Oh wild was their rush and exultant their shout,
When the signal to charge from the bugle rang out,—
The fire of their hearts seemed to temper each blade.
They thought of the land they had left o’er the sea,
And the brave who had perished, dear Erin, for thee,
Then one cheer for Old Ireland, a curse on her foes,
Like the peal of the thunder to heaven arose
From the lips and the souls of the Irish Brigade!
“The Irish Brigade” by Anonymous
As Colonel Count Arthur Dillon and his Regiment of the Irish Brigade of the French army emerged from the swamp near the British earthworks in front of Savannah, Georgia, on the morning of October 9, 1779, he knew they were in a precarious situation. The plan had called for a surprise attack by the combined American and French troops under cover of darkness, starting around 4 am.
The swampy ground the attacking forces had to traverse on the march to the British works had presented enough of a problem, but early morning fog had exacerbated that challenge. Dillon’s guide had difficulty directing them to their target on the right of the British works, along the Savannah River. The entire Franco-American force was disheartened to hear the sounds of the pipes of Lieutenant Colonel John Maitland’s Scottish troops as the sun rose. It signaled to all that the element of surprise, which was always a key to such an assault on earthworks, was already lost.
The original hope was that Dillon’s column might be able to slip between the northernmost British earthwork and the Savannah River, flanking the British line. In the light of morning, that would be impossible, but hearing the sounds of battle from the south, Dillon would press forward in what would be known as the 2nd Battle of Savannah.
(Below: The Regimental flag of the Dillon's Regiment of the Irish Brigade.
The motto reads: "In this sign thou shalt conquer.")
Count Arthur Dillon and other members of the Dillon family, along with his famous Regiment, were once again confronting the ancient foe of their nation, as they had for decades in the ranks of the Irish Brigade in the service of France. Ironically, the revolutionary forces that they were aiding in the attack on Savannah would soon spread to France and lead to the demise of both the Regiment and Count Dillon himself.
The history of the Dillon family’s service to France began earlier than the formation of the famous Irish Brigade in the 1690s. Thomas Dillon, 4th Viscount of Costello-Gallen in the Mayo–Roscommon area, lost his estates by supporting the royalist cause against Cromwell. He was forced into exile in Europe with his four sons. One of them, James Dillon, formed a regiment in France in French service in 1653. That regiment was disbanded in 1664 when James died.
Theobald, 7th Viscount Dillon of Costello-Gullen, founded the most famous Dillon’s Regiment in Ireland during the Williamite War. His son, Arthur, commanded the Regiment when it accompanied Lord Mountcashel to France in 1690. This was part of an exchange in which the French sent 6,000 well-trained and equipped French troops to fight in Ireland while the Irish sent 5,000 far less well-trained troops to serve in the French Army. This was the genesis of the famous Irish Brigade in the service of France.
One of the distinctive elements of the Irish Brigade during their entire service in the French army was their red uniform tunics. This was to signify their support of the Stewart claim to the English throne. Until 1776, Dillon’s Regiment red tunics had black cuffs and lapels, matching the black cantons on their regimental flag, as shown to the left. From then until it was disbanded, their cuffs and lapels were yellow, as seen to the right, painted by artist Don Troiani. Clare's Regiment had worn those colors until 1775, when they were absorbed into Berwick's Regiment. The primary tunic color for regular French infantry regiments of the period was white.
Only members of the Dillon family officially commanded the Regiment during their century in French service. They were the only Regiment of the Irish Brigade that would be in continuous service to the French King under the same family. Dillon’s Regiment would serve first in the Nine Years War, then the War of Spanish Succession, the War of Polish Succession, the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War, and finally, the American Revolution.
Dillon’s would fight in the two most renowned victories of the Brigade at Cremona in 1702, during the War of Spanish Succession, and their most notable victory at Fontenoy in 1745 during the War of Austrian Succession. There were even a few members of Dillon’s fighting on the losing side in the most famous defeat in Scottish history, at Culloden.
At Cremona, a near-perfect plan by Austria’s famous military leader, Prince Eugene, was thwarted by a small portion of the Brigade, including members of Dillon’s. They tenaciously held a bridge and gate into the town against overwhelming odds until the rest of the French army could rally and drive the enemy back. Their contribution to the French victory was so significant that a member of the British parliament later commented, “Those two regiments [Dillon and Burke] did more mischief to the High Allies than all the Irish abroad could have done had they been kept at home and left the entire possession of their estates.”
