Ireland’s Wars: Ballinamuck

Not counting a small amount of unnumbered supplementary entries I wrote out to fill in a few gaps, this is the 200th edition of Ireland’s Wars. We’ve come a long way, and still have Robert Emmet, Young Irelanders, Fenians, World War One, 1916, the Anglo-Irish War, the Civil War, the Emergency, UN peacekeeping missions, and the Troubles to cover, not to mention a host of other, lesser-known, military events to consider. I’d like to thank all readers, subscribers, commenters and well-wishers from sticking with me for this long, and I hope I can keep this series up to an inevitable conclusion.

Cornwallis and his army stood ready at Athlone as September began. The news of Castlebar was unhappily digested by the Lord Lieutenant, but he remained cautious and optimistic about the situation in front of him. With more reinforcements promised by London and over 10’000 men to command himself, Cornwallis could still easily consider himself in the far better position. When he began a slow advance towards Tuam, he did so with numerous generals commanding sections of his army – among them John Moore, and Hutchinson, smarting after his repulse a few days previously – that moved slowly but must have seemed irresistible.

His counterpart, Humbert, was stuck in that unenviable position of having gained immense success but now not totally clear what he should next. The victory at Castlebar had done the job of swelling recruitment into the nascent Irish revolutionary army, as men came from all corners of Mayo to join up with the cause. But they were an undisciplined and difficult to control lot, with a tendency to pillage Protestant houses and complain when they were ordered not to. Humbert summarily executed more than one Irish member of his army in a bid to re-assert control. All the while, he tried to organise a revolutionary government for Connacht that could administer a new Irish army, with mixed success. The political enthusiasm that he and the other French officers hoped would be evident in Ireland was largely non-existent, and the higher classes had little interest in aiding his cause. A lack of expected currency to augment Humbert’s dwindling financial resources was also a pressing issue.

All of this might explain Humbert’s decision to press on and attempt to break out of Connacht, instead of staying out and waiting for the promised reinforcements from France, that were not actually all that far away. Fearing that staying sedentary would invite the British forces on to crush him, Humbert’s believed that opportunities to spread rebellion outside of Mayo existed, and determined on trying to grasp those opportunities, to increase both the size of his army and the problems for Cornwallis. The initial target would be the north, with Humbert gathering up his French regulars and a selection of Irish for the task, marching towards Sligo on in the early days of September. This route had the advantage of avoiding the barrier of the Shannon, as tricky a natural barrier as it had been in the 1650’s.

Humbert had a relatively free hand to act. Cornwallis’ advance towards him was incremental: The British general didn’t trust the Irish militia and yeomanry that made up the bulk of his army, and was not eager for an engagement, wanting more leeway to set the terms for one. As well as that, the garrisons in northern Connacht were threadbare, in no position to sally out and impede Humbert’s progress.

When the combined French/Irish army reached Sligo Town, they faced some resistance in the form of a small army headed by Charles Vereker, a Limerick MP and militia colonel, that engaged them in a small skirmish at Collooney. Somewhat exaggerated in the media afterwards, the government forces held their enemy for a short-time before falling backwards, with around equal casualties sustained between both sides. It was a stop for Humbert, and a crucial delay, that bolstered British morale at a time when it seemed like the entire United Irishmen rebellion was about to kick off again. Humbert considered an attack on Sligo itself, but must have concluded that he could not hope to pull the same trick as he had at Castlebar again.

Besides, soon after he decided to alter his plan, upon hearing word that new rebel armies were massing in the counties of Longford and Westmeath. Though they had organised United Irishmen cells, they had failed to rise with the rest of Leinster in May, perhaps due to the arrest and surrender of crucial leaders. Now, with rumours of vast French success to the west, Irish men wielding pikes, scythes and other implements suddenly started assembling at various hills across both counties. Hearing of this and envisioning the first proper stirrings of the promised nationwide rebellion, Humbert relented on his plan to head north, and instead decided to bear east. By September 7th, he had reached and crossed the Shannon at Ballintra.

