Gustavus Hamilton, Viscount Boyne (and the Enniskilleners)

BORN A. D. 1639—DIED A. D. 1723.

From The Irish Nation: Its History and Its Biography

By James and Freeman Wills

AT the same time with the events related in the preceding memoir, other incidents of little less historical interest were occurring in the neighbouring territories. Of these we shall now have occasion to relate the most memorable, as the illustrious soldier whose name and title stand at the head of the present memoir, was among the few Irishmen who bore a principal part in the wars of the revolution in Ireland. In the latter end of the reign of James I., Sir Frederick Hamilton, a descendant of the Scottish Hamiltons, who stood high among the most noble and ancient families of Europe, having obtained great distinction under the standard of Gustavus Adolphus, king of Sweden, came over and served in Ireland, where he obtained considerable grants. His youngest son Gustavus, so called after the Swedish king, was a captain in the Irish army toward the end of the reign of Charles II. In 1667, he was among those who attended on the duke of Ormonde at the university of Oxford, and obtained on that occasion its degree of doctor of laws.

On the accession of James II., he was sworn of his privy council; but when it became evident that this feeble monarch, being engaged in an attempt to overthrow the constitution and church of England, was seeking to break up those institutions under which Ireland had been advancing into civilization and freedom, for the purpose of more surely effecting his purposes in England, Hamilton indicated that his first duty belonged to the church and constitution by resigning his seat at the Council board, and having thereupon been deprived of his commission by Tyrconnel, retired to reside on an estate in the county of Fermanagh.

Enniskillen, though then as now the capital of this county, was at this time merely a village. It was built on an island surrounded by the river which joins the two beautiful sheets of water known by the common name of Lough Erne. The stream and both the lakes were overhung on every side by natural forests. The village consisted of about eighty dwellings clustering around an ancient castle, long time the seat of the Coles. The inhabitants were, with scarcely an exception, Protestants; and boasted that their town had been true to the Protestant cause through the terrible rebellion which broke out in 1641. Early in December, 1688, and about the time of the scene of the `Prentice Boys' of Londonderry, they received from Dublin an intimation that two companies of Popish infantry were to be immediately quartered on them. The alarm of the little community was great, and the greater because it was known that a preaching friar had been exerting himself to inflame the Irish population of the neighbourhood against the heretics. A daring resolution was taken. Come what might, the troops should not be admitted. Yet not ten pounds of powder, not twenty firelocks fit for use, could be collected within the walls. Messengers were sent with pressing letters to summon the Protestant gentry of the vicinage to the rescue; and the summons was gallantly obeyed. Among others came the subject of our memoir. In a few hours two hundred foot, and a hundred and fifty horse had assembled. Tyrconnel's soldiers were already at hand. They brought with them a considerable supply of arms to be distributed among the peasantry, who, greeting the royal standard with delight, accompanied the march in great numbers. The townsmen and their allies, instead of waiting to be attacked, came boldly forth to encounter the intruders, who were confounded when they saw confronting them a column of foot, flanked by a large body of mounted gentlemen and yeomen. The crowd of camp followers ran away in terror. The soldiers made a retreat so precipitate that it might be called a flight, and scarcely halted till they were thirty miles off in Cavan.

Elated by this easy victory, the Protestants proceeded to make arrangements for the government and defence of Enniskillen and of the surrounding country. Gustavus Hamilton was appointed Governor, and took up his residence in the castle. Trusty men were enlisted and armed with great expedition. As there was a scarcity of swords and pikes, smiths were employed to make weapons by fastening scythes on poles. All the country houses round Lough Erne were turned into garrisons. No Papist was suffered to be at large in the town; and the friar who was accused of exerting his eloquence against the English was cast into prison.

When it was known, as previously related, that Lord Mountjoy had been sent by Tyrconnel to reduce again Londonderry and Enniskillen to obedience after these outbreaks, and had come to satisfactory terms with the former, a deputation, consisting of our hero and others, was sent by the defenders of the latter to excuse or justify their conduct, but obtained no great satisfaction. Enniskillen therefore kept its attitude of defence, and Mountjoy returned to Dublin.

