Battle of Reports – Gettysburg I

In the orders, issued less than a month before the Battle of Gettysburg, Adjultant General and Inspector General CS Army Samuel Cooper[1] required all officers to “confine their statements to the facts and events connected with the matter on which they report.” This included “sieges, campaigns or battles.” He emphasized further that: “No extraneous subject, whether of speculation or of collateral narrative, has a proper place in the official reports of military operations. As much conciseness as is consistent with perspicuity and fullness of statement, will be observed in such communications.”

Problems had come up earlier in the war over Confederate officers’ fulminations against other officers in their official reports. General Joseph E. Johnston returned one of Major General Gustavus W. Smith’s after-action reports during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 because it criticized Longstreet, and Longstreet tried to quash one of Major General Daniel H. Hill’s reports on the operations around Suffolk in the spring of 1863 for its intemperate language. Those earlier tiffs very likely helped provoke Cooper’s directive in June.

Years later, Dr. Hunter McGuire, Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s physician, elaborated on what constituted a good report in his opinion, as exemplified by Lee and Jackson: “Everyone has noticed how free from boasting and exaggeration are the reports of Jackson and Lee. They are simple, modest, unpresuming records of the facts as they knew them.” Lee could be sarcastic and disparaging face-to-face, but he exercised admirable restraint when it came to criticizing others in his military dispatches. He did not seem to think criticism in the official record served any useful purpose, and he often glossed over the failures of subordinates by striking any mention of them from his staff-prepared reports. His aide, Colonel Charles Marshall, who often prepared those reports, said, “Never in a public dispatch did the commanding General blame anyone under his command.” In the case of Lee’s two Gettysburg reports, Marshall wrote that the commanding general “struck from the original draft many statements which he thought might affect others injuriously, his sense of justice leading him to what many considered too great a degree of leniency.” Marshall declared that Lee’s official report was “substantially true, as far as it goes,” but added that, “it is not complete in many particulars which should be known to understand the campaign fully.”

Brigadier General Alfred Iverson

Thus did Lee repress any urge he might have felt to condemn one or more of his trusted lieutenants who let him down in Pennsylvania, starting at the top with Longstreet and Brigadier General James E. B. Stuart. Even Brigadier General Alfred Iverson, Jr.-who had badly mishandled his brigade on July 1, getting the majority slaughtered, turning the survivors over to Brigadier General Dodson Ramseur, and then trying to lie his way out of it all in his official report-was not singled out for censure. Iverson is significant because his blundering could well have been the difference between a brilliant Confederate triumph at Gettysburg on July 1 versus the heartbreaking defeat that ultimately transpired, and because he was the only officer at Gettysburg whose conduct caused Lee to relieve him of command. Lee was not hesitant about trying to court-martial Iverson and boot him out of the army, yet when it came time to write his reports, Lee passed over Iverson’s role in the defeat without saying a word.

Iverson offers a different study in Gettysburg after-action reports. On the first day of the battle, Iverson, as part of Major General Robert E. Rodes’s division, sent his brigade into action on Oak Ridge while he himself hung back. When the leaderless troops went astray and marched straight into a slaughter pen, Iverson went to pieces and abjectly turned over command of his brigade to Ramseur. Iverson tried to cover up his “misconduct” in two reports, in which he said among other things, that “General Rodes took upon himself the direction of the brigade”; that “the regiment promised me… did not report to me”; and that “I endeavored… to make [another] charge with my remaining regiment and the Third Alabama, but in the noise and excitement I presume my voice could not be heard.” None of this dissembling made any points with Lee, who relieved him of duty and wanted Iverson court-martialed but was prevented from doing so by Jefferson Davis’s intervention. In the meantime, he assigned him to provost marshal duty. As soon as possible he had Iverson reassigned to the cavalry and exiled him forever from the Army of Northern Virginia. Iverson thus became the only general officer to be punished for his performance at Gettysburg.


Armistead led his brigade from the front, waving his hat from the tip of his saber, and reached the stone wall at the “Angle”, which served as the charge’s objective. The brigade got farther in the charge than any other, an event sometimes known as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, but it was quickly overwhelmed by a Union counterattack. Armistead was shot three times just after crossing the wall. Union Captain Henry H. Bingham received Armistead’s personal effects and carried the news to Union Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, who was Armistead’s friend from before the war.

Pickett’s report.

Because we do not have Pickett’s own words, and because Lee’s terse Gettysburg reports are models of obfuscation and ambiguity, we are forced to try to reconstruct Pickett’s report from limited historical evidence-bits and pieces of information plus passing references and paraphrasing by those who claimed to have read the thing. There are two primary questions to be answered. First, what exactly did the report say? Second, whom did Pickett blame for the disaster of July 3? Each of these fundamental questions, however, raises a graduate exam’s worth of related questions.

As for what the report said, we can find hints of it in the comments of others. What quickly emerges is that everybody from the commanding general down agreed that “support”-or lack thereof-was the crucial issue. On the night of July 3, an exhausted Lee told Brigadier General John D. Imboden: “I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett’s division of Virginians did to-day in that grand charge upon the enemy. And if they had been supported as they were to have been-but, for some reason not yet fully explained to me, were not- we would have held the position and the day would have been ours.”

