It is well known that the French ardently assisted the Americans during the Revolution, and we often remember names like Lafayette, Rochambeau, de Grasse, and others. It is not so well known how the Spanish aided the American cause, nor the dedication of one person in particular.
Don Juan de Miralles y Trajan was a Spanish merchant who by the 1770s was residing in Havana. Miralles had extensive trade networks through his dealings with merchants in Philadelphia, New York, Charleston, and Boston. He shipped various commodities and also traded slaves.
After moving from Spain to Havana, he met and married Doña Maria Josefa Eligio de la Puente y González-Cabello. Miralles was well connected politically as well as financially. When the Revolution broke out, Spanish officials took great interest, and prepared for a possible entry into the war, though on what terms it was not yet decided.
Miralles was chosen by the Spanish government to gather information on the American war effort: their capabilities, political goals, and conduct of the war. He travelled to Charleston, then north to Philadelphia, where he used his role as a merchant as a cover for his operation.
He rented a home at 242 South Third Street, not far from the Pennsylvania State House where the Continental Congress met. Miralles actually arrived just after the city was reoccupied by the Americans in late June, 1778. At the time the British were marching overland through New Jersey to return to their base in Manhattan. Washington’s army caught up with them at Monmouth, fighting one of the largest battles of the war there.
In Philadelphia Miralles gained entry into upper class society, and got access to political and military connections. He met members of Congress, military aides, and important members of Philadelphia society.
One of his business contacts was Robert Morris, who in turn introduced him to other important leaders. Using ships bound for Cuba to deliver information, Miralles passed on intelligence regularly about American efforts and intentions.
He met and became friends with artists Charles Willson Peale, and even bought copies of a portrait of Washington from him. As he rented a small house, Miralles was unable to host gatherings himself, but Peale allowed him to use his home for entertaining. Miralles gave away popular Cuban cigars to his friends. Later that year he met General Washington and the two built a mutual trust.
When France’s minister, Conrad Alexander Gèrard, arrived in Philadelphia, they met and became friends. Although they were in common cause, Miralles could not reveal his true activities or intentions, keeping the cover of a merchant who desired to return to Spain.
Miralles used a variety of sources to gather information on American efforts and temperament, including newspapers, talking to members of Congress, gathering with upper society, talking with generals and military officers, ship captains on the waterfront, and his various business connections.
In May 1779, French Ambassador Gerard and Miralles visited Washington’s camp at Middlebrook, New Jersey. Spain was still neutral, but the Americans were courting Spanish entry. At Middlebrook Washington met and spoke with Miralles about the possibility of Spain’s entry and what might come of it.
A month later on June 21st Carlos III of Spain declared war on Great Britain. News reached Charleston in August on one of Miralles’ ships. Miralles was appointed the minister from Spain to the United States. On October 2, 1779, Miralles forwarded the news on Spain’s entry into the war to Washington along with a gift of a 100-pound sea tortoise and a box of lemons.
While Spain allied itself with France in fighting Britain it did not recognize or ally itself with the United States. Miralles was Spain’s “unofficial representative to the United States,” a point of contact without the full power of a diplomat.
In the meantime, the Continental army moved to Morristown to spend the winter of 1779-80. While there, Washington often hosted dignitaries to discuss political military issues. On April 19, 1780, the new French ambassador, Anne-César de La Luzerne and Miralles arrived at the army’s camp.
Elaborate demonstrations were planned for the special guests for the next few days, but only Luzerene attended, as Miralles became gravely ill with a fever (possibly pneumonia). Monday the 24th was “clear & pleasant but rather cool” according to General Washington, as the troops passed in review, paraded, and maneuvered for the ambassador. Miralles remained in the Ford mansion, which served as Washington’s headquarters.
Doctor James Thatcher wrote, “A field of parade being prepared under the direction of the Baron Steuben, four battalions of our army were presented for review . . . attended by his excellency and our general officers. Thirteen cannon, as usual, announced their arrival . . and they received from the officers and soldiers the military honors due to their exalted rank. A large stage was erected in the field, which was crowded by officers, ladies, and gentlemen of distinction . . . among them Governor Livingston. Our troops exhibited a truly military appearance, and performed the maneuvers and evolutions in a manger which afforded much satisfaction to our commander-in-chief . . .:”
It must have been an impressive sight, with the troops performing with fifes and drums, and flags flying. During the review, the troops fired blank cartridges, and artillery fired blank rounds as well. Ensign Stephen Griffing of the 4th New York noted that the troops fired 12 rounds and that the artillery fired 104 times. If the local civilians did not know of the review, they must have wondered about all the racket. Perhaps Miralles heard the noise back at the Ford mansion.
Luzerne reviewed the troops again the next day. Griffing wrote, “the whole army paraded in front of the Huts and at 11 oClock the French Minister Set out from Head Qrs and Passed the Main Guard whear he was solulouted and then to the Posts of the Artillery and there he was Solouted with firing of thirteen Cannon and then through the armey and when he head Rond through theLine of Huts the armey returned to there Quarters.”
Luzerne was thrilled with the display, Washington wrote to the army that, “the appearance and manoeuvres of the Troops yesterday met His entire Approbation and afforded him the highest Satisfaction.” Impressing a foreign diplomat was important.
Juan de Miralles, however, missed it all and continued to decline. Martha Washington, who was present to visit her husband, helped nurse him. Sensing the end was near, he dedicated a will on April 23 in the presence of Alexander Hamilton, Luzerne, and von Steuben.
Luzerne departed on the 26th and Washington wrote to him on Miralles’ condition: “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 physicians were unsure of “the prospect of his recovery.” Washington’s next letter to Luzerne stated, “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.” Yet he never recovered and died in the mansion on April 28th and was buried with military honors in the Presbyterian Church cemetery in Morristown.
Dr. James Thatcher described the event:
The top of the coffin was removed, to display the pomp and grandeur with which the body was decorated. It was in a splendid full dress, consisting of a scarlet suit, embroidered with rich gold lace, a three cornered gold laced hat, and a genteel cued wig, white silk stockings, large diamond shoe and knee buckles, a profusion of diamond rings decorated the fingers, and from a superb gold watch set with diamonds, several rich seals were suspended. His Excellency General Washington, with several other general officers, and members of Congress, attended the funeral solemnities, and walked as chief mourners. The other officers of the army, and numerous respectable citizens, formed a splendid procession, extending about one mile. . . . the coffin was borne on the shoulders of four officers of the artillery in full uniform. Minute guns were fired during the procession, which greatly increased the solemnity of the occasion. A Spanish priest performed service at the grave, in the Roman Catholic form. The coffin was enclosed in a box of plank, and all the profusion of pomp and grandeur was deposited in the silent grave, in the common burying ground, near the church at Morristown. A guard is placed at the grave, lest our soldiers should be tempted to dig for hidden treasure. It is understood that the corpse is to be removed to Philadelphia.
His grave was not marked, and while it was thought his remains were later moved to a Catholic cemetery, there are no records to prove it. Sadly, despite his efforts and hard work, he remains relatively unknown today.