Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Spanish Military in the 18th Century

The Storming of Fort George: Pensacola, Florida, 1781
Dear Reader,

English language historians gloss over the role and effectiveness of the Spanish military in the later Kabinettskriege period. Christopher Duffy, a leading authority on 18th century warfare, discusses the Spanish briefly in his otherwise excellent book, Military Experience in the Age of Reason. On page 21, he gives us German military thinker Scharnhorst's views on the Spanish:       

           "The Spaniards have never changed. Except for their hair, which is now powdered and curled, the soldiers remain in the same condition as seventy years ago. Their generals are totally ignorant of tactics, they owe their promotion to favoritism, or to long service in the garrisons, where their only occupation is to arrange the processions to the burnings at the stake, and so on." (Scharnhorst, 1782) 

Unfortunately, Scharnhorst's perception of the Spanish doesn't match up with the Spanish military's historical actions, especially in the early 1780s, when he published his account. While English language accounts tend to focus on the Spanish failures in the 18th century, the Spanish often succeed in combat operations, and showed a great talent for combined navy-army operations. In addition, the Spanish possessed a massive overseas empire, and in most cases, successfully defended their overseas holdings through an effective system of fortification. 

Early 18th Century Spain

The Spanish military record in the early 18th century reads like a litany of defeats and disasters. For a complete list of the wars of this period, click here. While Spain participated in many wars during the early 18th century, the most damaging to Spanish interests in the short term was the global War of Spanish Succession. The War of Spanish Succession created internal conflicts in Spain, as various factions chose to support either the Bourbon or Hapsburg candidate for the Spanish throne. This made excellent opportunity for expansion by smaller powers, who were jealous of Spanish holdings in the Americas. At the end of this war, the Bourbon candidate won out, but the Spanish were forced to give up huge swaths of territory. In Northern Europe, the Spanish Netherlands became the Austrian Netherlands. In the Mediterranean, the Spanish lost the Kingdom of Naples, the Duchy of Milan, Sicily, the Kingdom of Savoy, and the naval bases at Minorca and Gibraltar.

The War of the Quadruple Alliance in 1718 ended Spanish hopes of regaining significant Italian holdings. The  Anglo-Spanish war of 1727 quickly ended with no advantage to either side.  The War of Jenkins Ear in 1739, and its continuation in the War of Austrian Succession, saw the Spanish fight the British and their allies to a draw, with no territorial changes in the colonies. The Spanish soldiers saw some successes during this war, such as the Battle of Campo Santo in 1743. (Dale Wood, shout out to you.)
 During the Seven Years' War, the British gained Florida, but this was a result of the losses of Spanish allies, the French, who gave the Spanish the Louisiana territories to make up for the loss of Florida. While the British took Cuba and the Philippines during the actual fighting, these territories returned to Spanish control after the War.

The American Gulf Coast War

In the global war surrounding the American War for Independence, the Spanish reclaimed much of the key territory they had lost in the early 18th century. Along the Gulf of Mexico, the Spanish waged a successful war from 1779-1781, defeating the British forces in a number of confrontations on both land and sea. Thomas Chavez covers this portion of the war in his 2002 book, Spain and the Independence of the United States: An Intrinsic Gift. Chavez draws much needed attention to the Spanish role in the American War for Independence, and the book is an excellent read.

Thanks in part to the excellent command decisions of Bernardo de Galvez, the Spanish defeated the British at every turn in the campaign. The British (and German forces from Waldeck,) were eventually captured by the Spanish during the siege of Pensacola, depicted in the painting at the top of the post. On the right side of the painting, an African member of the Havana militia is shown charging into the breach with the grenadiers. With the growth of the New Military History in the scholarship surrounding the Revolution, I am surprised that no study of the ethnic minorities in the Spanish army is currently available.

In Europe, a French officer in Spanish service, Louis de Crillon, led the effort to retake the naval base of Mahon on the Mediterranean Island of Minorca. He was successful, and the war ended with the Spanish retaking of Florida and Minorca.

Castillo de San Marcos

The vast amount of Spanish fortifications in Latin America help explain Spain's continued grasp on her American Empire. Vauban style fortifications, or "Star-Forts," such as the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida (above), or the Fortaleza San Carlos de la Cabana in Cuba (below), allowed the Spanish Empire to survive a period in the early 18th century when the Spanish army and navy were recovering from the War of Spanish Succession. Without the Castillo de Immaculate Concepcion in Nicaragua, the British forces under the direction of William Lyttelton might have taken Granada in 1762, splitting the Spanish overseas empire in two.

Fortaleza San Carlos de la Cabana

 Like Sweden, the Spanish Empire spent the majority of the 18th century in decline, struggling to return to a position of prominence. And, like the Swedes in the Russo-Swedish War of 1788, the Spanish experienced a resurgence in military capability at the end of the 18th century. However, the Spanish, unlike the Swedes, had significant fortifications to keep their holdings intact during the period of crisis.

When examining the Spanish military during the 18th century, historians should not be so quick to accept biased northern European observers at their word. Scharnhorst, as he lambasted the Spanish in 1782, failed to see that the Spanish had changed, and that under leaders like Galvez, they were capable of competing with, and succeeding against, the British.

Thanks for reading,


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