Ireland’s Wars: Culloden

It was April 1745, and the Jacobite forces that remained in Charles Stuart’s employ were preparing to face down the oncoming government army of the Duke of Cumberland. Here, just east of Inverness, the key battle of the ’45 would be fought, and the Irish troops that had been part of the effort from the very beginning would be there.

As the armies came close to engaging each other, around what was known as Culloden Moor, the Irish were already busy. Those sections of Fitzjames’ horse that had made it to Scotland were used relentlessly for scouting and reconnaissance, to the extent that there incredibly fatigued by the time actually battle was joined. This was due mostly to necessity: Charles had precious little cavalry left following the gradual collapse of the Jacobite position in Scotland. His Irish infantry engaged in some skirmishing in the day before the battle as well, trying to impede the movements of Cumberland’s numerically superior army as it got nearer and nearer to Inverness. The bulk of the Jacobite army – maybe 7’000 men in total – was still made of Highlanders, with the French Army units perhaps numbering somewhere in the region of 500 men. They faced at least 8’000 of Cumberland’s troops, who also had marked advantages in training, officers, supplies, artillery, cavalry and energy.

Energy was important. An aborted effort at launching a surprise attack on Cumberland’s encamped army that was abandoned halfway there due to the slowness of the Jacobites, left much of Charles army exhausted on the day of the battle itself, April the 16th. Despite the danger of his position, Charles could not be persuaded to retreat this time, determined to make a stand, and perhaps even attack his enemy, on the flat marshy ground of Culloden Moor. He was probably thinking of his retreat from England when he made this decision, and the young Stuart was in no mood to repeat the experience. While some have characterised the decision to stand and fight at Culloden as a mistake, it seems as if a fight around that time was inevitable, as the Jacobites were incapable of outrunning the government pursuit.

Charles, with his adjutants, formed his army up in several lines as Cumberland approached. The Highlander Clans took up the bulk of the first two, joined in the second by the Irish Brigade troops, and the Royal Scots. The cavalry took up the rear, and what limited artillery was available was pushed to the front. Cumberland also formed up in three lines as he advanced, with most of his cavalry on his left flank. The Jacobites hoped that the walls of Culloden House, to their right, would help protect that flank, but they failed to secure this position with any actual men.

Artillery fire from both sides opened the battle: the Jacobites suffered more losses, their own artillery officers being inexperienced compared to the government gunners. Allegedly, Charles rode in front of his troops as an encouragement, only to draw enough fire to kill over 50 members of his army, as well as his own horse, though he was uninjured. Charles waited a long time, leaving his army under enemy fire, hoping that Cumberland would attack him. Pressed by many of the clan chiefs, Charles eventually acquiesced in a Highland charge. This was undertaken by the right wing of the army. While it suffered greatly from the replying fire of the enemy, as well as from grapeshot and cannon, they did manage to break through the leading regiments of Cumberland’s army. Despite this, they were unable to make further headway, as Cumberland’s force rallied and then initiated a counter-attack.

A popular perception exists that the left wing of the Jacobite Army, made up of the MacDonald clan, refused to join the attack, because they felt disgraced at their placement, having usually held the traditional position of honour on the right. This might be true, but due to the way the army had been placed they had a longer distance to cover to get to the government lines, through marshier ground. As such, the right flank attack went ahead unsupported, and the government counter-attack had an easier time of it in the aftermath.  By the time the left wing did go forward with force, it was too late for them to make the same kind of breakthrough as the right had, and attacking elements of the government arm stopped their assault and then turned them back. The left flank might have totally collapsed at this point, as Cumberland released cavalry units to ride the Macdonalds down, but the intervention of the Irish was again crucial, engaging the enemy horse with several volleys and preventing their charge from continuing, already delayed due to the nature of the ground.

By now other government horse troops had penetrated to the Jacobite rear, where they were fighting a desperate action with what existed of the Jacobite cavalry. Charles, realising that he could do nothing to retrieve the situation, reluctantly ordered a retreat. Irish and Royal Scot troops covered the withdrawal of the Highlanders, preventing a total massacre at the expense of most of their casualties suffered in the fighting. The Jacobites largely routed from the field, many suffering terribly from an ambush undertaken by government soldiers that had seized the walls of Culloden House, using their height to fire at what remained of the Jacobite right.

