A few weeks ago, in Episode 240, I briefly touched on a military campaign that took place in what is today Nicaragua between the British Navy and Spanish forces there along the San Juan River. I want to dig a little deeper this week into what became known as the San Juan Expedition.
Plan of Attack
After Spain entered the war in 1779, many British military leaders saw it as a new opportunity to take more colonies. Spain had been relatively unprepared to defend its massive land holdings in the Americas during the Seven Years War, and consequently ended up having to cede territories to the British. Spain had been reluctant to enter this new war for the same reason. With Spain’s entry, British leaders once again looked for weak spots in the Spanish Empire, to make part of the British Empire.
|Horatio Nelson, 1781
Outside of its North American colonies in what is today the US and Canada, Britain’s only other claim on the continent was a tiny outpost at British Honduras. Britain looked at the opportunity to gain more territory, or perhaps also use a few victories in the middle of New Spain in order to encourage Spain to drop out of the war entirely. Britain’s first offensive, to capture Spanish-controlled New Orleans, failed after the Spanish commander Bernardo de Galvez, learned of British plans, and instead preempted the attack with an attack of his own on British outposts in West Florida (see Episode 229).
With the advance on New Orleans at a stalemate, Secretary of State for American Affairs, Lord Germain, considered other weak points in Spanish outposts. The San Juan River in present-day Nicaragua was a crucial piece of territory in the center of Spain’s American empire. The area provided an overland passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, making use of inland lakes and rivers to carry portage most of the way between the two coasts. A successful attack would capture this valuable portage and would also split the Spanish Empire in America in two.
British military planners suggested building a series of British forts in the region which could be used as a launching point for further raids into Spanish territories.
Germain reviewed plans suggested by General Sir John Dalling, Governor of Jamaica. In addition to being governor, Dalling was a major general. He had served under General Wolf in the capture of Quebec during the French and Indian War. Near the end of the war, Dalling found himself stationed in Jamaica, where he held a series of government positions, eventually receiving appointment as governor in 1777. Dalling was, by this time, an experienced officer and politician with family connections among the aristocracy of Britain, but with no title of his own.
Traditionally Spain had made much of its wealth in the new world by compelling locals to work mines where they pulled out tons of gold and silver for their Spanish masters. Britain frequently profited by looting Spanish treasure ships headed across the Atlantic.
In 1779, Dalling continued this tradition with a raid on Omoa in the Bay of Honduras. There, forces under his command captured a Spanish treasure cache worth over $2 million. Dalling began researching resources in New Spain to find other potentially valuable targets.
He made the case in London that with a force of perhaps 1500 regulars, he could capture all of Central America for the British Crown. Much of his proposal involved recruiting slaves and local militia from the region to join the British cause. Since the Spanish treated the locals so terribly, he believed this was a real possibility.
Dalling outlined his plan to Germain, suggesting a force would land at the San Juan River and capture El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepción, a fort located near Lake Nicaragua. From there, his forces would capture the City of Granada on the other side of the lake and would then be able to control the entire region. Numerous inland waterways would allow the navy to send provisions to the army as it battled for control.
If the British succeeded, New Spain would be split. Britain could begin raiding to the north and south, taking towns along the Pacific coast, destabilize Spanish authority and foment rebellion among the local population.
Germain was cautiously intrigued by Dalling’s daring plans. The possibility of a British stab into the heart of Spain’s American possessions could lead to potential expansion of the empire, as well as neutralizing Spain as a threat in other parts of the world. Spain would either have to give up territory, or devote military resources that it would otherwise use elsewhere in the war with Britain.
In January 1780, Germain informed Dalling that he was sending 3000 soldiers to Jamaica, in part for better defense of the island against a potential French attack, but also to provide the forces for his attack on the Spanish coast.
Even before receiving Germain’s approval Dalling had sent a small expedition to the region to gain reconnaissance and connect with the locals. In late 1779, Dalling had deployed a force under the command of Major James Lawrie to occupy an area along the San Juan River. By November Lawrie had written back to Dalling, requesting more arms and ammunition, with which he hoped to arm local native tribes and what he called “trusty negroes” who would support the British.
Since this would require naval support, Dalling assigned the sixth-rate frigate Hinchingbrooke, to participate in the expedition. The Hinchingbrooke’s Captain Horatio Nelson, was only twenty-one years old but had been in naval service since the age of twelve. He had proven himself a capable officer. Nelson would command the naval force that escorted the troop carriers from Jamaica to the Mosquito Coast and the mouth of the San Juan River. Following the landing of the expeditionary force, Nelson was instructed to provide naval support and secure supply lines.
