Ireland’s Wars: The American Revolution

The American War of Independence, fought between 1775 and 1783, was a shockwave in world politics, a cross-continental conflict that sucked in many great European powers and left the British Empire with a black eye that was both unexpected and highly damaging. Throughout, Irish in arms served in numerous armies, fighting directly for American independence, for the British crown, and in French and Spanish service.

The reasons for the war are well known and bear little going into. Discontentment among American colonists had been growing for years, primarily related to fiscal matters, and the rights of the British government to levy taxes on those that had no representation in the London Parliament. Many colonists considered themselves loyal British citizens, but years of dealing with protectionist trade laws that suited Britain, engaging in British wars – like the Seven Years War – and an apparent lack of consideration from the crown and its government for their grievances had left many ready and willing to consider violent resistance.

In 1775, the Royal Irish Regiment was stationed in Boston, one of the largest urban settlements in the thirteen colonies, where they served under the command of the Massachusetts governor, General Gage. Gage grew worried about colonial agitation and the rumoured gathering of arms for a future conflict; in April of 1775 he sent out a small expeditionary force, made up of grenadiers and light infantry from various regiments, including the RIR, towards the village of Concord, their task to confiscate a store of arms that was being kept there.

The resulting clashes at Lexington and Concord were essentially small skirmishes, granted the title of “battle” more because of their eventual effect in inciting a wide-scale revolt against British rule. At Lexington an exchange of gunfire occurred, before a larger clash at Concord, involving around 500 men. In the encounters, and more so in the resulting retreat back to Boston, the British suffered around 300 casualties, the Americans just under a hundred. The exact role of the RIR troops in these incidents is mostly unrecorded, but one annal of the regiment lists two men killed and four wounded in the course of the fighting. At “the shot heard round the world”, it is very likely that Irishmen were present, both in red uniforms and among the colonists, which already had a substantial Irish contingent.

Shortly after, elements of the RIR took part in the Battle of Bunker Hill, a British victory that came at too high a cost in men, failing to end the growing siege around Boston. The regiment remained in Boston throughout that siege, quitting the town in March the following year. Shortly thereafter, the RIR was shipped back home for garrison duty in England.

Other Irish units were soon involved in the fighting. By now the laws that had banned Catholics from being recruited into the armed forces had been relaxed, and were barely being observed at all, such was Britain’s need for soldiers to garrison the various extents of its global empire. Many British regiments sent over the ocean would have been full of Irish recruits, beyond the Irish named units like the 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment and the locally recruited units like the “Volunteers of Ireland”, made up of Irish emigrants convinced to fight for Britain.

On the other side, a huge portion of the Continental Army – as much as 25% in some states – would be made up of troops either from Ireland or of Irish background. Be they Catholics or Protestants, many resented British domination over them back in Ireland, and carried that feeling forward into their new homes to the point of taking up arms. But while nine American generals were Irish born, and the “father of the American Navy” is credited to be Wexford born John Barry, there were no fully Irish units within George Washington’s military.

Across the ocean, the situation in America obviously piqued the interest of France and Spain, two nations that had both significant holdings in the Americas – or at least did, in France’s case – and who remained opposed to the actions and expansions of Britain. Backing the American colonists in their bid for freedom was a natural course, but it took significant American success, namely the victory at the 1777 Battle of Saratoga, for France to jump into the war on American’s side decisively. Open French support altered the strategic picture significantly, and this was magnified by the arrival of Spain into the fighting the following year. The entry of both nations brought Irish units, namely the French and Spanish Irish Brigades, into play.

There were targets aplenty in Europe – Spain wanted Gibraltar back, and were also eyeing up British holdings elsewhere in the Mediterranean, while France cooked up yet another incomplete scheme to invade Britain directly – but what both nations really wanted was to take a shot at British possessions in the Caribbean. The British Empire benefited greatly from the raw resources that were to be found in the various islands there, primarily sugar and rum, and were intensely committed to maintaining their control. Indeed, up to a third of the British forces sent across the Atlantic to take part in the war ended up in the Caribbean, fighting a back and forth conflict across the islands, with forts and positions taken and retaken, to the immense benefit of the Americans.

