Catholics in the American Revolution

The moment of England’s triumph in the 18th century was the dawn of American independence. When England, aided by her colonies, had at last wrested Canada from France, and, forcing that weakened power to relinquish Louisiana to Spain, had restored Havana to the Catholic sovereign only at the price of Florida, her sway seemed secure over all North America from the icy ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, from the shores of the Atlantic to the Mississippi. But her very success had aroused questions and created wants which were not to be answered or solved until her mighty American power was shattered.

While Spain and France kept colonies in leading-strings, England allowed her American provinces to thrive by her utter neglect of them. Monarchs granted charters liberally, and with that their interest seemed to vanish, until it was discovered that offices could be found there for court favorites. But the people had virtually constituted governments of their own; had their own treasury, made their own laws, waged their wars with the Indian, carried on trade, unaided and almost unrecognized by the mother country.

The final struggle with France had at last awakened England to the importance, wealth, and strength of the American colonies. It appeared to embarrassed English statesmen that the depleted coffers of the national treasury might be greatly aided by taxing these prosperous communities. The Americans, paying readily taxes where they could control their disbursement, refused to accept new burdens and to pay the mother country for the honor of being governed. The relation of colonies to the mother country; the question of right in the latter to tax the former; the bounds and just limits on either side, involved new and undiscussed points. They now became the subject of debate in Parliament, in colonial assemblies, in every town gathering, and at every fireside in the American colonies. The people were all British subjects, proud of England and her past; a large majority were devoted to the Protestant religion and the house of Hanover, and sought to remain in adherence to both while retaining all the rights they claimed as Englishmen.

A small body of Catholics existed in the country. What their position was on the great questions at issue can be briefly told.

They were of many races and nationalities. No other church then or now could show such varieties, blended together by a common faith. Maryland, settled by a Catholic proprietor, with colonists largely Catholic, and for a time predominantly so, contained some thousands of native-born Catholics of English, and to some extent of Irish, origin, proud of their early Maryland record, of the noble character of the charter, and of the nobly tolerant character of the early laws and practice of the land of Mary. In Pennsylvania a smaller Catholic body existed, more scattered, by no means so compact or so influential as their Maryland brethren—settlers coming singly during the eighteenth century mainly, or descendants of such emigrants, some of whom had been sent across the Atlantic as bondmen by England, others coming as redemptioners, others again as colonists of means and position. They were not only of English, Irish, and Scotch origin, but also of the German race, with a few from France and other Catholic states. New Jersey and New York had still fewer Catholics than Pennsylvania. In the other colonies, from New Hampshire to Georgia, they existed only as individuals lost in the general body of the people. But all along the coast were scattered by the cruel hand of English domination the unfortunate Acadians, who had been ruthlessly torn from their Nova Scotian villages and farms, deprived of all they had on earth—home and property and kindred. With naught left them but their faith, these Acadians formed little groups of dejected Catholics in many a part, not even their noble courage amid unmerited suffering exciting sympathy or kindly encouragement from the colonists. Florida had a remnant of its old Spanish population, with no hopes for the future from the Protestant power to which the fortunes of war and the vicissitudes of affairs had made them subjects. There were besides in that old Catholic colony some Italians and Minorcans, brought over with Greeks under Turnbull’s project of colonization. Maine had her Indians, of old steady foes of New England, now at peace, submitting to the new order of things, thoroughly Catholic from the teaching of their early missionaries. New York had Catholic Indians on her northern frontier. The Catholic Wyandots clustered around the pure streams and springs of Sandusky. Further west, from Detroit to the mouth of the Ohio, from Vincennes to Lake Superior, were little communities of Canadian French, all Catholics, with priests and churches, surrounded by Indian tribes among all which missionaries had labored, and not in vain. Some tribes were completely Catholic; others could show some, and most of them many, who had risen from the paganism of the red men to the faith of Christ.

