Ireland’s Wars: Benburb

What we call the Irish Confederate Wars were in their fifth year, which is all the more surprising given that the Confederates were yet to really land a really significant victory in the course of the war. When it came to set-piece battles, they had been humbled time and time again, at Kilrush, Glenmaquin, Liscarroll, New Ross and Clones. There had been some victories, but they had been in sieges, such at Limerick, Galway or Duncannon, or in small-scale fights, like Fermoy Ford, that were, after the event, blown into larger events. The most successful Irish troops of the war had fought in Scotland and the Confederate military had, for most of the war, been poorly organised, trained and led.

That the Confederation had lasted so long is testament not to their skill, or luck on the battlefield, but to the diplomatic and political worlds elsewhere. It is not unfair to say that if the English Civil War had never broken out, the Confederation would never have had a chance to even come into existence properly, its meagre armies being no match for any of their prospective opponents.

The Confederation could continue to exist for the time being, with their foes distracted fighting each other. But that state of affairs would not continue, and with Charles admitting defeat in May of 1646, the Parliamentarian and Covenanter alliance could now, easily, swing its focus to ending the rebellion in Ireland. If the Kilkenny government was going to achieve its goals – which still, nominally, extended not to some form of independence, but greater rights of self-government and religious freedom – it would need to fight for it. It would need to start winning battles.

The Papal Nuncio, Rinuccini, recognised this, perhaps more than others in the Kilkenny political circle. He had hopes of getting the English out of Ireland entirely, and turning it into a bastion for the Papal States, and he knew that victories in the field would be required for such an aim to be achieved. To that end, he tried his best to heal some of the divides that existed between the military commanders of the Confederation, such as those between Owen Roe O’Neill and Thomas Preston, or between Owen Roe and his kinsman Phelim.

Rinuccini, as discussed in the last entry, also recognised that a singular focus would be necessary if that victory was to be achieved. He had, perhaps unwisely, chosen to forgo the previous attention given to Munster in favour of a prospective assault on Ulster.

Owen Roe O’Neill would be the man to lead that assault. He had come to Ireland on a tide of good will and high hopes, but his military endeavours thus far had been piece meal and largely ineffective. A minor skirmish at Portlester remained his most singular triumph, and his actual efforts in his given area of operations had resulted in little more than an embarrassing withdrawal and a botched invasion attempt.

He had some excuses. His men were not of the best quality, and he lacked the funds to keep them supplied and in the field. For so long since the initial withdrawal, he had been forced to keep his army disbanded, as he had no money to keep them employed, and it was hardly good practise to keep in the field when there was nothing for them to do. His enemies, in the form of Monro and, to a lesser extent, Robert Stewart, were numerous, well-trained and, for the most part, better supplied than he was.

But, it could not be denied that Owen Roe had been largely a failure during his time in command. Tasked with defending Ulster, he had, instead, been forced to leave most of the province in the hands of the Covenanters.

Rinuccini wanted that changed, and the fears of Monro’s possible move southwards in the Spring and early Summer of 1646 played on that fear. Even though Monro’s expected attack may have been, at least in the words of Monro himself, little more than a larger-than-normal foraging expedition, some thought that the Scottish commander of British forces in Ireland could be at the gates of Kilkenny in less than two weeks if he was committed to the attack.

Rinuccini, and elements of the Confederate government, wanted that possibility nipped in the bud. Throwing their lot in with Owen Roe decisively, Rinuccini choose to allocate the lion’s share of his supplies – powder, guns, money – behind the O’Neill leader, with the instruction that they would be used for an offensive into Ulster to take on Monro and anyone else who got in the way. Owen Roe enthusiastically took those supplies and committed himself, moving what forces he had northward and sending out the call for his previous numbers to present themselves.

For perhaps the very first time in the Confederate Wars, Owen Roe would be fighting with a well-armed and equipped army, and it was all thanks to Rome, not Kilkenny. Rinuccini’s offered supplies were of a high standard, and while there remained a deficiency in cannon, Owen Roe’s newly reformed Ulster Army would be able to field over 5’000 men and several hundred cavalry, with the firearms, powder and pikes to let them fight the enemy to their best of their ability, and the food to keep them fed while trying to do so. It has been described by noted Benburb expert Clive Hollick as “probably the best army the confederates ever fielded’.

This was not just because of the arms or the pay, both of which were considerable, but because of the quality of its leadership and the style it which it was trained. Owen Roe may not have had the best time in the wars thus far, but he still had decades of experience fighting in the continent, as did the professional soldiery had had brought with him when he arrived in Ireland, who would have formed the bulk of the Ulster Army’s officers. He also now had the time to train his growing army to his satisfaction at Gallanagh Hill on the modern day Cavan/Westmeath border before the campaign, an absolutely critical factor.

