Narrative of the third and last expedition for the liberation of Ireland and of the capture, trial and death, of Theobald Wolfe Tone by the Editor (Continued. Part III)

The members of the Court having taken the usual oath, the Judge Advocate proceeded to inform the prisoner that the Court Martial, before which he stood, was appointed, by the Lord Lieutenant of the Kingdom, to try whether he had or had not acted traitorously and hostility against his Majesty, to whom, as a natural born subject, he owed all allegiance, from the very fact of his birth in that Kingdom: And, according to the usual form, he called upon him to plead guilty or not guilty.

Tone: "I mean not to give the Court any useless trouble, and wish to spare them the idle task of examining witnesses. I admit all the facts alleged, and only request leave to read an address, which I prepared for this occasion."

Col Daly: I must warn the prisoner, that in acknowledging those facts, he admits to his prejudice, that he has acted traitorously against his Majesty. Is such his intention?"

Tone "Stripping this charge of the technicality of its terms, it means, I presume, by the word ‘traitorously’, that I have been found in arms against the soldiers of the King, in my native country. I admit this accusation in its most extended sense, and request again to explain to the Court the reasons and motives of my conduct."

The Court then observed, that they would hear his address, provided he confined himself within the bounds of moderation. He rose, and began in these words:

"Mr President, and Gentlemen of the Court Martial: I mean not to give you the trouble of bringing judicial proof, to convict me, legally, of having acted in hostility to the Government of his Britannic Majesty. I admit the fact. From my earliest youth, I have regarded the connection between Ireland and Great Britain, as the curse of the Irish nation; and felt convinced, that, whilst it lasted, this country could never be free nor happy. My mind has been confirmed in this opinion by the experience of every succeeding year, and the conclusions which I have drawn from every fact before my eyes. In consequence, I determined to apply all the powers, which my individual efforts could move, in order to separate the two countries.

"That Ireland was not able, of herself, to throw off the yoke, I knew. I therefore sought for aid, wherever it was to be found. In honourable poverty, I rejected offers, which, to a man in my circumstances, might be considered highly advantageous. I remained faithful to what I thought the cause of my country, and sought in the French Republic an ally, to rescue three millions of my countrymen, from" . . .

The President, here, interrupted the Prisoner, observing, that this language was neither relevant to the charge, nor such as ought to be delivered in a public court. One member said, it seemed calculated only to inflame the minds of a certain description of people, (the United Irishmen) many of whom might probably be present; and that, therefore, the Court ought not to suffer it. The Judge Advocate said, he thought, that if Mr Tone meant this paper to be laid before his Excellency, in way of extenuation, it must have a quite contrary effect, if any of the foregoing part was suffered to remain.

Tone: "I shall urge this topic no further, since it seems disagreeable to the Court; but shall proceed to read the few words which remain."

Gen Loftus: "If the remainder of your address, Mr Tone, is of the same complexion with what you have already read, will you not hesitate, for a moment, in proceeding, since you have learned the opinion of the Court?"

Tone: "I believe there is nothing in what remains for me to say, which can give any offence. I mean to express my feelings and gratitude towards the Catholic body, in whose cause I was engaged."

Gen Loftus: That seems to have nothing to say to the charge against you, to which you are to speak. If you have anything to offer in defence or extenuation of that charge, the Court will hear you; but they beg that you will confine yourself to that subject."

Tone: "I shall, then, confine myself to some points, relative to my connection with the French army. Attached to no party in the French Republic, without interest, without money, without intrigue, the openness and integrity of my views raised me to a high and confidential rank in its armies. I obtained the confidence of the Executive Directory, the approbation of my Generals, and, I venture to add, the esteem and affection of my brave comrades. When I review these circumstances, I feel a secret and internal consolation, which no reverse of fortune, no sentence in the power of this Court to inflict, can ever deprive me of, or weaken in any degree. Under the flag of the French Republic, I originally engaged, with a view to save and liberate my own country. For the purpose, I have encountered the chances of war, amongst strangers: For that purpose, I have repeatedly braved the terrors of the ocean, covered, as I knew it to be, with the triumphant fleets of that Power, which it was my glory and my duty to oppose. I have sacrificed all my views in life; I have courted poverty; I have left a beloved wife, unprotected, and children whom I adored, fatherless. After such sacrifices as the cause of justice and freedom – it is no great effort, at this day, to add, ‘the sacrifice of my life’.

