In Wexford, where the fighting had been hardest, the rebels stood on the cusp of controlling the entire county. They had taken its major urban centres on the east coast, and repeatedly beaten back the government forces in the local area. When Dublin had sent men and equipment south to try and stem the tide, they had been beaten back as well. A rudimentary government had been set up, and the stage seemed set for a French style revolutionary system to sweep away the previous status quo.
But the job was not near done yet, and for that reason Bagenal Harvey, the appointed leader of the United Irishman military in Wexford, had taken the field with the army that had been given to him. It was a gigantic force, with more men (and women) than it was able to effectively arm, along with numerous pieces of captured artillery (that it was reduced to manning with captured artillery officers, at pike point). Now, after spending several days reorganising this army into a more coherent form outside the gates of Wexford Town, Harvey was marching it south and west, aiming at the town of New Ross.
New Ross was a vital target. The rebels, nominally at least, wanted to control the rest of the south-east, and New Ross was a gateway to that possibility, as well as to further targets in Munster. The road through the town was that which connected government forces to the larger bases in Waterford and beyond, and so New Ross was a vital supply waypoint. Taking New Ross, and securing the crossing over the River Barrow, would give the rebels a huge advantage in any planned government counter-attack, and presented the opportunity of raising more rebels in the, as now, quiet areas in Waterford, Cork and Tipperary.
But it was no easy nut to crack, at least at first glance. It had high, thick walls, nine flanking towers and numerous strong gates. But beyond the surface level, weaknesses were plain: many of the towns old fortifications had been dismantled following the short siege there during Cromwellian Conquest, and what was left was not the kind of masonry that was built to withstand modern artillery fire. The gates had been widened in the not too distant past – during more peaceful times – to aid in trade traffic. Worse, New Ross was dominated by high ground outside its walls, where the rebels would soon pitch their camp, with banks and ditches that led all the way to the outskirts. They would provide decent cover for any attacker.
The man in charge of New Ross’ defence was a General Henry Johnson, a brave but undistinguished American veteran, where he had served under Lord Cornwallis. Johnson’s current commission was more about the recruitment of Irishmen to serve in the wars against France, but now he suddenly found himself in charge of a vital garrison. That garrison was of a decent strength, considering the recent setbacks: roughly 2’000 men, which included a raft of recent militia reinforcements brought by the Viscount Mountjoy. Johnson would also have a bit of artillery to play around with. Not content with that, he set about improving the defences, focusing particularly on the eastern part of the wall, near Three Bullet Gate, where he felt the biggest blow would come. We’ve already encountered this position once before, when Cromwell fired three cannonballs into it, giving it its moniker.
Trenches were dug, artillery was positioned, and troops placed to provide flanking fire. Strongpoints throughout New Ross were occupied and fortified: Johnson himself took up his command in a building near the Three Bullet Gate, while other men guarded the barracks, the marketplace, the goal, and the bridge over the River. What cavalry Johnson had was held in reserve in the quays. Civilians were disarmed, and most crossed the bridge to the relative safety of the far bank. Johnson had little respect for the rebels’ ability to fight, and believed firmly that a committed, disciplined force of regulars (or semi-regulars at least) could defeat any numerically superior force of irregular enemy. With that in mind, he had no patience for armed civilian amateurs.
It took several vital days for Harvey and his rebel army to reach New Ross, owing to the slowness of rhe undisciplined force. At Carrickbyrne Hill, just a few hours from New Ross, the army halted for another couple of days as Harvey planned, an extraordinary delay considering the circumstances. It was around here that many loyalist families were rounded up, in a bid to deny the enemy a source of information. A makeshift holding area for them was settled upon, at a large barn in a place called Scullabogue. By the 4th of June, the rebels finally came within sight of New Ross.
Harvey’s plan was a rough one, owing to his own military inexperience. He decided on a multi-front approach, and was committed to attacking New Ross from three sides simultaneously. It was an ambitious operation: the rebel army was no regular force, and coordinated actions from multiple arms was a fanciful idea, with communications not exactly being stellar. Indeed, it is likely that Harvey, fearful of the kind of bloodletting that might occur if his army was let off its leash, did not want to fight at all. To that end, he wrote a note addressed to General Johnson, calling on New Ross to surrender, as he believed the Wexford army could “not be controlled if they meet resistance”.