During seven weeks before the army moved into Ulster, O’Neill was able to introduce his new soldiers, and re-introduce old ones, into a modern style of fighting, probably based off the innovation of Gustavus Adolphus, which emphasised mobility in units, the use of firepower at relatively short range as a precursor to shock power of pike attacks and the laying out of an army in a staggered formation, where gaps in the first line could be filled easily by second or third lines in reserve. The high number of muskets now available to the Ulster Army also allowed for the use of more European innovations, especially the standard Swedish unit formation of a core of Pikemen protected on the flanks by musketeers. For a month and half, O’Neill had the chance to train and drill his army into a force more than capable of taking on the Covenanters.

Ormond’s role while all this was going on was as an inactive spectator. Events in England, namely the surrender of Charles, had critically undermined his appointed position in Ireland. The Ormond Peace treaty, yet to be publically proclaimed, tied him to Kilkenny more than ever before, but when calls went out to him for the Royalists to provide soldiers and services for the defence of Ireland from a possible Covenanter attack, Ormond demurred. Now, as Owen Roe prepared to head back into Ulster in force, more suggestions and pleas were sent to him, calling on the Lord Lieutenant to march some forces northward up the coast, near the Moyry Pass presumably, which could be used to distract and harry Monro and his Covenanters before any main engagement with Owen Roe. While not quite the combined offensive that some hoped, such an act would have been an immense help. But Ormond was steadfastly uninterested, suddenly pledging only to help the Confederates in the event of a Covenanter invasion of their heartland, turning the Ormond Peace into some kind of mutual defence pact that did not apply to aggressive action undertaken by Kilkenny. Owen Roe was on his own.

The sorting out of the family feud between himself and Phelim O’Neill was critical. Both men had a claim on the position of head of the O’Neill family. Phelim could legitimately claim to have been in at the start of the rebellion, and had also operated in Ulster while Owen Roe had withdrawn, using Charlemont fort, which had remained in Confederate hands, as a base to launch raids and other insurgency warfare operations. But Phelim’s efforts had been, by necessity, piecemeal and ineffective, and Charlemont remained isolated and largely cut-off, a position only untaken because of its relatively high defensive strength.

With Owen Roe advancing, the reconciliation between the two men had been important, aided by the personal intervention of Rinuccini. Phelim maintained his position as commander of the horse – essentially the second in command of the entire army – and provided key intelligence for Owen Roe as he began his advance, which occurred on the 31st of May. Phelim would clash with Owen Roe again, but for now the two were allies.

Monro was also, finally on the move, moving out from Carrickfergus on the 2nd of June. His army was its typically strong self, at least 6’000 infantry, which included a large English contingent, and 600 horse, not to mention his artillery train (for the sake of simplicity, I’ll continue to refer to this force as “Scottish” and “Covenanter”, despite its large English Parliamentarian make-up). Monro’s army was actually understrength following the return to Scotland of several of his units to try and combat Montrose, and the Scottish commander had also to deal with several violent outbursts of undisciplined behaviour from his men over matters relating to pay and the timely arrival of supplies from Parliament. His army also had what was described as a “straggler” problem, a ruffian element that followed in its wake, sowing more indiscipline and making life even harder for Monro.

Then there was Robert Stewart’s Laggan Army, which was now moving east from its fastness in the Donegal/Derry region. There are indications that Monro and Stewart were attempting some sort of combined operation, and Stewart had around 2’000 men heading into the general area where both Monro and Owen Roe would soon be operating. There was also a small force under Monro’s son-in-law, George Monro, out of Coleraine, of around 240 infantry and 100 horse, that the chief Monro aimed to join up with before doing whatever it was he planned on doing.

The aims of both sides actually remain just a little unclear. We have already discussed the confusion and fears that surrounded Monro’s advance. A simple raid into north Leinster to one man was a massive, combined assault into the rest of Ireland to another. It might be reasonable to say it was just a large scale scouring for supplies, that adapted itself into a more traditional military campaign when Owen Roe advanced. However, it should be noted that Monro was carrying a very large amount of provisions, six weeks’ worth by some post-campaign estimates, with him, which might indicate that he planned something a bit more elaborate than simply foraging. He also had a very sizable artillery train, not just light pieces as you might expect for a raid.

