The port of Brest in the mid-1790s by Jean-François Hue (1751-1823)
As he watched the small French fleet carrying his friend Theobald Wolfe Tone and about 3,000 French troops sail out of Brest, France on September 20, 1798, General Charles Kilmaine’s heart must have ached. They were destined for the north of Ireland to aid a rising that was already nearly dead. The 1,000 man force sent six weeks earlier with General Humbert were all dead or prisoners, and the tiny force sent shortly after than under Napper Tandy had not been heard of since.
As the Hoche, with Tone aboard, and the other French ships moved out of sight, General Kilimaine knew their chances of success without further reinforcement were virtually nil. A sorrowful Kilmaine walked away knowing this forlorn hope was the last, desperate hope of freeing his native land, a hope that had burned so brightly just a few months earlier. Then over 40 brigades of infantry and 54 of cavalry were poised to invade the British Isles under the overall command of Napoleon Bonaparte, with 20,000 planned for Ireland under his command. Now he knew his good friend Wolfe Tone was almost surely headed to certain death, and there was nothing he could do about. He had tasted military defeat before during his nearly 25 years in the French army, but now a dream was dying before his eyes.
(Left: General Charles Edward Kilmaine)
In the long, abysmal century for the Irish Catholic population after the defeat of the Jacobites in Ireland in 1691, an untold number of Irish men and women left their native land to escape the persecution of the Penal Laws. More than any other nation, it was Catholic France that welcomed these exiles. Many thousands of the Irishmen who left for France would serve in the ranks of the French army with the rallying cry of, “Cuimhnigí Luimneach agus feall na Sassanaigh” ("remember Limerick and Saxon treachery"). Of those, perhaps the most famous was General Charles Edward Jennings, who was better known as Kilmaine.
In a way, Kilmaine going to France and serving her army was a full circle for the Jennings clan. His ancestors had first come to Ireland as part of the Anglo-Norman invasion. They were a branch of the Burke clan, taking the name MacJonin (son of Jean) which was eventually anglicized to Jennings. The clan settled mainly in Galway and Mayo. Charles’ branch was from the Tuam, Co. Mayo area, which was in the barony of Kilmaine.
(Below: The Market Square in Tuam in 1880.)
One direct relation of Charles, Richard Og MacJonin, was hanged in 1599 for rebelling against Queen Elizabeth. Richard’s son, Theobald, died fighting the English in 1600. Both had their land confiscated. Like many Irish Catholic families who opposed the Elizabethan and Cromwellian incursions and fought on the Jacobite side in the disaster of the Williamite War, the fortunes of the Jennings family suffered during those times. Many looked to Catholic France as a refuge from the persecution of the Penal Laws after the Williamite War was lost.
Charles' father, Theobald, was born in the early 18th century and managed to train as a physician but when the Penal Laws made it impossible for him to practice his profession, he emigrated to France in 1738 setting up a practice in the town of Tonnay-Charente in the south of France. He married Eleanor Saul, daughter of a well-off Dublin distiller. It was her father who was involved with a court case in 1759 in which an English Chancellor famously declared that the law, "does not presume a papist to exist in the kingdom."
In 1751 Eleanor Jennings returned from France pregnant so she could have her child in Ireland. Charles Edward Jennings was born in Dublin on October 19th. Charles was raised in Ireland until age 11 when he was brought back to Tonnay-Charente. Like so many Irish in France, young Charles decided on a military career. In 1774 he became a cadet in the Royal Dragoons. In the army he became known as Kilmaine, for the County Mayo region, his family came from. In 1778 he joined the Foreign Regiment of Lauzun and got his first taste of battle against the English in Senegal.
In 1780, now promoted to lieutenant, Kilmaine crossed with the Atlantic with the Hussars of what became known as Lauzun’s Legion. The Hussars were commanded by Colonel Robert Dillon, whose family commanded the famous regiment of the Irish Brigade. Lauzun’s Legion was part of General Rochambeau’s French expeditionary force that helped the Americans win their revolution. In October 1781, during the Yorktown campaign, they fought and won a skirmish in Gloucester, Virginia against the British cavalry of the notorious Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, unhorsing and very nearly capturing him.
