channel be adequately defended at all times. The Spaniards also blockaded the Rock of Gibraltar in the summer of 1779. For more than three years the British defenders withstood the blockade, continuous battery assaults, and one final grand attack in September of 1782 by both the French and Spanish navies. Throughout the period, the English garrison had been sustained by blockade runners and three relief convoys from Britain which pulled needed ships away from the main theater of war. Spain had carried out the same attack plan successfully against Minorca. Gibraltar had been Spain's major objectives in Europe. In America, she sought to drive the British from the Gulf of Mexico and the banks of the Mississippi, plus the capture of Mobile and Pensacola. Gálvez lost no time in opening the Spanish war in America. He captured the British fort at Manchac on September 7, 1779. Two weeks later Baton Rouge fell to the Spaniard's army, and with the capitulation of Baton Rouge, Gálvez secured Fort Panmure at Natchez for Spain. Thus Spain gained control of the lower eastern bank of the Mississippi. However, by 1780 the English had planned a campaign against the Spanish in Louisiana. An unsuccessful attack against St. Louis occurred on May 26, 1780. Because of the failure, the British force retreated, abandoning any further attempt to conquer Louisiana. The governor of St. Louis authorized an attack against the British post at Fort St. Joseph in Michigan early in 1781. The Spanish detachment easily took the fort on February 12, claiming the area for Spain. Meanwhile, Gálvez had begun his campaign to conquer Mobile and Pensacola. Hampered more by the weather than the British, Gálvez secured the capitulation of Fort Charlotte at Mobile on March 13, 1780. A year later he initiated his attack against Pensacola. The Spanish offensive lasted nearly two months, but the English garrison at Fort George surrendered on May 13, 1781, leaving the Spaniards in control of West Florida. Soon afterward, Gálvez received instructions to plan an attack against Jamaica. A number of circumstances dictated the objective be changed to the Bahama Islands. The governor of the islands surrendered on May 8, 1782, without a fight. Great Britain had suffered repeated defeats by the Spaniards in America, and the English army suffered its disaster at Yorktown. Consequently, by the Spring of 1782, Britain sought to end the war. Negotiations extended throughout the remainder of the year. Late in December the Spanish ambassador to Paris agreed to preliminary terms which gave Minorca, West Florida, and East Florida to Spain while Gibraltar remained under British control and the Bahamas were returned to England. The preliminary articles were signed on January 20, 1783, and the definitive treaty was signed eight months later on September 3, 1783. Spain and the United States were thus brought together on the North American continent. Tensions between the two countries had begun growing before the fighting had ceased. The two major areas of contention centered around the navigation of the Mississippi and the prospective boundaries of the United States. Neither problem was easily settled, and Spain pursued various courses before finally relenting to the American demands.

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Keywords

History, United States, Spain, Foreign relations, American Revolution, 1775-1783, Gálvez, Bernardo de, 1746-1786

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