ⓘ Anglo-Spanish War (1779–1783)

Anglo-Spanish War (1779–1783)

ⓘ Anglo-Spanish War (1779–1783)

The Anglo-Spanish War was a military conflict fought between Great Britain and Spain between 1779 and 1783. The war officially started on May 8, 1779, with a formal declaration of war as an ally of France pursuant to the secret Treaty of Aranjuez. This declaration was followed by another on July 8 that authorized his colonial subjects to engage in hostilities against the British. When Bernardo de Galvez, the colonial Governor of Spanish Louisiana received word of this on July 21, he immediately began to plan offensive operations.


1. Europe

One of Spains principal goals upon its entry into the American War of Independence in 1779 was the recovery of Gibraltar, which had been lost to England in 1704. The Spanish planned to retake Gibraltar by blockading and starving out its garrison, which included troops from Britain and the Electorate of Hanover. The siege formally began in June 1779, with the Spanish establishing a land blockade around the Rock of Gibraltar. The matching naval blockade was comparatively weak, and the British discovered that small fast ships could evade the blockaders, while slower and larger supply ships generally could not. By late 1779, however, supplies in Gibraltar had become seriously depleted, and its commander, General George Eliott, appealed to London for relief.

A supply convoy was organized, and in late December 1779 a large fleet sailed from England under the command of Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney. Although Rodneys ultimate orders were to command the West Indies fleet, he had secret instructions to first resupply Gibraltar and Minorca. On 4 January 1780 the fleet divided, with ships headed for the West Indies sailing westward. This left Rodney in command of 19 ships of the line which were to accompany the supply ships to Gibraltar.

On 8 January 1780 ships from Rodneys fleet spotted a group of sails. Giving chase with their faster copper clad ships, the British determined these to be a Spanish supply convoy that was protected by a single ship of the line and several frigates. The entire convoy was captured, with the lone ship of the line, the Guipuzcoana, striking her colours after a perfunctory exchange of fire. The Guipuzcoana was renamed HMS Prince William, in honour of Prince William, who was serving as midshipman in the fleet, and staffed with a small prize crew. Rodney then detached HMS America and the frigate HMS Pearl to escort most of the captured ships back to England; the Prince William was added to his fleet, as were some of the supply ships that carried items likely to be of use to the Gibraltar garrison. On 12 January HMS Dublin, which had lost part of her topmast on 3 January, suffered additional damage and raised a distress flag. Assisted by HMS Shrewsbury, she limped into Lisbon on 16 January.

The Spanish had learnt of the British relief effort. From the blockading squadron a fleet comprising 11 ships of the line under Admiral Juan de Langara was despatched to intercept Rodneys convoy, and the Atlantic fleet of Admiral Luis de Cordova at Cadiz was also alerted to try to catch him. Cordova learnt of the strength of Rodneys fleet, and returned to Cadiz rather than giving chase. On 16 January the fleets of Langara and Rodney spotted each other around 1:00 pm south of Cape St. Vincent, the southwestern point of Portugal and the Iberian Peninsula.


2. Gulf Coast

Significant military activities of the American Revolutionary War did not occur on the Gulf Coast until 1779, when Spain entered the war. Before then, New Orleans, then the capital of Spanish Louisiana, served as a semi-secret source of money and materiel for the Patriot cause. The cause was quietly supported by the Spanish governors before 1779, and often mediated by Oliver Pollock, a prominent New Orleans businessman. Pollock effectively acted as an agent of the Continental Congress, negotiating with the Spanish governor, and taking other actions, including spending some of his own fortune, on Patriot activities along the lower Mississippi River.

In 1778 James Willing led a raiding expedition directed against targets in British West Florida. One prize that he captured on the Mississippi River was a British ship, the Rebecca, which he brought into New Orleans. She was brought into the Continental Navy and rechristened the USS Morris in honor of Philadelphia financier Robert Morris.

The British province of West Florida extended from the Mississippi River in the west to the Apalachicola River in the east. The West Florida had been cruising Lake Pontchartrain since 1776 under the command of George Burdon, stopping and searching all manner of shipping, including Spanish merchants destined for New Orleans, to the annoyance of the Spanish. Burdon was unsuccessful in tracking down Willing during his 1778 raid, and returned to Pensacola, West Floridas capital, for refit and repair late in 1778. In January 1779 Burdon was replaced at her helm by Lieutenant John Payne, who had been engaged in survey duty along the West Florida coast and knew the area well. The West Florida was a sloop-of-war armed, according to its captors, with several four- and six-pound cannons and carrying a crew complement of about 30. British accounts place the crew size at 15.


3. Central America

Following the entry of Spain into the American War of Independence in 1779, both Spain and Great Britain contested territories in Central America. Although most of the territory was part of the Spanish Captaincy General of Guatemala, the British had established logging rights on the southern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula present-day Belize, and had established informal settlements lacking formal colonial authority on the Mosquito Coast of present-day Honduras and Nicaragua. Guatemalan Governor Matias de Galvez had moved quickly when the declaration of war arrived, seizing St. Georges Caye, one of the principal British island settlements off the Yucatan coast. Many of the British fled that occupation to the island of Roatan, another British-controlled island about 40 miles 64 km off the Honduran coast. British commander Edward Marcus Despard used Roatan as a base for guerilla-style operations to extend and maintain British influence on the Mosquito Coast, and for privateering operations against Spanish shipping.