On learning soon afterwards that a great force had been sent northward under Richard Hamilton to reduce the Protestants of Ulster to submission before aid could arrive from England, Gustavus Hamilton again returned to Londonderry to concert measures with Lundy, now left in charge of that city, for the common defence. Under discouraging circumstances, and notwithstanding the disheartenings and dissuasions of the treacherous Lundy, Hamilton undertook the defence of Coleraine, repelled a spirited attack made on that town by the whole Irish army, and gave time for concentration and aid to the cause, until the pass of Portglenone being forced and it was deemed expedient to retire into Londonderry with their stores and arms: when Hamilton returned again to his charge at Enniskillen.

The treachery of Lundy would have greatly increased the difficulties of the situation in this now famous village, but for the heroic courage of the English colonists. In the beginning of the year 1689 the Protestant inhabitants of Sligo, ejecting the garrison and corporate authorities imposed upon them by Tyrconnel, and choosing Robert earl of Kingston and Sir Chidly Coote as their commanders, had scarcely proceeded to commence their military organization when a letter from Governor Lundy from Londonderry was received, earnestly entreating these commanders would come to the assistance of that city. Scarcely, however, had these officers and their forces passed Bally-shannon when a letter was received by them from a self-appointed committee in Londonderry, to the effect that their men could not be received into that city; where they said there was no accommodation for them. No sooner had they left Sligo than Sarsfield, commanding for Tyrconnel, as designed by the treacherous Lundy, forthwith took possession of that town. In the same letter Lord Kingston was directed to advance to join the Protestants in the Lagan district, who, it was said, were awaiting his aid. Suspecting something wrong, Lord Kingston rode forward in the direction of Londonderry without delay at the head of a few horsemen, and learned that Lundy had previously caused the Protestants to leave the places to which he had directed him, while all the approaches to Londonderry itself were cut off by the enemy. Lord Kingston then made the best of his way,—surprising a French ship in Killibegs for the purpose,—with one or two officers to England, to acquaint William with the state of matters, while the body of his troops and their officers—in despite of Lundy, whose purpose it was to have them disband and fall easy victims to their mortal foes--betook themselves to Fermanagh and to the protection of its common centre of operations; the borough town of Enniskillen.

The singular unaptness of this island town for every defensive purpose, commanded as it was from several heights, and especially by a conical hill which rises from the very shore of the lough over its eastern extremity, compelled its defenders to have recourse to an expedient as singular as effective, viz., to regard it simply as a centre from which to issue on every side as occasion for military enterprise presented itself; but never to allow a hostile force to approach within many miles of its site. A strong body of Protestants from Cavan with military, driven before the forces of James, proceeding to the siege of Londonderry, swelled their numbers and resources as their organization was taking shape and form. From twelve companies, under Gustavus Hamilton as colonel, and Loyd as lieutenant-colonel, they grew into "seventeen troops of light horse, thirty companies of foot, and several ill-armed troops of heavy dragoons."

Yet the work these men had to do, unused as most of them were, not to arms, but to military organization, might well be described as Herculean. The English inhabitants of Ireland, comprising those of English descent, have been well described as an aristocratic caste, which had been enabled by superior civilization, by close union, by sleepless vigilance, and by cool intrepidity, to keep in subjection a numerous and hostile population. It is impossible to deny that, with many of the faults, they possessed all the noblest virtues of a sovereign caste; these virtues have ever been most resplendent in times of distress and peril; and never were these virtues more signally displayed than by the defenders of Londonderry and of Enniskillen, when Lundy their commander had betrayed the one as well as the other; and when the overwhelming forces of the enemy were threatening to swallow them up.