Three regiments of the French Irish Brigade – Dillon’s, Walsh’s and Berwick’s – immediately volunteered for American service upon the declaration of war, with 1’400 men of Dillon’s and a bit less of Walsh’s arriving in the West Indies in the summer of 1779, taking their place in the yo-yo like conflict. Elements of Berwick’s would serve in the French Navy as marine troops. It is important to recognise, at this point, that the Irish Brigade was a very different animal to what it had been. The majority of its fighting men were no longer Irish, due to the lack of immigrants coming from Ireland. The Jacobite cause was dying, and those just seeking a military career and some glory could find it in the British Army. The Brigade was still mostly officered by Irish men, and contained plenty of Irish descendants, but more and more it was Irish in name only. The lack of real gusto for any invasion of Ireland during this period is evidence of that.

An example of the kind of conflict that the Irish were engaged in during the Caribbean war can be seen with the attack on Grenada in July 1779, shortly after the Irish Brigades arrival. General Arthur Dillon led his regiments in a coup de main assault on the island, where British confusion in regards the Irish Brigade – who wore the same colours as the British, and allegedly gained access to fortifications because of this – was instrumental in its success. Despite the victory, it was all meaningless: Grenada would revert to British control by the end of the war. The fighting in the Carribean would never involve all that many casualties from fighting. Indeed, it is likely that all of the powers involved lost more soldiers and sailors in the devastating “Great Hurricane” of 1780, that wrecked a huge number of British and French vessels, than in the rest of the war.

Irish participation was also seen at the Siege of Savannah, the first major French intervention in the American war proper. French Admiral Charles Hector the comte d’Estaing, was ordered to take the Georgia town in late 1779, but found himself ill-equipped to do so with 6’000 French troops, along with 500 Irish and 2’000 Americans. An attack on Savannah, in lieu of a siege that could not be won, was a disaster, with nearly a thousand casualties suffered in a repelled assault. The Irish were in the thick of the action, and suffered disproportionately, with over a fifth of their number killed or wounded.

In 1781, the Irish Brigade was engaged in the capture of Tobago. 700 Irish troops helped to overpower the British garrison, while others aided in a more drawn out French effort to take St Kitts. Irish troops also garrisoned Haiti during this time, served as marines during sea battles and spearheaded assaults on Saint Eustatius. In the latter case, confusion over Irish uniforms again proved handy, and over 350 Irish in British service are recorded to have deserted to Brigade service. By now, the British were imminently threatened in their most valuable holding, that of Jamaica.

The Siege of Yorktown and the surrender of General George Cornwallis – soon to be more intimately involved in Irish affairs – essentially ended the war in America as a contest in 1781. Contrary to certain beliefs, no regiments of the Irish Brigade served there, just some officers. With the Treaty of Paris a few years later, American Independence was recognised, some Caribbean islands exchanged and the war ended, with the Irish units – be they French, Spanish or British – shipped back across the Atlantic.

Spain’s Irish contribution to the war had been small scale. The Ultonia regiment took part in an attack on British held Minorca in 1781, Irlanda was involved in the long running siege(s) of Gibraltar and a small force of Hibernia troops captured the position of Pensacola, Florida, as well as taking part in other military operations in Algeria. The Spanish Irish Brigade was suffering much the same fate as its French counterpart, with its membership more and more non-Irish as time went on, and Spain was simply not in a position to offer as much support as France. Indeed, as would become clear within a decade, France has barely been in a position to do so either.

The war had been an expansive affair, and Irish born and Irish descendants had been involved in every part of it. The end result, the United States of America coming into being and the festering insecurity of France, would both have severe ramifications for Ireland in time. For the moment, we will step back in time just a little bit, to look at some events that had been occurring in Ireland during this period. Not all out war, but not all that far removed from it.

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

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8 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The American Revolution

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