(Left: The 5th Hussars, formerly Lauzun's regiment, in 1808.)
Kilmaine acquitted himself well in the actions of the Legion in America, as evidenced by his promotion to Captain in 1788. He also returned to France with a new-found adherence to republican principles he’d found among the American rebels. Thus it was that when the French Revolution began in 1789, he was one of the minority of Irish officers in France who supported the Republicans, not the King. With the ranks of the officer corps greatly diminished, his experience, and his efforts to help keep the Lauzun regiment (which later became the 5th Hussars) loyal to the new government, earned him another promotion to “chef d’escadron” His star was rising now, but revolutionary France was a very dangerous place for a foreign born officer.
In 1792 the monarchies of Europe launched the “War of the First Coalition” on France in hopes of destroying this existential threat to the hereditary rights of kings and queens. As part of the Army of the North, Kilmaine and his hussars helped turn back the Prussians and Austrians at the Battle of Valmy on September 20th. He was said to have saved a French division by stopping the enemy in a narrow defile at Croix aux Bois.
(Below: The Battle of Jemappes)
When the French then invaded Belgium, Lauzun’s regiment helped lead the way. In a victory at the battle of Jemappes in November, Kilmaine and the Duke of Chartres, who would later be the last king of France before the 2nd Republic, saved the day for the French by holding the center of the line. In his dispatches from the battle, the French commander of the battle, Dumouriez, called Charles, “le Brave Kilmaine,” a sobriquet that would follow him the rest of his military career. General Beurnonville later said, “Kilmaine, that splendid soldier, could not be excelled during those perilous days for France.”
By March 1793 he had advanced through the ranks to colonel, then general in command of a brigade and then a division. With the “Reign of Terror” on the horizon, however, it was not a good time to advance to high command. As spring turned to summer, the Army of the North was in dire condition. The supply lined dried up. The men had no pay, no food, and morale collapsed. Kilmaine spent his own money attempting to keep his men fed and clothed but the army was soon in full retreat.
As the new commander, Dampierre tried to hold the frontier in late spring, Kilmaine was said to have had a number of horses shot out from under him. In early May Dampierre was killed in battle and replaced by General Custine, but he was soon charged with disloyalty, recalled, and not long after was a victim of the guillotine. And so, in August, despite his foreign birth, which was looked on suspiciously by the Committee of Safety, the dangerous command now devolved on Kilmaine.
(Left: General Custine)
Kilmaine fought what military experts would say was a “masterly retreat” with his poorly supplied and equipped and heavily outnumbered army. Any sort of retreat was unacceptable to the Committee of Safety, however, especially by a foreigner, and he was removed from command and recalled to Paris. Kilmaine was accused of treason by Robespierre, something few in France could survive. Amazingly he was allowed to return home to his wife and home in the suburbs of Paris.
In October, however, the government ordered the arrest of all foreign residents of countries at war with France. Kilmaine, who had dedicated his adult life to the service of France, was separated from his wife and thrown into prison. Aristocrats and military men were going to the guillotine constantly at the time. From September 1793 to July 1794 perhaps as many as 300,000 were arrested. That was 1 in 50 Frenchmen and women, with perhaps as many as 40,000 being executed. Among them were many prominent Irishmen in France, including generals Arthur Dillon and James O’Moran. Kilmaine must have awoken every day wondering if it would be his last.
(Right: General Arthur Dillon.)
Somehow, he managed to live through the Reign of Terror, which ended in July 1794, when Robespierre himself met his fate on the guillotine. On the 8th of August Kilmaine was released but then immediately rearrested and then released for good in December. Many might have turned against their adopted country after such contemptible treatment. Kilmaine immediately offered his services to the nation again and with the strong support of many officers with whom he had served, it was accepted by the National Convention.
(Below: Robespierre dies on the guillotine.)