Galvez, who had been ordered by King Charles to "dislocate the English from their hidden settlements on the Gulf of Honduras", began planning offensive operations against the British mainland settlements as early as 1780, after the British abandoned their failed expedition into Nicaragua. He raised as many as 15.000 militia, and received financial and logistical support from many parts of the Spanish colonial empire in the Americas. For logistical and diplomatic reasons, no operations were launched until after the American victory at Yorktown in October 1781. The British loss opened the possibility that the British would be able to deploy troops to Central America to better defend the area. Galvez plans called for assaults on the British presence in the Bay Islands principally Roatan, followed by a sweep along the coast to eliminate the British from the mainland. Troops from central Guatemala were staged in early 1782 at Trujillo for the assault on Roatan, while additional forces moved overland from Nicaragua, Honduras, and Salvador toward the principal British settlement of Black River.

Galvez arrived at Trujillo on March 8 to organise the assault on Roatan. Leaving a force of 600 at Trujillo to further harass the British and their partisan allies, he embarked another 600 troops onto transports, and sailed for Roatan on March 12, escorted by three frigates and a number of smaller armed naval vessels, under the command of Commodore Enrique Macdonell.

The British residents of Roatan were aware of the ongoing Spanish military activities. The main settlement, New Port Royal, was defended by Forts Dalling and Despard, which mounted 20 guns. The islands white non-slave population was however quite small. In 1781 they appealed to the British commander at Bluefields for support, but he was only able to send additional weapons, which did not add significantly to the islands defenses.


4. Louisiana

Following the entry of Spain into the American Revolutionary War in 1779, British military planners in London wanted to secure the corridor of the Mississippi River against both Spanish and Patriot activity. Their plans included expeditions from West Florida to take New Orleans and other Spanish targets, and several expeditions to gain control of targets in the upper Mississippi, including the small town of St. Louis. The expedition from West Florida never got off the ground, since Bernardo de Galvez, the Governor of Spanish Louisiana, had moved rapidly to gain control of British outposts on the lower Mississippi, and was threatening action against West Floridas principal outposts of Mobile and Pensacola.


4.1. Louisiana British expedition

The British expeditions from the north were organized by Patrick Sinclair, the military governor at Fort Michilimackinac in the Northwest Territory present-day Michigan. Beginning in February 1780 he instructed fur traders to circulate through their territories, recruiting interested tribes for an expedition against St. Louis. The fur traders were offered the opportunity to control the fur trade in the upper parts of Spanish Louisiana as an incentive to participate.

Most of the force gathered at Prairie du Chien, where they were placed under the command of Emanuel Hesse, a former militia captain turned fur trader. The force numbered about two dozen fur traders and an estimated 750 to 1.000 Indians when it left Prairie du Chien on May 2. The largest contingent of the force was about 200 Sioux warriors led by Wapasha, with additional sizable companies from the Chippewa, Menominee, and Winnebago nations, and smaller numbers of warriors from other nations. The Chippewa chief Matchekewis was given overall command of the native forces. When the force reached Rock Island they were joined by about 250 men from the Sac and Fox nations. These warriors were somewhat reluctant to attack St. Louis, but Hesse gave them large gifts to secure their participation in the venture. The diversity within the expedition included some animosity among the tribes, for the Chippewa and Sioux in particular had a history of conflict with each other. However, Wapasha and Matchekewis promoted unity during the expedition.


4.2. Louisiana Spanish defences

The village of St. Louis was primarily a trading hub on the Mississippi River, but it was also the administrative capital of upper Spanish Louisiana, and it was governed by Lieutenant Governor Fernando de Leyba, who was also a captain in the Spanish Army. Leyba was warned in late March 1780 by a fur trader that the British were planning an attack on St. Louis and the nearby American-held post at Cahokia. He began developing plans for the villages defense. He had only 29 regular army soldiers of the Fijo de Luisiana Colonial Regiment and an inexperienced militia force of 168, most of whom were dispersed in the surrounding countryside.

Leyba developed a grand plan of defence that included the construction of four stone towers. Without funds, or the time to get them from New Orleans, Leyba asked the villagers to contribute funds and labor to the construction of these fortifications, and paid for some of the work from his private funds. By mid-May a single round tower had been built that was about 30 feet 9.1 m in diameter and thirty to forty feet tall. The tower, dubbed Fort San Carlos, provided a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. As there did not appear to be sufficient time to build more towers, trenches were dug between the tower and the river to the north and south of the village. Five cannon were placed on top of the tower, and additional cannon were placed along the trenches.

When Leyba learned that Hesses force had reached Rock Island, he called in the outlying militia and summoned reinforcements from Ste. Genevieve. By May 13 he recorded that he been reinforced by "about 150 men, all good shots". On May 15, Leyba was visited by John Montgomery, the American commander at Cahokia, who proposed a joint Spanish-American force to counter Hesses expedition, an idea that did not reach fruition. On May 23, Leybas scouts reported that Hesses force was only 14 miles 23 km away, had landed their canoes, and were coming overland.

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