Under Gustavus Hamilton they repelled with loss in April the terrible horsemen of Lord Galmoy from the valley of the Barrow; the captain and the men most dreaded by the protestants for their rare discipline, skill in arms, barbarity and perfidy, who had sat down before Crom Castle, a miserable fort in the neighbourhood, and on the shore of the eastern Lough Erne. They maintained a vigorous partizan war against the native population. Early in May they marched to encounter a large body of troops from Connaught, who had made an inroad into Donegal. The Irish were speedily routed, and fled to Sligo, with the loss of a hundred and twenty men killed, and sixty taken. They then invaded the county of Cavan, drove before them fifteen hundred of James's troops, took and destroyed the castle of Ballincarrig, reputed the strongest in that part of the kingdom, and carried off the pikes and muskets of the garrison. The next excursion was into Meath. Three thousand oxen and two thousand sheep were swept away and brought safe to the little island of Lough Erne. These daring exploits brought terror even to the gates of Dublin. So little had been thought of the gathering at first, that Tyrconnel assured James, when on his way from Cork to that city, that it was scarcely to be named, and that Enniskillen would fall before a single company. Colonel Hugh Sutherland was now ordered to march against Enniskillen with a regiment of dragoons, and two regiments of foot. He carried with him arms for the native peasantry, and many repaired to his standard. The Enniskilleners did not wait till he came into their neighbourhood, but advanced to encounter him. He declined an action, and retreated, leaving his stores at Belturbet, under the care of a detachment of three hundred soldiers. Gustavus Hamilton attacked Belturbet with vigour, his forces made their way into a lofty house which overlooked the town, and thence opened such a fire that in two hours the garrison surrendered. Seven hundred muskets, a great quantity of powder, many horses, many sacks of biscuits, many barrels of meal were taken, and were sent to Enniskillen. True to the provident and industrious character of their race, the colonists, unlike their enemies the Rapparees, had in the midst of war not omitted carefully to till the soil in the neighbourhood of their strongholds. The harvest was not now far remote; and till the harvest, the food taken from the enemy would be amply sufficient.

Yet in the midst of success and plenty the Enniskilleners were tortured by a cruel anxiety for Londonderry, for there could be no doubt that if Londonderry fell, the whole Irish army would instantly march in irresistible force upon Lough Erne. Detachments were therefore sent off which infested the rear of the blockading army, cut off supplies, and on one occasion carried away the horses of three entire troops of cavalry. Some brave men were for making a desperate attempt to relieve the besieged city, but the odds were too great.

Yet the Enniskilleners were not without their discouragements. A severe check, the result of overconfidence, followed on a retaliatory incursion of a strong body of horse, under the Duke of Berwick, from the army besieging Londonderry, which suddenly approached their military pale. On learning their approach, Gustavus Hamilton sent out a company of foot to occupy a close and difficult pass near the town, through which they must needs pass. With a temerity born of their successes in recent fights, instead of restraining themselves as the laws of strategy demanded, to the occupation of a position where a handful of men might have arrested the march of an army, these hardy and impetuous irregulars advanced upwards of a mile into the open, and found themselves, before they could commence or even contemplate a retreat, surrounded by an overwhelming squadron of most carefully disciplined cavalry. A few of the footmen succeeded in cutting their way through the enclosing troopers. Twenty-five slain, and twenty-six prisoners were the cost of this lesson of caution to the protestants of the district.

The illness of Hamilton himself was another discouragement. The anxieties of a position such as his could not fail to wear out the hardiest nature. Wielding an authority wholly resting on voluntary obedience, and as yet without any legal sanction, he had not only to provide food for a numerous immigrant and helpless population, to distribute rations with equal justice amongst ravenous and undisciplined soldiery, to exercise all the functions of a civil and military governor over a variety of defensive positions, but to watch with sleepless and anxious eye every point of the compass, and keep his scouts and watchmen in continued activity and unceasing communication with himself. It is no wonder, therefore, that his health gave way under the military toils added to these numerous cares.

