Colvin's order to concentrate the resources in men and supplies of the English at Agra, within the fort, had not been issued too early. Indeed, it is to be regretted that it was not issued earlier. When issued, it was accompanied with restrictions. The victualling of the fort proceeded, however, with great energy.
By the end of June Agra was completely isolated. The entire country between the Jamnah (present day Yamuna River) and Ganga River was 'up,' while to the west of the former river Bundelkhand was surging with rebels. Rajputana and Central India had become difficult to hold. Communications with the north, south, west, and east had been severed.
Nor was the position restored by the news which reached Colvin on the 2nd of July. This was to the effect that a strong rebel force had reached Fatehpur Sikri, twenty-three miles from Agra. To meet these, he had within the fort the 3rd European regiment and one battery of European artillery. But he also had native allies upon whom he believed rather foolishly that he could rely. These were a body of 600 Karauli matchlockmen, commanded by Saifulla Khan, some levies from Bharatpur, and a detachment of the Kota contingent. Colvin at once brought the latter contingent within the cantonment. He placed the others at Shahganj, four miles on the road to Fatehpur Sikri, to watch the movements of the rebel force at that place.
The following day, the 3rd, Colvin being ill, a council of three gentlemen was appointed to administer affairs. It consisted of: Reade, the senior member of the Board of Revenue, Major Macleod of the Engineers, Military Secretary to Colvin, and Brigadier Polwhele, commanding the troops. These gentlemen at once took vigorous measures for the public safety. Some of these sounded outlandish, but they were probably justified under the circumstances. For instance, dreading lest the rebels might enter the station, they conveyed the prisoners in the jail across the Jamnah (Yamuna River), and released them. Then they broke down the pontoon bridge communicating with the fort. The gentlemen also brought in all the native Christians. They directed that the Karauli and Bharatpur levies should be required to give up their guns, two in number. And, they directed the officer commanding the Kota contingent to march against the rebels.
These orders sufficed to clear the air. The Bharatpur and Karauli men, infuriated by the removal of their guns, removed themselves from the scenario. It was the best course for the English they could adopt. This also applied for the Kota contingent. No sooner did the men composing it receive the order to advance, they shot down the English sergeant in charge of their military stores. Firing hastily at their European officers, the rebels rushed off to join the enemy they had been directed to combat. They did not, happily, achieve their full purpose. While a loyal gunner named Mathura managed unseen to spike their guns, their English doctor, Mathias, dispersed in the sand their powder, ammunition, and case-shot. A party sent out from Agra brought the guns into the fort.
That same evening Colvin entered the fort and resumed authority. The next day, the 5th, the rebels marched in from Fatehpur Sikri and took up a position at the village of Sassiah, roughly five miles from the fort. They were reported to consist of 4000 infantry, 1500 cavalry, and eleven guns. Brigadier Polwhele could take into the field against them 568 English infantry, a battery with sixty-nine Englishmen, including officers, fifty-four native drivers, fifty-five mounted militia, and fifty English volunteers, mostly officers, making a total of 742 Englishmen. Besides, he also possessed the officers of the European regiment and the staff. It was a force sufficient, if well handled, to drive the rebel force haywire.
Believing that he could so handle it, Polwhele marched from the fort at one o'clock, and proceeded to Shahganj. There he halted till his reconnoitring parties should come in. These arrived at half-past two with the information that the rebels were still halted at Sassiah. Polwhele then moved in the direction of that village. When within half-a-mile from it, the enemy's left battery opened fire.
The only mode to the fight the insurrectionists were to move straight on. To play the game of an artillery duello with them, when they had nearly double the number of guns and the advantage of position, was utter lunacy. The experience of a hundred years would have been reversed if Polwhele, pushing on against the village of Sassiah, had failed to drive the rebels from it. But he did nothing of the sort. He experimented a plan in which he was bound to be beaten. He halted his infantry, and made them lie down, while he engaged in an artillery duello with his six guns against the enemy's eleven. His men were in the open, whereas the rebels were protected by the village of Sassiah. The logical consequences followed.
