Planning the attack

The attack on the Eureka Stockade in the early hours of Sunday 3 December 1854 demonstrated the superiority of regular military forces against rebels. [1] By early December, there were 450 men in the Government Camp including 150 mounted men and their horses. Conditions were increasingly difficult. Contractors were reluctant to supply fresh water and food and the need to keep a constant vigil against attack meant that sleep was at a premium and troops slept on the ground next to their horses. A plan for defending the Camp had been developed in late October that included burning down adjacent building that could be used for cover by attacking rebels and turning the stone-built Bank of Victoria into a fortified outpost garrisoned by armed civilians.

On Saturday, the decision was finally made to assault the Stockade at a meeting between Robert Rede, Captain J. W. Thomas of the 40th Regiment, Captain Pasley and District Commissioner Amos. Amos, who had briefly been detained by the diggers and ‘robbed of his horse’, played a crucial role because of his intimate knowledge of the Eureka diggings and the Stockade. The construction of the Stockade with its implied threat to the Camp and to communications with Melbourne and the knowledge of the planned meeting of the Reform League on 3 December at which it was possible that the miners’ militant wing might emerge dominant increased the need for the authorities to suppress the rebellion quickly. Rede’s report of the attack suggested that Amos’ detention ‘decided us at once to put a stop to this state of anarchy and confusion’. [2] Once the military option had been decided, Rede had no further control over events. Captain Thomas assumed overall authority for suppressing the rebellion.

Thomas’ plan was deceptively simple. He would march his men under the cover of darkness across the diggings and surprise the rebels at dawn. The critical issue was how to get to the Stockade without rousing every miner in the area. This precluded a direct approach down the Melbourne Road but using Amos’ intimate knowledge of the diggings Thomas decided on an indirect approach that would keep any observers guessing as to the intention of the force. He would halt his forces behind Stockyard Hill to the north of the Stockade and would then advance against its north-western defences. It was also important for Thomas to reduce the number of defenders within the Stockade and he was able to exploit the rebels’ uncertainty about when Nickle’s column would arrive from Melbourne. The previous night two divisions of rebels had left the Stockade to confront the anticipated reinforcements. The Camp had made widespread use of spies and there is evidence that a false warning about Nickle’s column was delivered to the rebels. [3] Whether this was the reason why McGill left the Stockade with over a hundred of the best-armed rebels or whether McGill had other incentives to do so is unclear, but the outcome was the same, a depleted rebel force at Eureka.

Although Thomas advanced knowing that his men might have to fight, this was not inevitable. Police Magistrates Charles Hackett and George Webster were part of the force that marched out of the Camp suggesting that Thomas did not plan an unprovoked attack and considered that only police action might be needed. Hackett wrote immediately after the attack that he ‘had no opportunity of calling upon the people to disperse’. [4] Neither did Thomas order his men to fix bayonets when they deployed to advance; this did not occur until they closed with the rebels some ten minutes after the initial firing took place. Whatever Thomas’ intentions once hostilities broke out, what might have been a police action was transformed into a full-scale military engagement.

[1] See, ‘Fatal Collision at Ballaarat’, Argus, 4 December 1854, p. 5, ‘Further Particulars of the Ballaarat Affray’, Argus, 5 December 1854, pp. 4-5.

[2] Rede to Chief Gold Commissioner Wright, 3 December 1854: PROV, 1085/P Duplicate 162, Enclosure no. 9.

[3] Ibid, Blake, Gregory, To Pierce The Tyrant’s Heart: A Military History of The Battle for The Eureka Stockade 3 December 1854, pp. 105-107, examines the somewhat tenuous evidence for Thomas’ ruse.

[4] Charles Hackett to Charles MacMahon, 3 December 1854, PROV, 1085/P Unit 8, Duplicate 162, Enclosure no. 9.

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