Unfortunately for Humbert and this French/Irish army, they would find little support in the midlands counties, where the rebellion that had inspired this strategic shift had already been crushed by the time they got there. At Granard and Wilson’s Hospital large assemblies of rebels had formed but, without the required leadership to direct them, they had done little more than loot and burn Protestant homes. By the 5th, small but well led forces of militia, yeomanry and regulars attacked the Wilson’s Hospital camp, with significant losses at the Irish side, while a well-coordinated defence of Granard had the Irish attackers there soon fleeing backwards. Most dispersed, but a few struggled westwards into the path of Humbert’s army.

Humbert, even if he had got the expected support, was in deep trouble. Cornwallis had remained biting at his heels the entire time, directing various facets of his army in an effort to encircle the Frenchman, following his route back towards Dublin. While Humbert’s march would naturally have created fears in the capital – defended by just over a thousand men only – it is extremely unlikely that he would ever have gotten that far in any position to actually threaten the seat of government, as his army shed numbers through desertion and government strikes at his rear the entire time.

Humbert dumped cannon from his army to increase their marching speed, but it wasn’t enough. The failure to destroy the bridge at Ballintra – a vanguard of Lake’s section of the army, under the soon to be more famous Colonel Robert “Black Bob” Crawford, had prevented this – meant that Humbert was bound to be surrounded at some point, but he pressed on, perhaps hoping that he could somehow get around Cornwallis’ personal section of the army that sought to place itself in his path. He couldn’t.

On September 8th, Humbert ran out of options at Ballinamuck, County Longford, not too far from Granard, in-between two steep hills. Cornwallis, with over 5’000 men, blocked the road westwards, while Lake was rapidly coming on behind with a force nearly as strong. By then, Humbert had his 850 French regulars and a few thousand Irish left.

The resulting fight was exceedingly brief. The government forces opened fire with cannon and then launched a cavalry attack on exposed Irish positions, which broke quickly. The government then advanced on the French lines. After an exchange of musket fire, Humbert suddenly signalled his desire to surrender, having wanted only to fight so long as to protect both his own and his nations honour in the face of the enemy. The battle lasted little more than half an hour. More Irish, who refused to lay down their arms at the same time, were killed even as Humbert was arranging his surrender.

500 Irish were killed at Ballinamuck, the last major land engagement of the 1798 rebellion. Cornwallis reported that 3 of his own men fell, while Humbert may not have lost any French at all. While many of the Irish prisoners, including Matthew Tone, would be hung, the French were safely escorted to Dublin, their higher ranks a source of much public interest and even a sort of strange fame. They would be eventually repatriated to France in a prisoner exchange, and held a low opinion of their Irish allies ever afterwards. Humbert would serve again in the French Revolutionary Wars, in Switzerland and the Caribbean, but left French military service when Napoleon rose to power. Emigrating to the New World, he took part in military adventures in Mexico and Argentina, and last saw fighting in the War of 1812, under future American President Andrew Jackson. He died in 1823. A street in Ballina is named in his honour.

All that was left after the battle was to snuff out the garrison at Killala, which held together amid the rumour of defeat for another two weeks, until government forces under a General Trench finally arrived there. With only a handful of French officers left, most of the Irish in arms had deserted. Those that remained put up a brief but gallant resistance outside the town but were hopelessly outnumbered. When they broke, a massacre ensued, outside the town and in it, leaving another 500 dead, and bringing a final end to the Republic of Connacht.

Humbert’s time in Ireland achieved far more than it ever really should have, thanks largely to the unexpected triumph at Castlebar, which left the government briefly on the back foot and gave him the opportunity of free movement in Connacht and the ability to raise more rebels. But when it came to the crucial moment, those same men could not be trusted to stand and fight. In the face of Cornwallis’ patient encirclement, Humbert was essentially powerless: whether it was in a mad dash to Dublin or hunkered down in Killala, defeat was inevitable without further French reinforcement. Humbert was a half-decent general, but at Ballinamuck nothing could have stopped Cornwallis’ victory, the British commander undertaking his job with skill, competence and determination, all qualities that most government leaders had been sorely lacking thus far.

But still the bloodshed of that year was not over, as the very last chapter of the 1798 Rebellion began to unfold.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.


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7 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Ballinamuck

  1. steoller says:

    Colonel Robert Crauford – Black Bob?

    • NFB says:

      Sorry, missed this with the holiday. Unless there was another man of the same name serving at the time, yeah. That Robert Craufurd did serve under Cornwallis and Lake.

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