Gov. Dalling issued a proclamation in Jamaica, calling for local volunteers to join the expedition, promising “riches and honor” while performing an “essential service to their country.” Volunteers would be paid and fed as soldiers, but would also receive a share of any plunder taken. Joining the expedition would be British regulars including a number of regiments who had been sent to Jamaica from New York.
I’ve seen some accounts that the British expedition was as much as 3000 men. This seems to me to be inaccurately high. That may be the number of total troops sent over the course of the entire campaign. As best I can tell, there were between two and three hundred regulars from the 60th and 79th regiments. There was another group of perhaps several hundred from the Loyal Irish Corps. I believe this was a group of Irish loyalists raised around Boston in 1775, who had moved to New York with the army and then later got deployed to Jamaica. There were also perhaps 200-250 volunteers raised in Jamaica. They were described as a mix of foreigners, negroes and Indians, which I assume describes anyone who volunteered in Jamaica and who was either not white or not from the British Empire. These men were shipped aboard six or seven relatively small transport ships, escorted by the 28-gun Hinchingbrooke. In total, I’d estimate the expedition for this initial offensive was a bit under 1000 men.
I mentioned that Captain Nelson of the navy had responsibility for the fleet. The army officer in command of the expedition was Captain John Polson, who held the rank of major in America.
The expedition left Jamaica on February 3, 1780 with six months worth of provisions, traveling about 400 miles to the British-controlled island of Providence just off the coast of Nicaragua. From there, the fleet sailed to Cape Gracias a Dios off the Honduran coast. There, they planned to meet up with Major Lawrie, who had been tasked with raising a force of locals to join the expedition. From there, the fleet would sail down the coast to the San Juan River, and proceed up the river toward Spanish defenses.
When the fleet arrived at Cape Gracias a Dios, Major Lawrie was a no-show. They found only one officer who informed Major Polson that Lawrie was still inland trying to raise more recruits. Rather than proceed without the local reinforcements, and not wanting to keep the men aboard ship where they would only grow sick, the expedition set up camp along the shore, and began their own efforts to recruit warriors from local tribes to join the campaign. About a week later, Lawrie finally arrived with about 200 locals who were described as being in poor health. The expedition took another week before leaving on March 7 for the San Juan River.
It took them more than two weeks to reach their target, arriving on March 24. The army established a base at a coastal village known as Greytown. The offloading went poorly. Several overloaded boats capsized, leading to the loss of much-needed supplies. Also, one man drowned.
Major Polson led his force up the river. Captain Nelson accompanied the force. As the group advanced, Polson received word from Jamaica, that another 300 regulars and 300 volunteers would arrive soon under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Kemble, who would assume overall command.
Kemble, you may recall, was a New Jersey born Loyalist who had received a commission in the regular army before the war. The Continental Army camped on his family farm at Morristown. He was the brother-in-law of General Thomas Gage, the British commander when the war began. Kemble had been in command of British intelligence in New York before Major John Andre bought the position from him and took over. Kemble then shipped out for Jamaica with his regiment.
Fort San Juan
Major Polson pressed on, knowing that he would only receive the credit of any success he achieved before Kemble arrived and assumed command.
|El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepción
The British force continued on its way, reaching the castle the following day. The castle, under the command of Don Juan de Ayssa, had 14 foot high walls, twenty cannons, twelve swivel guns, and a garrison of about 150 defenders, less than half of whom were Spanish regulars. The garrison was on alert from the one Spaniard who had escaped the attack on the outpost. The defenders were prepared to defend against either a direct assault or a siege, and had already sent messengers for a relief force.
Because of the formidable defenses, Polson and Nelson opted for a siege of the castle. They only had small four-pound field canons which could not hope to penetrate the four foot thick stone walls of the castle, but could harass the garrison inside by firing from a nearby ridge. On April 13, the two sides settled into a siege.
The outnumbered Spanish defenders were no match for the British force. The British, however, soon fell victim to the most deadly enemy of the jungle: disease. Rain began to fall almost every day, making the unsheltered attackers miserable. Malaria, dysentery, and typhoid fever began to ravage the ranks.
The attackers began to run out of ammunition for their cannons as they had lost much of their ammunition in the accidents offloading their boats at the coast. They also began to run out of food. Nelson had been responsible for maintaining supply lines, but instead personally remained at the siege. Supply details trying to bring food from the fleet often got lost up tributaries.