Such was the Catholic body—colonists who could date back their origin to the foundation of Maryland or Acadia, Florida or Canada, Indians of various tribes, new-comers from England, Germany, or Ireland. There were, too, though few, converts, or descendants of converts, who, belonging to the Protestant emigration, had been led by God’s grace to see the truth, and who resolutely shared the odium and bondage of an oppressed and unpopular church.

The questions at issue between the colonies and the mother country were readily answered by the Catholics of every class. Catholic theologians nowhere but in the Gallican circles of France had learned to talk of the divine right of kings. The truest, plainest doctrines of the rights of the people found their exposition in the works of Catholic divines. By a natural instinct they sided with those who claimed for these new communities in the western world the right of self-government. Catholics, of whatever race or origin, were on this point unanimous. Evidence meets us on every side. Duché, an Episcopal clergyman, will mention Father Harding, the pastor of the Catholics in Philadelphia, for “his known attachment to British liberty”—they had not yet begun to talk of American liberty. Indian, French, and Acadian, bound by no tie to England, could brook no subjection to a distant and oppressive power. The Irish and Scotch Catholics, with old wrongs and a lingering Jacobite dislike to the house of Hanover, required no labored arguments to draw them to the side of the popular movement. All these elements excited distrust in England. Even a hundred years before in the councils of Britain fears had been expressed that the Maryland Catholics, if they gained strength, would one day attempt to set up their independence; and the event justified the fear. If they did not originate the movement, they went heartily into it.

The English government had begun in Canada its usual course of harassing and grinding down its Catholic subjects, putting the thousands of Canadians completely at the mercy of the few English adventurers or office-holders who entered the province, giving three hundred and sixty Protestant sutlers and camp-followers the rights of citizenship and all the offices in Canada, while disfranchising the real people of the province, the one hundred and fifty thousand Canadian Catholics. How such a system works we have seen, unhappily, in our own day and country. But with the growing discontent in her old colonies, caused by the attempts of Parliament to tax the settlers indirectly, where they dared not openly, England saw that she must take some decisive step to make the Canadians contented subjects, or be prepared to lose her dear-bought conquest as soon as any war should break out in which she herself might be involved. Instead of keeping the treaty of Paris as she had kept that of Limerick, England for once resolved to be honest and fulfil her agreement.

It was a moment when the thinking men among the American leaders should have won the Canadians as allies to their hopes and cause; but they took counsel of bigotry, allowed England to retrace her false steps, and by tardy justice secure the support of the Canadians.

The Quebec act of 1774 organized Canada, including in its extent the French communities in the West. Learning a lesson from Lord Baltimore and Catholic Maryland, “the nation which would not so much as legally recognize the existence of a Catholic in Ireland, now from political considerations recognized on the Saint Lawrence the free exercise of the religion of the Church of Rome, and confirmed to the clergy of that church their rights and dues.”

Just and reasonable as the act was, solid in policy, and, by introducing the English criminal law and forms of government, gradually preparing the people for an assimilation in form to the other British colonies, this Quebec act, from the simple fact that it tolerated Catholics, excited strong denunciation on both sides of the Atlantic. The city of London addressed the king before he signed the bill, petitioning that he should refrain from doing so. “The Roman Catholic religion, which is known to be idolatrous and bloody, is established by this bill,” say these wiseacres, imploring George III., as the guardian of the laws, liberty, and religion of his people, and as the great bulwark of the Protestant faith, not to give his royal assent.