Although the British guns were directed by two of the most gallant and skilled officers the splendid Bengal Artillery ever produced, the larger calibre of the enemy's guns affirmed its superiority. Captain D'Oyley was commanding half the battery on the right, while, Captain Pearson the other half on the left. They had, moreover, the exact range. In a short time they succeeded in exploding two tumbrils, and in inflicting considerable damage among the drivers and horses of the British. Vainly did D'Oyley and Pearson send messages to Polwhele to tell him that a persistency in those manoeuvres would exhaust their ammunition without securing for him any corresponding advantage. The infantry Polwhele had with him constituted the sole means at his disposal for the defence of the fort. He persisted in waiting until another tumbril had been exploded by the enemy's fire. Until their cavalry, gathering courage from his inactivity charged Pearson's half-battery. Cool and collected, Pearson awaited their approach, while the company of the Europeans nearest to him rose to their feet, their muskets levelled.
A simultaneous fire from the guns and the infantry sufficed to fend off the attack, and to send the survivors reeling back to the place from where they had ridden. A similar attempt threatened against D'Oyley's half-battery was defeated by the volunteer horsemen. These, eighteen in number, charged 200 of the rebels, and though they lost one-third of their number, forced the rebels to retire.
Two and a half hours had now elapsed. The rebels still occupied their unthreatened position. The English had accomplished nothing to drive them from it. D'Oyley reported to the Brigadier that his ammunition was all but exhausted. Then only did the Brigadier issue the order which, given two and a half hours before, could scarcely have failed to achieve success. He ordered the line to advance. The line did advance. Despite the fire from men stationed in most advantageous positions in Sassiah, the men fought their way into the village. They even captured and spiked one of the enemy's guns. But in advancing to and in taking the village, the British losses had been severe. D'Oyley was mortally wounded. Major Thomas of the Europeans met the same fate. Several men were killed, but at last the village was gained. It required but the support of the guns to round off the victory. But by this time every round had been fired off. In his anxiety for the safety of his men, Polwhele had prematurely, and despite repeated warnings, exhausted the sole means by which he could assure success.
For the rebels were not slow to realise the cause of the silence of the British guns. They had at least ten, and still some, though not in plenty, of ammunition. They at once made a demonstration with the three arms against the village. Polwhele could not defend it with infantry alone, and he ran a great risk of being disrupted from the fort. Under those circumstances, he had no other way but to retreat. The retreat was established in good order. The infantry were savage with their commander, to whose fatal tactics they rightly attributed the loss of the day. Still, preserving their habitual calmness, they repelled every attack. Fortunately, before the retreat was concluded, the rebels likewise fell short of gun ammunition.
In this fight the British had lost forty-five men. 108 were wounded and missing. They had also left one gun on the ground, though they recovered it a day or two later. The rebels signalised their triumph by setting fire to every building within their reach. They then returned to Sassiah, took a hasty meal, and set off for Delhi. Arriving there, on the 8th, they were greeted with a grand salute as 'the victors of Sassiah.'
For the English the blow was brutal. Though the rebels had departed, their allies, the rabble and the jailbirds, finished what they had begun. They ruthlessly plundered the city, the cantonments, and the civil lines, burning the materials away. The following morning the town-crier (an erstwhile official who made public announcements), by order of the Kotwal (an erstwhile local commanding chief) proclaimed the inauguration of the rule of the Mughal.
Polwhele's regiment had failed disastrously, owing to his horribly misguided decision at the wrong time. From the date the fight began to the following period, the English had a tough time at Agra.
In the interval, the 9th of September, Colvin passed away. He was succeeded temporarily, and until the orders of the Government of India should be known, by the senior Civil servant, Mr E. A. Reade. More than two months later (September 30th), the Government, thinking that the times demanded a soldier rather than a civilian at the head of affairs, nominated Colonel Hugh Fraser of the Engineers to be their Chief Commissioner for Agra and its dependencies. Colonel Fraser held the office till the 9th of February following.
To the north and north-west of Allahabad, Delhi was the central point. This was the place upon the occupation of which the fate of the towns and districts in those provinces, the fate of Central India, the fate of Punjab itself, depended. The whole of the North-west, including Bundelkhand and Rohilkhand, had risen because Delhi was held by the rebels. The assertion in that Imperial city of the rule of the Mughal was the cause-insurrection all over the country was the consequence. The truth of this maxim was felt more clearly every day by those who were responsible for maintaining British authority in the provinces and districts which remained loyal. Equally was it felt by the native princes who adhered to the British connection. If the British should be compelled to abandon their position before Delhi, it would be hardly possible to prevent a tremendous conflagration. Most certainly Punjab would have risen. In that event, in all likelihood, the districts to the north-west and west of Allahabad would have been completely severed, for a time, from the British.