Charles had to be dragged away from the battlefield before he was captured, the commander in tears. Perhaps as many as 2’000 men under his command had fallen, with many prisoners also taken: Cumberland lists over 200 of these being of “French” origin. Within a few days, whatever remained of the Jacobite army had disbanded on the orders of Charles, the Young Pretender unable to properly supply or lead his men effectively. They scattered to the lowlands and highlands, trying to avoid the deadly justice of Cumberland, whose army killed many of the Jacobites they found, earning the commander the nickname “Butcher of Culloden” in popular remembrance. Whatever places the Jacobites had held fell rapidly into government hands. The ’45 was over. The Irish troops that remained surrendered into government custody, from where they were eventually returned to France, in exchange for English prisoners. At least 100 Irish died at Culloden.

Culloden was a watershed for the Scots and their culture, with some comparing it in many ways to the Irish Battle of Kinsale. Never again were the Scots to be capable of taking on the English in a military sense, and Culloden remains the last pitched battle to be fought on British soil. Many Highland clans found their lands forfeit in the aftermath, forced to live under some laws similar to those felt by Catholics in Ireland, most especially in relation to the carrying of arms. Looking at the discrepancies between the two forces, it seems unlikely that it could have ended up any other away: even an all out attack by the entire Jacobite first line probably would not have succeeded, the government musketry having developed methods of dealing with the Highland charge, and superior in most other respects. The exhausted poorly supplied Jacobites simply could not be expected to keep performing martial miracles. A few minor encounters took place after Culloden, but Jacobite resistance was ground down quickly enough.

Charles himself did eventually escape Scotland, but only after a lengthy, and famous, period on the run, avoiding government attempts to find him and dealing with Scots tempted to turn him in for the substantial reward offered from London. Despite his defeat at Culloden, this period “in the heather”, helped to make Charles’ romantic reputation, as he narrowly avoided apprehension on several occasion, eventually being rescued, by a party led by a Dublin Colonel of the Irish Brigade, six months after the ’45 had been crushed. Charles, much like his father, would become bitter in the aftermath, always regretting that he had not continued the advance towards London in the winter of 1745. He lived most of the rest of his life in Italy, but did not give up on his hopes of a Stuart restoration. However, few in Europe were willing to help him, and the decline of Jacobism, and the prospects of the cause, can be dated to this point. Notably, when Charles’ father passed, Charles did not receive recognition as King of Britain from the Vatican. Charles turned to drink excessively as times went on, and faded into obscurity past the 1750’s, but remained “Bonnie Prince Charlie” to many long afterward.

The question must be asked, before we move on, as to what role Ireland itself played in the ’45? Why was there no uprising there, or why did Charles not attempt to create one? For all the reasons previously discussed – high among them the terrible famine of 1740-41, the effects of which many Irish were still recovering from – the Irish were simply not in a position to rebel as they previously had. Plenty of Irish supported Charles, with some wearing tartan plaid during the period to express this support openly, but 12’000 government troops, and a Protestant militia over 60’000 strong, were on hand to prevent this agitation and minor unrest from turning into anything more serious. Certainly, some plans were formulated to land Irish Brigade troops in Ireland to support the Scottish operations, but the cost of implementing this, alongside the threat posed by the Royal Navy, resulted in none of these plans coming to fruition. The Irish Jacobites supporting population simply were not in a viable situation to rise up in 1745.

With the end of the ’45, the last serious hope that the Jacobites – and the Irish Brigade – would fulfil their stated aim had been destroyed. Thoughts and dreams of putting the Stuarts back on the throne, most especially during an incident in 1759-60 that I will discuss in time, would not cease, but serious planning for such an eventuality did, for the most part. For a variety of reasons, the ’45 had failed, and Irish troops had been present at most of the really serious moments, even if their involvement has been often downplayed since.

Now, they would return to their duties in France further than ever from the chance of making it home and overthrowing the Hanoverian regime. A war still going on between France and England, and the Irish were not finished fighting in it.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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4 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Culloden

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Irish In The Seven Years War | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Royal Irish Regiment | Never Felt Better

  4. Gearoid Mac Maghnuis says:

    I strongly suggest you read Murray Pittock and his books on the 1745-1746 war. The Jacobites were very well armed infact better armed than in previous risings for the Stuarts such as 1688-1692, 1708-1710, 1715-1716, agus 1719. His research clearly shows that the Scots fought on long after Culloden especially is most recent one called Culloden. Another great one of his in the second edition would be The Myth of the Jacobite Clans.

    Another author to check out is Doron Zimmerman and his book The Jacobite Movement in Scotland and in Exile 1746-1759 clearly shows that guerrilla war was the order of the day after Culloden with guerrilla forces fighting on well into the 1760’s. It was the Battle of Quiberon Bay off the coast of Brittany that was the death kneel of the Jacobite cause in 1759 not Culloden in 1746.

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