The Irish aims are just as unclear really. They were probably little more than to seek an engagement and, hopefully, defeat and destroy Monro and his army. After that, depending on the situation, the Irish, pressed by Rinuccini, might have hoped to hit a Covenanter HQ hard, such Armagh, Belfast, or maybe even Carrickfergus. Perhaps a more pressing objective would be to simply establish the Irish forces in Ulster again, in a way that they had totally failed to do in 1644. That meant beating the Covenanters, maybe the Laggan Army too, and de-isolating the Charlemont position.

Monro undertook a series of forced marches southwards, and on the 4th of June he was 10 miles or so outside of Armagh. His scouts managed to capture some of their opposite number from the Irish army, and soon reported to him of the gigantic opportunity that he had: Owen Roe’s Ulster Army was now to the north, not far from the Charlemont fort, skirting the edges of the Blackwater River, having undertaken a march directly towards the position, albeit one that was less intense than Monro’s.

Monro had no few other alternatives than to swing around and bring his army to bear on Owen Roe. He could have abandoned his enterprise altogether and simply gone home, shoring up his defences and waiting this assault out, but such a course would have brought accusations of cowardice, and would also have passed up an opportunity to gain a decisive victory over the Confederates. Indecision would simply mean that the Irish would gain safety in Charlemont, much as they had in previous campaigns, though perhaps Monro would have better luck with a siege this time. Monro couldn’t just keep going either, as that would leave his own Ulster heartland pitifully undefended,

So, Monro decided to get his army moving as fast as he could, with more forced marching, to cut Owen Roe off and destroy him before the Irish had a chance to escape. Believing that he held all the cards, Monro was also aware that his son-in-law was soon to arrive, and Stewart could not be far off either.

But if Monro was hoping to surprise Owen Roe, he would be sorely disappointed. The Irish commanders own scouts had the countryside well reconnoitred – even more than the Covenanters probably, given the sympathies of the local population – and so he knew exactly where Monro was and where he was coming from. The fact that the Irish had claimed some local high ground also helped in that regard. O’Neill made sure that his army was on the north bank of the Blackwater, with Charlemont to his back as a position he could move to if things went awry, before Monro had even gotten close to the Irish. He also detached a small portion of his army, under his kinsman Brian Roe, to move north and intercept George Monro before his reinforcements could be brought to bear on the coming fight. In so doing, O’Neill released most of his little cavalry, a risky move considering what he was up against.

Many Irish sources like to portray Owen Roe as some sort of strategic genius for his position at this point, having managed to get in the middle of three enemy forces without engaging either of them, directly or indirectly. But this had more to do with luck than anything, and it is doubtful that Owen Roe would have sought an engagement with Monro at this point if the Scottish commander hadn’t actually taken the initiative to do so. Stewart was still nearly 20 miles away as well, and does not appear to have done anything to try and join up with Monro’s army at speed.

That is not to say that O’Neill did not showcase some intelligence. The Irish position was near the small townland/hamlet of Benburb, Tyrone, roughly halfway between Armagh and Dungannon. The Irish situated themselves in a hilly area just north of the Blackwater, in-between several brooks from the same river. Having taken the requisite steps to defend the nearest crossing points of the River, Owen Roe was aware of the point from which Monro would have to march if they were to have a battle. Thus, O’Neill was able to pick his desired spot for the fight to come, and make sure that he held as many advantages as he could.

The Covenanters were forced to take a roundabout route to the battlefield, heading first west to an undefended fording point over the river, then north, and then east to follow the waters curve, a march of around 19 miles in total, which came on top of roughly 45 miles marching over the four days – a huge distance to have covered in so short a time. This was undertaken from very early on the morning of the 5th, following two days of similar marching from the Carrickfergus/Belfast area. It was not until late afternoon/early evening that Monro was approaching the Irish position. As such, his infantry and horses were already extremely tired, a weakness that would be critically exploited by the Irish in a very short time. He could possibly have forded the Blackwater at a more advantageous point downstream, but didn’t. His reasoning was, apparently, that he hoped such a move would make Owen Roe abandon his current position and advance forward, leading to a fight on more favourable ground to Monro and an inability for the Confederates to tackle the advancing George Monro. Neither of these two possibilities came to pass.

Still waiting on word from Brian Roe, Owen Roe opened the days fighting by sending out a skirmish force to harass and further delay Monro on his final approach to Benburb, as the Ulster Army commander made his final preparations. A brief firefight erupted between the advance guards of both armies, before the Irish retired back to their main force. Everything now hung in the balance.

The two armies arranged themselves in differing formations, hemmed in by the river on one side and boggy ground on the other – just as Owen Roe had wanted. His army was in three lines, with four of his infantry units – the previously mentioned pike centred structures with musketeers on the sides – making up the first line, two more in the second just behind the gaps of the first, and a one reserve of musketeers in the third. Cavalry was lined up on either flank.