(Right: Prince Eugene)
The victory at Fontenoy was the most famous in the history of the Brigade. It was won by a desperate charge of the full Brigade on the right flank of the Duke of Cumberland’s attacking column. Dillon’s was first involved in an unsuccessful smaller counterattack but soon afterward joined the full Brigade attack to break the Duke’s assault on the center of the French line. The Brigade crashed into the British troops with the war cry, “Cuimhnigidh ar Luimneach agus ar feall na Sassanach!!” (Remember Limerick and Saxon treachery!) It was said that following Fontenoy, King George II complained, “Cursed be the laws that deprive me of such subjects.” The Penal Laws at the time forbade Irish Catholics from bearing arms and serving in the military.
Fontenoy would become the most famous moment in the history of the Brigade. One historian called it the most significant win over an English army (albeit under French colors) since the 1598 Battle of the Yellow Ford in County Armagh.” The Irish Brigade in the U.S. Army would even invoke the victory during the American Civil War with the battle cry, “Remember Fontenoy.” Thomas Davis, one of the founders of the “Young Ireland” nationalist party in the 19th century, wrote two poems about the battle: “The Battle Eve of the Brigade” and “Fontenoy.”
(Leftt: A postage stamp the Irish and Belgian governments issued commemorating the Irish Brigade's part in the Battle of Fontenoy, showing the monument.)
In August 1907, Irish nationalists erected a Celtic Cross monument to the battle in Fontenoy. The base showed the Limerick Treaty Stone with this inscription in Irish: ‘On this stone was signed the treaty by which England should have granted religious freedom to the Irish people. It broke that treaty, and the Irish, driven from their homelands, enrolled in the French armies and won fame on the battlefields of Europe.’ The Irish government’s Office of Public Works now maintains the monument.
(Below: The coat of arms of the Viscount Dillon.)
As the years rolled on, the rank-and-file members of the regiments of the Irish Brigade became less and less Irish as the British weakened the anti-Catholic Penal Laws, reducing emigration. The leadership of the regiments, however, would remain primarily Irish. That was undoubtedly true of Dillon’s Regiment. One of the last Dillons to command the Regiment would be Arthur Dillon, born in August 1750. His Jacobite pedigree was impeccable. His Great-Grandfather, Lord Theobald, was killed fighting for the Jacobite side at Aughrim in 1691. His Grandfather, also Arthur, for whom he was named, commanded the Dillon’s Regiment of the Brigade when it left for France with Lord Mountcashel. His Uncle, James, died in command of the Regiment at the famous victory at Fontenoy. Command of it then went to another Uncle, Edouard, who was later killed at the Battle of Lauffelt in 1747.
Arthur’s father, Henry, became Colonel of the Regiment on the death of Edouard, but he was then living in England to protect his hereditary rights to land in Ireland, and commanded in name only. Though King Louis XV was urged to appoint someone from outside the Dillon family to official command of the Regiment, he refused. “I cannot consent to see that a proprietorship, cemented by so many good services and so much blood, should go out of a family, as long as I might entertain a hope of witnessing its renewal,” the King said.
(Below: Thérèse-Lucy de Rothe)
That hope was Henry’s son, Arthur. In 1767, when Arthur was just 17, he was appointed Colonel of the Regiment by King Louis XV to continue that family proprietorship. He would serve as a captain in the Regiment until taking actual command at age twenty-three. Authur married Thérèse-Lucy de Rothe in 1768. She also had connections to the Brigade, with her father commanding Rothe’s Regiment in the Brigade. She was said to be very beautiful and was a lady-in-waiting and an intimate friend of Queen Marie Antionette. They would have two children: a son, George, who died at age 2, and a daughter, Henriette-Lucy.
The early part of Arthur’s service in the Regiment was during relatively peaceful times. In 1775, two years after he assumed command of the Regiment, members of Bulkeley’s were incorporated into it to bring it up to full strength. When the French allied themselves to the new United States government in their attempt to break away from the British Empire in 1778, Dillon petitioned the King to allow his Regiment to be one of the first sent to aid the Americans, saying the Irish “…. always demanded the privilege of going first into battle against the English, everywhere the French were at war with them.” His request was granted. On April 5, 1779, Arthur Dillon sailed to the new world with 1400 Regiment members in a force that Count d’Estaing would command.
