With the serious fighting finished, or so it seemed, Cornwallis set about the task of administering the aftermath. And there was much to do.
One of his first acts was a general writ of pardon for low-level rebels in entire areas, those who had been mere foot soldiers and now remained in hiding, fearing government prosecution or reprisal. The gesture had its limitations, but helped to get men back to their homes and farms, and to enact a sense of normalcy that had been lacking for several months.
It was not a move entirely motivated by selfless reasoning. In the major urban centres, prisons groaned with the thousands of United Irishmen taken in the field, with overstuffed gaols reporting utterly horrid conditions, for even the most high-ranking gentlemen of the movement. If nothing else, this state of affairs encouraged Cornwallis to move forward with the prosecutions that he hoped would draw the entire affair to a close, with regional commands given leeway to try their own courts-martials.
This period is marked by some clemency, but also some extremely rough justice. Cornwallis could be a reasonable man, but was in no way equipped to get a hold on the level of military atrocity that had taken place under Lake, or was still taking place far from Dublin. Floggings and other tortures in order to gain confessions were common, and many executions took place on the back of these. For many others, the punishment would be life-long transportation to distant colonies in Australia and Van Diemen’s Land.
In Dublin, the leadership of the movement, those who had been taken at Oliver Bond’s house in May, awaited their fate. Many of them would go to the scaffold, found guilty of high treason, before the so-called “Treaty of Newgate” was agreed, whereby the remainder would divulge the full details of the organisation and its aims in return for being allowed to emigrate. The Sheares brothers, John and Henry, Joe McCann and William Byrne were those who didn’t get the benefit of the agreement: Thomas Henry Emmett, Oliver Bond, Samuel Neilson, Arthur O’Connor and William James McNevin were those that escaped execution. If this action does not match the traditional view of Irish rebels, going gallantly to their fate like Robert Emmet or the 1916 leaders, it must be remembered that many of the United Irishmen would have been horrified by the violence that had been committed in the name of the movement, without a realistic hope of success.
The firmest sign that the fighting had come to an end might have been the August campaign of Sir John Moore, who took a force of men into the Wicklow mountains in an attempt to bring reported guerrilla activity to heel. Moore was an excellent choice for the job: a conscientious officer who with an uncanny understanding of the sectarian cycle of violence in Ireland, he rigidly restrained the men under his command from carrying out any reprisals or atrocities, instead essentially waging a brief counter-insurgency campaign along what we might recognise as “Clear, Hold, Build” lines. His men offered protection to the local population, who felt threatened by the guerrillas, and after an exemplary lesson in how a well-led military could show humanity to civilians, the guerrillas were dispersed.
Moore returned to Dublin in triumph, the rebellion seemingly crushed for good, but appearances could be deceiving. There were still yet other guerrilla bands sequestered in mountainous areas, woods and bogs, who would remain potent threats to the administration for years to come, a hard-core remnant alike to the Tories of the Eleven Year Wars. And, notwithstanding the return to normal life, with a good harvest and a resumption of industry, there were still fears of a French invasion. Cornwallis was wary, remembering keenly the intelligence reports that had claimed Napoleon’s large fleet had been destined for Ireland. It had actually sped into the Mediterranean, on the way to his ill-fated Egyptian adventure, but the sense of caution prevailed at the highest British levels.
It was an appropriate sentiment. In early August the government received word that a newer, smaller, fleet of French ships was being assembled in Brest to carry several thousand French soldiers to Ireland. Cornwallis put the military in the country, over 100’000 strong if regular, yeomanry and militia units are counted, on alert, and particularly garrisoned the south and east coasts. They would seem to have been the natural points of embarkation for any invasion force: they were the areas with the greatest rebel sentiment, and were close to the centre of the British administration.
Cornwallis’ fears were well-founded, but he erred in the area he choose to focus on in terms of defence, largely ignoring Connacht. The western province could fairly be described as the freest from United influence: the movement had never really been able to gain a firm foothold there, and it was largely quiet during the actual rebellion. It is perhaps understandable then that Cornwallis and others ignored it when it came to determining the placement of troops, as it seemed unlikely that the French would choose such a faraway point to land, and in an area where they were unlikely to garner significant and needed support among the civilian population.
But wrong they were, at least on the first count. On the 23rd of October, the residents of Killala, a small coastal town thirty miles to the west of Sligo, were stunned to see three frigates arrive in the bay. Initially mistaken for British ships, the reality became clear when the first blue-uniformed troops began to spill out onto the beach, handing out leaflets to baffled locals that proclaimed the French had come to create a new “Irish Republic”.
This expeditionary force was actually of a fairly paltry size, little more than a thousand men in all, led by General Jean Humbert, then 31 years old. Humbert, a fur trader who had risen rapidly in the revolutionary armed forces, had joined Lazare Hoche on his ill-fated mission to Ireland two years before, and after some additional service in the French mainland had been appointed to lead the second expedition, to make good on the oft-deferred promises made to the United Irishmen for military support.
Of course, the amount of men employed, and the amount of supplies brought were far less than what had been at one time promised, but Humbert’s vanguard was envisioned as the first of several detachments, that would gradually form into an army of greater side, to be supplemented by Irish peasantry. Additional regiments were due to arrive soon after, who included Wolfe Tone in their number: his younger brother Matthew had arrived with Humbert. But Humbert sailed without the knowledge that the rebellion in the south and east had already been crushed, and then arrived in an Ireland that was no longer as amenable to French military invasion as it would have been just weeks earlier. His instructions were not to engage in any great military engagements, but to establish a beachhead for the creation of a revolutionary political state and the distribution of arms to rebels in the field. Unbeknownst to him, the larger French fleet supposed to follow was delayed by bad weather and British blockade. For the immediate future, Humbert was on his own.
Cornwallis received the news of the French invasion calmly, and quickly organised to lead his own troops westward to face them, instructing subordinate commanders close to Sligo to merely contain the threat, and not to engage the French. He would become the first Viceroy to lead an army on Irish soil for well over a century. The task before him seemed embarrassingly easy: With 100’000 troops at his disposal, multitudes of cavalry, dozens of artillery pieces and the advantage of fighting on what was essentially home ground, Cornwallis was excepted to easily crush this small French force, even if it was, as reported, gaining Irish volunteers at a fast rate.
The final fate of the United Irishmen and their plan for rebellion would be decided in the coming weeks, in operations that would have locals remember 1798 as “the Year of the French”.
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