The close of the year 1795 saw France under the government of the Directory, with Carnot in the cabinet, and Pichegru, Jourdain, Moreau, Hoche, and Buonaparte at the head of its armies. This government, with some change of persons, lasted from October, 1795, to November, '99, when it was supplanted by the Consular Revolution. Within the compass of those four years lie the negotiations which were carried on and the three great expeditions which were fitted out by France and Holland, at the instance of the United Irishmen.
On the 1st of February, 1796, Tone, who had sailed from Belfast the previous June, arrived at Havre from New York, possessed of a hundred guineas and some useful letters of introduction. One of these letters, written in cipher, was from the French Minister at Philadelphia to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Charles Lacroix; another was to the American Minister in France, Mr. Monroe, afterwards President of the United States, by whom he was most kindly received, and wisely advised, on reaching Paris. Lacroix received him courteously, and referred him to a subordinate called Madgett, but after nearly three months wasted in interviews and explanations, Tone, by the advice of Monroe, presented himself at the Luxembourg Palace, and demanded audience of the "Organizer of Victory." Carnot also listened to him attentively, asked and obtained his true name, and gave him another rendezvous. He was next introduced to Clarke (afterwards Duc de Feltre), Secretary at War, the son of an Irishman, whom he found wholly ignorant of Ireland; and finally, on the 12th of July, General Hoche, in the most frank and winning manner, introduced himself. At first the Directory proposed sending to Ireland no more than 5,000 men, while Tone pleaded for 20,000; but when Hoche accepted the command, he assured Tone he would go "in sufficient force." The "pacificator of La Vendee," as the young general was called--he was only thirty-two,--won at once the heart of the enthusiastic founder of the United Irishmen, and the latter seems to have made an equally favourable impression. He was at once presented with the commission of a chef de brigade of infantry--a rank answering to that of colonel with us--and was placed as adjutant on the general's staff. Hoche was all ardour and anxiety; Carnot cheered him on by expressing his belief that it would be "a most brilliant operation;" and certainly Tone was not the man to damp such expectations, or allow them to evaporate in mere complimentary assurances.
During the autumn months the expedition was busily being fitted out at Brest, and the general head-quarters were at Rennes. The Directory, to satisfy themselves that all was as represented by Tone, had sent an agent of their own to Ireland, by whom a meeting was arranged on the Swiss frontier between Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Arthur O'Conor, Dr. McNevin, and Hoche. From this meeting--the secret of which he kept to himself--the young general returned in the highest spirits, and was kinder than ever to his adjutant. At length, early in December, all was ready, and on the 16th the Brest fleet stood out to sea; 17 sail of the line, 13 frigates, and 13 smaller ships, carrying 15,000 picked troops, the elite of "the Army of the Ocean," and abundance of artillery and munitions of war. Tone was in the Indomptable, 80 guns, commanded by a Canadian, named Bedout; Hoche and the Admiral in the frigate Fraternite; Grouchy, so memorable for the part he played then and afterwards, was second in command. On the third morning, after groping about and losing each other in Atlantic fog, one-half the fleet (with the fatal exception of the Fraternite) found themselves close in with the coast of Kerry. They entered Bantry Bay, and came to anchor, ten ships of war, and "a long line of dark hulls resting on the green water." Three or four days they lay dormant and idle, waiting for the General and Admiral; Bouvet, the Vice-Admiral, was opposed to moving in the absence of his chief; Grouchy was irresolute and nervous; but at length, on Christmas day, the council of war decided in favour of debarkation. The landing was to take place next morning; 6,500 veterans were prepared to step ashore at daylight, but without their artillery, their military chest, and their general. Two hours beyond midnight Tone was roused from sleep by the wind, which he found blowing half a gale. Pacing the gallery of the Indomptable till day dawned, he felt it rising louder and angrier, every hour. The next day it was almost a hurricane, and the Vice-Admiral's frigate, running under the quarter of the great 80-gun ship, ordered them to slip anchor and stand out to sea. The whole fleet was soon driven off the Irish coast; that part of it, in which Grouchy and Tone were embarked, made its entrance into Brest on New Year's day; the ship which carried Hoche and the Admiral, only arrived at La Rochelle on the 15th. The Directory and the General, so far from being discouraged by this failure, consoled themselves by the demonstration they had made, of the possibility of a great fleet passing to and fro, in British waters, for nearly a month, without encountering a single British vessel of war. Not so the Irish negotiator; on him, light-hearted and daring as he was, the disappointment fell with crushing weight; but he magnanimously carried Grouchy's report to Paris, and did his utmost to defend the unlucky general from a cabal which had been formed against him.