"But I hear it said, that this unfortunate country has been a prey to all sorts of horrors. I sincerely lament it. I beg, however, it may be remembered, that I have been absent four years from Ireland. To me, these sufferings can never be attributed. I designed, by fair and open war, to procure the separation of the two countries. For open war I was prepared; but if, instead of that, a system of private assassination has taken place, I repeat, whilst I deplore it, that it is not chargeable on me. Atrocities, it seems, have been committed on both sides. I do not less deplore them; I detest them from my heart; and to those who know my character and sentiments, I may safely appeal for the truth of this assertion. With them, I need no justification.

"In a cause like this, success is every thing. Success, in the eyes of the vulgar, fixes its merits. Washington succeeded, and Kosciusko failed.

"After a combat nobly sustained, a combat which would have excited the respect and sympathy of a generous enemy, my fate was to become a prisoner. To the eternal disgrace of those who gave the order, I was brought hither in irons, like a felon. I mention this for the sake of others; for me, I am indifferent to it; I am aware of the fate which awaits me, and scorn equally the tone of complaint and that of supplication.

"As to the connection between this country and Great Britain, I repeat it, all that has been imputed to me, words, writings, and actions, I here deliberately avow. I have spoken and acted with reflection, and on principle, and am ready to meet the consequences. Whatever be the sentence of this Court, I am prepared for it. Its members will surely discharge their duty; I shall care not to be wanting to mine."

This speech was pronounced in a tone so magnanimous, so full of a noble and calm serenity, as seemed deeply and visibly to affect all its hearers, the members of the Court not excepted. A pause ensued of some continuance, and silence reigned in the hall, till interrupted by Tone himself, who inquired, whether it was not usual to assign an interval between the sentence and execution? The Judge Advocate answered, that the voices of the Court would be collected without delay, and the result transmitted forthwith to the Lord Lieutenant. If the prisoner, therefore, had any further observations to make, now was the moment.

Tone: "I wish to offer a few words, relative to one single point – to the mode of punishment. In France, our Emigrés, who stand nearly in the same situation, in which, I suppose I now stand before you, are condemned to be shot. I ask, that the Court should adjudge me the death of a soldier, and let me be shot by a platoon of grenadiers. I request this indulgence, rather in consideration of the uniform which I wear, the uniform of a Chef de Brigade in the French army, than from any personal regard to myself. In order to evince my claim to this favour, I beg that the Court may take the trouble to peruse my commission and letters of service in the French army. It will appear from these papers, that I have not received them as a mask to cover me, but that I have been long and bona fide an officer in the French service."

Judge Advocate: "You must feel that the papers you allude to, will serve as undeniable proofs against you."

Tone: "Oh – I know it well – I have already admitted the facts, and I now admit the papers as full proofs of conviction."

The papers were then examined: they consisted of a brevet of Chef de Brigade, from the Directory, signed by the Minister of War, of a letter of service, granting to him the rank of Adjutant General, and of a passport.

General Loftus: "In those papers you are designated as serving in the Army of England."

Tone: I did serve in that Army, when it was commanded by Buonaparte, by Desaix, and by Kilmaine, who is, as I am, an Irishman. But I have also served elsewhere." Requested if he had any thing further to observe: he said that nothing more occurred to him, except that the sooner his Excellency’s approbation of their sentence was obtained, the better. He would consider it as a favour, if it could be obtained in an hour.

General Loftus then observed, that the Court would, undoubtedly, submit to the Lord Lieutenant, the Address which he had read to them, and, also, the subject of his last demand. In transmitting the Address, he, however, took care to efface all that part of it, which he would not allow to be read; and, which contained the dying speech and last words of the first apostle of Irish union and martyr of Irish liberty, to his countrymen. Lord Cornwallis refused the last demand of my father, and he was sentenced to die the death of a traitor, in 48 hours, on the 12th of November. This cruelty he had foreseen: for England, from the days of Lewellyn of Wales, and Wallace of Scotland, to those of Tone and Napoleon, has never shown mercy or generosity to a fallen enemy. He then, in perfect coolness and self-possession, determined to execute his purpose, and anticipate their sentence.

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Contents of Life of Wolfe Tone