In America, when the news came of its passage, the debates as to their wrongs, as to the right of Parliament to pass stamp acts or levy duties on imports, to maintain an army or quarter soldiers on the colonists, seemed to be forgotten in their horror of this act of toleration. In New York the flag with the union and stripes was run up, bearing bold and clear on a white stripe the words, “No Popery.” The Congress of 1774, though it numbered some of the clearest heads in the colonies, completely lost sight of the vital importance of Canada territorially, and of the advantage of securing as friends a community of 150,000 whose military ability had been shown on a hundred battle-fields. Addressing the people of Great Britain, this Congress says: “By another act the Dominion of Canada is to be so extended, modelled, and governed as that, by being disunited from us, detached from our interests by civil as well as religious prejudices; that by their numbers swelling with Catholic emigrants from Europe, and by their devotion to administration so friendly to their religion, they might become formidable to us, and on occasion be fit instruments in the hands of power to reduce the ancient free Protestant colonies to the same slavery with themselves.” “Nor can we suppress our astonishment that a British parliament should ever consent to establish in that country a religion that has deluged your island in blood, and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder, and rebellion through every part of the world.”

This address, the work of the intense bigot John Jay, and of the furious storm of bigotry evoked in New England and New York, was most disastrous in its results to the American cause. Canada was not so delighted with her past experience of English rule or so confident of the future as to accept unhesitatingly the favors accorded by the Quebec act. She had from the first sought to ally herself with the neighboring English colonies, and to avoid European complications. When she proposed the alliance, they declined. She would now have met their proposal warmly; but when this address was circulated in Canada, it defeated the later and wiser effort of Congress to win that province through Franklin, Chase, and the Carrolls. It made the expeditions against the British forces there, at first so certain of success by Canadian aid, result in defeat and disgrace. In New York a little colony of Scotch Catholics, who would gladly have paid off the score of Culloden, took alarm at the hatred shown their faith, and fled with their clergyman to Canada to give strength to our foe, when they wished to be of us and with us. In the West it enabled British officers to make Detroit a centre from which they exerted an influence over the Western tribes that lasted down into the present century, and which Jay’s treaty—a tardy endeavor to undo his mischief of 1774—did not succeed in checking.

Pamphlets, attacking or defending the Quebec act, appeared on both sides of the Atlantic. In the English interest it was shown that the treaty of Paris already guaranteed their religion to the Canadians, and that the rights of their clergy were included in this. It was shown that to insist on England’s establishing the state church in Canada would justify her in doing the same in New England. “An Englishman’s Answer” to the address of Congress rather maliciously turned Jay’s bombast on men like himself by saying: “If the actions of the different sects in religion are inquired into, we shall find, by turning over the sad historic page, that it was the —— sect (I forget what they call them; I mean the sect which is still most numerous in New England, and not the sect which they so much despise) that in the last century deluged our island in blood; that even shed the blood of the sovereign, and dispersed impiety, bigotry, superstition, hypocrisy, persecution, murder, and rebellion through every part of the empire.”

One who later in life became a Catholic, speaking of the effect of this bill in New England, says: “We were all ready to swear that this same George, by granting the Quebec bill, had thereby become a traitor, had broke his coronation oath, was secretly a papist,” etc. “The real fears of popery in New England had its influence.” “The common word then was: ‘No king, no popery.'”

But though Canada was thus alienated, and some Catholics at the North frightened away, in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the French West the fanaticism was justly regarded as a mere temporary affair, the last outburst of a bigotry that could not live and thrive on the soil. Providence was shaping all things wisely; but we cannot be surprised at the wonder some soon felt. “Now, what must appear very singular,” says the writer above quoted, “is that the two parties naturally so opposite to each other should become, even at the outset, united in opposing the efforts of the mother country. And now we find the New England people and the Catholics of the Southern States fighting side by side, though stimulated by extremely different motives: the one acting through fear lest the king of England should succeed in establishing among us the Catholic religion; the other equally fearful lest his bitterness against the Catholic faith should increase till they were either destroyed or driven to the mountains and waste places of the wilderness.”

