A Forgotten Hero of the American Revolution (Part 2 – His Mission)

This is Part 2 of a 5 part series.  We suggest reading Part 1 if you have not already done so.

When the American Revolutionary War broke out, the Thirteen British North American colonies were seeking concessions from King George III and the British Parliament.  Very quickly, though, the Continental Congress sought to acquire new land – in Canada and in the Floridas – and also to gain free navigation of the Mississippi River.  The Congress declared independence from Great Britain and sought alliances with Britain’s former antagonists.  Miralles eventually became the principal Spanish agent to the newly declared United States of America, and acted in a way that one historian described as far beyond what might be expected from his mission, becoming a passionate defender of the independence of the United States of America to the extent that he risked his finances to assist the new nation.  His enthusiasm and skillful diplomacy created an atmosphere of beneficial cooperation.[1]

Initially, Spain was not able to make a positive connection with the new American government.  A royal order issued on February 28, 1776, to the governor of Cuba, called for collecting data on the war in North America.  To this end, the governor was ordered to send spies into British territories where there would be little fear of their discovery.  Nothing resulted from this order, however, and the following year, The Captain General of Cuba, Diego José Navarro,[2] received confidential orders to send secret agents not only to the still-unrecognized United States but also to Jamaica, Haiti, and Florida.  These agents were directed to establish contacts with the enemies of the British and to inform the Spanish government of British intentions and movements.  In response, D. Luciano de Herrera was sent to Jamaica, Colonel Antonio Raffelin to Haiti, Josef Eligio de la Puente (Miralles’s brother-in-law) went clandestinely to Florida, and Miralles was chosen for the service of the mission to the United States.  Though Miralles received his appointment in the autumn of 1777, his commission was not approved by the King of Spain until many months later.  Miralles sailed without waiting for the official word, however.[3]

Once on land, the plan was for Miralles to apply to the provincial governor for permission to remain until spring, due to poor health.  The Spanish government granted Miralles 39,000 pesos for his mission, partially as cover for his supposed position as a rich merchant. The strategy was for Miralles to establish relations with friendly governors, the Continental Congress, General George Washington, and other influential individuals who would be helpful to his cause.  During these meetings, Miralles was to attempt to generate alliances and contributions for a cooperative joint attack against the British in the Floridas, as well as to strengthen the border at Louisiana.  Once Spain entered the war, Miralles was to open up trade between the United States and the Spanish possessions in the Americas.[4]

Miralles departed Havana on December 31, 1777, in the schooner Nuestra Señora del Carmen, accompanied by his secretary, Francisco Rendón.  After being at sea for nine days, the schooner, commanded by captain Anastasio de Urtetegui, landed in Charleston, South Carolina, “due to trouble with his ship.”  Due in part to the previous connections with prominent citizens of Charleston and because of his personality, the Spaniard was well-received in Charleston.  Using his old commercial contacts in the state, Miralles obtained a meeting with the governor, John Rutledge.  With Rutledge, Miralles discussed politics and probable support from Spain to the United States, but also of the possibility of joint military action against the Floridas.[5]

While in South Carolina, where he remained until the spring, Miralles purchased a schooner, which served a dual purpose: trade was to be initiated between the United States and Havana, and a more secure method of communication with Navarro was established.  Besides his commercial dealings, Miralles also met with leading citizens.  On one occasion, he occupied the seat of honor together with the French consul at an official banquet celebrating the American victory at Saratoga and the treaty in which France recognized the independence of the United States and entered the war against the British.[6]

Miralles and Rendón departed Charleston in the spring making stops in North Carolina and Virginia on his way to Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress was meeting.  Though Miralles was issued his commission by a Royal Proclamation of January 21, 1778, he had yet to receive it, due to the slow communication of the era.  In his contacts with the Americans during this time, then, Miralles skirted diplomatic rules in meeting with the heads of the American states.  Besides meeting with Governor Rutledge in South Carolina, Miralles also met with Abner Nash of North Carolina and Patrick Henry of Virginia before arriving in Philadelphia in May of 1778.  With the former, he discussed plans for attacking the British in the Floridas and in the Mississippi Valley and with the latter possible attacks on Mobile, Pensacola, and St. Augustine.[7]

Though his conversations did not produce immediate results, Miralles apparently got along well with the prominent men that he met. Miralles did not disappoint many of those who he hoped to impress.  He traveled with countless gifts and lavished those upon his associates, partly as an attempt to ingratiate himself and partly due to his courteous nature.

