A Forgotten Hero of the American Revolution (Part 3 – Friendship with George Washington)

This is Part 3 of a 5 part series.  We suggest reading Part 1  and Part 2 if you have not already done so.

On December 23, 1778, General Washington arrived in Philadelphia where he was honored at a number of banquets.  Miralles and Washington met at one of these proceedings on New Years’ Eve.  By all accounts the two men became quick friends.  Washington found time to go to see Miralles on numerous occasions while the former was in Philadelphia.  When Washington did visit, Miralles showered him with gifts, as he did to the other leaders of the Revolution.  His boats trading with Havana returned to Philadelphia with wines, liquors, sweets, tortoise shells, rum and cigars, which he shared as gifts with influential Americans.  The vessels also brought back limes, lemons and quinine for the American Army.[1]

On February 17, 1779 Miralles wrote to Navarro in Cuba of “the general acceptance, courtesy and respect with which I am regarded by all these citizens and by persons who hold the highest offices, which they take pains to show to me and to make known to others.”[2]  In May 1779, Miralles, with Gérard, visited Washington’s camp at Middlebrook, New Jersey, at the general’s invitation.  The Americans were short on arms, munitions, supplies and money.  Washington provided a military review in honor of the diplomats on May 2nd and, more than once, the watchword in the camp was “Don Juan and Gérard” in honor of Miralles and the French minister.  Washington called on Miralles for all of the help and aid that the Spanish could provide, and asked that Spain not only recognize American independence, but also enter the war against Great Britain to ensure American success.  Miralles assured Washington that the entry of his country into the struggle was imminent, and on June 21st Carlos III of Spain declared war on Great Britain.[3]

The first official notice of the war declaration reached Charleston in August on a boat owned by Miralles.  Miralles was also promised that he would be named the first official minister from Spain to the United States.[4]  The Spanish went to work immediately.  On 27 August  Bernardo de Gálvez[5] left New Orleans with about five hundred men to attack British posts in the Mississippi Valley.  Within a month, the Spaniard had captured eight ships anchored in the Mississippi, taken three forts, made prisoners of twenty-eight officers and 550 English soldiers, and gained over 1,000 miles of territory.  The Spanish goal of driving the English from the Gulf of Mexico and the areas around Louisiana were quickly obtained.  Meanwhile, the Continental Congress finally agreed to guarantee the Floridas to Spain, provided they could be taken from the British.  At the end of September, Congress voted to send John Jay as “Minister Plenipotentiary to negotiate a treaty of alliance and of amity and commerce between the United States of America and his Catholic Majesty.” [6]

In celebration of the news, Miralles sent various gifts to Washington, including a turtle weighing one hundred pounds.  Washington responded on October 16th from West Point, New York: “The intelligence, you have been pleased to intrust [sic] me with, is very agreeable. I promise myself the most happy events from the known spirit of your nation. United with the arms of France, we have every thing to hope over the arms of our common enemy, the English.”[7]

Finally, in November 1779, the Continental Congress seriously considered the cause for which Miralles had been fighting.  They appointed a committee to discuss joint military action between Spanish and American forces.  On November 25th, after Miralles had met with the committee, it was decided that the French minister would communicate with the commander of the French naval squadron to transport soldiers and arms for the cause.[8]  The plan which Miralles had worked so hard for had finally come together.  Unfortunately, a turn of events in the south would not allow the American Army to divert its forces for the joint attack.

The British command decided to move south at the end of 1778 after their lack of success in the northern states.  After a short siege of Savannah, Georgia by the British in October 1779, the American Army was forced to retreat to Charleston.  The British were planning an attack against Charleston forcing the Americans to set up defenses around the city.  The Spanish under Gálvez continued with attacks against the British, even without American help.  By May 1780, Charleston fell to the British.