Such was the position of the Catholics as the rapid tide of events was bearing all on to a crisis. The Catholics in Maryland and Pennsylvania were outspoken in their devotion to the cause of the colonies. In Maryland Charles Carroll of Carrollton, trained abroad in the schools of France and the law-courts of England, with all the learning of the English barrister widened and deepened by a knowledge of the civil law of the Continent, grappled in controversy the veteran Dulany of Maryland. In vain the Tory advocate attempted, by sneers and jibes at the proscribed position of the foreign-trained Catholic, to evade the logic of his arguments. The eloquence and learning of Carroll triumphed, and he stood before his countrymen disenthralled. There, at least, it was decided by the public mind that Catholics were to enjoy all the rights of their fellow-citizens, and that citizens like Carroll were worthy of their highest honors. “The benign aurora of the coming republic,” says Bancroft, “lighted the Catholic to the recovery of his rightful political equality in the land which a Catholic proprietary had set apart for religious freedom.” In 1775 Charles Carroll was a member of the first Committee of Observation and a delegate to the Provincial Convention of Maryland, the first Catholic in any public office since the days of James II. “Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the great representative of his fellow-believers, and already an acknowledged leader of the patriots, sat in the Maryland Convention as the delegate of a Protestant constituency, and bore an honorable share in its proceedings.”

When the news of Lexington rang through the land, borne from town to town by couriers on panting steeds, regiments were organized in all the colonies. Catholics stepped forward to shoulder their rifles and firelocks. Few aspired to commissions, from which they had hitherto been excluded in the militia and troops raised for actual service, but the rank and file showed Catholics, many of them men of intelligence and fair education, eager to meet all perils and to prove on the field of battle that they were worthy of citizenship in all its privileges. Ere long, however, Catholics by ability and talent won rank in the army and navy of the young republic.

We Catholics have been so neglectful of our history that no steps were ever taken to form a complete roll of those glorious heroes of the faith who took part in the Revolutionary struggle. The few great names survive—Moylan, Burke, Barry, Vigo, Orono, Louis, Landais; here and there the journal of a Catholic soldier like McCurtin has been printed; but in our shameful neglect of the past we have done nothing to compile a roll that we can point to with pride.

When hostilities began, it became evident that Canada must be gained. Expeditions were fitted out to reduce the British posts. The Canadians evinced a friendly disposition, giving ready assistance by men, carriages, and provisions to an extent that surprised the Americans. Whole parishes even offered to join in reducing Quebec and lowering the hated flag of England from the Castle of Saint Louis, where the lilies had floated for nearly two centuries. But the bigotry that inspired some of our leaders was too strong in many of the subordinates to permit them to reason. They treated these Catholic Canadians as enemies, ill-used and dragooned them so that almost the whole country was ready to unite in repulsing them. Then came Montgomery’s disaster, and the friends of America in Canada dwindled to a few priests: La Valiniere, Carpentier, the ex-Jesuits Huguet and Floquet, and the Canadians who enlisted in Livingston’s, Hazen’s, and Duggan’s corps, under Guillot, Loseau, Aller, Basadé, Menard, and other Catholic officers.

Then Congress awoke to its error. As that strategic province was slipping from the hands of the confederated colonies, as Hazen’s letters came urging common sense, Congress appointed a commission with an address to the Canadian people to endeavor even then to win them. Benjamin Franklin was selected with two gentlemen from Catholic Maryland—Samuel Chase and Charles Carroll. To increase their influence, Congress requested the Rev. John Carroll to accompany them, hoping that the presence of a Catholic priest and a Catholic layman, both educated in France and acquainted with the French character, would effect more than any argument that could be brought to bear on the Canadians. They hastened to do their utmost, but eloquence and zeal failed. The Canadians distrusted the new order of things in America; the hostility shown in the first address of Congress seemed too well supported by the acts of Americans in Canada. They turned a deaf ear to the words of the Carrolls, and adhered to England.

Canada was thus lost to us. Taking our stand among the nations of the earth, we could not hope to include that province, but must ever have it on our flank in the hands of England. This fault was beyond redemption.

