Waterford had been one of the most important positions in the Confederation of Kilkenny, and the subsequent Royalist alliance. The coastal town nearest to the continent, it served as a vital port for the influx of supplies and the keeping of solid communications with the exiled court of Charles Stuart. Aside from its other considerable defences, the town was further protected by the existence of Passage and Duncannon Forts on either side of the River Barrow estuary, that prevented the free movement of any enemy ships moving to attack Waterford itself as well as being locations for nearby garrisons to supplement its defence.
The defence of Waterford against the Cromwellian onslaught had been one of the few Royalist success stories of the last 12 months, though it is fair to say that the weather had a greater hand in defeating the New Model Army on that occasion than martial ability had. But things had changed since then.
Now Waterford was totally isolated, cut off from the rest of the territory the Royalists still controlled, on and to the west of the Shannon. The Parliamentarian Navy blockaded the water access to the town, while the Army had been gradually closing any and all overland supply routes over the previous few months, as more and more towns and forts in the vicinity fell to their advance. By the summer of 1650 only the castle at Carlow remained as a major impediment to operations around the Waterford area, and that was 40 miles away. Now, following the success at Tecroghan, Henry Ireton had turned his attention back south-east, to the place where he had suffered a rather embarrassing repulse earlier in the war. He aimed to make good on that defeat, and to finally snuff out this Royalist stronghold, one of the last in Munster.
Waterford itself lay under the command of Thomas Preston, once the commander of the Leinster Army. Preston had been one of the highest ranking officers in the Confederation’s military, leading several successful sieges and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Cardinal Rinuccini when it came to politics. But on the open field Preston had far less ability, and his defeat at Dungan’s Hill a few years previously had left the Leinster Army practically destroyed, along with his reputation. Turning to drink and increasingly marginalised in the subsequent Royalist/Confederation merger, Preston’s appointment to the position of Waterford’s commander was more out of necessity than Ormonde’s free choice: his faction was lacking experienced officers who were both acceptable to Ormond and his Catholic allies. Preston, for all of his faults, fulfilled both criteria, and so the command was given to him. It was not the worst choice, with Preston’s largest experience being with siege work, albeit he was usually undertaking them, not defending from them.
Preston had a substantial garrison and the support of the Duncannon position (Passage having fallen sometime earlier). But by the time summer came around and it became clear that the Parliamentarians were going to have another shot, Preston’s command was suffering greatly. His troops were demoralised, supplies were running low and a serious bout of plague was causing immense hardship among both the soldiery and Waterford’s increasingly unhappy civilian population.
So what was the use of the Waterford position to the wider Royalist cause? It could not be used, reliably, for supplies or communications. It did not hold forces big enough to go on offensives or even seriously threaten Parliamentarian movements in the area.
What Waterford was doing was just being a distraction, a niggly bump in the frontlines that Ireton could not ignore. A fair proportion of the New Model Army, growing all the time, had been bogged down either cutting off access to the area or taking down the outlying defences, with a large scale effort going after Carlow Castle in the middle of summer. Those were troops that could not be used elsewhere, either in thrusts against the Shannon defensive line or up north, where a small amount of combat was still raging. Between the primary military manoeuvres, the garrisons that needed to be filled and the ongoing Tory threat, the New Model Army was stretched fairly thin. The need to divert troops to Waterford was part of that.
So, Waterford’s resistance had a point, but only to a point. Preston could see the inevitable Parliamentarian advance, and knew that his position would rapidly become untenable. His troops were hungry and sick, and he could not guarantee the cooperation and support of the civilian population, with rumblings already beginning of seeking a deal with Ireton before another Drogheda or Wexford situation erupted.
Preston was open with Ormonde about the state of the situation, pleading for more troops, the absence of which would surely lead to the surrender of the city. Preston would soon have to deal with Parliamentarian soldiers outside and a rebellious population within, and his 600-700 soldiers could not contain both problems. Sure, there was the chance, and the hope, of a Clonmel-style resistance that could cost Ireton many casualties, but these were not the same men that had defended Clonmel: Preston had actually turned away escapees from that garrison, nominally due to fear of plague and being unable to feed them. But now he was pleading for more soldiers to be sent his way.