(Below: The British surrender at Grenada to Count d’Estaing as painted by Jean-Louis de Marne 1752-1829)
Their first target was the British-occupied island of Grenada. There were about 700 troops in the British garrison there. It was commanded by Lord George Macartney, who was Scottish but traced his roots back to an ancient Irish family. King Louis XVI once complained to General Count Arthur Dillon that the Irish Brigade regiments gave him more trouble than all others. Dillion replied, “The enemy makes the same complaint, your Majesty.” Dillon would now make that a reality in his first combat command.
Macartney refused D’Estaing’s surrender request and retreated to a fortified hilltop known as Morne de l’Hopital. D’Estaing, knowing there was a British fleet nearby, decided to attack immediately under cover of darkness that night, July 3. Macartney’s defenders seemed to be caught off guard by that rapid action. With Dillon commanding one column of the attack and his relative, Count Edward Dillon, another, the formidable position was captured by the attackers. Arthur was slightly wounded in the attack, and D’Estaing praised the Regiment’s performance.
The British fleet did arrive on July 6 but was beaten off by the French fleet. At this point, D’Estaing decided to sail to Georgia to aid the American rebel’s attempts to retake Savannah, which had been captured by the British in 1778.
D’Estaing was worried about losing his fleet to a hurricane; thus, they were again operating under a time constraint. They arrived on September 8, but landing his force of 2,400 men using small boats was slow. The French joined a force of 2,000 Americans commanded by General Benjamin Lincoln.
(Left: Savannah battle map.)
The original British force in the city was only about 1,000, commanded by General Augustin Prevost, nicknamed “Old Bullethead.” On September 16, D’Estaing sent Prevost a surrender demand. But as he seriously considered it, 900 Scots Highlanders of the 71st Regiment of Foot, commanded by Leiutenant-Colonel Maitland, managed to slip into the city, nearly doubling the defenders. With the addition of many members of the local loyalist militias, the garrison ended up over 3,000 strong. Maitland also stiffened the spines of Prevost and his command with an inspirational speech. The demand was rejected.
D’Estaing attempted a siege, but when the initial bombardments of the city seemed to have little effect, he changed plans. He now planned a surprise attack before dawn on the 9th. It was a risky move, as the Franco-American force did not outnumber the British by the margin an attacker would hope for against an entrenched defender.
The British had used the long delay since the French had landed to their advantage. There were now 14 redoubts encircling Savannah, with an extensive network of trenches between them. This made a daylight attack untenable, thus the plan for the pre-dawn assault. D’Estaing believed the right of the British line, which ended along the Savannah River, was the weakest part of their line. The central part of the attack would be on the Spring Hill Redoubt, in the right-center of the British line, while Dillon would command a column that would try to flank the British along the river. Several officers, including Dillon and Polish-born American General Casimir Pulaski, opposed the planned attack. Major Thomas Browne, who was to lead Dillon's assault, predicted to D’Estaing that he would die leading it.
(Below: The American attack on the Spring Hill Redoubt.)
Moving troops through swampy terrain in the dark, especially after fog set in during the early morning hours, hindered the plan, but the surprise was gone before the troops embarked. The details of the attack had already been betrayed to the British by Sergeant Major James Curry, a deserter from the Charleston Grenadiers. Curry had overheard senior American officers discussing the attack and gave the British the exact location and timing of the assault. Lieutenant Colonel Maitland was given command of reinforcements from the 60th Regiment, a company of marines, and a battalion of his 71st Highlanders to reinforce the planned attack area. The area of the attack was now the most substantial part of the defenses. The attack had little chance of success, but neither the French nor the Americans gave it up without a fight.
(Below: The death of General Casimir Pulaski. near Savannah, by Stanislaw Kaczor-Batowski 1933)
The attackers had 244 killed, 584 wounded and 120 captured. Dillon’s had 42 killed, including Major Thomas Browne, Dillon’s 2nd in command, as he had predicted, and over 100 wounded. Also killed was Captain Bernard O’Neill, who was the 5th generation of his family to serve in Dillon’s. Theobald Dillon, who would later command the Regiment, was wounded. Among the dead on the American side was General Casimir Pulaski. Though casualty figures in battles of the time are often hard to authenticate, the Franco-American casualties were arguably the 2nd highest of any battle of the war.
