At length, about the 20th of September, 1798, that fatal expedition set sail from the Baye de Camaret. It consisted of the Hoche, 74; Loire, Resolue, Bellone, Coquille, Embuscade, Immortalité, Romaine, and Biche schooner, and aviso. To avoid the British fleets, Bompart, an excellent seaman, took a large sweep to the Westward, and then to the Northeast, in order to bear down on the Northern coast of Ireland, from the quarter whence a French force would be least expected. He met, however, with contrary winds, and it appears that his flotilla was scattered; for, on the 10th of October, after 20 days cruise, he arrived off the entry of Loch Swilly with the Hoche, the Loire, the Resolue, and the Biche. He was instantly signalled; and on the break of day, next morning, 11th of October, before he could enter the bay or land his troops, he perceived the squadron of Sir John Borlase Warren, consisting of six sail of the line, one razee of 60 guns, and two frigates, bearing down upon him. There was no chance of escape for the large and heavy man of war. Bompart gave instant signals to the frigates and schooner, to retreat through shallow water, and prepared alone to honour the flag of his country and liberty, by a desperate but hopeless defence. At that moment, a boat came from the Biche for his last orders. That ship had the best chance to get off. The French officers all supplicated my father to embark on board of her. "Our contest is hopeless," they observed "we will be prisoners of war, but what will become of you?" "Shall it be said," replied he "that I fled, whilst the French were fighting the battles of my country?" He refused their offers, and determined to stand and fall with the ship. The Biche accomplished her escape, and I see it mentioned in late publications, that other Irishmen availed themselves of that occasion. This fact is incorrect, not one of them would have done so, and besides, my father was the only Irishman on board of the Hoche.
The British Admiral despatched two men or war, the razee, and a frigate, after the Loire and Resolue, and the Hoche was soon surrounded by four sail of the line and a frigate, and began one of the most obstinate and desperate engagements, which have ever been fought on the ocean. During six hours, she sustained the fire of a whole fleet, till her masts and rigging were swept away, her scuppers flowed with blood, her wounded filled the cock pit, her shattered ribs yawned at each new stroke, and let in five feet of water in the hold, her rudder was carried off, and she floated a dismantled wreck on the waters; her sails and cordage hung in shreds, nor could she reply with a single gun from her dismounted batteries, to the unabating cannonade of the enemy. At length she struck. The Resolue and Loire were soon reached by the English fleet; the former was in a sinking condition, she made, however, an honourable defence; the Loire sustained three attacks, drove off the English frigates, and had almost effected her escape; at length, engaged by the Anson, razee of 60 guns, she struck after an action of three hours, entirely dismasted. Of the other frigates, pursued in all directions, the Bellone, Immortalité, Coquille, and Embuscade were taken, and the Romaine and Semillante, through a thousand dangers, reached separate ports in France.
During the action, my father commanded one of the batteries, and, according to the report of the officers who returned to France, fought with the utmost desperation, and as if he was courting death. When the ship struck, confounded with the other officers, he was not recognised for some time; for he had completely acquired the language and appearance of a Frenchman. The two fleets were dispersed in every direction, nor was it till some days later, that the Hoche was brought into Loch Swilly, and the prisoners landed and marched to Letterkenny. Yet rumours of his being on board must have been circulated, for the fact was public at Paris. But it was thought he had been killed in the action, and I am willing to believe that the British officers, respecting the valour of a fallen enemy, were not earnest in investigating the point. It was at length a gentleman, well known in the County Derry, as a leader of the Orange party, and one of the chief magistrates in that neighbourhood, Sir George Hill, who had been his fellow student in Trinity College, and knew his person, who undertook the task of discovering him. It is known that in Spain, Grandees and Noblemen of the first rank pride themselves in the functions of familiars, spies, and informers of the Holy Inquisition; it remained for Ireland to offer a similar example. The French officers were invited to breakfast with the Earl of Cavan, who commanded in that district; my father sat undistinguished amongst them, when Sir George Hill entered the room, followed by police officers. Looking narrowly at the company, he singled out the object of his search, and stepping up to him, said, "Mr Tone, I am very happy to see you." Instantly rising, with the utmost composure, and disdaining all useless attempts at concealment, my father replied, "Sir George, I am happy to see you; how are Lady Hill and your family?" Beckoned into the next room by the police officers, an unexpected indignity awaited him. It was filled with military, and one General Lavau, who commanded them, ordered him to be ironed, declaring that, as on leaving Ireland, to enter the Frecnh service, he had not renounced his oath of allegiance, he remained a subject of Britain, and should be punished as a traitor. Seized with a momentary burst of indignation at such unworthy treatment and cowardly cruelty to a prisoner of war, he flung off his uniform, and cried, "These fetters shall never degrade the revered insignia of the free nation which I have served." Resuming then his usual calm, he offered his limbs to the irons, and when they were fixed, he exclaimed, "For the cause which I have embraced, I feel prouder to wear these chains, than if I were decorated with the star and garter of England." The friends of Lord Cavan have asserted that this extreme, and I will add, unmanly and ungenerous severity, was provoked by his outrageous behaviour, when he found that he was not to have the privileges of a prisoner of war. This supposition is not only contradicted by the whole tenor of his character, and his subsequent deportment, but no other instances of it have ever been specified, than those noble replies to the taunts of General Lavau. Of the latter, I know nothing but these anecdotes, recorded in the papers of the day. If, as his name seems to indicate, he was a French emigrant, the coincidence was curious, and his conduct less excusable.