The horseman carrying this message in the early daylight hours of the 5th of June never got a chance to deliver it personally. He was shot down on approach, and it’s unclear whether this was after a challenge or not. This action was seen by the massing rebels on the nearby hills, and sent them into a fury. Thousands of them now moved to attack Three Bullet Gate.
800 of those were commanded by a young man named John Kelly, who had strict orders from Harvey that their task was to capture the scattered outposts of Johnson’s defences, and not to attack the town itself. Whether he did it purposefully, or just could not restrain his men, Kelly was soon attacking the Three Bullet Gate himself, passing into fame in ballads as “Kelly of Killane” ever after. He and the other United men were soon engaged in a desperate assault, under fire from both sides by the flanking companies Johnson had set-up, and from the artillery in front. The tactic of sending a herd of panicking cattle ahead of the main advance, that had worked so well at Enniscorthy, failed at New Ross, as the cows swerved away from the gate, possible because of the trenches Johnson had had dug.
The rebels took severe losses, but to the shock of the nearby Johnson and his subordinates, did not break, but instead pressed on, inch by inch, until they had driven the flanking companies back, captured the trenches and then pressed on to the threshold of the gate. The fighting was bloody, and nearby fires complicated matters. Meanwhile, the other, less defended gates remained unattacked, Harvey’s three-pronged plan already in ruins.
Kelly’s men were some of the first into the town, though it cost them dearly: Kelly himself was hit in the thigh and took no further part in the battle. His men stormed the barracks near the gate and seized muskets and ammunition, before splitting into smaller groups and advancing into the New Ross streets, which were becoming choked with smoke. One group was cut to pieces by prepared grapeshot blasts as they approached the gaol, the survivors fleeing back to the gate.
These retreating rebels set off a panic in those on the hill. Many of them had abandoned Harvey’s plan and joined the central attack, but others, now seeing those in rebel colours retreating, took flight themselves. The rebel army, perhaps 20’000 strong at the start of the fighting, was already severely reduced.
The battle might have been brought to a swift end there and then, but for a stunning, and unexpected, rebel success. The government cavalry inexplicably left its position in the centre of the town and sallied out at the Three Bullet Gate, perhaps hoping to play their part in what now looked like a rout. But unfortunately for them, the rebels had enough wits to see the danger, turn and mass ranks. The cavalry charged the pikemen, and the result was a calamity, most of the horsemen cut down in the field outside New Ross. One of the dead was Lord Mountjoy. Somewhat ironically, he had actually sponsored Catholic Relief Acts earlier in his career.
The rebels, buoyed by their success, charged again. Johnson, observing nearby, had his horse shot from under him, the first of three times it would happen that day. The government garrison was obliged to fall back once more, as the rebels penetrated Three Bullet Gate again.
By now all was confusion. A huge portion of New Ross was on fire, and the smoke obscured much. Civilians mixed with the retreating government regulars, militia and cavalry, while the rebels, barely to be distinguished aside from their green cockades, pursued with abandon. At the Main Guard, near the goal, the rebels were halted by artillery fire again, the guns borrowed from moored ships nearby. It was one of the last points before the bridge, over which the majority, or so it seemed, of the government forces was now fleeing. Johnson’s position near the Three Bullet Gate was nearly overrun: he was obliged to ride back also, trying desperately to rally his men. A relief force from Waterford was approaching the town from the other direction, but meeting fleeing refugees had assumed the town lost and turned back.
Aside from a small number of strongpoints still held by isolated bands of government troops, New Ross was in rebel hands. The fighting had lasted hours at this point, and the exhausted rebels went about looting, seeking food, water, spirits and places to rest that were not on fire. Harvey had gone no further than the Three Bullet Gate, and no control could be exerted on the rebels. Certainly, no one seems to have thought to defend the bridge (or burn it down) to prevent a counter-attack.
And that is exactly what was happening now. Rallied by Johnson and elements of the Dublin Militia, enraged by the death of Mountjoy once they learned of it, the government army turned back and streamed over the bridge into rebel held portions of the town. The result was catastrophic for the unprepared and exhausted rebels, who couldn’t stand up to the assault. What artillery the rebels had moved into the town was manned by men with little or no experience, and so useless: one cannon, manned by a retired artilleryman, had been bungled so badly that it left him crippled, and he ordered himself tied to the gun until he expired.