After departing Williamsburg, Miralles traveled north by sea, across the Chesapeake Bay, to Baltimore, where he resumed travel on land to Philadelphia.  Upon arriving in that city, Miralles and Rendón took up living quarters at 242 South Third Street.[8]  The first French minister to the United States, Conrad Alexander Gèrard, did not arrive in Philadelphia until about one month later.  Because of his dynamic personality, Miralles quickly gained the attention of the Philadelphia elite.  He could not, however, officially meet with government officials.  Upon Gèrard’s arrival, he and Miralles quickly became good friends, though the latter was technically inferior.  Gèrard acted, officially and unofficially, to communicate for Miralles with the Congress.[9]

Miralles also developed a close friendship with the financier Robert Morris, who he may have known through business interests before his arrival.  The two men immediately became partners.  Their vessels made the first direct commercial voyages between Philadelphia and Havana.[10]  His influential contacts and brilliant personality soon gained him the trust and respect of the businessmen as well as military and government officials of Philadelphia.  It did not take long for the Americans to overlook the not-so-minor detail that Spain had not recognized American independence or declared war on Great Britain.

Miralles faced a difficult task.  Without official recognition, he had to convince his Spanish superiors that the Americans were stable and could win a war against the British while, at the same time, assist Spain in gaining control of Florida and the Mississippi Valley.  Concurrently, Miralles had to assure the American government that Spain would give more active support against Great Britain once the concessions of Florida and the Mississippi Valley were agreed to by the two nations.  Miralles guaranteed some money and supplies from his personal fortune. [11]  It was unclear, and somewhat still is today, how much Miralles acted on his own accord and how much under the auspices of the Spanish government.  The Chevalier de la Luzerne, who later replaced Gèrard as French minister to the United States, wrote to Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes in France that Miralles had confessed to him that the Spanish government had issued no instructions to him, though he expected to be appointed Minister to the United States when the King was ready to make such an appointment.[12]  Miralles, therefore, relied heavily on his personal connections and the support of the French in the management of his affairs with the American government.  Though Miralles was accepted and well-liked among the elite of Philadelphia, his mission of securing a joint attack against Great Britain in the Floridas and the Mississippi Valley had stalled.

Read Part 3.

[1] Portell-Vilá, Herminio. Juan de Miralles, un Habanero Amigo de Jorge Washington. Havana: Sociedad Colombista Panamaricana, 1947, 14 and McCadden, Helen Matzke. “Juan de Miralles and the American Revolution .” The American (Academy of American Franciscan History) 29, no. 3 (January 1973): 359-375, 361.
[2] Diego José Navarro García de Valladares (1708-1784) was Captain General of Cuba from 1777 to 1781.
[3] Juan de Miralles, un Habanero Amigo de Jorge Washington, 11 and Abbey, Kathryn. “Efforts of Spain to Maintain Sources of Information in the British Colonies Before 1779.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 15, no. 1 (June 1928): 56-68, 64.
[4] “Efforts of Spain to Maintain Sources of Information in the British Colonies Before 1779”, 65.
[5] Portell-Vilá, Herminio. Los Otros Extranjeros en la Revolucion Norteamericana. Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1978, 29 and  “Efforts of Spain to Maintain Sources of Information in the British Colonies Before 1779”, 65.
[6] Los Otros Extranjeros en la Revolucion Norteamericana, 58.
[7] Ibid., 62.
[8] This address remained the official residence of the Commissioner of Spain until 1782.  Los Otros Extranjeros en la Revolucion Norteamericana, 64.
[9] Ribes, 26.  Conrad Alexander (or Alexandre) Gèrard (1729-1790 ) was the first French Minister to the U.S.  He conducted the negotiations with the Americans that resulted in the alliance treaty of 1778.
[10] Ibid., 26.
[11] McCadden, 364 and Juan de Miralles, un Habanero Amigo de Jorge Washington, 17.
[12] Griffin, Martin I.J. Catholics and the American Revolution. Vol. 1. Ridley Park, PA: Martin I.J. Griffin, 1907, 301.   Anne-César, Chevalier de la Luzerne (1741-1791) replaced Gèrard as French Minister to the U.S., serving from 1779 until the end of the war Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes (1717-1787) was King Louis XVI’s Minister of Foreign Affairs beginning in 1774.
Image credit: New York Public Library

6 Comments

  1. Very very interesting. Thank you for sharing.
    In Texas, Dr Andres Tijerina (history professor emeritus at ACC) and UT history professor Dr Emilio Zamora are both working on a Mexican American studies textbook. Your deep understanding and knowledge of Spain involement with the American Revolution will benifit one of the book’s chapters.

    My name Ramiro R J Molina of Austin and Hebbronville. (512-789-0554). I am retired and promote Tejano history and American Hispanic history by all positive means necessary. God Bless the USA. 🇺🇸

    Liked by 2 people

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