The Revolutionary War was fought on a global scale, with six nation states engaged in battles across three continents and two oceans. Volunteers from many European nations came to the United States to fight alongside the American insurgents: Antoine Félix Wuibert and the Marquis de Lafayette from France, Jordi Farragut from Spain and Thaddeus Kosciuszko from Poland, to name but a few. By contrast, only a handful of Americans fought under foreign flags against the British enemy: the merchant Oliver Pollock, who was aide-de-camp for Bernardo de Gálvez during his Southern campaigns 1779-1781; Alexander Gillon of the South Carolina Navy, who in 1782 served in a Spanish force that captured Nassau in the Bahamas; and Lewis Littlepage, a Virginian in the household of John Jay in Madrid, while Jay was vainly attempting to forge a formal alliance between the United States and Spain. During his sojourn in Spain, Littlepage served under the Spanish flag in two land assaults in Minorca and Gibraltar, and in one naval battle at Cape Spartel, pitting French and Spanish forces against Britain. By all accounts he acquitted himself well, before beginning a new career as a diplomat for the Polish crown to European courts.
Lewis Littlepage was born near Richmond, Virginia, on December 19, 1762 to Elizabeth Lewis Littlepage and James Littlepage. His place of birth is variously recorded as Hanover County or New Kent County. His father died when Lewis was just four years old, leaving Elizabeth’s brother as guardian for her two children. Eight years later Elizabeth married Lewis Holladay, the man she had originally hired as her farm overseer, with whom she had two more children. Lewis Littlepage had a happy childhood, and at age sixteen attended William and Mary College in Williamsburg, where he studied the classics. This was the year 1778, when the War of American Independence was still being fought mostly in the northern states. Within a few months that all changed, as the British brought the fight to the Chesapeake Bay with a raiding party led by George Collier and Edward Mathew in May 1779. Littlepage was among the William and Mary students who fought against the British troops before they withdrew to New York. This apparently gave the otherwise studious Littlepage his taste for grand adventure, for in January 1780—having just turned seventeen years old—he was on a ship bound for Europe to experience the war at first hand.
Littlepage’s family had secured his passage aboard one of the merchant ships carrying tobacco from Virginia to France in order to pay for arms and munitions that French merchants had obtained for the insurgents. At the same time, some influential friends of the family also persuaded John Jay, who had just been appointed by the Congress to travel to Spain to seek an alliance, to receive Littlepage as a paying guest and take him under his wing during his diplomatic overtures. Jay arrived in Spain in January 1780 with his secretary William Carmichael, where they began an ultimately unsuccessful bid for Spanish recognition of the nascent United States of America. Littlepage debarked in Nantes, France a few weeks later, where he took rooms at a boarding house. One of his neighbors, the Massachusetts businessman (and chronicler of the Revolution) Elkanah Watson was suitably impressed with the teenager, describing him as “of a fine manly figure, with a dark, penetrating black eye, and a physiognomy peculiar and striking . . . [and] esteemed a prodigy of genius.”
Littlepage’s genius was apparently limited to academia, for when he finally arrived in John Jay’s household in Madrid in October 1780, he became singularly foolhardy in his dealings with his esteemed guardian. Jay assumed he was grooming an up-and-coming lawyer like himself, and that his expenses for this training would be adequately reimbursed. Littlepage instead saw this arrangement as carte blanche to achieve personal glory and spent Jay’s money quite freely without any arrangements for repayment. This resulted in a very public back-and-forth battle of pamphlets, printed after the end of the war, in which each party slandered the other’s deeds and reputation.
While Littlepage was still a student at William and Mary, France and Spain had signed the “Treaty of Defense and Offensive Alliance against England” at the Spanish palace of Aranjuez on April 12, 1779. This military alliance joined the French and Spanish navies in a series of operations against the vaunted British navy. Their first mutual effort that summer, a combined armada to invade Britain, failed because of lack of coordination and a massive outbreak of dysentery aboard the ships. By 1781 the disease had dissipated, and the two navies began working efficiently together, a sort of NATO before NATO. That year, two major joint operations were planned. The first was a successful combined assault on Pensacola, which drove the British from West Florida in May. The second was the recovery of the Mediterranean island of Minorca, which had been transferred from Spanish to British rule after the Seven Years’ War.