In May 1795 Kilmaine commanded a portion of the force that put down the Prairial uprising. That fall he assisted a promising young general named Napoléon Bonaparte in putting down a Royalist uprising. Kilimaine was beginning to suffer health problems from his long imprisonment, but he would soon be assisting in the campaign that would start Bonaparte’s ascent to legend.
In the spring of 1796, Bonaparte convinced the French government to approve his audacious plan to invade Italy. With his extensive experience commanding cavalry, Kilmaine was Bonaparte’s choice to command a division of the advance cavalry guard. The French quickly got the Austrians in northern Italy on the run, with Kilmaine leading a charge in the victory at Lodi on May 10th.
(Napoleon Bonaparte leading his troops at Arcole during the Italian campaign, by Horace Vernet.)
As the Austrians retreated, Bonaparte gave Kilmaine the job of pressing them, which he did with alacrity. After having a horse shot out from under him while driving the enemy out of Borghetto on the 30th, he wrote Bonaparte a very brief report of the battle saying he was, “much too busy” pursuing them to write more.
Bonaparte had conquered nearly all of northern Italy by July, but the Austrians still held the fortress city of Mantua. During the campaign to capture it, Kilmaine would be in the saddle nearly constantly, leading his division as Bonaparte had him tracking the movement of an Austrian relief column under General Wurmser (left). Wurmser was checked in August but pressed forward again in September. Kilmaine was charged with guarding Verona where he was attacked by a portion of Wurmser’s army and repulsed it. Kilmaine “was able with his usual sagacity to check and overawe the enemy, whom he repulsed,” Bonaparte reported.
Bonaparte now gave Kilmaine the vital role of continuing the blockade of Mantua while he confronted the last Austrian relief attempt. The city finally fell in February, completing the conquest of Italy. Bonaparte again praised Kilmaine’s “splendid service there.” Kilmaine’s next assignment would be one close to his heart.
With France now at peace with Austria, they remained at war only with Great Britain. A weakness of Great Britain was the growing revolutionary fervor in Ireland represented by the United Irishmen. The growing United Irish movement there was inspired by the successful revolutions in France and the American colonies. Bonaparte was originally going to command the Armée d’Angleterre that would invade both England and Ireland, with Kilmaine to command the 20,000 man force intended for Ireland. But Bonaparte because
The United Irishmen sent Theobald Wolfe Tone and Edward Lewins to Paris to try to convince the French to assist their planned rising in Ireland. Kilmaine and Tone became great friends during 1797 and ’98. When Bonaparte met with Tone and Lewins in December 1797, however, it did not go so well. Tone recalled that Bonaparte was cold and spoke little, and Bonaparte later said he had no confidence in the two men or that the United Irishmen would rise up when the French arrived in Ireland. In February 1798 he inspected his troops gathering in Northern France for the invasion and suddenly decided the French Navy was not capable of delivering a large force to Ireland and Great Britain.
(Right: Theobald Wolfe Tone.)
Now he made a decision whose ramifications would be far-reaching for both him and also Ireland. He convinced the Directory to cancel the large scale invasion of the British Isles and approve his alternative attack on the British with an expedition to Egypt. It would prove ill-fated and he would later regret it, but Kilmaine and the people of Ireland would regret it far more. The United Irish would rise, but the miserly aide France sent would prove useless.
The preparation for a smaller scale invasion of only Ireland was allowed to go forward for the summer of 1798. On March 17, 1798 guest of honor at St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Paris which was presided over by James Napper Tandy. Kilmaine sat at Tandy’s right side with Thomas Paine on his left. Theobald Wolfe Tone. In late May, with the French still not ready to sail, and Boneparte just setting sail to Egypt, the United Irishmen were provoked by arrests of leaders and outrages by local Yeoman groups into rising too soon.
In the end, the French forces that arrived in Ireland were far too late, and far too few. Humbert landed in Mayo on August 22nd and managed to rally a good number of Irish rebels to his small army. He was briefly successful but was surrounded and his entire force captured at Ballinamuck, Co. Longford on September 8th.