But the recent war with Pontiac was now recalled. Men remembered how the Indian tribes of the West, organized by the mastermind of that chief, had swept away almost in an instant every fort and military post from the Mississippi to the Alleghanies, and marked out the frontier by a line of blazing houses and villages from Lake Erie to Florida. What might these same Western hordes do in the hands of England, directed, supplied, and organized for their fell work by British officers! The Mohawks and other Iroquois of New York had retired to the English lines, and people shuddered at what was to come upon them there. The Catholic Indians in Maine had been won to our side by a wise policy. Washington wrote to the tribe in 1775, and deputies from all the tribes from the Penobscot to Gaspé met the Massachusetts Council at Watertown. Ambrose Var, the chief of the Saint John’s Indians, Orono of Penobscot, came with words that showed the reverent Christian. Of old they had been enemies; they were glad to become friends: they would stand beside the colonists. Eminently Catholic, every tribe asked for a priest; and Massachusetts promised to do her best to obtain French priests for her Catholic allies. Throughout the war these Catholic Indians served us well, and Orono, who bore a Continental commission, lived to see priests restored to his village and religion flourishing. Brave and consistent, he never entered the churches of the Protestant denominations, though often urged to do so. He practised his duties faithfully as a Catholic, and replied: “We know our religion and love it; we know nothing of yours.”

Maine acknowledges his worth by naming a town after this grand old Catholic.

But the West! Men shuddered to think of it. The conquest of Canada by a course of toleration and equality to Catholics would have made all the Indian tribes ours. The Abnakis had been won by a promise to them as Catholics; the Protestant and heathen Mohawks were on the side of England, though the Catholics of the same race in Canada were friendly. If the Indians in the West could be won to neutrality even, no sacrifice would be too great.

Little as American statesmen knew it, they had friends there. And if the United States at the peace secured the Northwest and extended her bounds to the Mississippi, it was due to the Very Rev. Peter Gibault, the Catholic priest of Vincennes and Kaskaskia, and to his sturdy adherent, the Italian Colonel Vigo. Entirely ignorant of what the feeling there might be, Col. George Rogers Clark submitted to the legislature of Virginia, whose backwoods settlement, Kentucky, was immediately menaced, a plan for reducing the English posts in the Northwest. Jefferson warmly encouraged the dangerous project, on which so much depended. Clark, with his handful of men, struck through the wilderness for the old French post of Kaskaskia. He appeared before it on the 4th of July, 1778. But the people were not enemies. Their pastor had studied the questions at issue, and, as Clark tells us, “was rather prejudiced in favor of us.” The people told the American commander they were convinced that the cause was one which they ought to espouse, and that they should be happy to convince him of their zeal. When Father Gibault asked whether he was at liberty to perform his duty in his church, Clark told him that he had nothing to do with churches, except to defend them from insult; that, by the laws of the state, his religion had as great privileges as any other. The first Fourth of July celebration at Kaskaskia was a hearty one. The streets were strewn with flowers and hung with flags, and all gave themselves up to joy. But Clark’s work was not done. The English lay in force at Vincennes. Father Gibault and Colonel Vigo, who had been in the Spanish service, but came over to throw in his fortunes with us, urged Clark to move at once on Vincennes. It seemed to him rash, but Father Gibault showed how it could be taken. He went on himself with Dr. Lefont, won every French hamlet to the cause, and conciliated the Indians wherever he could reach them. Vigo, on a similar excursion, was captured by British Indians and carried a prisoner to Hamilton, the English commander at Vincennes, but that officer felt that he could not detain a Spanish subject, and was compelled by the French to release him. When Clark, in February, appeared with his half-starved men, including Captain Charlevoix’s company of Kaskaskia Catholics, before Vincennes, and demanded its surrender with as bold a front as though he had ten thousand men at his back, the English wavered, and one resolute attack compelled them to surrender at discretion. What is now Indiana and Illinois, Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, was won to the United States. To hold it and supply the Indians required means. Clark issued paper money in the name of Virginia, and the patriotic Colonel Vigo and Father Gibault exhausted all their resources to redeem this paper and maintain its credit, although the hope of their ever being repaid for their sacrifice was slight, and, slight as it might have been, was never realized. Their generous sacrifice enabled Clark to retain his conquest, as the spontaneous adhesion of his allies to the cause had enabled him to effect it. The securing of the old French posts Vincennes, Fort Chartres, and others in the West which the English had occupied, together with the friendship of the French population, secured all the Indians in that part, and relieved the frontiers of half their danger. Well does Judge Law remark: “Next to Clark and Vigo, the United States are more indebted to Father Gibault for the accession of the States comprised in what was the original Northwestern Territory than to any other man.”

