Friday, February 7, 2014

Siege of Minorca, 1782

St. Philip's Fortress (Castillo de San Felipe)

Dear Reader,

Today we are going to examine the capture of Minorca, one of the substantial victories of the French and Spanish forces in the global war which surrounded the American War of Independence.   France and Spain were soundly defeated in the Seven Years' War, and both began to prepare for the eventual rematch. The opportunity came earlier than expected with the rebellion of Britain's American colonies. The French and Spanish had several goals, including 1). Retaking Gibraltar. 2) Capturing Pensacola and retaking Florida. 3). Retaking Minorca, 4). Assisting the rebel colonists 5). Capturing Jamaica and other British possessions in the west Indies.  

Location of Minorca (Modern spelling of Menorca on Map) 

By late 1779, Spanish and French strategists realized that they were performing poorly in the attempt to capture Gibraltar, and, as a result, began to operate against different British positions. The Duc de Crillon planned a campaign against Minorca, a island and powerful naval base which the British had first taken in 1708, during the War of Spanish Succession. The French captured it in 1756, but it was returned to British control as a result of the numerous other British victories in the Seven Years' War. 

Upon landing on the island with overwhelming numbers in late august of 1781, the French and Spanish began to undertake the long, complicated process of besieging the principle fortress on the island. This required digging trenches and erecting a series of artillery batteries to destroy the fortress' cannons, in preparation for an assault by infantry. In most cases of eighteenth century sieges, assaults did not occur, as the defending general would surrender when the walls were breached. This practice saved the lives of both attacking and defending soldiers. 

The Franco-Spanish Siege Batteries are in Yellow. 
The French and Spanish quickly silenced the outer ring of defenses, and forced the British garrison to withdraw inside the citadel. While the British were able to continue resisting for some time, the French and Spanish mortars destroyed their supply of meat. This also prevented the soldiers from growing vegetables, a vital part of a soldierly diet in the eighteenth century. This lead to the garrison suffering from scurvy, a dental disease, which greatly weakened their ability to defend the fortress. 

By late January 1781, the number of healthy soldiers in the garrison had dropped from 3,000 to around 600. This meant that the British could no longer fully man the defenses, making the fortress vulnerable to a sudden assault. The British surrendered on French surrendered on February 5th, 1781, and the Spanish retained control of the island for the rest of the eighteenth century. 

This action is a splendid example of two aspects of the late eighteenth century strategies of the French and Spanish. First, like the British, they managed to master the art of amphibious operations, that is, the use of naval power and armies in conjunction.  Second, this siege is an example of the French and Spanish strategy of spreading the British thin throughout the world. While the Spanish and French were not able to take Gibraltar, they defeated the British in Florida, Minorca, and greatly aided the fledgling United States. 

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns 


  1. Much of the loss of Minorca can be blamed on Admiral Byng. He arrived at Minorca with a slightly larger fleet of warships but did not press home an attack against the Franco-Spanish fleet, instead sailed back to Gibraltar. For this he was recalled to London, put on trial, found guilty and shot. Voltaire commented that in England it was necessary to shoot an admiral occasionally, "pour encourager les autres".

    1. Pierre- Thanks for the comment! What you say is true, but in reference to the Siege of 1756. This article was discussing the less well known Siege of 1782. Minorca was given back to the English at the close of the Seven Years' War, and thus, the Bourbon powers had to retake it in the War for American Independence.

  2. Eventually both countries failed against Great Britain. The only remaining success was the Independence of USA but it is a long debate how important it was to the brits to keep America under the control of the Crown, especially in the era of the long struggling with France, Spain and Netherlands for the global rule. Maintaing the balance in Europe, ruling the trading routes on the Atlantic and Indian Ocean was far more important for the Biritsh Empire at that time and was proven useful for the next 150 years. Not to mention that Minorca was taken back again soon.
    Nevertheless this was a fine example of a well led 18th century campaign and siege. Well done France.