In the early summer of 1781, the combined assault fleet was gathered in Cádiz, Spain. The naval forces were commanded by the French Lieutenant-General of the Navy (roughly equivalent to vice admiral) Luc Urbain Du Bouëxic, comte de Guichen, and by the Spanish Captain-General (admiral equivalent) Luis de Córdova y Córdova, both of whom had learned hard lessons on joint operations from the failed attempt to invade Britain. Commanding the ground forces would be Louis des Balbes de Berton, Duc de Crillon. Crillon was an ideal choice to lead a joint campaign; he had been a French lieutenant-general in the first part of the Seven Years’ War, before transferring in 1762 with the same rank into Spanish service.
Littlepage had followed these preparations with great interest, and against Jay’s express wishes he petitioned the Duc de Crillon to volunteer as an aide-de-camp. On June 19, 1781 King Carlos III granted permission for “Don Luis Litelpage, distinguished young man from the American Provinces who is here to learn the language and to study,” permission to join the Minorca campaign. William Carmichael was as surprised as John Jay by this, for as he noted several days later to Benjamin Franklin, “[Littlepage’s] application to serve was particularly agreeable & he was received when many volunteers of rank who offered were refused.” Littlepage was placed on Crillon’s staff under the direct supervision of Capitán-General (roughly-five star) Miguel de la Grúa Talamanca Branciforte. On July 21 the massive flotilla began departing the Bay of Cádiz, fifty-eight ships of the line and seventy-five transports carrying 8,000 troops. Britain’s navy was at that time spread across the English Channel, the North Sea, New York, the West Indies and the East Indies; they had no more ships left to confront such a massive fleet, or to reinforce the British garrison on Minorca.
The combined Spanish-French force landed near the capital of Mahón on August 20. The British troops retreated to the citadel of Fort San Felipe, where according to Littlepage, they were “very liberal of their powder,” with almost 500 cannon and 2,400 troops to man them. Crillon established a blockade of the city and citadel, while further Spanish and French reinforcements arrived in October. He now had 14,000 men to occupy the entire island and lay siege to San Felipe, whose garrison endured months of almost constant bombardment while succumbing to diseases like scurvy. When the British finally hoisted a white flag in February 1782, only 600 men were fit enough to walk out unaided. The victors were appalled by the near-skeletons they had to carry out of the citadel and nurse back to health; the vanquished boasted that their captors could take little credit for seizing a hospital. Littlepage, who left few records of his battle experiences (but sent many letters to Jay asking for more funds), returned to Madrid in April 1782. A few days later, John Jay departed Madrid to join Benjamin Franklin in Paris, since he had not succeeded in convincing the Spanish court to formally ally with the Americans. William Carmichael was now head of the delegation.
With the fall of Minorca, the only British stronghold left in the Mediterranean was Gibraltar. Britain had captured the Spanish promontory in August 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession, and ever since then, Spain had been trying to recover it. After Spain and France had joined forces in 1779 and carried the war to Britain, the Spanish also laid siege to Gibraltar in an attempt to starve the inhabitants out. Britain had managed to break the naval blockade and resupply the garrison several times, allowing them to hold out. Now the Spanish and French turned their attention to concluding the three-year-long blockade and siege. The fall of Minorca had freed up many thousands of Spanish and French troops to join the siege of Gibraltar and prepare for a grand assault to break the backs of the British occupiers, once and for all. In June 1782, the Duc de Crillon was back in Madrid to accept his commission and receive his orders to lead the assault against Gibraltar.
The concept for the assault decided in Madrid was simple if also far-sighted: since the most vulnerable part of the Gibraltar fortification was its western side, facing the Bay of Algeciras, the Spanish would build and deploy a series of armored floating batteries to pummel the British defenses and open up a breach for an amphibious assault to follow. These batteries were warship hulks, built with reinforced roofs to shield against British gunfire. In a clever innovation to guard against the well-known use of red-hot shot (cannon balls which had been heated in a furnace prior to firing), the batteries were fitted with pump-fed seawater pipes which ran the length of each ship to continually wet down the wooden structures, in order to prevent them from catching fire.