(Left: The victory of Gen. Humbert at Castelbar, Co. Mayo.)
As Tone and the 3,000 French soldiers under General Hardy were at sea representing the last, long-shot chance for Ireland, Kilmaine refused to give up the cause. He went to the Directory and begged them to allow him to personally lead a further force of 7,000 immediately. He must have known that if captured, because he was born in Ireland, he might be executed in spite of being a French officer. Still, he asked to lead that force, saying “I am the most likely general of the Republic to be successful there.”
At first, the Directory seemed to favor Kilmaine’s plan. But when word arrived of Humbert’s defeat their ardor diminished. Then on October 19th word arrived that Admiral Bompart’s French fleet carrying Hardy had been met by a British fleet at Lough Swilly and defeated with some ships escaping back to France, but the Hoche had been captured. There was little left to do but cancel Kilmaine’s now hopeless invasion attempt.
"The Battle of Lough Swilly" by Nicholas Pocock (1799)
Kilmaine was despondent when he learned Tone was in the hands of the British, for he knew his friend would likely be executed very shortly. Though he had been enlisted as a French officer, the British were unlikely to honor that. Kilmaine wrote to the Directory, appealing to them to inform the British that if Tone were executed a British officer held by the French would suffer the same fate. It was a tactic that would work for the Americans during the War of 1812 when the British threatened to execute Irish-born American prisoners. But the Directory ignored his request and on November 19th Tone, who had been sentenced to be hanged, killed himself in his prison cell.
The news devastated Kilmaine, whose thoughts immediately went to Tone’s wife, Matilda, and their three children. He went so far as to offer to adopt the children to care for them, but Matilda refused. He worked hard to get her a pension and her children educated by the state. Tragically only their oldest, William, would live to adulthood. He would later say of Kilmaine that he “was our staunch friend” during that horrible time after this tragedy. William would later be a cavalry officer in Napoleon’s army at the end of his reign, then immigrated to the U.S. where he served in the U.S. Army.
(Left: The older General Kilmaine.)
Since his prison days, Kilmaine’s health had vexed him. The hard campaign in Italy had worn him down more, and now the anguish of the loss of his friend Wolfe Tone and coming so close to the vision of an Irish Republic only to see it slip away took a further toll on his weakened constitution. Early in 1799, he was named commander of the Army of Switzerland, which was organizing for the conquest of that nation. But he became bedridden and had to resign the command.
Kilmaine was brought home to Paris where his friend and fellow Irishman, Dr. Edmund St. Leger tried to cure him. Various ailments, including severe dysentery, did not respond to treatment, however, and on December 11, 1799” he passed away at the age of 48. Kilmaine had given so much to the cause of both his adopted nation and his native one that he had destroyed his health.
The officers and soldiers of the French army who had known him mourned his loss. An officer who served with Kilmaine in Italy said he “… was an exceptionally fearless soldier who was universally respected.” And that he was “… the only officer in whom Napoleon ever placed complete confidence.” Napoleon himself said of Kilmaine, “… he possessed coolness and a quick eye; he was well adjusted for the command of detached corps of observation” and he “… would have been one of its (the army’s) principal generals, but for the delicacy of his health.” There is a portrait of General Kilmaine in the Hotel de Ville at Tonnay-Charente, where his parents lived. Kilmaine’s name would later be inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe.
(Right: General Kilmaine's name on the Arc de Triomphe in the column under the name of Napoleon Bonaparte - Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr)
Like so many of “The Wild Geese,” Charles Edward Kilmaine fought for the freedom of other nations in both America and in France. But he also had one bright shining moment when the prospect of fighting for the freedom of Ireland had driven him to work so tirelessly that he may have destroyed his health. And through it all, to the last, he had remained, “le Brave Kilmaine.”
(Right: Lauzun's Legion)
The Irish Rebellion of 1798 (Video)
French Invasion of Ireland in 1798, from Library Ireland