The same lament was heard from the officers of Pickett’s division. Peyton and Aylett, being Virginians and having the same perspective on the day’s events, provide strong clues to what would have been going through Pickett’s mind when he wrote his own report. Both of them expressed barely-contained anger, though they refrained from identifying any culprits in their plain vanilla reports. Peyton said the division was “unsupported on the right and left” by the time it reached the stone wall, implying criticism of the divisions of Brigadier General Henry Heth and Major General W. Dorsey Pender and of the two brigades under Wilcox, all of which were part of the assault formation from the beginning. Heth’s division, commanded by Pettigrew, and Pender’s division, commanded that day by Isaac Trimble, were both on Pickett’s left flank when they went into action. In Lee’s plan they were part of the main attack on the center of the Union lines, but in the eyes of the Virginians of Pickett’s division, they were no more than “support troops.” Wilcox’s two brigades on the right were aligned en echelon to Pickett’s division; their job was to cover that flank, so, by the military definition, they were definitely in a support role. The advance of Pettigrew’s, Trimble’s, and Wilcox’s troops was poorly coordinated with Pickett’s advance-a fact that was glaringly apparent to everyone on the Confederate side. In this light, Major Peyton’s statement could be interpreted as a criticism of all three officers and their troops.

Aylett’s remarks on the fight at the stone wall echoed Peyton’s: “No supports coming up, the position was untenable, and we were compelled to retire.” This implies that the blame rested with Longstreet, Anderson, or the troops back on Seminary Ridge, who did not “come up” at the critical time. Neither Peyton nor Aylett were trained professional officers who could be expected to make a distinction between “supports” and “reserves.” They probably regarded all troops who were not part of Pickett’s division as supports. So, although Peyton and Aylett provide some clues as to what Pickett might have thought in the days after the charge, the clues, like the language the two officers used in their reports, are too vague to give us much insight.

[1] Samuel Cooper (June 12, 1798 – December 3, 1876) was a career United States Army officer, serving during the Second Seminole War and the Mexican-American War. Although little-known today, Cooper was also the highest-ranking Confederate general during the American Civil War. After the conflict, he remained in Virginia as a farmer.

Battle of Reports – Gettysburg II



Map of the third and final day during the Battle of Gettysburg.

There are, however, other trails to follow. Several Confederate officers who fought at Gettysburg, who knew Pickett well, and who were likely to be familiar with his report later talked about its contents. These included E. P. Alexander, Longstreet, and Colonel Taylor of Lee’s staff. Alexander, who commanded Longstreet’s artillery on July 3, said in his Military Memoirs that Pickett’s report “reflected unjustly upon the brigades of Hill’s corps [the divisions of Pender/Pettigrew and Heth Trimble] among which the break first occurred.” Alexander did not claim to have seen the report himself, but he wrote knowingly of its contents, and he was certainly well acquainted with everyone at both Longstreet’s and Lee’s headquarters who would have handled the report. Still, in the absence of direct observation, Alexander’s comments must be considered hearsay.

Longstreet, who was Pickett’s corps commander and, equally important, was as close to him as any man in the Army of Northern Virginia, could have cleared up the mystery easily in any of the several postwar accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg he wrote for publication. Unfortunately, he seems either to have been completely in the dark, or to have been covering for his old friend, when he wrote disingenuously in Battles and Leaders: “The only thing Pickett said of his charge was that he was distressed at the loss of his command. He thought he should have had two of his brigades that had been left in Virginia; with them he felt that he would have broken the line.” Like Alexander, Longstreet did not claim here to be quoting directly from the report. Even so, his description of Pickett’s sentiments hardly indicates anything so potentially destructive of good morale that Lee should have ordered the report suppressed.

Colonel Taylor, who received the report at army headquarters and passed it on to General Lee, is hardly more helpful than Alexander or Longstreet, but he does offer one vital clue about the document’s contents. In his Personal Reminiscences, Taylor wrote: “The report passed through my hands, but was not carefully perused. Not realizing then the extent to which we were making history, I took no note of the contents of the report; but the inference is clear from reading General Lee’s letter that General Pickett complained of the lack of support and charged it home to some one [emphasis added].”

Reading between the lines, we can infer that Pickett pinned the blame on a specific person (“some one”), not an entire unit, which seems to let Pettigrew’s North Carolinians, the most frequently mentioned villains, off the hook.

If Pickett’s report was indeed a personal attack on a fellow officer, that alone would have given the commanding general grounds to “suggest” that the report be rewritten. If we pursue Taylor’s lead by seeking an individual culprit in Pickett’s report, there are plenty of suspects among those who fell down in their duty that day. The list of suspects must begin with Longstreet, who exercised overall command of the assault, including the troops borrowed from A. P. Hill’s Third Corps. Lee told his First Corps commander that morning, “I am going to take them…on Cemetery Hill. I want you to take Pickett’s division and make the attack.” It was as clear as that. When Longstreet demurred, Lee insisted, causing his subordinate to lament later, “Lee should have put an officer in charge who had more confidence in his plan.” But Lee chose instead to rely on Longstreet’s professionalism and loyalty to do everything necessary to make the attack succeed. This was in keeping with Lee’s oft-demonstrated willingness to leave all arrangements up to his corps commanders, a fact which must have been known to Pickett from long experience.

