The rebellion in Ulster had begun in Antrim, but had barely gotten started there before it was crushed. The army of Henry Joy McCracken, what was left of it anyway, was retreating northwards. General Nugent, the man who had defeated it, now had to contend with trouble elsewhere. Plenty of rebels remained undefeated in other parts of Antrim, while reports had already reached him about concentrations of armed men in County Down. Belfast, where the majority of local government forces were based, had to be defended adequately, so Nugent couldn’t simply march troops through the countryside in force like he might have wanted. Belfast’s limited numbers of rebels – it was far from the city where the United Irishmen movement had started by 1798 – had been dealt with quickly, their arms and cannon seized. But still the threat remained.
Nugent, taking a leaf from the book of General Dundas in Kildare, decided a conciliatory approach would best serve the strategic picture. To that end, he offered the rebels still in arms in Antrim a deal, through an intermediary named Colonel Clavering. If the rebels would pile their arms, release what prisoners they had taken and disperse, Nugent would refrain from any persecution. Otherwise, he threatened to lead his men on a rampage. The arms were piled, and prisoners released. The rising in Antrim ended with a whimper.
But still there was the rising in Down to contend with, following the same pattern as the early moments in Antrim. Seeking to contain the rising without risking the possibility of a repulse, Nugent ordered his garrisons and artillery to concentrate in the bigger towns in the county, like Downpatrick, places where they could adopt defensive positions and neuter the ability of the rebels to gain arms and bases. This meant withdrawing wholesale from the east of the county, leaving the Ards peninsula almost entirely within rebel hands, but it was a wise choice. Nugent didn’t have the men to defend the entirety of Down adequately, and his strategy maintained communications with Dublin.
Minor attacks had already begun in Down by the 9th of June. Newtownards was attacked in a comical fashion, as two rebel columns retreated from each other in a badly orchestrated night attack, before the town was occupied when its garrison withdrew. This half-success offered some crumbs of encouragement, and soon the United Irishmen were concentrating in the village of Saintfield, ten or so km’s from Belfast.
There, a draper from Belfast named Henry Monroe had been propelled into a leadership position, the society’s organisation in Down as badly damaged by the arrests of the last few weeks as anywhere else. He was a Protestant Scot better known up to then for his role in the local freemason lodge and the Volunteers, than the United Irishmen, but now he found himself the commander-in-chief of over 7’000 men.
The situation was a mess. Units failed to rise as ordered, owing to fears over government reprisal, aided by Nugent’s proclamation to the county, that was along the same lines as that released in Antrim. United Colonels and other officers arrested often could not be adequately replaced, and so the men they were responsible for commanding never showed up to assembly points. Arms, powder and other supplied were in short order. The same issues that had affected McCracken, regards the dispute with the Defender elements of the army, would also plague Monroe. And, as in Wexford, a strategic malaise was evident, with no one sure quite what to do with the men that they had.
Around the 10th, the bulk of the army advanced to the town of Ballynahinch, taking up camp in the grounds of the local lords demesne on a hill above the town itself. They spent a couple of days there awaiting orders, enjoying the fine summer weather, but absent any clear direction. Monroe and his immediate subordinates were still debating what to do – Monroe, at least, favoured some kind of offensive action, but it’s unclear what kind – when the decision was taken out of their hands.
Having waited three days for the Down rebels to peacefully capitulate, Nugent decided it was worth taking a calculated risk. Bolstering Belfast’s defences with armed civilian volunteers to make up for the shortfall, he marched a sizable proportion of its garrison out, roughly 1’500 men in total, with plenty of cavalry and artillery support. Part of this force was detached to guard against a rebel retreat into the Ards peninsula, while Nugent also sent word for the Downpatrick garrison to march north. They two forces would converge on Ballynahinch from either direction, and trap the rebels between them.
The task was all too easy for Nugent. At no point had the rebels left a garrison or guarding force between Belfast and Ballynahinch, and Nugent was able to take Saintfield – subsequently burnt – without firing a shot. Then he pressed on. On the 12th, he was within striking distance of Ballynahinch, even as the Downpatrick division approached from the other side.
It was only now that the rebels presented themselves for a fight. To the north of Ballynahinch they arraigned themselves in a defensive line, but were easily scattered and sent reeling backwards into the town by a charge from Nugent’s regular cavalry. Nugent could have pressed on at that moment, but was wary about the condition of his own men, tired after several days of marching. Cautious, and patient, Nugent instead set his artillery to work, launching a bombardment of the town.
This artillery attack ended only a few hours after nightfall, without inflicting any serious lasting damage on the town, but its effect on the rebels was gigantic. Hundreds if not thousands departed in the night, slipping away from their own commanders and seeking their own homes. When daylight came, Monroe was left with a much depleted army, and still no firm idea what to do with it. Seeking a limited success, he sent a deployment of pikemen down from the camp into the streets of the town, where they encountered advancing militia. A melee ensured, that the United Irishmen had the better of, driving the government forces back.
But even as that was occurring, Nugent was winning the battle elsewhere. He had sent much of the rest of his army around the town to attack the rebel camp directly with infantry, cavalry and grapeshot primed cannon, which cut the piecemeal counter-attacks to pieces. After a few hours of fighting in the early morning, the remaining rebels broke and fled from the hill, seeking refuge in the nearby woods. Ballynahinch was abandoned. The government cavalry inflicted most of the casualties of the day in that moment, cutting down the fleeing rebels while they were, essentially, defenceless. Of what was left, 400 are presumed to have died.
With their fall, the rebellion in Down came to a sudden stop, as it did in the rest of Ulster. Where the government had failed to contain the growing violence in Wexford, they had achieved admirable success in the north, where two quick and critical victories ended things. Now it was the leaders who would suffer, with both McCracken and Monroe captured not long after the fighting had ceased. Both would face charges of treason, and both would be executed by hanging, among the first to suffer the fate judicially in 1798.
Nugent had brought things to a close in Ulster with a military skill that was far more impressive than other British generals elsewhere in Ireland. His initial strategy in Down left the rebels isolated and suffocated them of needed early victories to increase their momentum, and when he did take the offensive, he did so with patience and restraint, waiting until he had the rebels in-between two different government forces and refusing to get bogged down in street-fighting. He utilised his cavalry and cannon properly, and the result was another decisive British success.
We should not under-estimate the effect that Nugent’s actions had on the wider struggle. With Ulster prevented from rising, the 1798 Rebellion became, for the moment, a conflict fought almost exclusively in the south-east. There, the government had already started turning the tide, with the victories at New Ross and Arklow. Now, the time for a more concerted pushback had come.
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