Even while in Minorca, Littlepage had known that an assault upon Gibraltar was next and he was eager to participate in it; as he said to Jay on March 25, 1782, “I must own my military Quixotism is not yet abated, and I could wish to assist at the Gibraltar business.” He once again petitioned Crillon to join his entourage as aide-de-camp, and once again Carlos III granted his wish, this time with Carmichael’s blessing. In June 1782, “Luis Litlpese,” as the Spanish memoranda named him, arrived at Crillon’s headquarters, where preparations for the final assault began. As a member of Crillon’s fifty-man staff, Littlepage would have had his hands full with the planning necessary to bring the full force of the combined forces to bear on the British positions. By September 1782, over 35,000 Spanish and French troops and sailors surrounded Gibraltar, with the Spanish-French fleet of Córdova and Guichen moored across the bay in Algeciras. On Friday, September 13, 1782 at 7:00 a.m., the floating batteries were towed into a line opposite Gibraltar’s western fortifications. Littlepage was aboard Talla Piedra, armed with twenty-eight guns and 700 crew, primarily French, led by Karl Heinrich von Nassau-Siegen, Prince of Nassau. By 10:00 a.m. they had moored about a thousand yards out and began opening fire, while the British fired back from behind their fortified walls and tunnels. At first, neither side did much damage; the Spanish shot battered the walls but did not silence the guns, while the red-hot British artillery bounced off the sloping roofs of the floating batteries without setting anything ablaze. As it turned out later, Talla Piedra was the only one of all the batteries on which the sailors continued to pump water to moisten the structures throughout the fight.
As the afternoon wore on the battle began to turn against the Spanish floating batteries. Some began to catch fire as the seawater pipes ran dry, while their crews were unable to maneuver out of harm’s way. Great clouds of smoke covered the ships. Across the bay, Córdova, the senior naval commander, watched inertly, unwilling to bring his ships into battle—at first because he did not want to expose his highly flammable ships to the red-hot shot, then because the wind was wrong, then because it became too late to assist. By late afternoon the floating batteries had all but ceased fire, and at midnight, Córdova ordered the floating batteries to be burned so as not to fall into enemy hands. Littlepage noted that “The Talla Piedra burnt to the water’s edge and sunk about 1:00 in the morning of the 14th of September, after having lain upwards of fourteen hours under the fire of Gibraltar.” Nassau, Littlepage and the surviving crew made their way back to shore. At 5:00 a.m. the flames began reaching the powder magazines of the remaining batteries, and one by one they blew up, the eruptions lofting enormous mushroom clouds a thousand feet into the sky. The next day, almost a thousand bodies from the floating batteries began washing up on the Gibraltar shoreline. The Spanish bombardment had failed utterly, and there was no attempt at an amphibious assault. Despite months of careful planning, the actual operation was rushed and uncoordinated, and Britain held on to Gibraltar after the end of the war, as it does even today.
The assault was over, but the naval battles were not. On October 10 a British fleet under Richard Howe arrived at Gibraltar on the heels of a storm which decimated the blockading Spanish–French fleet. Howe resupplied the British garrison for what would turn out to be the last time, before setting sail back to Britain the following week. The Spanish and French gave chase, though their ships, without coppered-plated bottoms, were too slow to overtake Howe. The two fleets exchanged long-range fire most of the night. Littlepage, given permission by Crillon to board the seventy-gun San Rafael in the reserve squadron, had a commanding view of the battle from the quarterdeck and sketched the action for his commanding officer, later noting to Crillon that they “chased [the British] the entire night in battle formation” before Howe broke off and continued home. This exchange took place just a few miles off Cape Spartel in Morocco, within sight of Cape Trafalgar where French, Spanish and British fleets would meet again twenty-three years later in a battle that would rewrite world history.