Although the Americans had not made any gains in the south, Miralles was instructed to meet with Washington to discuss possible joint offensives.  Washington and his army had spent the winter in Morristown, New Jersey.  While the army was encamped in cabins outside of town, Washington was lodged at the private home of Jacob Ford.  It was here that Washington planned a military parade in honor of the arrival of Miralles.  The Spanish minister left Philadelphia early on the morning of 17 April 1780, accompanied by the Chevalier de la Luzerne.  The men traveled most of the way in an uncomfortable carriage with poor protection against the weather.  The roads were covered in snow and ice, and were barely passable.  About midday on the 19th, they were met about five miles from the town by General Washington himself, along with other generals, and two hundred Continental soldiers.  There, the diplomats exited the carriage and rode the remainder of the way on horseback at the front of the line, with Washington.  Upon arriving in town, they were received with the salvo of thirteen cannons and the warm support of the public.  Washington took the visitors to a height where they were able to take a distant view of the enemy’s positions in New York, and of the different posts of the army.[9]

Miralles fell ill almost immediately upon his arrival in Morristown.  While preparations were being made for a grand military parade in honor of Miralles and Luzerne, the former was being nursed in bed on the upper floor of the Ford Mansion.  Washington called on his own doctors, probably the best available at the time, to attend to Miralles.  Both General and Mrs. Washington were at his bedside as much as time would allow.  Miralles, who probably had pneumonia, was bled a number of times and was not permitted to leave his bed.  On the 23rd, Miralles called a number of men in the headquarters, among who were Luzerne, von Steuben and Alexander Hamilton, to his room, and in their presence he dictated his will.[10]

The following day, the military parade went on as planned.  Miralles had become so gravely ill that he did not seem to notice the playing of the military band, the salvos of cannon or the fireworks which accompanied the parade.  General Washington sat alongside New Jersey’s governor, William Livingston, and the Chevalier de la Luzerne at the place of honor.  Next to Luzerne, a seat was left empty, reserved in honor of Miralles.  General Washington and other officers, along with Luzerne, visited Miralles again after the parade. [11]

Luzerne departed on a return trip to Philadelphia the day following the parade.  Washington, who remained close to Miralles, wrote Luzerne of Miralles’s progress.  On the 26th of April, Washington wrote that Miralles appeared to be slightly better.  “His Fever and pulse, tho’ he had a very restless night the last, are now moderate and regular, and his hic-cough has entirely left him.”  The doctors, however, were unsure of “the prospect of his recovery.”  The following day, Washington’s letter to Luzerne was more positive.  He wrote, “Upon the whole, the Doctors think him better, though they dare not pronounce him past danger. If he should continue well through this day, and the succeeding night, I shall entertain the pleasing hope of his recovery.”[12]

 Read Part 4.

[1] Portell-Vilá, Herminio. Los Otros Extranjeros en la Revolucion Norteamericana. Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1978, 76.
[2] Ribes, Vicente. Presencia valenciana en los Estados Unidos (ss. XVI-XIX). Valencia, Spain: Biblioteca Valenciana, 2001, 59-60.
[3] Los Otros Extranjeros en la Revolucion Norteamericana, 78.
[4] McCadden, Helen Matzke. “Juan de Miralles and the American Revolution .” The American (Academy of American Franciscan History) 29, no. 3 (January 1973): 359-375, 368.
[5] Bernardo de Gálvez (1746-1786) was born in Spain to a family that was distinguished for their service to the crown.  As governor of Louisiana, he worked directly with leading Americans, including Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson,  to ensure that the port of New Orleans and the lower Mississippi River remained closed to the British.  After Spain officially declared war against Great Britain, Gálvez led campaigns along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast, defeating  the British in a number of battles. He led the capture of the British naval base at New Providence in the Bahamas and was involved in drafting the treaty of peace at the conclusion of the war.  The U.S. Congress acknowledged Gálvez for his aid during the Revolution.
[6] Abbey, Kathryn Trimmer. “Spanish Projects for the Reoccupation of the Floridas During the American Revolution.” The Hispanic American Historical Review 9, no. 3 (August 1929): 265-285, 280 and 274.
[7] “From George Washington to Juan de Miralles, 16 October 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-22-02-0611. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 22, 1 August–21 October 1779, ed. Benjamin L. Huggins. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013, pp. 740–741.]
[8] Abbey, 277.
[9] Thacher, Dr. James. Military Journal During the American Revolutionary War. Hartford: Silas Andrus & Son, 1854, 191.
[10] Los Otros Extranjeros en la Revolucion Norteamericana, 87 and Griffin, Martin I.J. Catholics and the American Revolution. Vol. 1. Ridley Park, PA: Martin I.J. Griffin, 1907, 303.
[11] Los Otros Extranjeros en la Revolucion Norteamericana, 87 and Griffin, 303.
[12] “From George Washington to Anne-César, chevalier de La Luzerne, 26 April 1780,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-01588.
Image credit: New York Public Library

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