Another discouragement was the character of the news reaching them about this time from Dublin. The proceedings in the Irish parliament, called together by James, which commenced its sittings on the 7th of May, and was prorogued towards the end of July, excited at once their alarm and indignation. During an interval of little more than ten weeks, these proceedings proved most truly that, great as may have been the evils which protestant ascendency has produced in Ireland the evils produced by popish ascendency would have been greater still. Every week came tidings that James had sanctioned some new act for robbing or murdering protestants. By one sweeping Act the tithe was transferred from the protestant to the Roman Catholic clergy; and the existing incumbents were left, without one farthing of compensation, to die of hunger. A Bill repealing the Act of Settlement, and transferring many thousands of square miles from English descendants and loyal Irish, was brought in and carried by acclamation, and although conscious of the iniquity, and protesting against it, James was actually bullied into sanctioning its provisions. But the portentous law, the law without parallel in the history of civilized nations, the murderous Act of Attainder, the measure by which three thousand persons, comprising the half of the peerage of Ireland, gentry of every grade innumerable, tradesmen, artizans, women, children, clergy, persons against whom nothing was or could be charged, except that they were disliked by those who drew it up, were doomed to be hanged, drawn and quartered without a trial, and their property to be confiscated, —and for the first time in European history, even the power of pardoning in respect to them was, after a certain period had passed, taken away from the crown,—unless the persons so named, many hundreds of whom could never learn of it, surrendered themselves to justice by an early day, this atrocious measure, which when passed was kept in strict concealment until the period for pardon had passed, which to read of even at this distance of time excites horror, is one which their recent history tells us would have been scouted even by semi-barbarians; the revolted negroes of Brazil and the bloodthirsty Indians of Guatemala. In comparison with this, the swindling by issue of base money; the conversion of old iron picked up in the streets and arsenals of the value of threepence into coins forced into circulation at that of a guinea; while the protestants of Dublin, who were forced to receive it, were subjected to a tariff of former prices; even this open-faced robbery on the part of James, of which the news reached them by the same messengers, seems comparatively less infamous. But the cruelest of all was the treatment of those High church divines. These men, who still proclaimed the doctrine of the divine right of James, notwithstanding their exclusion from office and official functions, simply because they were protestants, were either shut up in prison or insulted and shot at by the heretic-abhorring soldiery. Ronquillo, the bigoted member of the church of Rome who then represented the King of Spain at the court of James, wrote to his master about this conduct with indignation; and said that the inconveniences suffered by the Catholics in England were nothing at all in comparison with the barbarities exercised against the protestants by the Roman Catholics in Ireland. By these acts the Enniskilleners too well knew what awaited them should the Jacobites conquer all Ireland.

Nor was this all, or the worst. Irritated at the rejection of all terms offered by James, and piqued at the repeated defeats his forces had sustained, it was determined at Dublin that an attack should be made upon the Enniskilleners from several quarters at once. General Macarthy, an officer descended from the ancient Irish family of that name; an officer who had long served with distinction in the French army under an assumed name; an officer who had succeeded in driving forth a thriving protestant colony from Kinsale and in reducing Munster, and who in consequence had been rewarded by James with the title of Viscount Mountcashel, marched towards Lough Erne from the east with three regiments of foot, two regiments of dragoons, and some troops of cavalry.

