Between his main force in the south and the Ulster detachment in the north, Cromwell had taken nearly every eastern position that the Royalists had held upon his arrival, doing so at very little cost to his own army. But the fall of Wexford had reduced its ability to serve as a point for which to rest his army during the terrible weather, the approach to which was only getting worse.
Cromwell had another decision to make then. He could take what he had gotten thus far and withdraw to the Dublin region. This was the safer option, naturally, and could be accomplished quite easily. But it might leave places like Wexford isolated and susceptible to Royalist counter-attack. The other option was to forge on with the campaign, to find somewhere to keep his army in place much closer to its current location. That meant more fighting to be done while the weather continued to worsen, but it was the course that Cromwell choose.
The next objective was to prepare the way for an attack on the Royalist heartland in Munster, with Ormonde only holding a scant number of positions within Leinster anymore. One of those was his HQ at New Ross, over the River Barrow, one of the last natural barriers in Cromwell’s path. While a section of the New Model Army was split off to see to matters further south (see below) the majority went from Wexford directly to New Ross, arriving there on the 17th of October, less than a week after Wexford’s fall.
They found Ormonde and his army – little more than 5’000 men at this point – gone, having retreated west to avoid the coming assault, destroying the New Ross bridge over the river as they did so. Butler clearly did not feel ready to take Cromwell on in such circumstances, and was content to simply wait and see, with numerous strongholds barring Cromwell’s path. He expected New Ross to prove itself one of those strongholds, with a garrison of over 2’000 men left to counter the coming attack, all under the command of a Sir Lucas Taaffe. But Taaffe, while a relatively junior officer, was no fool, realising that New Ross would be no more able to stand up to a Parliamentarian artillery attack than Drogheda or Wexford had been. According to Taaffe, Ormonde gave him permission to negotiate the surrender of the town if the walls were breached, but probably with the addendum that such a surrender must include the safety of the defenders. Ormonde appears to have a different opinion, and was prepared to reinforce Ross if necessary. But, in truth, New Ross was probably expected to be little more than a delay for Cromwell, as the Royalists’ main force formed its plans elsewhere.
The campaign to take the town was swift and relatively bloodless. Taaffe refused the first call to surrender, Cromwell blew open a few breaches in its walls, and Taaffe then entered more productive negotiations. In the course of the bombardment Cromwell fired three cannonballs at the towns “Aldgate”, one of many entrances to the town. Subsequently known as “Three Bullet Gate”, it would find much greater fame under that name in a later conflict, and in fact be immortalised in song because of it.
Taaffe’s armed forces were allowed to go, unmolested, but had to leave behind the better part of their ammunition and artillery. There was no sack. The entire affair took only three days. As evidence of Cromwell’s nature when it comes to sieges, the example of New Ross is compelling: the man was not interested in a succession of bloodbaths. He had used the example of terror, now he may have been more interested in presenting the possibility of an olive branch, an example to other garrisons that they could save themselves by simply offering no resistance.
The fact that one regiment of the Ross garrison changed sides rather than march away, a good 500 men, was indicative of the problems now wracking the Royalist faction. There had been simmering tensions from the more Protestant side of this army since Inchiquin’s truce with Ormonde, with such soldiers uneasy about alliances with Catholic Irish. Such resentments were easy to keep suffocated when things were going well for Ormonde, such as in the period before Rathmines. But now, there was immense dissatisfaction with his leadership, along with worries about what Cromwell was capable of. The Parliamentarian commander was undefeated, and many ordinary soldiers and officers of the Royalist cause now began to suffer serious doubts about their commitment.
Desertion was an ever-present problem, but in mid-October the worst happened. The Cork coastal garrisons had been especially sketchy, with Inchiquin forced to twice leave the larger Royalist army to go and suppress possible revolts. On the 16th of October, a group of soldiers in Youghal seized the garrison, freeing previously arrested ringleaders of dissent and expelling any who would not rally to their cause. They were quickly followed, like dominos falling, by Cork, Dungarvan and Kinsale.
Cromwell wasted no time when he heard the news, detaching a regiment of troops and some of his ships to sail in the direction of the defectors as fast as he could. Under the command of Roger Boyle, better known as Lord Broghill, their job was to supplement and then hold those towns. Broghill had fought in Ireland before under Inchiquin, notably during Castlehaven’s Munster campaign, and was intimately familiar with the Cork area.
