November 24th 2010

Irish Soldiers In the American Revolutionary War

The Wild Geese

Much has been written about the Irish Brigade in America’s Civil War, the idea for a “foreign legion” unit having come from the “Wild Geese,” as the Irish who fought in the various European wars were called. All-Irish units were formed in many countries--including France, Spain, and Austria—as the Europeans came to realize that the Irish made superior soldiers when properly trained.
            At the time of the America Revolution, the French Army contained three Irish regiments, named after their organizers as the Regiments of Dillon, Berwick, and Walsh. The Regiment of Dillon saw the most service on the American side of the Atlantic, though elements of Walsh’s regiment were the first to aid the American cause when they were assigned as marines to John Paul Jones’s Bonhomme Richard

Count Arthur Dillon
In 1779, British troops and American Loyalist (“loyal” to the king) militia dominated the southern colonies. Savannah, Georgia, was the key port of the area, and General Benjamin Lincoln, commander of the American colonies’ Continental Army in the south, was determined to take it. A French fleet was attacking British-controlled colonies in the Caribbean, and Lincoln asked its commander to help. Admiral D ’Estaing sailed north to Savannah with part of his fleet, leaving the rest to guard newly conquered Grenada and Guadalupe.
            Most French military documents of the time were destroyed in the later French Revolution, and American records did not dwell on the extent of French help rendered. But surviving documents show that Dillon’s regiment was part of the French expedition to the Caribbean, and its 1400 Irish took part in the conquest of Grenada. About 500 of them eagerly volunteered to accompany D’Estaing north to fight more British. Various Dillons had been in command of the regiment of that name since it was formed in 1698. In 1779, the commander was Dublin-born Count Arthur Dillon, who later lost his head to the Guillotine. At least part of Walsh’s regiment also was with D’Estaing in the Caribbean, and a company of it is believed to have been present at Savannah because officers known to be in that regiment were commended in a surviving French dispatch. The Dillon contingent probably was one of the regiment’s two battalions. 

Siege of Savannah

The surrender of Earl Cornwallis (Lieutenant-General of the British Army in North America) to General Washington & Count DeRochambeau, on the 19th of Octr. 1781

The siege of Savannah was a disaster for the attacking force. About 4500 French (including Dillon’s 500) and 2200 of General Lincoln’s Americans surrounded Savannah fortifications defended by 2500 English troops and Loyalist militia. A lengthy siege was ruled out because D’Estaing, fearful of hurricanes, would not commit to more than two weeks. Lincoln reluctantly agreed to a frontal assault. Dillon was second in command of the French and led one of the attacking columns, spearheaded by his Irish detachment. The combined French-American force was beaten back by grapeshot with some of the heaviest casualties of the war—637 French and 457 Americans killed or wounded, including 63 of Dillon’s regiment. Within days, D’Estaing had collected the survivors, loaded the ships, and sailed away.
            The presence of Dillon’s regiment at Savannah, augmented by a portion of Walsh’s, is certain. Berwick’s regiment did not arrive in the Caribbean until 1782, and it missed both Savannah (1779) and Yorktown (1781). While some historians placed the Dillon and Walsh regiments at Yorktown there is no firm evidence of this.  There were several Dillons at Yorktown, but they were officers in Lauzun’s Legion and probably from a different Dillon family.

O'Hara and the Sligo connection to the Surrender

While many Irish fought in the Continental Army, there were no all-Irish units. Nine of Washington’s generals were born in Ireland—two major generals and seven brigadier generals. Of these, only Brigadier General Edward Hand from County Offaly was at Yorktown. There was another Irish general at Yorktown but, ironically, he was serving with the British forces. General Charles O’Hara, the illegitimate son of British General James O’Hara, second baron of Tyrawley, was born in Lisbon, He was the third general in his family, his grandfather having been Sir Charles O’Hara, first baron of Tyrawley, who—although born in Co. Mayo—was said to have been of the Sligo O’Hara family. Charles, the grandson, was second-in-command to British commander Lord Cornwallis.

Washington and O'Hara

O’Hara had the dubious honor of representing Cornwallis at the surrender ceremony.
There were no all-Irish regiments in the British order of battle at Yorktown, though there were Irish among the rank-and-file. For example, the roster of the 76th Foot, a Scottish regiment that was at Yorktown, listed 114 Irish among its soldiers.  During the 1780s, the Dublin government was funding a British military reserve of 12,000 soldiers, and Cork was the primary logistical base for the British forces in North America.  The city of Cork exhibited its loyalty to the king by offering an enlistment bonus. The Roman Catholic citizens of Limerick also did, offering one guinea to the first 500 to enlist there.  There was an all-Irish regiment serving in the British army in America, the 105th Foot--also called “The Volunteers of Ireland.” It was raised in the American city of Philadelphia by an Irish officer in the British army (Lord Rawdon-Hastings) and took part in the 1779 battle for Charleston, but it was not at either Savannah or Yorktown.

Three more Irish Regiments: Ultonia (Ulster), the Irlanda, and the Hibernia

             Mention should be made of yet another group of Irish who were peripherally involved in the American Revolution in a manner that had an influence on the battle of Yorktown.  Spain had an Irish brigade consisting of three regiments—the Ultonia (Ulster), the Irlanda, and the Hibernia. The Hibernia was in Cuba at the time of the American Revolution and, in May 1781, 22 officers and 588 men from it participated in the Spanish conquest of Pensacola, Florida. After the British surrendered, they were allowed to sail to New York. This reinforcement of the British garrison in New York influenced the American and French decision to march against Cornwallis at Yorktown, rather than lay siege to New York.

Paul Burns
November 2010

Further reading: Irish Sword, 1982; "General Charles O'Hara," by William D Griffin.















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