When Pickett made his troop dispositions on the morning of July 3, it was under Longstreet’s watchful eye. It was also Longstreet who placed the artillery batteries in position, put Alexander in charge of the bombardment, and decided when and if the assault should be made. Pickett stood face to face with Longstreet just before moving his men forward. Longstreet had one further, crucial bit of responsibility during the assault-the authority to order forward the reserves after Pickett’s men had engaged the Federals on Cemetery Ridge. Unfortunately, none of this was written out in formal orders; the division of responsibilities was arrived at in discussions with Lee on the morning of July 3.

In the initial advance, Longstreet refused to commit the divisions of Major Generals John B. Hood and Lafayette McLaws, despite being “so ordered” by Lee. Then he refused to send reinforcements forward at the height of the charge, feeling it was “useless” and a further waste of men. The Comte de Paris described the situation in his early account: “Longstreet did not give to Pickett’s desperate attack the support of all the force placed at his disposal, and did not cause any diversion to be made in his favor by the two divisions under Hood and McLaws.”

The possibility of Longstreet being held culpable by Pickett is supported by something Lee told Colonel William Allen after the war: “The imperfect, halting way in which his corps commanders fought the battle gave victory finally to the foe.” If Pickett did in fact blame Longstreet, he would have received a lot of moral support in the years after the war from such prominent Longstreet bashers as Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early, Brigadier General William Nelson Pendleton, and J. William Jones, long-time secretary of the Southern Historical Society, all of whom pinned the blame for the failure at Gettysburg squarely on the First Corps commander.

Representative of their opinions are the words of Jones, written to the editor of the Richmond Dispatch in 1896. In the letter, he accused Longstreet of not making his attack “as ordered, with his whole corps, supported by A. P. Hill.” Instead, Longstreet sent Pickett forward “with a bare 14,000 men against Meade’s whole army while the rest of our army looked on.” These words reflected a long-running feud between Jones and Longstreet, but could they have been the same sentiments Pickett felt and perhaps expressed when he sat down to write his report? Perhaps. One of Pickett’s own colonels, Eppa Hunton of the 8th Virginia, harbored an even blunter version of the same view. “It seems clear,” he wrote, “that if Longstreet had supported Pickett by the rest of his corps… and by part of Hill’s corps… he would have penetrated and held the lines of Meade.” At least some of Pickett’s officers, it seems, thought the buck stopped with the First Corps commander.

While Pickett wrote no memoirs and remained aloof from the war of words between former comrades after Appomattox, he was not completely silent on the central event of his life. Fortunately for us, he expressed himself on the subject of the battle, although it was done, not for the general public, but for a more select and sympathetic audience. About a decade after the war, Pickett addressed a reunion of his division’s veterans in Richmond. In a speech long on oratorical flourishes and short on facts, he recounted a version of events the veterans must have loved:

We marched across one mile… into the jaws of death under fire from 200 pieces of Ordnance and upon the center of the foe… without support and without faltering. Oh grand but fatal day…. Had we been supported, had others followed to hold what we had gained at such heroic sacrifice then would our freedoms have been secured. If the views Pickett expressed on this occasion were the same as his feelings in the weeks after Gettysburg, then the principal objects of his wrath seem to have been the “supports” back on Seminary Ridge who failed to come forward at the critical time. This view certainly agrees with the accounts of Colonels Allan and Mayo and Major Timberlake: It was those behind Pickett’s men-not those on the flanks-who failed in their duty that day.

Fernando VI (1746–59), King of Spain

Portrait by Louis Michel Van Loo

The Franco-Spanish fleet commanded by Don Juan José Navarro drove off the British fleet under Thomas Mathews near Toulon in 1744.

Fernando VI (1746–59) ascended to the throne at the age of thirty-three, mature and well trained in the business of government. As the second son of Felipe V and his first wife María Luisa Gabriela of Savoy, Fernando was not first in line for the throne, but upon the premature death of his older brother Luis I in 1724, he became the heir, ahead of his half-brothers Carlos and Felipe. Historians often consider Fernando VI as the first “Spanish Bourbon,” not only because he was born in Madrid, but also because his government chose not to continue the reliance on France that had characterized the long reign of his father. Open to question is whether that was a useful strategy for Spain at the time.

In contrast with the active and warlike stance of Spain under his father and stepmother, Isabel Farnese, Fernando consciously chose the pursuit of peace as the best way to serve his people. He shared his father’s ability to recognize talent among the pool of potential advisers at court; he appointed a series of competent men to the highest posts in his government and let them do their jobs without royal meddling. The king set the tone and direction of his administration, but he felt no need to try to control every aspect of government.