Littlepage returned to Cádiz at the end of October. By then his reputation had preceded him. Soon after the end of the siege of Gibraltar, William Carmichael wrote to Robert R. Livingston, then U. S. Secretary of Foreign Affairs, “I cannot conclude, without mentioning that a Mr. Littlepage, from Virginia, has acquired reputation by his gallant conduct in the expedition against Mahon, where he served as Aid-de-camp to the Duc de Crillon, and since at Gibraltar, where he acted in the same capacity. The Prince de Nassau, with whom he served as a volunteer on board his floating battery, rendered public justice to his character at Court.” Within weeks Littlepage also found favor with the newly-arrived Marquis de Lafayette, who had come back from the Yorktown campaign the previous year and was helping prepare for the combined French-Spanish assault on Jamaica the following spring. Lafayette invited Littlepage to join this campaign, but by February 1783 the preliminary peace treaties had been signed and the campaign was called off.
Littlepage’s career after the end of the War of American Independence was filled with intrigue and adventure. After accompanying Lafayette to Paris, and the Prince of Nassau to Poland, he was invited by King Stanisław August Poniatowski to join the Polish court. Littlepage by then was deeply in debt to John Jay and others, and accepted the offer as perhaps the only way to stay solvent. He took a leave of absence in 1785 to settle his business affairs in Virginia, before moving back to Poland. On November 8, 1785 he dined at Mount Vernon with George Washington, who later wrote in his diary, “This Captn. Littlepage has been Aid de Camp to the Duke de Crillon—was at the Sieges of Fort St. Phillip (on the Island of Minorca) and Gibraltar; and is an extraordinary character.”
Lewis Littlepage spent the next fifteen years in service to the Polish crown, carrying out diplomatic missions to Russia and France. He finally returned to the United States in late 1801, but he was never able to use his extensive diplomatic experience in the further service of his country; just months after his return, on July 19, 1802, Lewis Littlepage died at age thirty-nine in Fredericksburg, Virginia, apparently after a long illness. Unmarried and without children, he was buried in the Masonic Cemetery in the city, where his grave is still visible today.
Much of this information is from two biographies of Littlepage: Curtis Caroll Davis, The King’s Chevalier: A Biography of Lewis Littlepage(Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1961); and a descendant of the subject’s family, Nell Holladay Boand, Lewis Littlepage(Richmond, VA: Whittet & Shepperson, 1970).
John Jay, Letters, being the whole of the correspondence between the Hon. John Jay, Esquire, and Mr. Lewis Littlepage. A young man whom Mr. Jay, when in Spain patronized and took into his family(New York: Francis Childs, 1786); Lewis Littlepage, Answer to a pamphlet, containing the correspondence between the Honorable John Jay, secretary for foreign affairs; and Lewis Littlepage, Esquire, of Virginia(New York: Francis Childs, 1786); Frank W. Brecher, Securing American independence: John Jay and the French alliance(Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003), 55-56;Chris R. Pullen, The talented Mr. Littlepage & The Spirit of ’76: An American character study, Master’s Thesis, Harrisonburg, VA: James Madison University, 2010 p. 5.
William Carmichael to Benjamin Franklin from, Madrid, June 26, 1781, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-35-02-0144#BNFN-01-35-02-0144-fn-0004-ptr.
Siege of Gibraltar: Watson, Men and Times of the Revolution, 132-133; Davis, The King’s Chevalier, 60-72; Ferreiro, Brothers at Arms, 288-291; Sarah Travers Lewis Scott Anderson, Lewises, Meriwethers, and their kin: Lewises and Meriwethers with their tracings through the families whose records are herein contained(Richmond, VA: Dietz Press, 1938), 386-387.
Battle of Cape Spartel: Davis, The King’s Chevalier, 72-73; José María Blanco Núñez, La Armada Española en la Segunda Mitad del Siglo XVIII (The Spanish Navy in the Second Half of the 18th Century)(Madrid: IZAR Construcciones Navales, 2004), 160-163.
William Carmichael to Robert R. Livingston. St. Ildefonso, September 29, 1782, in Jared Sparks, The diplomatic correspondence of the American Revolution(Washington, DC: J.C. Rives, 1857), 5: 102; Davis, The King’s Chevalier, 74-75.
Boand, Lewis Littlepage, 52-91; The Diaries of George Washington, November 1785, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-04-02-0002-0011.
Grave No.183, Masonic Cemetery, Corner of Charles St. and George St., Fredericksburg, VA, www.findagrave.com/memorial/5004843/lewis-littlepage.