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This Week in History
August 14-20, 2016

Rear Adm. François Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse, Don Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis, and "the women of Havana." (1781)

By Rick Sanders

This is the week Americans should particularly honor French Rear Adm. François Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse, the Spaniard Don Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis, and "the women of Havana."

Statue of French fleet commander Admiral deGrasse, Cape Henry Memorial site

Prospects for the thirteen colonies in 1781 appeared bleak. “We are at the end of our tether, and … now or never our deliverance must come,” wrote a discouraged George Washington in April. The rebellion was in its seventh year. The strain of supporting the conflict and deprivation brought on by the British blockade continued to crush the economy. A nightmarish smallpox epidemic ravaged the populace.

As he planned the Yorktown campaign, Washington was desperate for hard currency to pay his troops, to reduce desertions and preempt mutiny. The French war chest in North America was also depleted. Money promised by Spain was delayed. Washington was risking all to entrap and defeat Cornwallis in Yorktown. Washington needed 1 million livres or more in specie, or fear the worst.

Portrait of Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis by Francisco Goya

De Grasse and Saavedra, the brains behind the joint action of France and Spain in support of the Americans, acted quickly, and turned to the Spanish and Cuban residents in Havana for assistance. Saavedra later recalled:  “[On August 16] the announcement was promulgated among the citizens, and it was proclaimed that anyone who wished to contribute towards aiding the French fleet with his money should send it immediately to the treasury." The response was electric! The merchants of Havana and well-to-do ladies in patriotic associations, remembering the British occupation of Havana in 1762, donated jewelry, diamonds and about 1.2 million pounds sterling, in only six hours!

De Grasse, swung by Havana and picked up the money to bring with his reinforcements to the Chesapeake Bay and the rest is history.


Francois Joseph Paul Compte de Grasse, the Battle off the Virginia Capes, and the American Victory at Yorktown, Robert A. Selig; The First Salute, Barbara Tuchman;, Bankrolling the Battle of Yorktown, Barbara A. Mitchell]