While Tone was reluctantly following his new chief to the Meuse and the Rhine--with a promise that the Irish expedition was delayed, not abandoned--another, and no less fortunate negotiator, was raising up a new ally for the same cause, in an unexpected quarter. The Batavian republic, which had risen in the steps of Pichegru's victorious army, in 1794, was now eager to imitate the example of France. With a powerful fleet, and an unemployed army, its chiefs were quite ready to listen to any proposal which would restore the maritime ascendancy of Holland, and bring back to the recollection of Europe the memory of the puissant Dutch republic. In this state of affairs, the new agent of the Irish Directory, Edward John Lewines, a Dublin attorney, a man of great ability and energy, addressed himself to the Batavian government. He had been sent abroad with very general powers, to treat with Holland, Spain, France, or any other government at war with England, for a loan of half a million sterling, and a sufficient auxiliary force to aid the insurrection. During two months' stay at Hamburg, the habitual route in those days from the British ports to the continent, he had placed himself in communication with the Spanish agent there, and had, in forty days, received an encouraging answer from Madrid. On his way, probably to Spain, to follow up that fair prospect, he reached the Netherlands, and rapidly discovering the state of feeling in the Dutch, or as it was then called, the Batavian republic, he addressed himself to the Directors, who consulted Hoche, by whom in turn Tone was consulted. Tone had a high opinion of Lewines, and at once proceeded with him to the Hague, where they were joined, according to agreement, by Hoche. The Dutch Committee of Foreign Affairs, the Commander-in-Chief, General Dandaels, and the Admiral, De Winter, entered heartily into the project. There were in the Texel 16 ships of the line and 10 frigates, victualled for three months, with 15,000 men and 80 field guns on board. The only serious difficulty in the way was removed by the disinterestedness of Hoche; the French Foreign Minister having demanded that 5,000 French troops should be of the expedition, and that Hoche should command in chief; the latter, to conciliate Dandaels and the Dutch, undertook to withdraw the proposal, and gracefully yielded his own pretensions. All then was settled: Tone was to accompany Dandaels with the same rank he had in the Brest expedition, and Lewines to return, and remain, as "Minister-resident" at Paris. On the 8th of July, Tone was on board the flagship, the Vryheid, 74 guns, in the Texel, and "only waiting for a wind," to lead another navy to the aid of his compatriots.
But the winds, "the only unsubsidized allies of England," were strangely adverse. A week, two, three, four, five, passed heavily away, without affording a single day in which that mighty fleet could make an offing. Sometimes for an hour or two it shifted to the desired point, the sails were unclewed and the anchors shortened, but then, as if to torture the impatient exiles on board, it veered back again and settled steadily in the fatal south-west. At length, at the end of August, the provisions being nearly consumed, and the weather still unfavourable, the Dutch Directory resolved to land the troops and postpone the expedition. De Winter, as is known, subsequently found an opportunity to work out, and attack Lord Duncan, by whom he was badly beaten. Thus ended Irish hopes of aid from Holland. The indomitable Tone rejoined his chief on the Rhine, where, to his infinite regret, Hoche died the following month--September 18th, 1797--of a rapid consumption, accelerated by cold and carelessness. "Hoche," said Napoleon to Barry O'Meara at Saint Helena, "was one of the first generals France ever produced. He was brave, intelligent, abounding in talent, decisive and penetrating. Had he landed in Ireland, he would have succeeded. He was accustomed to civil war, had pacified La Vendee, and was well adapted for Ireland. He had a fine, handsome figure, a good address, was prepossessing and intriguing." The loss of such a patron, who felt himself, according to Tone's account, especially bound to follow up the object of separating Ireland from England, was a calamity greater and more irreparable than the detention of one fleet or the dispersion of the other.
The third expedition, in promoting which Tone and Lewines bore the principal part, was decided upon by the French Directory, immediately after the conclusion of peace with Austria, in October, 1797. The decree for the formation of "the Army of England," named Buonaparte Commander-in- Chief, with Desaix as his second. Buonaparte consulted Clarke as to who he most confided in among the numerous Irish refugees then in Paris--there were some twenty or thirty, all more or less known, and more or less in communication with the Directory--and Clarke answered at once, "Tone, of course." Tone, with Lewines, the one in a military, the other in an ambassadorial capacity, had frequent interviews with the young conqueror of Italy, whom they usually found silent and absorbed, always attentive, sometimes asking sudden questions betraying great want of knowledge of the British Islands, and occasionally, though rarely, breaking out into irresistible invectives against Jacobinism and the English system, both of which he so cordially detested. Every assurance was given by the General, by the Directors, by Merlin du Douai, Barras, and Talleyrand especially, that the expedition against England would never be abandoned. Tone, in high spirits as usual, joined the division under the command of his countryman, General Kilmaine, and took up his quarters at Havre, where he had landed without knowing a soul in France two years before.
The winter wore away in busy preparations at Havre, at Brest, and at La Rochelle,--and, which seemed mysterious to the Irish exiles--at Toulon. All the resources of France, now without an enemy on the Continent, were put forth in these preparations. But it soon appeared they were not put forth for Ireland. On the 20th of May, 1798--within three days of the outbreak in Dublin, Wexford, and Kildare--Buonaparte sailed with the elite of all that expedition for Alexandria, and "the Army of England" became, in reality, "the Army of Egypt."
The bitterness, the despondency, and desperation which seized on the Irish leaders in France, and on the rank and file of the United Irishmen at home, on receiving this intelligence are sufficiently illustrated in the subsequent attempts under Humbert and Bompart, and the partial, ineffectual risings in Leinster, Ulster, and Connaught, during the summer and autumn of 1798. After all their high hopes from France and her allies, this was what it had come to at last! A few frigates, with three or four thousand men, were all that could be spared for the succour of a kingdom more populous than Egypt and Syria combined; the granary of England, and the key of her Atlantic position. It might have been some comfort to the family of Tone to have read, thirty years afterwards, in their American asylum, or for the aged Lewines to have read in the Parisian retreat in which he died, the memorable confession of Napoleon at Saint Helena: "If instead of the expedition to Egypt, I had undertaken that to Ireland, what," he asked, "could England do now? On such chances," he mournfully added, "depend the destinies of empires!"