'For Faith and Fame and Honour': The Irish Brigade in the Service of France Part 4 of 5: Across the Deep Waves

By Joe Gannon, Managing Editor 

(Right: John Adams Reviews Jones' Marines, 13 May 1779, by Charles Waterhouse.)


Then here's to the fame of our faithful and brave –
Unforgotten they rest, though across the deep waves,
In far distant lands are their weary bones laid!
             — "The Irish Brigade" (Author Anonymous)

In their last major campaign, the Irish Brigade would help the new republic of The United States of America to free itself from British rule, and for one last time be left to lament, as had Sarsfield, "would it were for Ireland." One of their contributions to the American colonists' war with their former "motherland" would come in the "Old World."

In September 1779, off the British coast, John Paul Jones, aboard his ship, the Bonhomme Richard, prepared for his famous battle with the British ship HMS Serapis. On the deck and riggings of his ship were marines in red coats. They were men of the Regiment de Walsh-Serrant of the Irish Brigade of France. When Jones received his ship from the French he was allowed to ask for volunteers from the French army to serve as marines in his coming battles against the British. As ever, the men of the Irish Brigade were first in line for that duty.

The USS Bonhomme Richard

The Serapis was a new British frigate, a superior ship to the Bonhomme Richard in both speed and firepower. But with a little luck provided by the wind, Jones evened the fight by coming alongside the Serapis and grappling her. He then won the fight in good measure because of the superiority of his marines in clearing the British marines from the decks and riggings of the enemy ship after his famous pronouncement, "I have not yet begun to fight." And he won it in spite of the fact that the cannon-ball riddled Bonhomme Richard sank after a boarding party from the Bonhomme Richard had forced Captain Pearson to strike the flag of the Serapis. Jones and his crew sailed their prize back to France. It is, arguably, the most famous victory in early US naval history, and Ireland's exiles played a large part in winning it.

Across the Atlantic, by 1779, the birth struggle of the new republic was not playing out in the colonists favor. Colonel Arthur Dillon, grandson of the original commander, and the other officers of his regiment asked that they be allowed to accompany the force being sent to the New World commanded by Count D'Estaing. This was request was granted and Dillon's regiment sailed to the West Indies to join D'Estaing. D'Estaing's fleet was also reinforced by another fleet under the Marquis de Vaudreuil that included some of Walsh's regiment of the Irish Brigade.

"Is the Morne taken?" When told it was, he replied, "Then I die content."

D'Estaing's first target was a British-occupied island in the West Indies whose name would be in the headlines of American newspapers two centuries later: Grenada. The British garrison there was commanded by Lord George Macartney, who was Scottish, but traced his roots back to an ancient Irish family.

Macartney had 700 troops to hold the island, 200 of those regulars against D'Estaing's force of over 2,000. But there was a British fleet in the area, so if he could hold out against the likely much larger besieging forces, relief was at least a possibility. Hoping to do that, he retreated to a fortified hilltop known as Morne de l'Hopital. When Macartney refused D'Estaing's request that he surrender, the French commander believed a long siege was out of the question. Not wanting to take the time to land his artillery to support a day-light attack, the Frenchman decided to attack that night.

A soldier from Dillon's regiment.

Two of the three columns in the attack were mainly comprised of the men from Dillon's regiment, with Colonel Dillon commanding the left column. The attack was launched at 2 a.m. on July 4, 1779, just two days after the fleet arrived at the island.

Perhaps surprised by the audacity of this night attack, the resistance by the defenders was ineffective. In an hour or less the heights had been taken, with Colonel Dillon's column reaching it first. Those British not captured or killed retreated to the fort, along with Lord Macartney. But this fort was on the slope, and was thus dominated by the captured guns now commanded by the French on the heights. Macartney had no choice but to surrender.

Among the 35 French troops killed was Lt. Pat MacSheehy of Dillon's regiment, hit by a cannon shot near the end of the battle. The mortally wounded Macsheehy was said to have asked, "Is the Morne taken?" When told it was, he replied, "Then I die content."

The British fleet did, indeed, arrive two days later, but the French fleet drove it off. Having made an indirect contribution to the American cause, D'Estaing now hoped to make a more direct one. He sailed for Savannah, Georgia, hoping to assist the Americans in retaking that port city, which had been lost in 1778. They arrived there September 8th. D'Estaing was very worried about losing his fleet to a hurricane; thus, they were again operating under a time constraint.

Count D'Estaing

Using small landing boats, it took the French a week to land 2,400 men, who joined the 2,000 Americans there under General Benjamin Lincoln. There were about 1,000 British troops in the town, commanded by General Augustin Prevost, nicknamed "Old Bullethead," when D'Estaing arrived on the 9th. Fifty miles away, in Beaufort, were 900 Highlanders of the 71st Regiment of Foot. Unfortunately, and perhaps fatally, for the Franco-American prospects, most of them were allowed to slip through some surrounding swamps and into the city, nearly doubling Prevost's forces.