Fernando’s wife Barbara of Braganza, the Portuguese ruling dynasty, set the tone for the cultured court life in Madrid and in the other palaces of the realm. Because both the king and queen had a passion for music, orchestral and vocal performances and multimedia spectacles occupied an important place in court entertainments. Domenico Scarlatti, the son of Alessandro Scarlatti, had served as the queen’s music tutor in Portugal and came to the Spanish court with his royal patroness. He spent the rest of his life serving the royal couple and writing hundreds of compositions for them. The queen also patronized Father Antonio Soler, a notable Spanish composer who studied with Scarlatti. To organize the elaborate spectacles and outings that defined the life at court, the royal couple hired Carlo Broschi, the famous castrato singer better known as Farinelli. As the court traveled from palace to palace on a regular annual round, taking advantage of the seasonal attractions in each venue, Farinelli made sure that they had sufficient amusements to distract them from the tedium of daily life and political responsibilities.

These distractions were of particular importance for the king, who lived under the same cloud of depression that had haunted his father. Also like his father, Fernando depended heavily on the loving support of his wife. In the arcane language that historians use to describe that dependence, he was uxorious, a characteristic often attributed to the Spanish Bourbon kings as a whole. When it became clear, after years of devoted marriage, that the royal couple would have no heir, both the king and queen felt the lack of children keenly. The lavish entertainments that they sponsored at court can be seen, at least in part, as an attempt to fill the emptiness in their lives.

Court culture included an affinity for the mathematical and scientific interests of the Jesuits as well as the early stirrings of the Spanish Enlightenment, most notably in the writings of the Benedictine monk Benito Feyjóo. Lamenting that Spain had fallen behind its European neighbors in intellectual pursuits, Feyjóo argued tirelessly for a new spirit of inquiry, particularly in the sciences. Although his writings met with strong criticism from traditionalists, Feyjóo enjoyed the steadfast support of the king.

Although Fernando sent his stepmother Isabel Farnese into retirement at the palace of La Granja, he did not entirely abandon her quest to recover territories in Italy lost in 1714. His half-brother Carlos had inherited the duchies of Parma and Piacenza in 1731, when the Farnese line died out. Carlos conquered Naples in 1735. That same year, the Habsburg emperor ceded the kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Sicily and Naples) to Spain, in exchange for Parma and Piacenza. Carlos reigned as king of the Two Sicilies from 1735 to 1759, and Fernando regained the duchies of Parma and Piacenza for his half-brother Felipe by allying with France in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–8).

Thereafter, Italy ceased to be the major focus of Spanish foreign policy, and the Bourbon “Family pact” with France no longer defined Spain’s relations with its European neighbors. The main proponent for this new posture was José de Carvajal y Lancaster, a Spaniard of Anglo-Portuguese origins on his mother’s side and one of the king’s foremost advisers on foreign affairs from 1746 to 1754. He held the posts of Secretary of State and president of the Junta de Comercio (Trade Committee), as well as serving as the head of the Council of the Indies. After the War of the Austrian Succession ended, Carvajal moved away from the pro-French policy of his precursors. Although England continued to pose the most serious threat to the Spanish Empire, Carvajal followed the Portuguese example by choosing cordiality rather than confrontation with England as the best way to protect Spain’s interests abroad.

The king and Carvajal also worked to end friction with Portugal regarding the borders between Spanish territories in South America and Portuguese Brazil. By the Treaty of Limits in 1750, Spain and Portugal agreed to a frontier that many Spaniards branded as too favorable to the Portuguese. In effect, the treaty abandoned considerable territory in Uruguay to Portugal, bordering on the missions that the Society of Jesus had established in Paraguay among the Guaraní people. Despite the crown’s support for missionary activities in the American empire, officials in Madrid faulted the Jesuits for managing their missions largely without regard to the crown’s interests and supervision. The dramatic story of Portuguese harassment of the Jesuit missions and their eventual dismantling serves as the basis for the 1986 film The Mission.

Predictably, the Jesuits were angry about the terms of the treaty, and many members of the Spanish elite agreed with them. Among their supporters, the Jesuits could count the marquis of La Ensenada, who had continued as a key adviser to the crown during the reign of Fernando VI. Like José Patiño before him, Ensenada held responsibility for numerous government ministries, dealing with finance above all, as well as war, the navy, and the Indies. The responsibilities of Ensenada and Carvajal overlapped at several points, and they disagreed about many aspects of Spanish policy, both in Europe and abroad. For example, Ensenada was pro-French, as well as pro-Jesuit, whereas Carvajal remained wary of both of those positions.

Conspiracies at court swirled around Ensenada in the aftermath of the Treaty of Limits, and he encountered royal displeasure for corresponding about its terms with King Carlos of Naples, Fernando VI’s half-brother. In 1754, Ensenada’s enemies brought about his fall from favor, an outcome that the English ambassador Benjamin Keene claimed as his doing. Even though Ensenada’s career ended in disgrace, he accomplished a great deal during his decade in power, including the negotiation of a new agreement with the Vatican: the Concordat of 1753. Settling a series of jurisdictional disputes between the papacy and the Spanish crown, the Concordat clarified and arguably increased the role of the crown in the religious life of Spain.