On the other side, Monro went a bit simpler, choosing two straight lines of five regiments each, with gaps lined to allows his cavalry units, situated at the rear of the army, to gallop through when required. The only commander bringing artillery to the fight, Monro set up his cannon in front of his infantry.

The actual battle that we call Benburb began with firing from that artillery, the standard opener for set-piece engagements, though it was mostly ineffective that day, the rate of fire and the inaccuracy making them less of a threat than they could have been. The gunners were firing uphill at the enemy, which largely prevented any bouncing balls that made cannon so effective in the best circumstance.

From there, it was Monro who made the first forward moves, being the aggressor, and probably still fearful that O’Neill would retreat and deny him the chance to win a victory. He sent forward a small section of the army, a mix of cavalry and musketeers, to seize a ford over the brook that lay between the two armies, not far off the Irish left flank. The aim may have been to turn the Irish Army and then drive them northward, towards George Monro’s cavalry, thus trapping the Irish between two armies. It was a decent strategy, but required an attack over watery ground and then uphill

The Irish sent their own skirmishers to contest this attempt, and then a quick cavalry charge from O’Neill’s left flank sent the Covenanters scurrying back to their lines. The first attacks had been fairly small, really more of a delay than anything, just as the previous fighting had been. The cannon began their fire again, but it remained just as ineffective. The day was now drawing on, and it was not inconceivable that the coming lack of light would have resulted in an aborted clash, with both sides backing off or refusing to attack.

At this point, cavalry crested a hill to the north. At first, both sides thought that their respective cavalry detachments had returned and would not supplement their own army. For the Covenanters, there was eventual horror and shock as the riders moved directly towards the Irish lines, revealing themselves as the force under Brian Roe O’Neill. They had ambushed George Monro’s cavalry to the north and sent them back in the way they came, though the actual casualties they had inflicted had been light. Monro’s son-in-law lacked the elders courage and fled back in the direction of Coleraine than risk an all-out engagement. Brian Roe, for his part, had nearly gotten sucked into a meaningless pursuit before he was reminded of his actual orders. Regardless, he had insured that this cavalry would not come to aid Monro. For the Irish, now preparing to attack, it was a timely morale boost, while for the Scots, already tired, it was a crushing blow.

It was now nearly eight o clock in the evening, fighting only possible due to the time of year. With the sun starting to set and the Covenanters looking suddenly paralysed, Owen Roe rolled the dice and moved to the attack.

Absolutions and final instructions were given, most crucially that the Irish musketeers hold their fire for as long as possible. Owen Roe gave one last speech, urging his men to the kill with memories of land dispossession and sectarian outrages. With actual distinguishing uniforms lacking – for both armies – Owen Roe ordered that the “word” of the day would be “Sancta Maria”, to be used as an battle cry and an indentifying phrase on the field. Rinuccini would probably have approved.

Monro could see what was happening, but still did nothing of his own accord, perhaps wondering if he should do the unthinkable and withdraw. He didn’t. The Irish advance began across the line, the brook crossed easily enough. Monro now sent his cavalry forward in an attempt to head off this attack, but his horse troops were uniformly exhausted by the march and what fighting had already occurred. The attack was ineffective, and did not slow the inexorable advance of the Irish infantry.

Now across the brook, the first things to fall were the Covenanter artillery positions, abandoned by their gunners in favour of the relative safety of the infantry line. With the sun starting to wane, the critical phase of the battle began.

Musketeers unloaded their weapons on the opposing lines, but the Irish fire was far more effective, the gunners having retained most of their powder and ammunition for this moment. A wind that had previously been blowing in the faces of the Irish had now died down, giving them even better conditions for firing. Monro may also have counted on the setting sun being in the eyes of the attackers, but this phase of the battle came so late that the sun was too low and dim for this to be an advantage. Firing from close range, the Irish were able to open up numerous holes in the Covenanter lines, which were packed thicker and tighter than the Irish. Then the pikemen moved forward for the key infantry engagement, the so called “push of pike”.

Here, the Irish made use of their final, hitherto unseen, advantage. Their pikes were longer, stronger and better bladed or sharpened than that of the enemy, allowing the Irish to inflict a greater amount of damage at slightly longer range.

An hour or so of brutal fighting now took place, as both sides strained against the other. Slowly, but surely, the Irish advantages told and the Scots were pushed back, taking terrible casualties from the superior Irish weapons. Initially focusing the main push in the centre, O’Neill gradually moved it to his right. The Scottish lines were already so close that attempts to supplement the front resulted in confusion and turmoil as units were crushed together. On the other side, the chequered Irish positions merged more seamlessly into the gaps.

