With the rebels pegged back in Wexford and all but wiped out elsewhere, the time had come for the authorities to begin their operations to bring the rebellion to a decisive close. A new Lord Lieutenant was soon to arrive, and more reinforcements were coming all the time. General Lake, with more freedom than he had been allowed up to that point in the rebellion, was keen to enact his own plans before Cornwallis had a chance to grab all of the glory and the credit for defeating the United Irishmen.
Lake’s plan was surprisingly complex for a man more associated with brute force, though there would be plenty of opportunity for that in the days to come. He envisioned five separate columns moving into Wexford from all directions and converging on Enniscorthy, there to destroy the main rebel encampment before mopping up whatever was left, recapturing the lost urban centres, like Wexford Town, in the process. Such a plan would need to utilise the majority of what troops were available, and would be reliant on accurate communications and co-ordination between the respective portions. But, if successfully implemented, it was the kind of plan that would bring the final decisive battle that Lake craved.
Before that clash could come into being though, some other fighting needed to take place. In Kildare, the rebellion had long since been reduced to a very marginal thing, little more than bands of United Irishmen avoiding government troops and launching repeated and piecemeal attacks on whatever villages and towns were more undefended than others. The main bulk of Kildare’s rebel armies had either surrendered or were in the process of arranging this, but there remained enough United Irishmen in arms that the government authorities felt obliged to further secure their western flank before moving forward with the Wexford operation. Militia and other military units that had been garrisoned in Meath were sent south to aid in this effort.
The result was what is called the Battle of Ovidstown, which took place near Kilcock on the 19th of June. Kilcock, nearby Maynooth and other villages in the immediate area had been subject to rebel attack and brief occupation throughout the course of the rising, but solders operating out of Trim, roughly 400 in total, were now sent to put an end to it. The rebels, commanded by a man named William Aylmar, may well have outnumbered their enemy ten to one. The difference, as always, was that the rebels were poorly trained and armed, while the government units had both cavalry and artillery to bolster their force.
At Ovidstown Hill, Aylmar tried to use the terrain to his advantage, setting up a defensive position and placing men behind the cover of ditches from which he hoped to ambush the advancing enemy. But government light infantry ruined this plan by flanking the rebel positions, and by the time that Aylmar had created enough cohesion that an attack on the government was possible, they had already set up their artillery, which fired grapeshot to the same deadly effect as it had been fired at New Ross or Arklow. Desperately, the rebels launched their attack, but in the face of additional musket fire, could not take the artillery. A cavalry attack on the exposed flanks finished the job, and the rebels were soon running. 200 of them were dead on the field, and those that did not scatter never to reform retreated with Aylmar into the relative safety of the Bog of Allen.
It was to be the last real battle of the rebellion in Kildare, and government forces had soon retaken every village and town of note, especially Prosperous, that had been in rebel hands since the very beginning of the rising. Scattered bands of rebel fighters remained, but would never again be in a position to seriously threaten government control in Kildare.
The Wexford rebels, largely cut off from the rest of the country, would have known little of this of course. They had faced setbacks, but the semblance of a revolutionary government was still operating in Wexford Town, with its central committee and various sub-committees. Differences of opinion between those who merely wanted political reform and those who wanted to craft a brand new society were starting to become more and more obvious, in line with the increased difficulty in keeping the republican citizenry in line. More than once, loyalist prisoners being kept under lock and key were threatened by a mob all too easily whipped up; all the while, the clock was ticking down on the Wexford Republic, whose peasant armies had now been defeated multiple times in succession.
Reduced in number, lacking decent officers and with the kind of aimless hysteria one often finds in revolutionary capitals, they could do nothing about the suddenly advancing government forces, who wound their way from Dublin in the north and New Ross in the south. The column from New Ross was commanded by none other than John Moore, the office who had distinguished himself as a more conciliatory and mindful commander during the disarmament campaigns that came before the rebellion itself.
Having moved from Munster into Wexford, he and his men, maybe 1’500 in total, were now hot on the heels of Father Philip Roche and the remnants of the United army that had been repulsed from New Ross with such serious loss. They were retreating back towards other rebel forces at Wexford and Enniscorthy, but were still more than capable of taking the initiative themselves. On the 20th of June, at the small village of Foulksmill, they turned and prepared to fight.
The day could easily have belonged to Roche. Moore was faced with the difficult task of securing a passage across the River Corock at Foulksmills’ Goff Bridge, with the rebels in his path. Heavily outnumbered, Moore’s left flank and centre both nearly gave way under rebel attacks at different points, not least because of the poor quality of the militia, whom Moore repeatedly had problems controlling on their march. Moore’s personal intervention both times meant that his line held, and eventually, when artillery was deployed, the rebels were forced back and the crossing made secure. Several hundred more United Irishmen paid the price for it, and Roche had soon stumbled back as far as he could.
Both Ovidstown and Foulksmills again illustrate the common traits of battles during 1798. Numerically superior United forces were overcome by much smaller government forces, due to their better weapons, training, and, most of the time, leadership. In the latter weeks of the rebellion, the correct deployment of artillery was increasingly decisive, as rebel infantry were totally incapable of approaching this obstacle with any kind of tactical nuance and paid the price for it repeatedly.
Moore pressed on. The following morning, he could hear the pounding of artillery coming from Vinegar Hill.
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