Perhaps the most important legacy of Ensenada’s tenure in office was his focus on the need to strengthen the Spanish economy and rebuild Spanish shipping capacity for both military and mercantile needs. Like his rival Carvajal, he thought the crown should play a major role in building up all the resources of the state, both human and material. With a growing population and a strong economy, Spain could defend its interests in Europe and abroad. The government inquiry called the “Catastro de la Ensenada” set out to survey the landed wealth of the kingdom, preparatory to instituting a single tax (“Única Contribución”) based on wealth. That inquiry, carried out by the system of intendants reinstalled in 1749, remains the most important source of information on the Spanish economy in the mid eighteenth century. Much as Ensenada had hoped, the Catastro suggested that both the population and the economy were indeed experiencing impressive growth. Tapping into that growth in the guise of tax reform met resistance, however, from the large landowners who would have paid most of the new tax. Faced with their resistance, the “Única Contribución” never came into effect.

Instead of general tax reform, Ensenada had to settle for piecemeal revisions of existing taxes. He also instituted other reforms that contributed to the goals of a stronger Spanish economy with an enhanced military capability. For example, he set up seed banks (pósitos) that helped poor farming families survive through lean times without depleting their seed for the next planting. As for the military, after years of preparatory work, in 1748 his office published a thoroughgoing new set of naval regulations for ship construction, manning, and general administration.

Key to Ensenada’s naval reform was the creation of three large naval districts, with headquarters at Ferrol on the north coast, Cartagena on the Mediterranean, and Cádiz on the southern coast west of Gibraltar on the Atlantic. Moreover, Ensenada was able to install a marine registry (matrícula), based on economic incentives, which his precursors had planned but had not implemented. With the registry in place, the government could ensure a steady supply of crewmen for the navy, based on a strengthened merchant marine, and without relying on coercion or violence to enlist them. With the support of the king, Ensenada had been able to secure huge resources for the navy, even with the country at peace, and new ship construction up to the early 1750s aimed to make Spain into a formidable naval power once again. Jorge Juan y Santacilia pioneered the new science of hydrography to study how ships moved through water, and Spain’s new warships took advantage of the best in modern design and the best materials available.

With both Carvajal and Ensenada out of power after 1754, government reforms lost their momentum in all spheres. Ricardo Wall, a mediocre bureaucrat of Irish ancestry, became the dominant adviser to the king. Although some historians consider him pro-English, he seems to have lacked any clear vision for the direction of Spanish foreign policy. Some of Ensenada’s appointees stayed on in the government, presumably with their pro-French and anti-English sentiments intact. In the growing rivalry between France and England, the neutrality that Wall and the king seemed to favor was not necessarily a bad choice. Even though England still posed the greatest threat to the empire, France had been an unsteady ally. Only through avoiding a renewal of warfare could Spain hope to concentrate on continued economic growth.

When warfare broke out in 1756, Fernando VI refused to participate, even though the stakes clearly included control of overseas territories. Most of Europe would know the conflict as the “Seven Years War,” whereas North American historiography would call it the “French and Indian War.” Spain would call it the “First Anglo-French Maritime War,” denoting both its major antagonists and its global character. In the fluid diplomatic climate of the times, the war featured a “diplomatic revolution,” in which France allied with Austria rather than Prussia, and England allied with Prussia rather than Austria. Although England wanted a Spanish alliance as well, Spain probably benefited from her neutrality in the short term, not least because the Spanish monarchy was in serious disarray in the late 1750s.

Queen Barbara of Braganza died in 1758, and her death afflicted the king beyond all reason. He soon sank into the same black depression that had claimed his father at the end of his life. By the time Fernando died in 1759, madness reigned. Both King Fernando and Queen Barbara are buried in the Convent of the Royal Salesians in Madrid, on the street that bears the queen’s name near the National Library.

Although his reign lasted only fourteen years, Fernando VI continued the Bourbon reform program, as well as the royal building program begun in his father’s reign. That was possible because the king appointed capable men loyal to the interests of the crown and of the Spanish state. Like other European monarchies at the time, Spain had developed an identity apart from that of its monarch, so that government business and the loyalty of the citizenry did not depend as heavily as they had in the past on the person of the king. That was fortunate, given the king’s battles against mental illness. Despite those battles, however, Fernando worked hard to be an enlightened king to his people and to keep Spain out of the wars that dominated the mid eighteenth century and drained his neighbors’ treasuries. That was a difficult posture to maintain, however, because Spain was a second-rank European power with a first-rank global empire, viewed by its rivals and allies alike as an attractive prize.

Carlos III’s Reign

Portrait by Anton Raphael Mengs, c. 1761

Though Fernando VI’s reign saw the end of French tutelage, the latest intellectual currents from France and elsewhere circulated among the Spanish elite and characterized Spain’s version of the Enlightenment. Spain adopted the enlightened passion for scientific investigation, governmental reform, and social justice that affected much of the rest of Europe. However, Spanish intellectuals rejected the anti-religious and anti-Spanish stance that marked the writings of Voltaire and others. These characteristics of the Spanish Enlightenment would continue into the reign of Fernando’s successor, though Spain’s foreign policy would change dramatically.