The rebels were forced further back and back by the sustained charge and fire of the advancing government infantry, and by the sustained fire of their smaller artillery pieces, whose grapeshot made mincemeat of United Irishmen wherever they congregated. The rebels’ bravery could not be faulted, as they repeatedly charged the cannon pieces, only to be blown back. A famous incident, immortalised in George Cruickshank’s depiction of the battle, saw an old man rush towards a cannon, stuff his hat and wig down its mouth, and proclaim to his fellow rebels “Come on boys, her mouths stopt!” just moments before the cannon was discharged, blowing the old man to pieces.
By now it was late afternoon, turning to evening. The pikemen were sapped of energy, and the artillery useless, and so the rebels were forced back all the way to Three Bullet Gate and beyond. Once there they broke and fled towards the remnant of their camp. Harvey was among them. The battle was over.
But the violence wasn’t. Having won the town back, the government forces preceded to launch their own wave of looting and vandalism, ransacking homes and shops, and shooting civilians who tried to stop them. Wounded rebels found in cabins were killed out of hand, and these included many burned alive when their casualty station was torched. In line with the smoke, the blood, the masses of bodies lined up in the streets, and the witnessed pigs now feasting on the same corpses, it made for a deplorable and hellish sight. Johnson eventually was able to restore some semblance of order, but it took the hanging of a militia man caught plundering to end it completely.
After a day of bloodshed, Johnson may have been surprised to learn that he had suffered only 91 dead among his own troops, a testament both to their skill in arms and to the rapid retreats that took place over the course of the day. Many others were wounded of course. But government casualties paled in comparison to those of the rebels, which were never adequately counted. They were buried in mass graves or dumped in the Barrow in the days that followed: the more believable estimates range from 2’600 to 3’000 dead. It would turn out to be the bloodiest battle of the 1798 Rebellion.
And the bloodshed that day was not confined to New Ross. Back on the rebel marching route, at Scullabogue, several messengers had arrived from the battle – alleged by some to be deserters – claiming that the Crown forces were butchering wounded rebels and that those imprisoned in the barn were now to be killed in retaliation. The captain in charge of the prisoners was convinced eventually, and the grisly work of execution was soon carried out. 35 men were shot on a lawn, while families in the barn were locked in after it was set alight. Another famous depiction by Cruickshank has immortalised the wretched scene. Between 100 and 200 men, women and children were killed there, the most infamous of Catholic atrocities carried out in the course of the rebellion.
It was the last desperate blow to Harvey, who essentially resigned his role as commander-in-chief upon learning of the massacre, disgusted by what had happened and holding out no hope for either his own or the rebellions survival. The remnants of his army formed up at Carrickbyrne again, to contemplate their next move.
It was a disastrous day for the rebels. An army of over 20’000 had seen its ranks annihilated by desertion, cowardice and enemy action: now only a rump remained, having lost much of its arms and artillery in the flight. Victory had been within their grasp, but absent sufficient leadership and training, they had allowed the government forces, better led, armed and trained, to reform and counter-attack, when victory would have been an easier outcome. Johnson had fought no great battle, but the better quality of his men, once brought into some semblance of order, had shown. It was the turning point in Wexford, and a signal for a government counter-attack throughout the county, that could yet end the rebellion in days.
It remains only to mention the battles continuing impact on the Irish national consciousness today. The Three Bullet Gate soon became known, due to the violence of the fighting that took place there, as the “bearna baoil”, which loosely translated means the “gap of danger”. The phrase would be used again, and would be adopted by Peader Kearney as the only Irish words when he wrote “The Soldiers Song” over a hundred years later:
“Tonight we man the “bearna baoil”
In Erin’s cause, come woe or weal”
They were retained when the song was translated into Irish, later becoming the National Anthem:
“Anocht a théam sa bhearna baoil,
Le gean ar Ghaeil, chun báis nó saoil”
Today then, in the song that has become that associated most with the Irish Republic, we still commemorate those men who died at New Ross.
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