Those Western Catholics did good service in many an expedition, and in 1780 La Balm, with a force raised in the Illinois settlements and Vincennes, undertook to capture Detroit, the headquarters of the English atrocities. He perished with nearly all his little Catholic force where Fort Wayne stands, leaving many a family in mourning.

The first bugle-blast of America for battle in the name of freedom seemed to wake a response in many Catholic hearts in Europe. Officers came over from France to offer their swords, the experience they had acquired, and the training they had developed in the campaigns of the great commanders of the time. Among the names are several that have the ring of the old Irish brigade. Dugan, Arundel, De Saint Aulaire, Vibert, Col. Dubois, De Kermorvan, Lieut.-Col. de Franchessen, Saint Martin, Vermonet, Dorré, Pelissier, Malmady, Mauduit, Rochefermoy, De la Neuville, Armand, Fleury, Conway, Lafayette, Du Portail, Gouvion, Du Coudray, Pulaski, Roger, Dorset, Gimat, Brice, and others, rendered signal service, especially as engineers and chiefs of staff, where skill and military knowledge were most required. Around Lafayette popular enthusiasm gathered, but he was not alone. Numbers of these Catholic officers served gallantly at various points during the war, aiding materially in laying out works and planning operations, as well as by gallantly doing their duty in the field, sharing gayly the sufferings and privations of the men of ’76.

Some who came to serve in the ranks or as officers rendered other service to the country. Ædanus Burke, of Galway, a pupil of Saint Omer’s, like the Carrolls, came out to serve as a soldier, represented South Carolina in the Continental Congress, and was for some time chief-justice of his adopted State. P. S. Duponceau, who came over as aide to Baron Steuben in 1777, became the founder of American ethnology and linguistics. His labors in law, science, and American history will not soon be forgotten.

Meanwhile, Catholics were swelling the ranks, and, like Moylan, rising to fame and position. The American navy had her first commodore in the Catholic Barry, who had kept the flag waving undimmed on the seas from 1776, and in 1781 engaged and took the two English vessels, Atlanta and Trepassay; and on other occasions handled his majesty’s vessels so roughly that General Howe endeavored to win him by offers of money and high naval rank to desert the cause. Besides Catholics born, who served in army or navy, in legislative or executive, there were also men who took part in the great struggle whose closing years found them humble and devoted adherents of the Catholic Church. Prominent among these was Thomas Sims Lee, Governor of Maryland from 1779 to the close of the war. He did much to contribute to the glorious result, represented his State in the later Continental Congress and in the Constitutional Convention, as Daniel Carroll, brother of the archbishop, also did. Governor Lee, after becoming a Catholic, was reelected governor, and lived to an honored old age. Daniel Barber, who bore his musket in the Connecticut line, became a Catholic, and his son, daughter-in-law, and their children all devoted themselves to a religious life, a family of predilection.