D’Estaing did not lead from the rear in this attack. He was wounded during the battle, leaving Dillon in command. Seeing the futility of further attacks, D’Estaing decided to depart. Diillon commanded the loading of the troops back onto the ships. While D’Estaing returned to France with half his force, Dillion and his Regiment remained with the other half, now under the command of French Admiral Comte de Grasse.
The Regiment participated in the capture of Tobago and St. Eustache in 1781 and St. Christopher and St. Kitts in 1782. The capture of St. Eustache in November 1781 was notable. The French infantry under the command of the Marquis de Bouillé sailed for the island with about 1500 men, hoping to surprise the 850-man British garrison in a fort on the island.
(Below: St. Eustache harbor, showing the fort on the left)
The weather nearly destroyed their plan. After de Bouillé, Dillon, and about 400 soldiers made a difficult landing on the island, high winds made further landings impossible. With the winds remaining high, the small force on the island was in danger of being overwhelmed if the British discovered their presence. De Bouillé and Dillon chose to take the initiative and hoped the element of surprise would allow them to carry the day.
In this, they had a factor that would work in their favor. The Irish Brigade soldiers wore red uniforms. With luck, that might buy them the time to take the fort. That luck was with them. At 4 am, they were 6 miles from the British fort. Moving quickly, they reached it by 6 am. The British commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Cockburne, was unaware of the threat as he was off on his regular horse ride. Dillon and his red-clad men marched right up to the British barracks and captured most of the garrison along with Cockburne as he returned from his pleasant morning ride. Other French troops entered the fort before they raised the drawbridge, and the victory was complete.
The French captured the entire British force for the loss of about ten men, most of whom had drowned during the landings. In his report on the victory to King Louis XVI, the Marquis de Bouillé (left) said, “Count Dillon has given new proof of his extreme zeal and activity.” Among the British prisoners were about 350 Irish Catholics who were said to have switched sides and enlisted in the regiments of Dillon or Walsh.
The Regiment participated in the capture of St. Christopher and St. Kitts in 1782. These were the last contributions of the Irish Brigade to America’s successful Revolution. Though some have claimed that a portion of Dillion’s Regiment was at Yorktown, no French records back that up.
Arthur Dillion remained in the West Indies after the war ended. He was appointed governor of St. Christopher. Even the British, who later retook control of the island he administered, said he performed his duty there fairly and effectively. All the decrees Dillon enacted while in charge were kept in place by the British. Arthur’s cousin, Theobald, was promoted to command of the Regiment and was destined to be the last.
Arthur’s wife had died while he was serving in North America. On Martinique, he met Laure de Girardin de Montgérald, Countess de la Touche, a Creole woman and cousin of the future Empress Josephine, and later married her back in France. Their daughter, Fanny, and her husband would one day be in the room at St. Helena the day Napoleon died.
Ironically, the forces that the Briigade helped put in motion in North America would lead indirectly to the Brigade’s dissolution. The revolutionary spirit they furthered in the New World would spread across the sea to France. In addition to ending the Brigade, it would lead to personal disaster for many members of Dillon's family. Arthur Dillon returned to France shortly after the events of the Revolution began. Given its long history of loyalty to the crown, it was a dangerous time for the Brigade and the Irishmen associated with it.
On July 21, 1791, the National Assembly dissolved the Irish Brigade despite an impassioned plea from Arthur Dillon to save them. Though the Brigade was disbanded, the regiments continued in the French army as the 87th Régiment d’Infanterie (Dillon’s), 92nd (Walsh’s), and the 88th (Berwick’s).
In 1792, as they were disbanding, Louis XVI personally expressed to the Brigade the thanks of the French nation. Presenting them with a white banner adorned with a harp and embroidered shamrocks, he told them:
“Gentlemen, we acknowledge the inappreciable services that France has received from the Irish Brigade in the course of the last 100 years, services that we shall never forget, though under an impossibility of requiting them. Receive this standard, as a pledge of our remembrance, a monument of our admiration, and of our respect; and in future, generous Irishmen, this shall be the motto of your spotless flag: 1692 1792 Semper et Ubique Fidelis.” (Always and everywhere faithful)
Still loyal to France, Arthur Dillon rejoined the French army in 1792. When the monarchies of Europe attacked France, he led the rightwing of the Army of the North. Arthur’s cousin and last commander of Dillon’s, Theobald, also joined the army of the Republic.