The loss of those ports was a catastrophe for Ormonde and Inchiquin, undermining their already precarious position even further, as if such a thing were possible. Cromwell had all the motivation he now needed to keep going, with a slew of choices for winter quarters if things got too desperate in terms of weather. The Royalists suddenly found themselves with a very vulnerable underbelly in Munster, not to mention even more losses in terms of troops.
At this point, Cromwell had called for some of his men who had remained in Dublin, on garrison duty or sick, to march south to join him and reinforce his troops. They did so, roughly a thousand of them under a Major Nelson. Hearing word of their movements along the coast, Ormonde sent Inchiquin with a force of nearly 2’000 – a huge portion of his army – to ambush and destroy them before they could supplement the Parliamentarians.
On the 1st of November Inchiquin was able to effect this ambush, it was is called the Battle of Arklow, or sometimes the Battle of Glascarrig, which took place not far from Arklow in County Wicklow. Nelson was forewarned of the ambush and was able to organise his men on a beach facing their opponents, backs to the sea. Inchiquin ordered several cavalry charges, and while able to inflict some casualties on the opposing horse, he could not break their infantry, who stood their ground and laid down volley fire into his own riders. A quick counter-attack left the Royalists in disarray, and they withdrew, leaving Nelson free to continue his march without any further duress.
It was a minor skirmish really, but the result was a large embarrassment to Inchiquin, who had attacked a hard-pressed, numerically smaller force and been repulsed. His garrisons in Cork were revolting and it seemed like his previously impressive military skills were falling away. That, and it was just another victory for the rampant New Model Army.
Ormonde desperately needed a win, any kind of victory, to shore up his own authority and stop his army from dissolving entirely. But he was still just reacting to the moves of Cromwell, and the next battlefield would be one that had already seen bloodshed in the wars. Cromwell was fixing his sights on the County of Waterford, in particular Waterford Town itself, which was suddenly one of the last ports on the southern coasts that still did not fly a Parliamentarian flag. But taking Waterford would require getting his own section of the New Model Army over the Barrow, as well as tackling the two main forts that guarded the seaward approach to the town. One was called Passage Fort, on the west of the River Barrow estuary, and Duncannon on the eastern side. Cromwell had realised the necessity of taking these positions while approaching New Ross, and had already sent a force to attack Duncannon while he busied himself with Lucas Taaffe.
But that force was not having the best time of it. Duncannon, having been repaired by the Irish since its fall in 1645, had lost none of its strength – two lines of walls, earthen ramparts and numerous opportunities to lay down fire on any besieging army. Its position also allowed it to effectively blockade the Barrow estuary, especially in conjunction with Passage Fort. And it was an English made military fortification, less susceptible to cannon fire than the walls of Drogheda, Wexford or New Ross had been. Of course, it also still had its weaknesses, not least the high ground outside of its walls. But all recognised the value of the position, and Ormonde had insisted it be fought over, sending what reinforcements he could when it became clear that Cromwell wanted it taken. But the early Parliamentarian efforts had a total lack of success, causing Cromwell to detach even more of his army, 2’000 men under Ireton, to supplement this attack.
Ireton, Cromwell’s son in law, was a long-term veteran of the wars, having fought at the first major English battle, Edgehill, and subsequently having a hand in several key campaigns, especially the crucial Battle of Naseby. His marriage to Bridget Cromwell left him inexorably linked to her father, but he was no mere family appointment to his position of immediate subordinate to the New Model Army commander. He had experience with sieges and had a decent martial reputation, things Cromwell clearly hoped would come to the fore at Duncannon.
Facing him was a notable Royalist officer named Edward Wogan, a replacement for the previous governor who had expressed only a doom-laden view that the fortress could not be defended. Ormonde got him out fast and put Wogan in. Wogan was a rather extraordinary officer, who had started the war as a Scottish Covenanter, had defected to the New Model Army, and then defected again to Ormonde’s Royalists after Cromwell had landed in Ireland, surely one of the only men to have done so. He had a natural talent for leadership and harmonising, somehow ending the sectarian strife in Duncannon’s mixed garrison of Protestants and Catholics, and making them far more capable of defending themselves and their position from the forces camped outside.