In Europe the Catholic states, France and Spain, watched the progress of American affairs with deepest interest. At the very outset Vergennes, the able minister of France, sent an agent to study the people and report the state of affairs. The clear-headed statesmen saw that America would become independent. In May, 1776, Louis XVI.. announced to the Catholic monarch that he intended to send indirectly two hundred thousand dollars. The King of Spain sent a similar sum to Paris. This solid aid, the first sinews of war from these two Catholic sovereigns, was but an earnest of good-will. In France the sentiment in favor of the American cause overbore the cautious policy of the king, the amiable Louis XVI.. He granted the aid already mentioned, and induced the King of Spain to join in the act; he permitted officers to leave France in order to join the American armies; he encouraged commerce with the revolting colonies by exempting from duties the ships which bore across the ocean the various goods needed by the army and the people. The enthusiasm excited by Lafayette, who first heard of the American cause from the lips of an English prince, soon broke down all the walls of caution. An arrangement was made by which material of war from the government armories and arsenals was sent out, nominally from a mercantile house. A year after the Declaration of Independence, France, which had opened her ports to American privateers and courteously avoided all English complaints, resolved to take a decisive step—not only to acknowledge the independence of the United States, but to support it. Marie Antoinette sympathized deeply with this country, and won the king to give his full support to our cause. On the 6th of February, 1778, Catholic France signed the treaty with the United States, and thus a great power in Europe set the example to others in recognizing us as one of the nations of the earth. America had a Catholic godmother. Amid the miseries of Valley Forge Washington issued a general order: “It having pleased the Almighty Ruler of the universe to defend the cause of the United American States, and finally to raise us up a powerful friend among the princes of the earth, to establish our liberty and independence upon a lasting foundation, it becomes us to set apart a day for gratefully acknowledging the divine goodness and celebrating the important event, which we owe to his divine interposition.” France now openly took part in the war, and in July, 1778, a French fleet under d’Estaing appeared on our coasts, neutralizing the advantage which England had over us by her naval superiority. The ocean was no longer hers to send her army from point to point on the coast. This fleet engaged Lord Howe near Newport, and co-operated with Sullivan in operations against the English in Rhode Island. After cruising in the West Indies it again reappeared on our coast to join Lincoln in a brave but unsuccessful attack on Savannah, in which fell the gallant Pulaski, who some years before had asked the blessing of the pope’s nuncio on himself and his gallant force in the sanctuary of Our Lady of Czenstochowa, before his long defence of that convent fortress against overwhelming Russian forces.

In July, 1780, another fleet, commanded by the Chevalier de Ternay, entered the harbor of Newport, bringing a French army commanded by an experienced general, John Baptiste de Vimeur, Count de Rochambeau. An army of Catholics with Catholic chaplains, observing the glorious ritual of the church with all solemnity, was hailed with joy in New England. The discipline of that army, the courteous manners of officers and privates, won all hearts. What that army effected is too well known to be chronicled here in detail. When Lafayette had cornered Cornwallis in Yorktown, Washington and Rochambeau marched down, the fleet of the Count de Grasse defeated Admiral Graves off the capes of Virginia, and, transporting the allied armies down, joined with them in compelling Cornwallis to surrender his whole force; and old Saint Joseph’s Church, in Philadelphia, soon rang with the grand Te Deum chanted in thanksgiving at a Mass offered up in presence of the victorious generals.

None question the aid given us by Catholic France. Several who came as volunteers, or in the army or fleet, remained in the United States. One officer who had served nobly in the field laid aside his sword and returned to labor during the rest of his life for the well-being of America as a devoted Catholic priest.

But France was not the only Catholic friend of our cause. Spain had, as we have seen, at an early period in the war, sent a liberal gift of money. She opened her ports to our privateers, and refused to give up Captain Lee, of Marblehead, whom England demanded. She went further; for when intelligence came of the Declaration of Independence, she gave him supplies and repaired his ship. She subsequently sent cargoes of supplies to us from Bilbao, and put at the disposal of the United States ammunition and supplies at New Orleans. When an American envoy reached Madrid, she sent blankets for ten regiments and made a gift of $150,000 through our representative. When the gallant young Count Bernardo de Galvez, whose name is commemorated in Galveston, was made governor of Louisiana, he at once tendered his services to us; he forwarded promptly the clothing and military stores in New Orleans; and when the English seized an American schooner on the Louisiana lakes, he confiscated all English vessels in reprisal.

