Historical Tales: 4—English - Charles Morris

The Relief of Londonderry

Frightful was the state of Londonderry. "No surrender" was the ultimatum of its inhabitants, "blockade and starvation" the threat of the besiegers; the town was surrounded, the river closed, relief seemed hopeless, life, should the furious besiegers break in, equally hopeless. Far off, in the harbor of Lough Foyle, could be seen the English ships. Thirty vessels lay there, laden with men and provisions, but they were able to come no nearer. The inhabitants could see them, but the sight only aggravated their misery. Plenty so near at hand! Death and destitution in their midst! Frightful, indeed, was their extremity.

The Foyle, the river leading to the town, was fringed with hostile forts and batteries, and its channel barricaded. Several boats laden with stone had been sunk in the channel. A row of stakes was driven into the bottom of the stream. A boom was formed of trunks of fir-trees, strongly bound together, and fastened by great cables to the shore. Relief from the fleet, with the river thus closed against it, seemed impossible. Yet scarcely two days' supplies were left in the town, and without hasty relief starvation or massacre seemed the only alternatives.

Let us relate the occasion of this siege. James II. had been driven from England, and William of Orange was on the throne. In his effort to recover his kingdom, James sought Ireland, where the Catholic peasantry were on his side. His appearance was the signal for fifty thousand peasants to rise in arms, and for the Protestants to fly from peril of massacre. They knew their fate should they fall into the hands of the half-savage peasants, mad with years of misrule.

In the north, seven thousand English fugitives fled to Londonderry, and took shelter behind the weak wall, manned by a few old guns, and without even a ditch for defence, which formed the only barrier between them and their foes. Around this town gathered twenty-five thousand besiegers, confident of quick success. But the weakness of the battlements was compensated for by the stoutness of the hearts within. So fierce were the sallies of the desperate seven thousand, so severe the loss of the besiegers in their assaults, that the attempt to carry the place by storm was given up, and a blockade substituted. From April till the end of July this continued, the condition of the besieged daily growing worse, the food-supply daily growing less. Such was the state of affairs at the date with which we are specially concerned.

Inside the town, at that date, the destitution had grown heart-rending. The fire of the enemy was kept up more briskly than ever, but famine and disease killed more than cannon-balls. The soldiers of the garrison were so weak from privation that they could scarcely stand; yet they repelled every attack, and repaired every breach in the walls as fast as made. The damage done by day was made good at night. For the garrison there remained a small supply of grain, which was given out by mouthfuls, and there was besides a considerable store of salted hides, which they gnawed for lack of better food. The stock of animals had been reduced to nine horses, and these so lean and gaunt that it seemed useless to kill them for food.

The townsmen were obliged to feed on dogs and rats, an occasional small fish caught in the river, and similar sparse supplies. They died by hundreds. Disease aided starvation in carrying them off. The living were too few and too weak to bury the dead. Bodies were left unburied, and a deadly and revolting stench filled the air. That there was secret discontent and plottings for surrender may well be believed. But no such feeling dared display itself openly. Stubborn resolution and vigorous defiance continued the public tone. "No surrender" was the general cry, even in that extremity of distress. And to this voices added, in tones of deep significance, "First the horses and hides; then the prisoners; and then each other."

Such was the state of affairs on July 28, 1689. Two days' very sparse rations alone remained for the garrison. At the end of that time all must end. Yet still in the distance could be seen the masts of the ships, holding out an unfulfilled promise of relief; still hope was not quite dead in the hearts of the besieged. Efforts had been made to send word to the town from the fleet. One swimmer who attempted to pass the boom was drowned. Another was caught and hanged. On the 13th of July a letter from the fleet, sewed up in a cloth button, reached the commander of the garrison. It was from Kirke, the general in command of the party of relief, and promised speedy aid. But a fortnight and more had passed since then, and still the fleet lay inactive in Lough Foyle, nine miles away, visible from the summit of the Cathedral, yet now tending rather to aggravate the despair than to sustain the hopes of the besieged.

The sunset hour of July 28 was reached. Services had been held that afternoon in the Cathedral,—services in which doubtless the help of God was despairingly invoked, since that of man seemed in vain. The heart-sick people left the doors, and were about to disperse to their foodless homes, when a loud cry of hope and gladness came from the lookout in the tower above their heads.

"They are coming!" was the stirring cry. "The ships are coming up the river! I can see their sails plainly! Relief is coming!"

How bounded the hearts of those that heard this gladsome cry! The listeners dispersed, carrying the glad news to every corner of the town. Others came in hot haste, eager to hear further reports from the lookout tower. The town, lately so quiet and depressed, was suddenly filled with activity. Hope swelled every heart, new life ran in every vein; the news was like a draught of wine that gave fresh spirit to the most despairing soul.

And now other tidings came. There was a busy stir in the camp of the besiegers. They were crowding to the river-banks. As far as the eye could see, the stream was lined. The daring ships had a gauntlet of fire to run. Their attempt seemed hopeless, indeed. The river was low. The channel which they would have to follow ran near the left bank, where numerous batteries had been planted. They surely would never succeed. Yet still they came, and still the lookout heralded their movements to the excited multitude below.

The leading ship was the Mountjoy, a merchant-vessel laden heavily with provisions. Its captain was Micaiah Browning, a native of Londonderry. He had long advised such an attempt, but the general in command had delayed until positive orders came from England that something must be done.

