A false dawn

Rumours were rife in Melbourne. The goldfield was said to be in rebel hands and people became uncomfortably aware that the diggers could form an army tens of thousands strong and be on their way to pillage their defenceless town. A citizens’ rifle brigade was formed and Hotham was applauded when he announced that special constables would be sworn in to meet the emergency. In Ballarat, some more radical diggers met at the Star Hotel where Alfred Black drew up a ‘Declaration of Independence’ but they were a small minority and Lalor, who favoured force only in defence, played no part in it. Vern did and Lalor felt sufficiently insecure in his leadership to offer his resignation on Friday 1 December in order to maintain unity within the movement. However, he was dissuaded from doing so largely because Vern and others recognised that, without him the movement would fall apart. [1] Vern had promised to raise 500 armed German diggers and sought the position of second-in-command but contented himself with enlarging the Stockade. [2] Carboni thought this absurd as there was no possibility of defending the original space let alone an extended one. [3] Vern may have promised the best hope for military leadership but largely from accounts written by Carboni who detested him, he appears vague and contradictory in his military organisation. [4] He did, however, approach the task of forming a rebel army with some energy but he is best remembered for fleeing the subsequent battle though not, as some suggested, at its outset but when a large number of the defenders fled ten minutes into the battle.

Few diggers slept in the Stockade on Friday night returning early on Saturday morning, 2 December. Drilling recommenced at 8.00 am and the blacksmith inside the stockade continued to make pikes for the diggers who had no firearms. Drilling stopped around midday when Father Smyth arrived to tend to the needs of the Irish Catholics. He had permission from Lalor to address the Catholics and pointed out to them their poor defences and their lack of experience in the face of well-armed troops and police, with more reinforcements on the way. He pleaded for them to stop before blood was spilled, and to attend Mass the following morning, but was largely unsuccessful. No license hunt occurred in the morning and by midday most diggers agreed that nothing would happen until Monday at the earliest and Lalor believed that this would take the form of further license hunts not a direct attack on their camp. By mid-afternoon, 1,500 men were drilling in and around the Stockade. Captain Thomas suggested that the rebels were ‘forcing people to join their ranks’. [5]

Around 4.00 pm, 200 Americans, the Independent Californian Rangers under James McGill, arrived in the Stockade.[6] Their arrival bolstered men’s spirits as McGill had some military knowledge and was promptly appointed second-in-command to Lalor. There is considerable ambiguity over the extent of McGill’s military experience. [7] But he put whatever military training he had to work and set up a sentry system to warn the rebels of a British attack. Even so McGill and two-thirds of his Californians left before midnight on the pretext that they were going to intercept further reinforcements from Melbourne. McGill’s wife later claimed that a representative of the American consul, a friend of Hotham, had ordered McGill to get his men out of the Stockade. [8] Vern, also without providing any evidence to support his assertion, suggested that McGill accepted a bribe of £800 to absent himself from the Stockade. This left the Stockade seriously under-manned and Rede’s spies observed these actions. In the evening, most men had drifted home to their families or visited friends outside the boundary. Lalor had retired to the stores tent within the Stockade for much needed sleep by midnight and there were only about 120 diggers within the Stockade with a hundred or so firearms between them.

Although it appears that Lalor did not anticipate an imminent military assault, this was not the position in the Camp where tension was rising. Captain Thomas later stated that shots were fired over the heads of sentries and that the rebels in the ‘intrenched camp… [had] the avowed intention of intercepting the force under the Major-General’s command en route from Melbourne.’ [9] Rede knew that unless he used his available men, he could lose the opportunity to end the rebellion quickly. Soldiers and mounted police had poured in from around the state; 106 men from the 40th Regiment and 39 mounted troopers arrived from Geelong. Reinforcements were also sent from Castlemaine, as well as directly from Melbourne. Rede was informed by his spies that the Californian Rangers had left the Stockade depleting its defenders. There was a hint of things to come when on the day before the attack Rede had written to Hotham:

I am convinced that the future welfare of the Colony and the peace and prosperity of all the Gold Fields depends upon the crushing of this movement in such a manner that it may act as a warning.

Now, he concluded, was the ideal time to attack and destroy the Stockade.

[1] Ibid, Molony, John, Eureka, pp. 146-147, draws attention to the ‘alleged’ nature of this document but says nothing more.

[2] Vern, Frederick, ‘Col. Vern’s Narrative of the Ballarat Insurrection, Part I’, Melbourne Monthly Magazine, November 1855, pp. 5-14, Part II, does not appear to have been published.

[3] Ibid, Carboni, Raffaelo, The Eureka Stockade, pp. 80-81.

[4] Ibid, Carboni, Raffaelo, The Eureka Stockade, p. 84.

[5] Thomas to Major Adjutant-General, 3 December 1854, PROV, 1085/P Duplicate 162, Enclosure no. 7.

[6] Ibid, Carboni, Raffaelo, The Eureka Stockade, pp. 84-86, 88.

[7] Ibid, Blake, Gregory, To Pierce The Tyrant’s Heart: A Military History of The Battle for The Eureka Stockade 3 December 1854, pp. 49-51.

[8] SLV, MS 13518, Charles Evans, Diary, 3 December 1854, pp. 134-135, gives an alternative explanation suggesting that one government spy ‘[possibly McGill] had decoyed a large body of men from the Stockade last night on some pretence or other, leaving only about 150 in it and they imperfectly armed…’

[9] Thomas to Major Adjutant-General, 3 December 1854, PROV, 1085/P Duplicate 162, Enclosure no. 7.

This entry was posted in Australia, Eureka Stockade 1854, Historiography and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.