Spain in the American Revolutionary War

Spain in the American Revolutionary War

Spain entered the American Revolutionary War as an ally of France in June 1779, a renewal of the Bourbon Family Compact. Unlike France, however, Spain did not immediately recognize the independence of the United States, as Spain was not keen on encouraging similar anti-colonial rebellions in the Spanish Empire. Even before its formal entry into the war, Spain had been providing weapons and other supplies to the rebels through the important port of New Orleans.

Entry into the War

Spain's entry into the war was essentially a direct result of the Battle of Saratoga, which had seen a large British army surrender to a mixed force of the Continental Army and New England militia, on October 17, 1777. The battle had two major effects, the first being material loss of the army, as Saratoga wiped 7,000 British troops off the chessboard at a stroke. The British were already short of troops in the colonies, and the disaster stretched their manpower even more thinly across the globe. Secondly, Saratoga gave the rebel colonists a new credibility they had not previous enjoyed. France had long toyed with the idea of intervening in the war, but had until that point not seen the fledgling United States as a suitable ally. Saratoga changed this at once, and on February 6, 1778 France formally entered the war by signing a Treaty of Alliance with the American government.

The French strategy was ambitious, and even involved a large-scale invasion of Britain as an eventual aim. France would meanwhile try and seize Britain's outlying colonies, while funneling aid to the United States. France believed they could comprehensively defeat the British within two years, reversing the massive losses of the Seven Years War.

It was soon clear to the French planners that to accomplish this they would need the combined strength of France and Spain, particularly in the naval sphere, where the British were so dominant. France began pressuring Spain to join them in a coalition against their old mutual enemy, the British. The Spanish were initially reluctant: in 1777 a new Prime Minister, José Moñino y Redondo, Count of Floridablanca had come to power, and had a reformist agenda that drew on many of the English liberal traditions.

The French resorted to trying to restore the principles of the Bourbon Family Compact, an alliance that had been in place since the Bourbons had become Spain's ruling dynasty in 1713. It was a similar alliance to the one used in the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War, and drew as much on the sheer bond of blood as any sense of national interest.

By June 1779, the British cause seemed to be at a particularly low ebb. The Spanish finally succumbed to pressure and joined France in the war, implementing the Treaty of Aranjuez (1779), though they were never technically an ally of the United States, as they did not wholly recognise the new republic. [Harvey p.531]

War fronts

European waters

The main goals of Spain were, as in the Seven Years War, the recovery of Gibraltar and Minorca from the British, who had occupied them in 1704.

The Great Siege of Gibraltar was the first and longest Spanish action in the war, from June 24, 1779, to February 7, 1783. Despite the bigger size of the besieging Franco-Spanish army, at one point numbering 100,000, the British under George Augustus Elliott were able to hold out in the fortress and secured their supplies by sea after the Battle of Cape Saint Vincent in January 1780; nor was the aged but energetic Luis de Córdova y Córdova able to add a third British convoy to his conquests as Howe's fleet battled past, during the Battle of Cape Spartel in October 1782. [Chartrand p.84]

More successful was the combined Franco-Spanish invasion of Minorca in 1781; Minorca surrendered the following year [Chartrand 54-56] , and was restored to Spain after the war nearly eighty years after it was first captured by the British. [Harvey p.532]

West Indies and Gulf Coast

In the Caribbean, the main effort was directed to prevent possible British landings in Cuba, remembering the British expedition against Cuba that seized Havana in the Seven Years War. This effort proved successful and in 1782 the Spaniards passed on to the offensive in successfully invading the Bahamas. On the mainland, the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, Count Bernardo de Gálvez, lead a series of successful offensives against the British forts in the Mississippi Valley, taking Manchac, Baton Rouge, Natchez and Mobile between 1779 and 1780. [Harvey p.413-14] In 1781 Gálvez's forces achieved a decisive victory against the British at the Battle of Pensacola and all of West Florida fell under Spanish occupation. This secured the southern route for supplies and slammed shut the door on the possibility of any British offensive via the Mississippi River.

From 1783 the Cuban garrison made preparations under Gálvez to invade Jamaica but these were aborted when Britain sued for peace.

American Midwest

The Spanish garrisons in the Louisiana Territory repelled attacks from British units and the latter's Indian allies in the Battle of Saint Louis in 1780. A year later, a detachment travelled through present-day Illinois and took Fort St. Joseph, in the modern state of Michigan. The prospect of further Spanish advances in the region caused concern even among the American rebels.

Treaty of Paris

The reforms made by the Spanish colonial authorities in the Americas as a result of the poor performance during the Seven Years War had been proved successful. Spanish forces remained undefeated - in the American theatre at least - till the end of the war. As a result in the Treaty of Paris (1783), Spain retained Minorca and West Florida, and traded the Bahamas for East Florida as well. The lands south of the Great Lakes, however, were recognized as part of the newly independent United States of America.


Spain's involvement in the American Revolutionary War was widely regarded as a successful one. The Spanish had taken a gamble in entering the war, banking on the vulnerability of Great Britain's, caused by the effort of fighting their rebellious colonists in North America while also conducting a global war against a growing coalition of nations, allowing Spain some easy conquests, particularly in the New World. The gamble had paid off, as after 1779 the British had become increasingly stretched as they tried to wage war on so many different fronts.

The war gave a strong boost to national morale, which had been badly shaken following the major losses to the British during the previous war. Even though Spain's most coveted target, Gibraltar, remained out of its grasp, Spain had more than compensated by the recovery of Minorca and the restoration of Spain as a major player in the Caribbean; all of which were seen as vital if Spain was to continue into the nineteenth century as a great power.

Spain was seen to have received tangible results out of the war, especially in contrast to its ally France, which had invested huge amounts of manpower, finance and resources for little clear national gain. France had been left with crippling debts which it struggled to pay off, and which become one of the major causes of the French Revolution that broke out in 1789. Spain disposed of its debts more easily.

One particular outcome of the war was the manner in which it enhanced the position of the Prime Minister, Floridablanca — despite his strong misgivings about Spain's entry into the war in 1779 — as he and his government continued to dominate Spanish politics until 1792. The war also reinforced the long-standing Bourbon Family Compact that linked the Spanish crown, and its subjects, to their neighbours across the Pyrenees. In a continuation of this, in the 1790s the Spanish went to war with the French First Republic to try and restore the French Bourbon monarchs to their thrones.

Post-war, Spain had an uneasy relationship with the new United States, and the two went to war in the 1898 Spanish-American War.

See also

* France in the American Revolutionary War
* Gardoqui Family of Bilbao
* Great Siege of Gibraltar
* [ The Spanish and Latin American Contribution to the American Revolutionary War]


* Harvey, Robert. A Few Bloody Noses: The American Revolutionary War. Robinson (2004)
* Chartrand, Rene. Gibralter 1779-83: The Great Seige. Osprey Campaign (2006)


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