On hearing of this, Browning immediately volunteered. He was eager to succor his fellow-townsmen. Andrew Douglas, captain of the Phnix, a vessel laden with meal from Scotland, was willing and anxious to join in the enterprise. As an escort to these two merchantmen came the Dartmouth, a thirty-six-gun frigate, its commander John Leake, afterwards an admiral of renown.

Up the stream they came, the Dartmouth in the lead, returning the fire of the forts with effect, pushing steadily onward, with the merchantmen closely in the rear. At length the point of peril was reached. The boom extended across the stream, seemingly closing all further passage. But that remained to be seen. The Mountjoy took the lead, all its sails spread, a fresh breeze distending the canvas, and rushed head on at the boom.

A few minutes of exciting suspense followed, then the great barricade was struck, strained to its utmost, and, with a rending sound, gave way. So great was the shock that the Mountjoy rebounded and stuck in the mud. A yell of triumph came from the Irish who crowded the banks. They rushed to their boats, eager to board the disabled vessel; but a broadside from the Dartmouth sent them back in disordered flight.

In a minute more the Phnix, which had followed close, sailed through the breach which the Mountjoy had made, and was past the boom. Immediately afterwards the Mountjoy began to move in her bed of mud. The tide was rising. In a few minutes she was afloat and under way again, safely passing through the barrier of broken stakes and spars. But her brave commander was no more. A shot from one of the batteries had struck and killed him, when on the very verge of gaining the highest honor that man could attain,—that of saving his native town from the horrors of starvation or massacre.

While this was going on, the state of feeling of the lean and hungry multitude within the town was indescribable. Night had fallen before the ships reached the boom. The lookout could no longer see and report their movements. Intense was the suspense. Minutes that seemed hours passed by. Then, in the distance, the flash of guns could be seen. The sound of artillery came from afar to the ears of the expectant citizens. But the hope which this excited went down when the shout of triumph rose from the besiegers as the Mountjoy grounded. It was taken up and repeated from rank to rank to the very walls of the city, and the hearts of the besieged sank dismally. This cry surely meant failure. The miserable people grew livid with fear. There was unutterable anguish in their eyes, as they gazed with despair into one another's pallid faces. A half-hour more passed. The suspense continued. Yet the shouts of triumph had ceased. Did it mean repulse or victory?" Victory! victory!" for now a spectral vision of sails could be seen, drawing near the town. They grew nearer and plainer; dark hulls showed below them; the vessels were coming! the town was saved!

Wild was the cry of glad greeting that went up from thousands of throats, soul-inspiring the cheers that came, softened by distance, back from the ships. It was ten o'clock at night. The whole population had gathered at the quay. In came the ships. Loud and fervent were the cheers and welcoming cries. In a few minutes more the vessels had touched the wharves, well fed-sailors and starved townsmen were fraternizing, and the long months of misery and woe were forgotten in the intense joy of that supreme moment of relief.

Many hands now made short work. Wasted and weak as were the townsmen, hope gave them strength. A screen of casks filled with earth was rapidly built up to protect the landing-place from the hostile batteries on the other side of the river. Then the unloading began. The eyes of the starving inhabitants distended with joy as they saw barrel after barrel rolled ashore, until six thousand bushels of meal lay on the wharf. Great cheeses came next, beef-casks, flitches of bacon, kegs of butter, sacks of peas and biscuit, until the quay was piled deep with provisions.

One may imagine with what tears of joy the soldiers and people ate their midnight repast that night. Not many hours before the ration to each man of the garrison had been half a pound of tallow and three-quarters of a pound of salted hide. Now to each was served out three pounds of flour, two pounds of beef, and a pint of peas. There was no sleep for the remainder of the night, either within or without the walls. The bonfires that blazed along the whole circuit of the walls told the joy within the town. The incessant roar of guns told the rage without it. Peals of bells from the church towers answered the Irish cannon; shouts of triumph from the walls silenced the cries of anger from the batteries. It was a conflict of joy and rage.

Three days more the batteries continued to roar. But on the night of July 31 flames were seen to issue from the Irish camp; on the morning of August 1 a line of scorched and smoking ruins replaced the lately-occupied huts, and along the Foyle went a long column of pikes and standards, marking the retreat of the besieging army.

The retreat became a rout. The men of Enniskillen charged the retreating army of Newtown Butler, struggling through a bog to fall on double their number, whom they drove in a panic before them. The panic spread through the whole army. Horse and foot, they fled. Not until they had reached Dublin, then occupied by King James, did the retreat stop, and confidence return to the baffled besiegers of Londonderry.

Thus ended the most memorable siege in the history of the British islands. It had lasted one hundred and five days. Of the seven thousand men of the garrison but about three thousand were left. Of the besiegers probably more had fallen than the whole number of the garrison.

To-day Londonderry is in large measure a monument to its great siege. The wall has been carefully preserved, the summit of the ramparts forming a pleasant walk, the bastions being turned into pretty little gardens. Many of the old culverins, which threw lead-covered bricks among the Irish ranks, have been preserved, and may still be seen among the leaves and flowers. The cathedral is filled with relics and trophies, and over its altar may be observed the French flag-staffs, taken by the garrison in a desperate sally, the flags they once bore long since reduced to dust. Two anniversaries are still kept,—that of the day on which the gates were closed, that of the day on which the siege was raised,—salutes, processions, banquets, addresses, sermons signalizing these two great events in the history of a city which passed through so frightful a baptism of war, but has ever since been the abode of peace.