Spain had not formally recognized the United States. She offered her mediation to George III., and on its refusal by that monarch, for that and other causes she declared war against England. Galvez moved at once. He besieged the English at Baton Rouge, and, after a long and stubborn resistance, compelled it to surrender in September, 1780; he swept the waters of English vessels, and then, with the co-operation of a Spanish fleet under Admiral Solano and de Monteil, laid siege to the ancient town of Pensacola. The forts were held by garrisons of English troops, Hessians, and northern Tories, well supplied and ready to meet the arms of the Catholic king. The resistance of the British governor, Campbell, was stout and brave; but Pensacola fell, and British power on our southern frontier was crushed, and neutralized. Spain gave one of the greatest blows to England in the war, next in importance to the overthrow of Burgoyne and Cornwallis.

On the Northwest, too, where English influence over the Indians was so detrimental, Spain checked it by the reduction of English posts that had been the centre of the operations of the savage foe. America was not slow in showing her sense of gratitude to Catholic Spain. Robert Morris wrote to Galvez: “I am directed by the United States to express to your excellency the grateful sense they entertain of your early efforts in their favor. Those generous efforts gave them so favorable an impression of your character and that of your nation that they have not ceased to wish for a more intimate connection with your country.” Galvez made the connection more intimate by marrying a lady of New Orleans, who in time presided in Mexico as wife of the Viceroy of New Spain.

But it was not only by the operations on land that the country of Isabella the Catholic aided our cause. Before she declared war against England, her navy had been increased and equipped, so that her fleets co-operated ably with those of France in checking English power and lowering English supremacy on the ocean.

Yet a greater service than that of brave men on land or sea was rendered by her diplomacy. Russia had been almost won by England; her fleet was expected to give its aid to the British navy in reasserting her old position; but Spain, while still neutral, proposed an armed neutrality, and urged it with such skill and address that she detached Russia from England, and arrayed her virtually as an opponent where she had been counted upon with all certainty as an ally. Spain really thus banded all Continental Europe against England, and then, by declaring war herself, led Holland to join us openly.

Nor were France and Spain our only Catholic friends. The Abbé Niccoli, minister of Tuscany at the court of France, was a zealous abettor of the cause of America. In Germany the Hessians, sent over here to do the work of English oppression, were all raised in Protestant states, while history records the fact that the Catholic princes of the empire discouraged the disgraceful raising of German troops to be used in crushing a free people; and this remonstrance and opposition of the Catholic princes put a stop to the German aid which had been rendered to our opponent.

Never was there such harmonious Catholic action as that in favor of American independence a hundred years ago. The Catholics in the country were all Whigs; the Catholics of Canada were favorable, ready to become our fellow-citizens; France and Spain aided our cause with money and supplies, by taking part in the war, and by making a Continental combination against England; Catholic Italy and Catholic Germany exerted themselves in our favor. Catholics did their duty in the legislature and in the council-hall, in the army and in the navy; Catholics held for us our northeastern frontier, and gave us the Northwest; Catholic officers helped to raise our armies to the grade of European science; a Catholic commander made our navy triumph on the sea. Catholic France helped to weaken the English at Newport, Savannah, and Charleston; crippled England’s naval power in the West Indies, and off the capes of Virginia utterly defeated them; then with her army aided Washington to strike the crowning blow at Cornwallis in Yorktown. Catholic Spain aided us on the western frontier by capturing British posts, and under Galvez reduced the British and Tories at Baton Rouge and Pensacola. And, on the other hand, there is no Catholic’s name in all the lists of Tories.

Washington uttered no words of flattery, no mere commonplaces of courtesy, but what he felt and knew to be the truth, when, in reply to the Catholic address, he said: “I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution and the establishment of their government, or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.”

– text from The Catholic World, 1876