Theobald came to an ignominious end in April 1792 while in command of a force that attacked the Allies in Tournai, Belgium. When his troops panicked and retreated, baseless rumors circulated that he had betrayed them. He was shot by Dragoon at close range. Then, civilians dragged him from the carriage carrying the wounded general in the town of Lille. He was shot again and repeatedly stabbed with bayonets. The mob then burned his lifeless body.
(Left: A contemporary political cartoon of the murder of Theobald Dillon.)
Arthur Dillon would be no more lucky in the new French Republic than Theobald. Though he served them well, helping win the Battle of Valmy in September 1792, Arthur had many enemies in the French government, and it was a time when that could be fatal. Though he battled his enemies to a standstill for some time, in July 1793, he was arrested. Though he managed to avoid his ultimate fate for some time, on April 13, 1794, the guillotine blade fell on his neck. The French government later recognized Dillon’s contributions to and sacrifices for France; his name was inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe.
(Below: The guillotine, where the careers of many
members of the Irish Brigade in service to France ended.)
There would be two more Dillon’s Regiment in Europe. The British took advantage of the French disbanding of the Irish Brigade and the poor treatment of many of its former officers to form an Irish Catholic Brigade of their own in 1794. It was sometimes called “Pitts Irish Brigade” for Prime Minister William Pitt, who pushed the concept.
Henry Augustus Dillon-Lee, 13th Viscount Dillon, commanded one of the regiments. This was despite his branch of the family no longer being Catholic, as Henry’s father, Charles, had conformed to the established religion (Church of England) in 1667. All of the regiments had problems recruiting in Ireland, which was just four years away from the ’98 Rising.
The Anglo-Irish population was vehemently opposed to the idea of Irish Catholics under arms in Ireland, so all the four regiments that managed to fill their ranks, out of six proposed, were sent overseas. Dillon’s served in Jamaica and San Domingo. In 1797-98, all four regiments were disbanded.
One other Dillon’s regiment served in Europe. Eduard Dillon, who had served in France’s Irish Brigade, organized a regiment in northern Italy. Only Dillon and one other officer, Francis Dillon, were Irishmen, the rest of the regiment being Italians and Frenchmen. It was taken into British service in 1806 and served around the Mediterranean. It was disbanded in 1814.
Throughout the 18th century, many Irishmen and Irish families were forced to leave their native land to practice their religion and live as free men. No Irish exile family distinguished itself more than the Dillons. They remained, Semper et Ubique Fidelis, to France for over a century, even when the country for whom they had sacrificed so much turned its back on them.
Then, hurrah! for the fame of our faithful and brave,
Unforgotten they rest, though across the deep wave,
In far distant lands, are their weary bones laid.
Long, long be remembered the lesson they taught,
They loved the green island, and died where they fought;
With face to the foeman unconquered they fell.
May we fight the battle of freedom as well
For the flag and the cause of the Irish Brigade!
“The Irish Brigade” by Anonymous
“History of the Irish Brigades in the Service of France” by John Cornelius O’Callaghan
"Irish Swordsmen of France" by Richard Hayes
"The Ranks of Death," Unpublished manuscript, by Thomas J. Mullen,
"Biographical Dictionary of Irishmen in France" by Richard Hayes
"The Irish Brigades 1685-2006" By David Murphy
"The Irish Brigades Abroad: From the Wild Geese to the Napoleonic Wars" by Stephen McGarry
"More Furies Than Men: The Irish Brigade in the Service of France 1690-1792" Piierre-Louis Coudray
"The Irish Brigade of France at the Seige of Savannah, 1779" by W.S. Murphy - The Georgia Historical Quarterly, XXXVIII, pp. 307 (December 1964)
“The Wild Geese: The Irish Brigades of France and Spain (Men at Arms Series, 102)” by Mark Mclaughlin
The Wild Geese: The Irish Soldier in Exile," by Maurice Hennessy
"The Irish Brigade at Fontenoy," by Sir Charles Petrie, The Irish Sword: Journal of the Military History Society of Ireland, Volume I, No. 3, 1951-52, pp. 166-172
A Military History of Ireland by Thomas Bartlett and Keith Jeffery Eds.
A History of the Irish Soldier by A.E.C Bredin
The Irish and France: Three centuries of military history - The Wild Geese Soldiers & Heroes (video)
Battle of Fontenoy, 1745 ⚔️ France vs England in the War of the Austrian Succession (video)
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