Now seems like a good moment to take a little break and evaluate where things stood in Ireland, as mid-June arrived. It is a curious thing about the 1798 Rebellion, that from the moment it began on the 24th of May, up until the 13th of June, every day had some instance of combat in some form. But then, from the 13th to the 19th, things settled for a period. There would still have been the odd encounter here and there, the rebels still going back and forth over a few Kildare villages, gathering arms and supplies in Wexford, on the run in Ulster. But larger scale battles, like that of Ballynahinch or New Ross did not occur.
To understand why, you have only to look at the general strategic situation. The rebellion in Ulster had been pretty much crushed. In the midlands, it had been stopped in Meath and was in its dying days in Kildare. In Wexford, the high water mark of the rebels had come and gone, and they were in the process of retreating back into the centre of the county. And the rising had never erupted in the rest of the country in the way that the United Irishmen had hoped that it would.
And in this slightly less than a week period, the government in Dublin was continuing to hesitate just a bit, weary of committing what forces it controlled, still withheld for a serious push into Wexford. Camden was actually on his last legs in terms of his political appointment. He had spent the rebellion thus far despairing in Dublin Castle, and writing pleading letters to London, begging for thousands of reinforcements to be sent as soon as possible, without which he was certain the rebellion would grow to the point of being unstoppable. Camden’s fears were somewhat exaggerated, but it came with the more dangerous knowledge that if a French expedition landed, the peasant armies could become an altogether deadlier prospect. Napoleon’s fleet, that had left Toulan a short time earlier, was still unaccounted for.
In Great Britain, the Irish rebellion was not as major a news story as you might have expected it to be, save perhaps in Wales and the west coast, where the tidal wave of refugees fleeing the violence was filling up port towns and villages. But it was still a concern to those in power: the two men at the height of the government were surveying the news from Ireland with weariness and dread. King George III, who had never and would never set foot in Ireland, approved the repeated requests for the movement of additional military units across the sea, even if it weakened the defence of Britain, and blamed the concessions granted to Catholics for the burgeoning troubles. When it came to crushing the rebellion, he was happy to give his assent to military measures, but warned that further concessions to Catholics were something that he would be unable to get behind. He also pointedly insisted that Ireland be made to submit “without conditions”.
The other man was William Pitt, the Prime Minister. Those were stressful days for Pitt: he had just fought and survived a duel with a parliamentary opponent when he came down with a serious bout of ill-health, all while Parliament itself was in session. Ending the disaster in Ireland was a top priority of course, but Pitt had his mind on a longer term solution to the question as well: namely, the destruction of the Irish Parliament and the Irish government, in favour of a greater political union between Ireland and Great Britain. Pitt was now remembering bitterly the heave that ousted Abercromby, for the supposed crime of pointing out the militaries deficiencies in Ireland, that had now been shown up in full.
But that was still to come. First, more practical steps had to be taken to bring things into some kind of order in Ireland, and fast. Camden had already made repeated offers to resign his post, and now Pitt decided to take those up. Further, he and his cabinet also decided that General Lake was not the man they wanted in charge of military forces in Ireland. An obvious solution to the double quandary had already presented itself in the form of Charles Cornwallis, better known as the Marquess Cornwallis.
He was already a giant figure in British and world politics, having been one of the leading British generals during the American War of Independence. It was his surrender at Yorktown in 1781 that had essentially ended hostilities in that war, and since then he had gone on to have a productive term as Governor-General of British holdings in India, reorganising their administration and fighting wars against neighbouring Indian states.
Now, having been mooted for the post as far back as 1797, it was decided that Cornwallis would become both the political and military head of affairs in Ireland, Lord Lieutenant and commander-in-chief. This unity of posts was deemed necessary given the emergency circumstances, and Cornwallis, despite his famous setback, enjoyed the confidence of much of the British government, not to mention the monarchy. His mission was two-fold: end the rebellion, and prepare Ireland for the coming union with Britain. Cornwallis was on his way by the third week in June, even as events began to overtake both him and Pitt in Ireland.
As it stood, the first part of his mission would actually be easier to accomplish than many realised. By now the only significant region of rebellion was the south-east, mainly Wexford but also parts of Wicklow. Plans were already afoot to deal with that area, and would be implemented before Cornwallis had actually arrived. The rebels had suffered successive defeats and were in a perilously weak position, despite their numerical advantage and the holding of towns like Enniscorthy and Wexford.
The failure of the movement to do anything of consequence in Munster would now reap dividends for the government, as forces there began to march east, while Lake, let off his leash by the now lame duck position of Camden – the outgoing head of government had the gall to regret that he would not end his tenure by crushing the rebellion himself – was preparing to move his own forces south in a coordinated campaign to crush the United Irishmen where they were at their strongest.
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