A considerable force, which lay encamped near the mouth of the river Drouse, under the command of the celebrated Sarsfield, was at the same time to advance from the west. The Duke of Berwick was to come from the north with such horse and dragoons as could be spared from the army which was besieging Londonderry. The Enniskilleners were not fully apprised of the whole plan which had been laid for their destruction. Gustavus Hamilton received intelligence first of the approach of Sarsfield's force; and according to the method of warfare uniformly pursued by him, he sent off the gallant Loyd with a thousand men to encounter this enemy. After a rapid march of twenty miles Loyd succeeded in surprising the Munster camp, and at the close of a short and a furious contest, routed their five thousand well armed soldiers with great slaughter, and but little loss on his own side. They had no sooner returned to Enniskillen than they were apprised that McCarthy was on the road with a force exceeding any they could bring into the field; and was not far from their town. Their anxiety was in some degree relieved by the return of a deputation they had sent to Kirke, the commander of an expedition sent for the relief of Londonderry from Liverpool, and which had arrived in Lough Foyle on the fifteenth of June. "Kirke," says Lord Macaulay, "could spare no soldiers; but he had sent some arms, some ammunition, and some experienced officers, of whom the chief were Colonel Wolseley and Lieutenant-colonel Berry. These officers had come by sea round the coast of Donegal; and had run up the Erne. On Sunday, the twenty-ninth of July, it was known that their boat was approaching the island of Enniskillen. It was with difficulty they made their way to the castle through the crowds which hung on them, blessing God that dear old England had not quite forgotten the sons of Englishmen who upheld their cause against great odds, in the heart of Ireland." "Wolseley seems to have been in every respect well qualified for his post. Though himself regularly bred to war, he seems to have had a peculiar aptitude for the management of irregular troops; and his intense hatred of popery was, in the estimation of the men of Enniskillen, the first of all qualifications for command. The return of the deputation with these officers and supplies, did not take place one day too soon. On the very day previous, an account came to Enniskillen that Crom castle had been invested by the army under Mountcashel to the great alarm of its little garrison, who, as they reported in the despatch to governor Hamilton, "were totally unaccustomed to cannon." Wolseley assuming the chief command, as both Hamilton and Loyd were broken down for the time by past exertions, at once determined to raise the siege. On the very day following their arrival, he sent Berry forward with such troops as could be instantly put in motion, and promised to follow speedily with a larger force.

Berry had approached within a few miles of a new position taken by Macarthy in advance, when, encountering a much more numerous body of dragoons, commanded by the notorious Anthony Hamilton, he retreated judiciously to a pass some miles in the rear, where a narrow causeway led across a marsh, with a copse of brushwood on both sides at its further extremity, within which he placed his men. Hamilton came up immediately, and dismounting his troopers near to the causeway, commenced firing over the bog and into the copses. At the first fire of the Enniskilleners Hamilton was severely wounded. In their next discharge the second, who then assumed the command, was shot dead. More than thirty of their men fell with them. The dragoons then fled, and were pursued with great slaughter for upwards of a mile. "Macarthy soon came up to support Hamilton; and at the same time Wolseley came up to support Berry. The hostile armies were now in presence of each other. Macarthy had five thousand men and several pieces of artillery. The Enniskilleners were under three thousand; and they had marched in such haste that they had brought only one day's provisions. It was therefore absolutely necessary for them either to fight instantly or to retreat. Wolseley determined to consult the men; and this determination, which in ordinary circumstances would have been most unworthy of a general, was fully justified by the peculiar composition and temper of the little army, an army made up of gentlemen and yeomen fighting, not for pay, but for their lands, their wives, their children, and their God. The ranks were drawn up under arms; and the question was put, 'Advance or Retreat?' The answer was an universal shout of 'Advance.' He instantly made his dispositions for an attack. The enemy, to his great surprise, began to retire. The Enniskilleners were eager to pursue with all speed, but their commander, suspecting a snare, restrained their ardour, and positively forbade them to break their ranks. Thus one army retreated, and another followed, through the little town of Newtown Butler. About a mile from that town the Irish faced about and made a stand. Their position was well chosen. They were drawn up on a hill at the foot of which lay a deep bog. A narrow paved causeway which lay across the bog was the only road by which the Enniskilleners could advance; for on the right and left were pools, turf-pits, and quagmires, which afforded no footing to horses. Macarthy placed his cannon in such a manner as to sweep this causeway. Wolseley ordered his infantry to the attack. They struggled through the bog, made their way to firm ground, and rushed on the guns. There was then a short and desperate fight. The Irish cannoneers stood gallantly to their pieces till they were cut down to a man. The Enniskillen horse, no longer in danger of being mowed down by the fire of the artillery, came fast up the causeway. The Irish dragoons who had run away in the morning were smitten with another panic, and without striking a blow galloped off the field. The horse followed the example. Such was the terror of the fugitives that many of them spurred hard till their beasts fell down, and then continued to fly on foot, throwing away carbines, swords, and even coats, as encumbrances. The infantry, seeing themselves deserted, flung down their pikes and muskets and ran for their lives." So far we have copied the account of this fight from Lord Macaulay, as not only the most concise but the most accurate. When he adds, "that now the conquerors gave loose to that ferocity which has seldom failed to disgrace the civil wars of Ireland; that the butchery was terrible; that near fifteen hundred of the vanquished were put to the sword," he does not enquire whether quarter were asked and refused, whether it was in human nature for the pursuing few to know when they were safe against the fresh attacks of the flying many; against those who would have shown them no mercy had the fortune of the day been the reverse and against them. Fear is cruel, and so is hate. Yet the Enniskilleners took four hundred prisoners, including Macarthy himself, although wounded. In despair he had advanced upon them at the last, courting death, and firing his pistol at them when otherwise, as he was told, he might easily have escaped. The Enniskilleners lost only twenty men killed and fifty wounded.

