Wolfe Tone's Journal at Bantry Bay

Wolfe Tone was appointed Chef-de-brigade, and embarked on the Indomptable on the 1st December, but did not sail till the 16th. On the 17th there were but 18 sail in company instead of 43.

“December 18th.—At nine this morning a fog so thick that we cannot see a ship's length before us. Hazy weather, master Noah, damn it! … This damned fog continues without interruption. I asked General Cherin what we should do in case they did not rejoin us. He said that he supposed General Grouchy would take the command with the troops we had with us, which, on examination, we found to amount to about 6,500 men. The Captain has opened a packet containing instructions for his conduct in case of separation, which order him to cruise for five days off Mizen Head, and, at the end of that time, proceed to the mouth of the Shannon, where he is to remain three more, at the end of which time, if he does not see the fleet or receive further orders by a frigate, he is to make the best of his way back to Brest.”

“December 21st.—We are now, nine o'clock, at the rendezvous appointed; stood in for the coast till twelve, when we were near enough to toss a biscuit ashore; at twelve tacked and stood out again, so now we have begun our cruise of five days in all its forms, and shall, in obedience to the letter of our instructions, ruin the expedition, and destroy the remnant of the French navy, with a precision and punctuality which will be truly edifying.”

“December 22nd.—This morning, at eight, we have neared Bantry Bay considerably, but the fleet is terribly scattered; no news of the Fraternité. … Two o'clock; we have been tacking over since eight this morning, and I am sure we have not gained one hundred yards; the wind is right ahead, and the fleet dispersed, several being far to leeward. … At half-past six, cast anchor off Bere Island, being still four leagues from our landing place.”

“December 23rd.—Last night it blew a heavy gale from the eastward with snow. It is to be observed that, of the thirty-two points of the compass, the E. is precisely the most unfavourable to us. In consequence, we are this morning separated for the fourth time. … The wind is still high, and, as usual, right ahead; and I dread a visit from the English, and altogether I am in great uneasiness.”

“December 24th.—A council of war was held, at which Grouchy presided, and it was decided a landing should be effected, and the campaign carried on with such forces as they could muster. They were about 6,500 strong, but all tried soldiers who had seen fire. It is altogether an enterprise truly unique; we have not one guinea; we have not a tent; we have not a horse to draw our four pieces of artillery. The General-in-Chief marches on foot; we leave all our baggage behind us. We have nothing but the arms in our hands, the clothes on our backs, and a good courage, but that is sufficient. … But this infernal easterly wind continues without remorse, and though we have been under way three or four hours, and made, I believe, three hundred tacks, we do not seem to my eyes to have gained one hundred yards in a straight line. One hour and a half of good wind would carry us up, and perhaps we may be yet two days. Damn it! damn it! I learn from a pilot whom I found aboard the Admiral that my friend Hutchins lives within two miles of Bantry, and is now at home, and so perhaps I may see him to-morrow.”

“December 25th.—The wind continues right ahead, so that it is absolutely impossible to work up to the landing-place, and God knows when it will change. … This day, at twelve, the wind blows a gale, still from the east, and our situation is now as critical as possible; for it is morally certain that this day or tomorrow on the morning the English fleet will be in the harbour's mouth, and then adieu to everything.”

“December 26th.—Last night, at half after six o'clock, in a heavy gale of wind still from the east, we were surprised by the Admiral's frigate running under our quarter, and hailing the Indomptable with orders to cut our cable and put to sea instantly; the frigate then pursued her course, leaving us all in the utmost astonishment. … All our hopes are now reduced to get back in safety to Brest, and I believe we will set sail for that port the instant the weather will permit. … Notwithstanding all our blunders, it is the dreadful stormy weather and the easterly winds, which have been blowing furiously and without intermission since we made Bantry Bay, that have ruined us.”

“December 29th.—At four this morning the Commodore made the signal to steer for France; so there is an end of our expedition for the present, perhaps for ever.”

The expedition consisted of seventeen ships of the line, thirteen frigates, five corvettes, two gunboats and six transports, having aboard 13,975 land forces, 45,000 stand of arms, and an ample supply of money and clothing. Immediately on leaving Brest the Seduisant, a seventy-four gun ship, was wrecked on the Great Stevent, and a few days after the Nestor, another seventy-four gun ship, was driven ashore, and out of 1,800 men on board, 1,000 perished. The Scaevola, gunboat, was lost off the Irish coast; the Surveilant, 74 guns, was scuttled in Bantry Bay, and the Impatient, a 74 also, was wrecked off Sheepshead; the Tartare, after a short action, was captured by the Pholyphemus and brought into Cork harbour; the Ville d'Oriend, with 400 hussars, was taken into Kinsale by the Unicorn; the Justin transport foundered at sea and all on board perished. Hoche was a most competent General, and, had all gone well, it is hard to say what might have been the issue. The depth of winter was certainly not the proper time for carrying out such a project, especially on the tempestuous Western Coast of Ireland.

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