Ormonde did his usual thing, delaying, prevaricating and then probably just lying when he promised Preston he would send him more men. Ormonde could have done so, at a stretch, but he was dealing with immense political and military command problems in the Limerick region, the operations in the north and around Tecroghan and just every other aspect of the war that needed his attention. An operation to relieve Waterford would have to have been gigantic, and Ormonde does not appear to have been in a position to undertake one.
By early June the citizenry of Waterford, through their mayor and council, were openly urging Preston to seek terms with Ireton. Food was now very scarce and the plague showed no signs of ceasing its deadly effect. Ormonde, changing his tune, now insisted Preston had the means to hold out already at his disposal, and reminded him that if Waterford thus surrendered, he could not expect any resistance from “places of less strength, commanded by less knowing soldiers”. He had little sympathy for the concerns of Waterford’s civilians, who had proven so obstinate to taking in a Royalist garrison earlier in the year.
As summer rolled on and Ireton prepared to enact a formal siege of an already badly pressed Waterford, Preston outlined his concerns clearly to Ormonde, asking if he was to be expected to die in the place or if he could seek terms. Carlow’s surrender in late July was one of the final straws. Not even a royal decree propagated by Ormonde that gave Preston the title of the Viscount Tara could alter the situation much.
When Ireton finally appeared outside the walls of Waterford in late July/early August, with plenty of troops and artillery, the outcome was clear. He had thousands of troops ready for an attack, and had substantial forces, under Broghill, stationed to the west to ward off any unlikely relief effort. Ormonde, resigned, gave Preston permission to do as he saw fit. There would be no bad weather to save Waterford this time. With the civilians of Waterford crying out for a negotiated settlement, it must have been an open secret that there would be no fighting in the city. We can well imagine that making a breach was as far as it would go.
Preston gave up all pretence of resistance and signalled his willingness to negotiate. The terms were a little harsher than previous: Preston’s men would be allowed to march west, but most of their gunpowder and other supplies would have to be left behind. Waterford would be spared any destruction. Preston agreed, and Waterford passed into Parliamentarian hands on the 6th of August, with barely a shot fired in anger. The fort at Duncannon, that had been such a bastion of resistance less than a year ago, held out for six more days before also raising the white flag. The final conquest of the south-east was over and the Parliamentarians now held complete sway over the southern coast of Ireland.
Ormonde sent one last letter to Preston, engaging in wild rumours of Scottish intervention against the Parliament in England and the rising fortunes of Charles Stuart. Meant to be a last-ditch effort to bolster Preston’s resolve, it arrived two days too late. Preston’s role in the war was not yet over, but Waterford’s was.
The fall of Waterford was less a military operation and more a slow trudge towards abject defeat. The Royalists were so lethargic in the way they undertook its defence that the result was inevitable. Ormonde seemed so unwilling to even contemplate reinforcing Preston and Preston himself does not appear to have had much spine for a fight at that moment, in that situation (though we can’t judge him too harshly, really).
There was a larger excuse of the unfeasibility of defending Waterford given the military situation in the whole of Ireland, but even taking that into consideration the defence of Waterford seems to have been lackadaisical at best. Ireton had been humiliated in the region the last time he had been there, now all he had to do was turn up and get the keys. It was a key victory for him, the first operation he personally led as the new commander of Irish forces, and hinted at greater victories to come.
The dispute between the Royalist military leaderships and the predominantly Catholic civilians they were supposed to be partnered with was now reaching a crisis point. Waterford had shown that such citizenry could not be compelled to obey Royalist military decrees in a pinch, and Ormonde was facing an even worse situation around Limerick. He would either have to get a handle on those divisions, or become a victim of them.
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