The battle of Newtown Butler was won on the same afternoon on which the boom thrown over the Foyle was broken. At Strabane the news met the army of James which was retreating from Londonderry. All was then terror and confusion; the tents were struck; the military stores were flung by waggon-loads into the waters of the Mourne; and the dismayed Jacobites, leaving many sick and wounded to the tender mercy of the victorious Williamites, fled to Omagh, and thence to Charlemont. Sarsfield, who commanded at Sligo, found it necessary to abandon that town, which was instantly occupied by Kirke's troops.

Recovering from his illness, Gustavus Hamilton, with his renowned Enniskilleners, joined the army under Duke Schomberg, which soon after landed in Ireland; and constituting themselves his advance guard, distinguished themselves by feats of valour. On the twenty-seventh of September a body of them, under Colonel Loyd, having routed a force of five thousand men under Colonel O'Kelly, with seven hundred men and three commanders slain, their own force not exceeding a thousand men, the Puke was so pleased as to cause the whole body to be drawn out in line, and rode along it uncovered to express his thanks. In the month of December a party of them under Colonel Wolseley had no sooner surprised the garrison at Belturbet than they learned preparations were making at Cavan to recover the place. According to their uniform custom they resolved to anticipate the attack. Before they could reach Cavan the Duke of Berwick had arrived there with a powerful reinforcement; and the forces were four thousand against one thousand. They met near Cavan. The onset of the Enniskilleners carried all before it. Pursuing into the town the conquerors dispersing began to plunder. The enemy concentrated in the fort, and began the fight anew. The Enniskilleners would have certainly been cut to pieces, but Wolseley conceived the idea of setting the town on fire. Thus forced out he was able to lead them again against the rallied enemy, and again to defeat them with great loss. Three hundred slain, two hundred prisoners, several officers of rank inclusive, and a large booty of cattle were the result of this foray.

In the battle of the Boyne Hamilton commanded a regiment, and there signalized himself by his usual valour and conduct, having had a horse killed under him on the thirtieth of June in the following year, and a very narrow escape from death.[1] At the capture of Athlone he waded the Shannon at the head of his regiment, being the first man to plant his foot in the rapid stream, and on gaining possession distinguished himself by resisting the efforts of the French army encamped close by to recover it. On account of its great importance the government of this place was committed into his hands. He was present and took a prominent part in all the principal battles fought by De Ginckle.

On the reduction of the country he was made one of the privy council, promoted to the rank of brigadier-general, and received grants of forfeited lands. In the reign of Anne, he was further raised to the rank of major-general, and represented the county of Donegal in parliament, until created viscount Boyne. At the siege of Vigo he commanded a regiment, and made himself so useful upon the occasion, that he was presented with a service of plate by the queen.

In 1714, George I. advanced him to the dignity of baron Hamilton of Stackaller. The same king granted him a military pension of £182 10s. yearly, and promoted him to the title of viscount Boyne, by patent dated 1717.

He married a daughter of Sir Henry Brooke, and had by her a daughter and three sons. He died September, 1723, in the eighty-fourth year of his age.


[1] Preamble of his patent