The British spent the days after the French landed improving their works, aided by the many loyalist civilians in the city. The French had their guns in place ready to to bombard the city on October 4th, hoping to affect its surrender without an assault. By the 8th, it was clear that this would not happen, so the decision was made to attack the next day.

D'Estaing's plan called for an attack on the right flank of the British works, where he felt they were the weakest. Many of his officers, including Arthur Dillon, and Polish-born American General Casimir Pulaski, opposed the plan, but D'Estaing stuck with it.

The plan called for coordination between two French attack columns, one comprising mainly the Irish regiments, and an American one, along with several other feigned attacks. And with the attack planned for 4 a.m., all this movement of troops and the first attacks would have to be done in the dark. In addition to these problems, it appears that either spies or deserters informed the British of the plan, because that night they moved their best troops into the areas targeted for assault.

National Archives
"Attack on Savannah" by Arthur Ignatius Keller. The French and American forces are depicted on this view's left side. Click on image for a larger view.

As if those handicaps were not enough, the guide with Dillon's column got them lost in the dark, causing them to attack after the first French column began its assault. Before both columns attacked, they realized that they lost the element of surprise, when they heard the pipes of the 71st Foot playing, signaling that the British forces were aware of the French plans. The piecemeal attacks of the two French columns and then the Americans were driven off, though the French attacks did manage to reach the British redoubts. Dillon's lost heavily, with 42 killed and about 105 wounded.

D'Estaing saw no prospect for a successful siege and re-embarked his troops. Part sailed for France with him, but he sent the other half back to the West Indies. The Irish Brigade troops remained with that half.

There they participated in the capture of Tobago and St. Eustache in 1781 and St. Christopher in 1782. Dillon was appointed governor of St. Christopher after the final victory, and was said to have performed his duty there in a fair and effective manner.

These were the last contributions of the Irish Brigade to America's successful revolution. Ironically, that success would lead indirectly to the Brigade's dissolution. The revolutionary spirit they furthered in the New World would spread across the sea to France, and with it would come the demise of the vaunted Irish Brigade.

Part 5, 'Semper et Ubique Fidelis'

Related Resources:


Bibliography:

  • Bartlett, Thomas and Jeffery, Keith, Eds.: A Military History of Ireland, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Bredin, A.E.C.: A History of the Irish Soldier, Century Books, 1987
  • Hayes, Richard, Biographical Dictionary of Irishmen in France, M.H. Gill and Son, LTD., 1949.
  • Hayes, Richard: "Irish Casualties in the French Military Service" The Irish Sword: Journal of the Military History Society of Ireland Volume I, No. 3, 1951-52, pp. 198-201.
  • Hayes, Richard: "Irish Swordsmen of France," M. H. Gill and Sons, Ltd., 1934.
  • Hayes, Richard: "Old Irish Links with France," M. H. Gill and Sons, Ltd., 1940.
  • Hennessy, Maurice: The Wild Geese: The Irish Soldier in Exile," The Devin-Adair Co., 1973.
  • Lawless, Emily, With The Wild Geese," W. Isbister & Co. Ltd.,  1902.
  • McLaughlin, Mark, "The Wild Geese: The Irish Brigades of France and Spain," Osprey Publishing Ltd., 1980.
  • Mullen, Thomas J., "The Ranks of Death," Unpublished manuscript.
  • Murphy, John A., "Justin MacCarthy, Lord Mountcashel," Royal Eóghancht Society Publications, 1999.
  • Murphy, W.S., "The Irish Brigade at the Siege of Savannah, 1779," The Georgia Historical Society Quarterly Volume XXXVIII, No. 4, December 1954, pp 307-321.
  • O'Callaghan, John, "History of the Irish Brigades in the Service of France," R&T Washbourne, Ltd., 1890.
  • O'Connell, Mary Anne Bianconi, "The Last Colonel of the Irish Brigade: Count O'Connell and Old Iris... K. Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co.," 1892.
  • The O'Doneven, Lt. Col.: "Coote and Lally: Two Irish Personalities at War," The Irish Sword: Journal of the Military History Society of Ireland, Volume VII, No. 28, 1966,
    pp. 231-233.
  • Petrie, Sir Charles, "The Irish Brigade at Fontenoy," The Irish Sword: Journal of the Military History Society of Ireland,
    Volume I, No. 3, 1951-52, pp. 166-172.

More on The Wild Geese in Europe's Wars


This feature was edited by Liam Murphy and Gerry Regan.

Copyright © 2011 by GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from GAR Media. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com.

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Tags: Brigade, Europe, France, Irish, War

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