On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress declared the 13 American Colonies to be a free and independent nation. That same day and an ocean away, a business was formed by Spain and the French House of Bourbon, which would aid in the enterprise.
The Rodrigue Hortalez Trading Company was a ruse, organized by the French playwright, politician and spy, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Beaumarchais had obtained one million livres from France and the same amount from Spain in May of 1776, before the Declaration of Independence was even signed. With it were muskets, cannon, gunpowder, bombs, mortars, tents, and enough clothing for 30,000 men, traveling from French ports to the “neutral” Netherlands Antilles island of St. Eustatius.
The delivery could not have been more timely. When General Washington took command on July 3, 1775, the Continental Army had about enough powder for nine rounds per man.
Interestingly, it was little St. Eustatius which first openly recognized American Independence, firing their “First Salute” on November 16 of that year, in recognition of the visit of the American Brig Andrew Doria. Hortalez & Co. was one of four channels of Spanish aid. New Orleans Governor Luis de Unzaga began providing covert aid to the American rebels in 1776, expanding the following year under his successor, Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid, Count of Gálvez. It is he who gives Galveston, Texas its name.
Meanwhile, the Spanish port at Havana was opened to the Americans under Most Favored Nation status, and further Spanish aid flowed in from the Gardoqui family trading company in Bilbao, whose Patriarch, Don Diego de Gardoqui, would become Spain’s first Ambassador to the United States. According to the Ambassador, the House of Gardoqui alone supplied the American patriots with 215 bronze cannon, 30,000 muskets, 30,000 bayonets, 51,314 musket balls, 300,000 pounds of powder, 12,868 grenades, 30,000 uniforms, and 4,000 field tents. The Spanish Prime Minister, José Moñino y Redondo, Count of Floridablanca, wrote in March 1777, “the fate of the colonies interests us very much, and we shall do for them everything that circumstances permit”.
The American Victory at Saratoga in October of 1777 opened the door to more overt aid from the French, thanks largely to the tireless diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis du Lafayette. Representatives of the French and American governments signed the Treaties of Alliance and Amity and Commerce on February 6, 1778.
The “Southern Strategy” of 1778-80 may have cost the British army and their Hessian allies more casualties from disease than from Patriot bullets. About 1,200 Hessian soldiers were killed in combat over the course of the war. By contrast, 6,354 more died of disease, and 5,500 deserted, later settling in America.
In February 1781, General Washington sent Lafayette south at the head of a handpicked force of 1,200 New England and New Jersey troops, and 1,200 French troops. Washington himself lead an army he described as “not strong enough even to be beaten”.
5,500 French Army troops led by the Comte de Rochambeau landed in Rhode Island that summer, linking up with General Washington’s Patriot army. Meanwhile, Lafayette harassed and shadowed Cornwallis’ much larger force, as it moved up through North Carolina and east toward the Chesapeake Bay.
Cornwallis was looking for a deep water port from which to link up with his ships. It was at this time that Lafayette received help from a slave named James, on the New Kent Armistead Farm. James pretended to serve Cornwallis in Yorktown while sending valuable military information to Lafayette and Washington, who was now moving south through New Jersey with Rochambeau. James would later legally change his name to James Lafayette.
Meanwhile, Rear Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, the Comte de Grasse, was in Santo Domingo, meeting with the representative of Spain’s King Carlos III, Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis. De Grasse had planned to leave several warships in Santo Domingo, now capital of the Dominican Republic, to protect the French merchant fleet. Saavedra promised assistance from the Spanish navy, enabling de Grasse to sail north with all of his warships. He needed those ships. The crucial Naval battle of the Revolution took place on September 5, when de Grasse defeated the British fleet of Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves, cutting Cornwallis off from the sea.
French Admiral de Barras arrived from Newport a few days later, carrying vital siege equipment, while de Grasse himself carried 500,000 silver pesos from Havana to help with the payroll and siege costs at the final Battle of Yorktown.
If there was ever a “window of opportunity”, the siege of Yorktown was it. Fully ½ of Cornwallis’ troops were sick with Malaria during the siege, a disease to which the Americans had built some degree of immunity. Most of the French were newly arrived, so they had yet to go through the disease’ one-month gestation period. The British relief force sailing out of New York Harbor wouldn’t leave until October 19, 1781, the day Cornwallis was forced to surrender.
Over the course of the Revolution, the Patriot cause received aid from sources both sought after and providential. Ben Franklin, John Jay and John Adams would negotiate through two more years and four British governments before they were through. The Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, formally ending the American Revolution.