The rebels in County Wexford had been forced back to their camp at Enniscorthy, following the defeats at New Ross, Arklow and Foulksmills. Now, General Lake was prepared to give what he saw as the final crushing blow to the rebellion, with nearly every soldier available to him employed in a massive coordinated invasion of the area.
That operation took some time. Lake’s idea was fairly simple: he would move the columns available to him around until the rebel position at Enniscorthy was completely surrounded, then attack with artillery and cavalry until the rebels were completely defeated. The time taken to affect this encirclement would insure that no rebels would be able to escape in order to continue the struggle.
The encirclement itself would be largely around Vinegar Hill, just outside Enniscorthy, where the central camp of the rebels was located. In the face of the advancing enemy, it was there that the rebels had massed all that they could muster, which may have totalled up to 20’000 men. But now, at this most critical moment of the rebellion in Wexford, the vast majority of these men were armed with nothing more than pikes, the powder and the guns to use it depleted. The rebels, led by a collection of different officers, seem to have had little in the way of tactical aims in this decision, other than to concentrate their numbers, and did not intervene on Lake’s march southwards in any way, seemingly preferring to accept a single decisive clash where their numbers were strongest.
Lake was in position around Vinegar Hill around five days after leaving Dublin, along with most of the other columns of his army, under the command of men like Dundas, Duff and Loftus. Duff and Loftus would cross the Slaney and attack from the north, while Dundas would press on from the east. Troops under a General Johnson would attack Enniscorthy itself. Crucially however, the column of men under General Needham was late to proceedings, and so Vinegar Hill was not completely surrounded as Lake had hoped. Regardless, Lake refused to wait for Needham and pressed ahead with his attack.
He had no intention of just marching his men up the hill to attack the massed pikemen. He had brought 20 pieces of artillery with him, and these went to work on the morning of the 21st of June, firing shots into the utterly helpless rebel forces, who had next to no cover on the hill itself. Normal shot, grape shot and new experimental explosive shells rained down, to devastating effect. The outlying units of rebel infantry moved backwards in the face of small government advances, which simply allowed Lake to move his cannon even closer to the enemy, now massed even tighter together, an unmissable target.
The rebels did attempt some charges at this time but, as they had time and again when faced with well-placed and properly operated artillery, they were unable to make a breakthrough, and were forced back with loss. Eventually Dundas commenced his own attack on the eastern side of the hill, mostly with cavalry, and these swept forward without much opposition.
While all this was going on, fighting was also taking place in Enniscorthy itself, where the rebels acquitted themselves better. Though they were forced to retreat, the pikemen inflicted heavy enough losses on Johnson’s infantry here, utilising strongpoints and narrow streets to good effect, and holding the bridge over the Slaney for as long as they could. But it couldn’t continue. At the best of times, the rebels had failed when holding a numerical advantage of over five to one, but now thousands of government troops were bearing down on them.
In both Enniscorthy and on Vinegar Hill Hill, the rebels lost their cohesion and broke. Luckily for them that the government encirclement was not complete, with thousands of fleeing rebels streaming through what became known as “Needham’s Gap”, a criminally large opening in the government lines. If Lake had been hoping to end the rebellion right then and there, even just by a brutal massacre of trapped rebels, he was to be bitterly disappointed.
For the rest, there was only slaughter at the hands of the victorious infantry, cavalry and artillery, with somewhere between five hundred to a thousand rebels killed at the site, the number in dispute due to the number of camp followers who died as well. Over a dozen cannon were re-captured. The government, in response, took 100 casualties. In the aftermath, the winning side ran roughshod over Enniscorthy, killing wounded rebels and firing field hospitals, with an uncaring Lake doing little, if anything, to stop it.
To the south, John Moore disobeyed orders and advanced past his designated point at Taghmon, to relieve Wexford Town, held only by a small force of rebels who scattered on his approach. With the fall of the Wexford Republic’s capital came relief for the loyalist prisoners still alive in its gaol, who had spent several fear-filled days awaiting summary execution, only to be rescued at the death. What signs that there had ever been a revolutionary state – the banners, the green cockades, the signs for Liberty and Equality – vanished rapidly.
Moore kept his own men in line – he smartly only allowed regular infantry to garrison to the town, keeping the militia outside – and was joined the following day by Lake, triumphantly preparing a missive detailing his accomplishments to Cornwallis, whom he must have believed he had undercut in terms of military achievement in the rebellion. Among the deaths in the aftermath, as Lake began a terrible series of reprisals and executions, were Bagenal Harvey, John Kelly, Philip Roche and John Murphy, most hanged on Wexford bridge after the bare semblance of a trial. It was what Harvey must have feared since he was first hoisted into a command position: unable to escape to France as he had wished, he paid the ultimate price for what may have just started out as a dalliance with the United Irishmen.
Vinegar Hill is probably the best remembered battle of the 1798 Rebellion, the name synonymous today with British military might against largely unarmed Irish rebels. But for all that, it was a remarkably simple affair, brutally so. The rebels seemed to lack any kind of firm plan or coordination, and Lake, for all his faults, had about as easy a task as he could have wished for, presented with a clear target and having the means to defeat it. The rebels should have scattered before the battle, when more of them could have escaped to fight another day. Instead, Lake and his subordinates were allowed to essentially end the conventional struggle in Wexford. The rebels there would never again hold towns or territory against the government.
But they would still fight. Thousands of United Irishmen had been able to slip away through government lines, and while many of these would head for home, tired of the fighting, others would come back into a recognisable shape and consider their options. The last desperate part of this portion of the rebellion, an ambitious and ultimately flawed attempt to reignite the fighting in the midlands, was about to begin.
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