Wogan organised an active and aggressive defence, which probably had its part in reducing the aforementioned garrison problems. Raiders from the garrison would strike at Parliamentarian working parties and harass any of their siege works, and threaten Ireton’s artillery. Ireton was caught out when the medium sized guns he had been permitted to take to Duncannon failed to make a workable breach after a few days of bombardment, and then the weather and sickness began to kick in.
But still, Duncannon was in a tight spot, and Ormonde lacked real means to send substantial numbers to its defence. With the siege there lasting into November, he instead sent the Earl of Castlehaven south with a small force, already of a mind to place Tuchet in a position of military authority over the larger Waterford area.
Castlehaven made his base at Passage Fort and crossed the Barrow Estuary to meet up with Wogan, the stretched Parliamentarian navy unable to blockade Duncannon from the riverside. It was evidence that the Parliamentarians were finally starting to over-reach themselves. Wogan offered Castlehaven a tour of the defences and look out of the besiegers. Castlehaven, noting Wogan’s deficiency in cavalry, offered a daring solution to his problems. On the night of the 4th of November, he successfully managed to ferry across 80 of his own cavalry to Duncannon unmolested, cavalry which Wogan supplied riders for.
At dawn of the 5th, they suddenly came bursting out of Duncannon, scattering the advanced units of Parliamentarians and seizing several of Ireton’s siege guns. There was allegedly some panic among the Parliamentarians, who thought an entire army was upon them. Wogan was thus able to make his attack and withdraw back inside without much loss, along with his prizes. A humiliated Ireton, unable to make any headway and fearful of the continually deteriorating weather, decided to withdraw, packing up his army and marching back north on the 6th. It was the first Royalist victory over the New Model Army in Ireland, one that had not seemed possible before Wogan had been appointed.
Such a repulse of the New Model Army, if not Cromwell himself, gave Ormonde some vital breathing room when it came to suggestions he was unfit for his position. Certainly he was not doing the very best job in the New Ross region. The Royalist commander apparently expected Cromwell to be held up for a great deal of time at New Ross, lacking a suitable bridge for crossing the Barrow, now swollen by winter rains. But, in the first example of one in Ireland, recorded anyway, Cromwell had a bridge of boats assembled, which allowed for the crossing of the New Model Army in just two weeks.
Cromwell had fallen ill at this point, victim of a fever that was running rampant through his army, and the command of the force rested temporarily with Michael Jones and Ireton. They crossed the Barrow on the 15th of November. Ormonde had advanced to meet them, fearful that they might go straight for Munster or turn north and march on Kilkenny. As the crossing of the Barrow commenced, he was urged to attack the bridgehead and destroy the boat structure by his subordinates, like Inchiquin and Castlehaven. But Ormonde, fearful, ever cautious and aware of the advice of Owen Roe O’Neill (one of his last messages as it happened) not to attempt to fight the New Model Army without a great advantage, hesitated and then did not attack. The Parliamentarians crossed the Barrow without any real harassment.
Instead Ormonde retreated in a north-westerly direction, with Jones and Ireton on his heels. The race lasted for a few days until the Royalists crossed the Nore River at Thomastown, destroying the bridge after they did so. The Parliamentarians were stopped from their advance on Kilkenny for the moment, a small victory for the Royalists, though they perhaps placed too much emphasis on defending the mostly symbolic capital of their movement. Their route blocked and with little desire to ford the Nore as they had the Barrow, Jones and Ireton turned around. The Waterford campaign would continue.
As this campaign continued, the Royalists were in a terrible position. Ormonde commanded an army of dispirited men, with very little money to pay them and increasingly little gunpowder to give them: dependent on continental supplies, the losses of the ports were strangling the Royalist war effort. Scores of Protestants in the Royalist army were defecting and after the Barrow withdrawal Ormonde also had to face the reality that even his Catholic allies were getting increasingly exasperated in the face of continual Parliamentarian success. The Royalists had been pushed out of nearly all of Leinster and Ulster, and had lost some of their most important positions in Munster.
The Parliamentarians were suffering too though. The weather and the extended campaign had left the New Model Army miserable and sick, with a fever and dysentery now running through its ranks, killing or disabling many soldiers. Further reduced because of those sent with Broghill and those left on garrison duty, it was no longer the gigantic force it had been. The turnabout outside of Duncannon was an unwelcome reminder that the New Model Army was not invincible, and the sickness of Cromwell must have been causing a great degree of nervousness about the future.
The war in Ireland then, could still be said to be in the balance, as 1649 rapidly came to a close.
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