O’Neill, for the last stroke, sent his supplemented cavalry at the flank of the now hard-pressed Covenanter left. This was the final moment of decision, as the Covenanter flank was turned inward under this attack, towards the river, and a total disintegration of the British occurred.

Now, the poor positioning of the Scottish showed. Escape could only come through two ways – back west, over hilly and difficult to pass ground, or south, over the river. In either event, the Scottish troops were tired from near 20 miles of marching and hours of battle.

The result was a total slaughter. Monro’s attempts to keep cohesion failed, and he barely escaped with his life and the lives of his key lieutenants. Most of his army, those who weren’t dead already, were not so lucky. The Irish cut them down as they ran for safety, or the Blackwater took them to a watery grave. A few tried to use the Irish cry of “Sancta Maria” to save themselves, but their accent distorted the words so much that it only made them easier to identify and then to kill. Few prisoners were taken. Only one of the British regiments, the one closest to the river during the fighting, got away intact.

The Irish casualties were fairly small – probably no more than 300 or so men. The British casualties are, naturally, in dispute, but were enormous for the day. The generally accepted and plausible number of dead was probably over 2’000, maybe as high as 3’000, with another huge number of men injured or missing. The combined effect was for Monro’s army to be at least half destroyed, probably more so, and to become remarkably ineffective for a large period of time.

That being the case, it is fair to say that the Battle of Benburb was the largest single-day victory, in terms of casualties inflicted, that an Irish army ever won against a British one in history, outstripping the likes of Glenmalure and the Yellow Ford by a large margin, bested only by the occasional siege.

The reasons are obvious. Where everything in terms of preparation in the war always seemed to go against the Irish, at Benburb it went right. Thanks to the Rinuccini factor, Owen Roe was able to assemble and arm a force to the highest degree possible, and then pay them enough that he got the time needed – those seven crucial weeks on the Ulster border – to train them to his specifications, getting them to hold their musketeers/pike formations, manoeuvre on command, and come to contact with the enemy. His equipment was excellent, superior to that of the enemy. His men marched easier.

And they had competent commanders, who knew the best place to fight, knew their advantages and when to exploit weakness. Owen Roe’s decision to head off George Monro’s advance was a brilliant one, for morale purposes if nothing else, and he was successfully able to manoeuvre Monro into fighting  battle he really shouldn’t have. As noted Irish military history choler G.A. Hayes-McCoy said in his Irish Battles, it was a manoeuvre worthy of Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet, both of a different Confederacy: moving into enemy held territory, and forcing him then to fight an engagement on your terms, on ground of your choosing.

For Monro, it all went so horribly wrong. His decision to seek the engagement wrecked the reserves of energy that his men had before a battle was even fought. He failed to ford the Blackwater at a better point, closer to Owen Roe, when such options might have been available. He failed to set out his men in the right fashion, their compacted formation falling easy prey to longer, sharper lances of the Confederates. His cavalry was misused, and the artillery train that so slowed his movements was negligible when it counted.

The fatigue of the Scottish army is often used as an excuse for their performances, but I feel it is important to clarify that it was not a decided disadvantage until Monro’s army had completely collapsed. At the start of the battle, he had more infantry, more cavalry and more artillery, along with an army that was just generally more experienced in war than their opponents. For all that, they were still beaten, and not just beaten, totally mauled.

It is probably impossible not to draw some comparisons between Benburb and the last, really large-scale battle that had taken place on Irish soil. At Kinsale in 1601, Owen Roe’s uncle Hugh had blundered about in a night march before being easily beaten and routed by an English force that was better trained and armed. He had probably done so against his will, fighting a battle that he did not want to fight, on ground he did not want to fight on. Hugh had tried to get his army to fight in the continental style, but did so without the adequate preparations and training being given. The result was a disaster, and the end of any realistic hopes for victory in the Nine Years War.

His nephew made sure his troops were given the requisite amount of training, arms and time to prepare for the engagement. He had picked his ground and fought on his terms. The difference was a near total victory. That victory took place in the shadow of Charlemont as well, the fort named after the English victor of Kinsale.

Benburb has one other small, but notable connection to the Nine Years War. One of the highest ranking Irish officers killed at Benburb, from such overall light casualties, was Manus O’Donnell, who was the son of Niall Garbh O’Donnell, the turncoat who had switched sides from his kinsman Hugh Roe to that of the British during the earlier conflict.

Benburb, that most revered of victories in Irish circles during the war, would have far ranging consequences. Its immediate aftermath would be critical in much of what followed for the rest of the war. But, for the night of the 5th of June at least, the Confederate Army of Ulster could savour a great triumph.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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18 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Benburb

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