The failure to keep up a regular rate of fire led the Spanish to attempt an attack on the British besiegers leading to a brutal hand to hand combat between Spanish machetes and British bayonets.
After 16 days, the Spanish garrison surrendered, having run out of water and ammunition. The British took control of the castle, renaming it Fort San Juan.
Matias de Galvez
The Spanish official tasked with contesting the British was Matias de Galvez, recently appointed Captain General of Guatemala, a vast territory containing what is today Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. Galvez, who had been an army officer for much of his life, was now in his early 60’s, and not particularly eager to take to the field. His son, Bernardo de Galvez had taken command at New Orleans and had contested with British forces in West Florida. The elder Galvez had only received his appointment as Captain General a few months before the British expedition landed, but he had served in the region for many years. When Galvez learned that the British had taken El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepcion, now Fort San Juan, he opted not to send a large force to retake the fort. Instead, he reinforced nearby Fort San Carlos near where the San Juan River meets Lake Nicaragua, to prevent further British advance.
Galvez had been focusing on the British incursion further north along the coast at San Fernando de Omoa, in present day Belize, where the British had also captured a small fort, which I discussed back in Episode 240. But Galvez never attempted to march more Spanish forces deep into the jungle to retake San Juan. Instead, he kept the British force there isolated, and allowed mother nature to do the dirty work for the Spanish.
Colonel Kemble Arrives
About two weeks after the British captured Fort San Juan, Colonel Kemble arrived with more British reinforcements. He had hoped to continue upriver to Lake Nicaragua. But when he arrived, he found the British garrison sick and dying. The fort was in disorder. There was not even a guard to challenge his force when they entered the fort. Many of the natives warriors who had joined the expedition were annoyed that they had not been allowed to plunder the fort. Having no desire to sit around with the rest of the sick and dying soldiers, almost all of them went home. For the remaining garrison, hunger, disease, and relentless rains took its toll.
Kemble spent a few more months at Fort San Juan, looking for other Spanish targets in the area, or another route to Lake Nicaragua other than using the river. The intelligence he gathered about Fort San Carlos convinced him that he could not take the fort without more reinforcements, and larger canons.
Kemble sent repeated requests back to Jamaica for more reinforcements. He received promises form Governor Dalling, but found only continued frustration as few of the promises were ever kept. As he waited, his garrison at Fort San Juan continued to be decimated by disease.
Meanwhile the British grew concerned that a French fleet might attempt to capture Jamaica. Governor Dalling ordered Kemble to prepare to abandon Fort San Juan and return to Jamaica. Near the end of the year, Kemble acted on orders from Dalling to blow up the fort and return with what remind of the expedition to Jamaica.
The Spanish forces occupied the ruins of the fort in January 1781 after the British had abandoned them. The survivors of the expedition had evacuated to the coast, and prepared to return to Jamaica, finally returning in February 1781.
The campaign had been devastating for the British. Of an estimated 1800 soldiers and 1000 sailors who had participated in the campaign, only 380 returned to Jamaica. Almost all of the men had succumbed to disease and other poor conditions in a hostile jungle.
From the view in London the expedition had been a reasonable gamble - hoping to take territory or force the enemy to expend resources to stop them. What British planners had not anticipated was the brutal rainy season and harsh jungle conditions that would ravage the expedition without the Spanish having to do much of anything. The result was the needless loss of about 2500 British soldiers and sailors.
Next week: we return to New York where General Lafayette returns and the Connecticut line at Morristown mutinies.
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Next Episode 246 Mutiny of the Connecticut Line (Available May 8, 2022)
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Kotlik, George “The British Invade Nicaragua: The San Juan Expedition” Journal of the American Revolution, September 22, 2020, https://allthingsliberty.com/2020/09/the-british-invade-nicaragua-the-san-juan-expedition
Gálvez, Matías De (1717–1784) https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/galvez-matias-de-1717-1784
(from archive.org unless noted)
Kemble, Stephen, The Kemble Papers, Vol. 2. New York Historical Society, 1884.
James, W. M. The Durable Monument: Horatio Nelson, London: Longmans, 1948 (borrow only).
Russell, William Clark Horatio Nelson and the Naval Supremacy of England, New York, G.P. Putnam's sons, 1890.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Knight, R. J. B The Pursuit of Victory: The life and achievement of Horatio Nelson, New York: Basic Books, 2005. (borrow on archive.org).
Needle, Jan Nelson: The Poisoned River (Nelson Chronicles Book 1), Lume books, 2015 (fictional account, ebook only).
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.