Another version of this story, which I have seen, for the first time, in the London New Monthly Magazine, states that Mr Tone was recognised by, or, according to another account, had the imprudence to make himself known to, an old acquaintance at Lord Cavanís table, who speedily informed his Lordship of the guest who sate at his board. The first circumstantial account, is the one which reached us in France; but, in my opinion, the difference between the two stories is very trifling. It regards only the fashion in which Sir George Hill gave in his information.
From Letterkenny he was hurried to Dublin without delay. In the same Magazine, I find that, contrary to usual custom, he was conveyed during the whole route, fettered and on horseback, under an escort of dragoons. Of this further indignity, I have never heard before. During this journey, the unruffled serenity of his countenance, amidst the rude soldiery, and under the awe struck gaze of his countrymen, excited universal admiration. recognising in a group of females, which thronged the windows, a young lady of his acquaintance; "There," said he, "is my old friend Miss Beresford; how well she looks." On his arrival, he was immured in the Provostís prison, in the Barracks of Dublin, under the charge of the notorious Major Sandys, a man whose insolence, rapacity, and cruelty, will long be remembered in that city, where, a worthy instrument of the faction which then ruled it, he enjoyed, under their patronage, a despotic authority within its precincts. (See Curranís Speeches, Hevey versus Major Sirr.)
Though the reign of terror was drawing to a close, and Lord Cornwallis had restored some appearance of a legal order and regular administration in the kingdom, a prisoner of such importance to the Irish Protestant ascendancy party, as the founder and leader of the United Irish Society, and the most formidable of their adversaries, was not to be trusted to the delays and common forms of law. Though the Court of Kingís Bench was then sitting, preparations were instantly made for trying him summarily before a Court martial. But before I give an account of this trial, and of the nature of his defence, it will be necessary to remove some erroneous impressions, on these subjects, which I have seen stated, both in Curranís Life, by his son, and in the very fair and liberal comments of the London New Monthly Magazine. A prevailing notion in both these works, is, that, from my fatherís early dislike to legal studies, and inaccurate acquaintance with the English laws, he considered his French commission as a protection, and pleaded it in his defence. It is impossible to read his speech on the trial, and preserve this idea. Though he used to laugh at his little proficiency in legal lore, he knew perfectly well that the course he had deliberately taken, subjected him to the utmost severity of the British laws. Nor was he ignorant, that, by the custom of the land, and the very tenor of those laws, his trial, as it was conducted, was informal. He never was legally condemned: for, though a subject of the crown, (not of Britain, but of Ireland,) he was not a military man in that kingdom; he had taken no military oath, and, of course, the court martial which tried him had no power to pronounce on his case, which belonged to the regular criminal tribunals. But his heart was sunk in despair at the total failure of his hopes, and he did not wish to survive them. To die with honour was his only wish, and his only request to be shot like a soldier. For this purpose, he preferred himself to be tried by a Court Martial, and proffered his French commission, not to defend his life, but as a proof of his rank, as he stated himself on the trial.
If further proof were required, that my father was perfectly aware of his fate, according to the English law, his own Journals, written during the Bantry Bay expedition, afford an incontestable one. (See Journal, of Dec 26, 1796.) "If we are taken, my fate will not be a mild one; the best I can expect is to be shot as an emigré rentré, unless I have the good fortune to be killed in the action: for most assuredly, if the enemy will have us, he must fight for us. Perhaps I may be reserved for a trial, for the sake of striking terror into others, in which case I shall be hanged as a traitor, and embowelled &c. As to the embowelling, ĎJe míen fiche.í If they ever hang me, they are welcome to embowel me if they please. These are pleasant prospects! Nothing on earth could sustain me now, but the consciousness that I am engaged in a just and righteous cause."
But my father also knew that political considerations will often supersede the letter of the laws. The only chance on which he had formerly relied, was, that the French Government would interfere, and claim him with all its power and credit; to that, and to threats of severe retaliation, he knew that the British cabinet would yield, as they did about a year afterwards in the case of Napper Tandy. A curious fact, and which is not generally known, perhaps, even to that gallant soldier himself, is, that Sir Sidney Smith was detained by Carnot in the Temple, for that very purpose, like a prisoner of State, rather than a prisoner of war.
The time of my fatherís trial was deferred a few days, by the officers appointed to sit on the Court Martial, receiving marching orders. At length, on Saturday, 10th November, 1798, a new court was assembled, consisting of General Loftus, who performed the functions of President, Colonels Vandeleur, Daly, and Wolfe, Major Armstrong, and a Captain Curran; Mr Paterson performed the functions of a Judge Advocate.
At an early hour, the neighbourhood of the barracks was crowded with eager and anxious spectators. As soon as the doors were thrown open, they rushed in and filled every corner of the hall.
Tone appeared in the uniform of a Chef de Brigade (Colonel). The firmness and cool serenity of his whole deportment, gave to the awe-struck assembly the measure of his soul. Nor could his bitterest enemies, whatever they deemed of his political principles, and of the necessity of striking a great example, deny him the praise of determination and magnanimity.
Contents of Life of Wolfe Tone