Fernando’s half-brother Carlos had spent all of his adult life in Italy, first as duke of Parma and Piacenza (1731–5) and then as king of the Two Sicilies (1735–59). Nonetheless, it had been obvious for some time that he was the most likely successor to the Spanish throne, given that Fernando VI and Barbara of Braganza had no children. Carlos and his queen, María Amalia of Saxony, whom he married in 1738, left Naples for Madrid with mixed feelings. The kingdom of the Two Sicilies boasted a huge and elegant capital city, a strong economy, and a manageable size. The Spanish capital at Madrid was presumably much less attractive – even though Carlos had been born and raised there – and carried with it the burdens of a global empire.

Groomed to be a ruler by his father Felipe V and his mother Isabel Farnese, Carlos had received an excellent education and knew Spain well because of the wide travels of his parents’ court. He remained in close touch with the Spanish court after he moved to Italy, and he presumably did not agree with the neutral foreign policy that Fernando and his advisers pursued. From Carlos’s point of view, England was the enemy. Quite apart from England’s continued possession of Gibraltar and the island of Menorca, English forces posed the greatest threat to Bourbon interests in the Mediterranean and to Spanish interests in the Americas. When he left Naples to take up the crown of Spain in 1759 as Carlos III, he moved Spain away from neutrality and toward an active foreign policy aimed at thwarting English ambitions.

The world war that began in 1756 had seen Spain on the sidelines, anxious to avoid taking part. In 1761, however, Carlos’s government signed a third so-called “Family Pact” of alliance with Bourbon France and entered the fray, in what Spaniards would call the First Maritime War against England. The timing could not have been worse. After more than a decade of relative inactivity, Spanish naval forces were not prepared to confront the English. They failed to regain Gibraltar at home and lost Havana and Manila overseas, two of the key ports of Spain’s global empire. However, in the complicated negotiations that ended the war in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris, Spain regained Manila and Havana and gained Louisiana from France, while losing the colony of Sacramento in Uruguay to Portugal and Florida to England. The settlement of the war saw France defeated and left England in effective control of the eastern part of North America, but Spain’s American empire remained largely intact. Analysts at the time and thereafter credited that outcome less to Spanish diplomatic efforts than to the bungling of the English Foreign Minister and to general misgivings about England’s power. Carlos of Spain certainly shared those misgivings and spent the rest of his reign working to blunt English power, especially in the Americas.

At home in Spain once again, Carlos would continue the personal style and policies that had made him revered in Italy, extending the enlightened reforms of Fernando VI in Spain. Carlos was devoted to his wife and family, and did not remarry after María Amalia’s premature death in 1760, just a year after they moved to Spain. Like many other monarchs, he was fond of hunting, both as exercise and to escape the formalities of court life. In his case, hunting also served a therapeutic purpose, helping to relieve the melancholy that ran in the family. The great Spanish artist Francisco Goya y Lucientes painted Carlos in a hunting pose early in his career, and it remains one of his most engaging portraits, with the king smiling shyly and guilelessly at the viewer. Despite the necessary trappings of monarchy, he seems to have been a man of modest and unpretentious demeanor, highly intelligent, pious, and hardworking.

Modern Spaniards continue to rank Carlos III as one of the best rulers that Spain has ever had – a king conscious of his power, but determined to use it to further the well-being of his subjects. Many historians agree with that assessment and consider him the most genuine and effective enlightened ruler in all of eighteenth-century Europe. When he took up the crown of Spain, Carlos announced to the president of the Council of Castile, “I want to apply the law so far as possible to favor the poor,” and in many other ways he exemplified the movement of enlightened reform sponsored by a powerful monarchy. At the same time, the king’s conservative habits and sincere piety helped to deflect criticism from Spaniards who feared reform as detrimental to their interests.

Among his other virtues, Carlos III was an excellent judge of character. He chose his ministers for their ability rather than their lineage or political connections, though several of his best appointees came from distinguished families. He brought the marquis of La Ensenada, who had already served the first two Spanish Bourbons, back into royal service. He retained Ricardo Wall as Secretary of State (1759–63), even as he shifted Spain’s foreign policy away from Wall’s pro-English stance. He also fostered the careers of a number of men who distinguished themselves in the various branches of government. An astute diplomat, the count of Aranda (Pedro Pablo Abarca de Bolea) became the architect of Spain’s newly active foreign policy. The count of Campomanes (Pedro Rodríguez Campomanes) specialized in economic policy, tackling the difficult issue of agrarian reform. Perhaps the greatest among them, the count of Floridablanca (José Moñino) shaped overall domestic policy during the last half of the reign.

Carlos III and his ministers aimed at a thorough overhaul of Spain’s economic structures, in order to foster a growth in production and trade that would support the rising population. All over Europe, the eighteenth century saw an increase in the number of inhabitants, both rural and urban, and every state faced the challenge of feeding them. To fail that challenge could easily lead to social unrest, as public officials well knew. The problem was particularly acute in Spain, where even now only one-third of the land is suitable for farming on a regular basis. The scarcity of arable land was one reason for the great importance of migratory herding in Spain. Since the Middle Ages, flocks of sheep totaling several million animals grazed on land unsuitable for agriculture, and shepherds moved them around seasonally, both to take advantage of optimal conditions for winter and summer forage and to lessen conflicts with farmers during the growing season.

Conflicts nonetheless arose and became particularly acute when population growth necessitated an expansion of cropland. At those times, notably in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the organization of flock owners known as the Mesta faced pressure from farmers and from the government to yield some of their traditional rights to grazing lands. Like other modern bureaucrats, Carlos III’s reform-minded ministers viewed agriculture as the basis for a prosperous economy and used government power to expand farming at the expense of herding. They viewed the traditional privileges of the Mesta, as well as the privileges of other corporate bodies, such as artisan guilds, as no more than obsolete impediments to economic growth. Government ministers were not alone in urging reforms and were joined by a wide swath of educated Spaniards well versed in the best new ideas. To encourage elite opinion in favor of the reform program, the government supported universities and philanthropic societies such as the Amigos del País (lit., friends of the country), a movement founded in the Basque country with enthusiastic groups of local reformers all over Spain. Like similar movements throughout enlightened Europe, the Amigos met to discuss the latest books about agriculture, commerce, science, and culture. With royal support, the Amigos also established schools for both boys and girls, with comprehensive curricula that included artisanal skills as well as standard academic subjects. A few of the societies also decided to admit women.

On balance, it is fair to say that the economic reforms had a salutary effect on the population as a whole, but they were not without cost. For example, whereas the government founded hospitals, schools, asylums, and almshouses all over the country, it also clamped down on vagrancy and begging, in effect restricting the movement and activities of thousands of impoverished citizens. In order to increase peasant landownership, the government attacked the Mesta and large landowners, and reforestation plans and irrigation schemes inevitably overruled traditional uses of Spain’s natural resources at the local level. In some of the most visible initiatives, the government brought in foreign artisans and businessmen to found factories for the production of luxury goods that were formerly imported. These included factories for fine glass at the palace of La Granja, and for porcelains at the palace of the Buen Retiro in Madrid; cotton velvet in Ávila, leather goods in Seville and Córdoba; and a variety of fine machinery, watches, optical instruments, and other items. Some of these efforts were profitable, others were not, and they went hand in hand with government efforts to restrict the power of traditional artisan guilds.

Not surprisingly, the reform program faced opposition from everyone affected adversely by these initiatives, not only the large flock owners of the Mesta and officials of guilds, but also ordinary people who relied on custom and traditional privileges to earn a living. Also in the economic sphere, the government sponsored savings banks and benefit societies to update traditional forms of savings and insurance. In order to pay for the array of new initiatives and reduce government debt, Carlos and his ministers organized the Bank of San Carlos, which sold bonds that traded at face value.

In the cultural sphere, in addition to traditional activities such as sponsoring art and music, the crown reformed education and added to the university curriculum new scientific developments, such as the physics of Sir Isaac Newton. The king and his ministers also worked to raise the educational level of the clergy and to curb the remaining power of the inquisition, which was increasingly anachronistic by the eighteenth century.

Taken together, the changes in the first years of Carlos III’s reign moved forward rapidly on a broad front and aimed to bring about a thorough restructuring of Spanish life. Not surprisingly, the changes generated considerable opposition on a broad front as well. The pace of reform approached a crisis after the government eliminated ceiling prices on grain in July 1765. In the traditional economy, ceiling prices shielded the poor from the rising cost of food in times of harvest shortages. As bad luck would have it, the harvest of 1765 came up short. With price ceilings removed and the population rising, the harvest shortfall led to exponential increases in the cost of food in the ensuing months, affecting poor city dwellers above all. Sermons against artificially inflated prices in Madrid and other cities added to the dangerous mood of the people in the spring of 1766, particularly among the working classes.

Matters came to a head over a seemingly minor incident. In an ill-timed move to discipline the rabble, the king’s Minister of the Interior, the Italian marquis of Squillace (Sp. Esquilache), decided to ban the long capes and broad-brimmed hats favored by the street toughs of Madrid. These majos had long preoccupied the forces of law and order, who argued that their hats could mask their identities and that their capes could conceal weapons and stolen goods. Following the decree on March 10, 1766, Squillace ordered a table set up in the Puerta del Sol, the heart of Madrid, on Palm Sunday. Officials stationed at the table stopped men in the prohibited costume, cut off their capes, and pinned up their hats in the three-cornered style fashionable among the well-behaved classes. Not surprisingly, this set off a riot in Madrid, and disturbances soon spread to cities and towns throughout Castile. The twentieth-century Spanish composer Manuel de Falla immortalized the incident, known to Spanish history as the “Mutiny of Esquilache,” in his ballet The Three-Cornered Hat, which neatly captures the complex nature of the uprising.

Another element in the unrest was the crown’s religious policy. The king and his ministers were pushing beyond the Concordat of 1753 to assert royal authority, known as regalian rights, over the Roman Catholic Church in Spain, in opposition to the power of the pope. In Spain and elsewhere, the Society of Jesus led the defense of papal authority, which challenged royal authority. Carlos III and other contemporary monarchs viewed the Jesuit opposition as disobedient at best and potentially traitorous at worst. In the aftermath of the “Mutiny of Esquilache,” royal officials blamed the Jesuits for inciting the riots, and Carlos III expelled the order from Spain and its empire in 1767. The Spanish action was part of a broader assertion of royal authority all over Europe that induced the pope to abolish the order in 1773. They would not be reinstated until 1814.

In the short term, government forces put down the riots and restored social peace. The king dismissed Squillace in April and appointed the count of Aranda to oversee the broad program of agrarian reform. The defenders of tradition in the countryside had opposed Squillace, and presumably cheered his dismissal. They fared even worse, however, under Aranda, a freemason steeped in the principles of physiocracy, which held that a country’s prosperity depended on the well-being of small farmers. Aranda drafted a royal decree of May 2, 1766, that gave the government authority to sell municipally held lands in Extremadura that were not cultivated, in order to make them available to land-hungry farmers. The decree applied to other areas in Castile in the next few years. Although small farmers often lacked the resources to purchase the lands put on the market, and herding interests suffered, there is no question that the decree increased the supply of available farmland and set a precedent for other reversals of traditional patterns of landholding.

After the “Mutiny of Esquilache” the pace of internal reforms slowed in Spain, which some historians have attributed to royal wariness. Carlos III and his ministers had realized that too much change, too fast, could lead to dangerous social instability. Given the continued activism of Spanish foreign policy, internal peace was essential. Hostile diplomatic negotiations with Great Britain (1766–71) over the Falkland Islands (Sp. Malvinas) off the coast of Argentina brought the countries to the brink of war, and Spain did go to war with Portugal in 1776–7, winning back Uruguay. By then England was fighting to retain her colonies in North America in the face of a rebellion that began in 1776. Although Carlos III was pleased to see England in a difficult situation, he was reluctant to support the rebels openly, given the danger of inspiring rebellion in the Spanish colonies. France had less to fear from aiding American rebels, however, and poured considerable resources into that effort. Spain entered the war against England in 1779 as an ally of France, in what Spanish historians call the Second Maritime War (1779–83).

The man in charge of Spanish operations in Louisiana, Bernardo Gálvez, led three regiments of soldiers and militiamen against British forces on the Gulf coast, winning a victory critical to the success of the American rebellion. He also organized the Spanish naval victory at the battle of Pensacola Bay in Florida. Because of these successes, Spain was able to demand the return of Florida and the Mediterranean island of Menorca from the British when the war ended in 1783. King Carlos had also hoped to regain Gibraltar, but Britain would only trade that piece of territory for all of Spain’s other gains, a trade that the Spanish government could not accept. Bernardo Gálvez became the count of Gálvez for his efforts in the war, and thereafter served as the Spanish governor of Florida and as viceroy of Mexico. Galveston Bay on the Texas Gulf coast was named after him.

The count of Aranda negotiated the Treaty of Versailles (September 3, 1783) that ended the successful American Revolution and the war that it engendered. Despite Spain’s support for the revolution, Aranda had no illusions about the likely future of the former British colonies. As he wrote to Carlos III in 1783, “This Federal Republic was born a pygmy and needed the support of Spain and France to achieve independence. The day will come when it will grow into a giant and forget the benefits received from the two powers and will think only of its own enlargement…Then it will aspire to the conquest of New Spain.”

Aranda was not far wrong. Nonetheless, the last years of Carlos III’s reign saw the Spanish Empire in the Americas at its apex, with territorial claims running from Tierra del Fuego to the Bering Strait. In the far west of North America, Carlos’s government continued to sponsor an active program of expansion and settlement to add substance to those claims. Moving north from New Spain, soldiers, citizens, clerics, and bureaucrats founded a series of fortified presidios, towns, and missions in the king’s name. Every major city in California, and many cities and towns in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas, owe their origins to those foundations. The history of the United States has traditionally neglected the Spanish legacy of law and settlement across the southern tier of the country, although these so-called “Spanish borderlands” are increasingly finding a place in that history, as new generations of historians revisit and revise old views.

Back in Europe, Spain experienced an upsurge of piracy in the western Mediterranean at the end of Carlos III’s reign, sponsored by the leaders of Algiers and Morocco. Although Spanish fishermen, merchants, ship owners, and even coastal farmers had suffered from such piratical attacks for centuries, the activity increased in the late eighteenth century, perhaps related to population pressures in North Africa. The Spanish crown had to spend large sums to combat it, and even sent expeditionary forces against Algiers in 1784 and 1785, to little effect. Nonetheless, by the end of Carlos III’s reign, there is no question that Spain stood higher in prestige and economic clout than it had in the late seventeenth century. That is the legacy of the Bourbon reforms and of the active foreign policy pursued by Felipe V and Carlos III.