Ireland’s Wars: Newtownbutler

On the same day that the Mountjoy shattered the boom that was blocking the way to Londonderry, the town of Enniskillen had its own reasons to celebrate. Having beaten back the repeated but fairly paltry efforts of the Jacobites to land a blow on their town, they now welcomed back a deputation of the town that had met with General Kirke to the north, and had returned replete with guns, powder and a few lent officers to bolster significantly the threat posed by the militia, the “Enniskilliners” that had been remarkably successful thus far in the war.

And the arms were needed. Justin McCarthy, recently made the Viscount Mountcashel, had been appointed by James II as the man who would finally bring Enniskillen to heel. Having been in the army since a young age, and having held a few political positions of importance in Munster, Mountcashel was considered a capable enough individual by James, despite his apparently significant short sightedness. Given the command of roughly 3’500 men along with a number of artillery pieces, Mountcashel was expected to defeat the Enniskillen militia, besiege the town, and take it without too much fuss. Despite the forces he had to hand, it was still a tall order for Mountcashel: most of the men he had, recruited from his own lands in Munster, were barely trained and not adequately supplied. They had also never faced proper combat before, unlike the enemy they were meant to engage.

On the day that Londonderry was relieved Enniskillen received their much needed resupply, the 28th of July, Mountcashel had advanced as far as Belturbet, within striking distance of Enniskillen itself. He did not stay there long, advancing further to effect a second siege of Crom Castle, one of Enniskillen’s most far reaching outposts, which Galmoy had previously failed to take.  The commander of the garrison there begged for relief from Enniskillen, as had been sent before.

But the situation was now a bit different. The force of Patrick Sarsfield was garrisoned in Sligo, and could move to attack the town without opposition should the militia march out in force to Crom. Governor Hamilton was laid up sick, and command of the militia had passed to a Colonel William Wolseley, one of the borrowed officers of Kirke. He bolstered his own units with reinforcements from Ballyshannon, who were eager to engage the Jacobite foe, but could not be denied that the Enniskilliners were in acute danger of becoming overstretched.

O the 29th of July Wolseley received intelligence that Mountcashel was abandoning the siege of Crom, having already taken too many casualties in the pursuit of its capture. Instead, the Jacobite commander was swinging north to the castle at Lisnaskea, around ten kilometres from Crom and 15 kilometres south-east of Enniskillen. The move is a bit of an odd one in retrospect, as the castle there was in a terrible state of repair, and wasn’t fit to be garrisoned. It was certainly an easier target than Crom though. Wary of Mountcashel’s movements Wolseley sent a mobile force of dragoons and light infantry racing towards Lisnaskea.

This force, under a Colonel Berry, reached Lisnaskea on the 30th, long before Mountcashel got close to the place, more evidence of the way that the Enniskilliners were able to use their superior mobility to hamper the enemy’s plans. Lisnaskea was indeed a ruin, and Berry did not even bother trying to occupy it. The next morning, he advanced part way south, towards the enemy, retreating when he came within sight of the Jacobite army. The 3’500 men serving under Mountcashel easily outnumbered Berry’s Williamites, and the cavalry commander was obliged to fall back, sending out warnings to Wolseley as he did so.

Berry kept retreating, back towards Lisnaskea, keeping Lough Erne to his left, before reaching a defendable point, when the road narrowed and was surrounded by treacherous bogland. There, Berry organised a successful ambush of the Jacobite vanguard, which retreated in disorder following a brief exchange of gunfire. Berry’s cavalry were able to cut down a good few of the enemy in this rout, punctuating the start of the larger engagement with a credible Williamite success.

But Berry still could not contemplate taking on the main Jacobite force, which continued to advance upon him. Before noon though, Wolseley had arrived, leading a somewhat ragged force of militia from Enniskillen, who had marched in such haste that there was a clear paucity of provisions. As such, the newly assembled Williamite force could only engage the enemy now, or retreat back the way they came: with a more eve state of affairs numerically, Wolseley decided to force the matter. Sending forward a vanguard consisting of many a quarter of his army, and with the rest advancing behind, he moved south-east towards Mountcashel. They had decided to risk leaving Enniskillen open to a potential attack from Sligo: in the end, no attack came from this direction

Mountcashel had just reached the small village of Newtownbutler and had sent his own vanguard forward at speed, to seize some of the high ground between his position and the enemy. This done, the Jacobites awaited the movement of the opposition, who were forced to contemplate an attack, uphill, though bogland. Berry led this attack, taking his horse down the road through the centre, while units of foot went right and left through the bog. The Jacobites only inflicted a short smattering of fire on the enemy before retreating, from a position where they might easily have beaten the Williamites back wholesale. Instead, Berry was forced to rein his own troops in from a madcap pursuit of a seemingly beaten enemy, afraid that an ambush awaited on the other side of the hill.

The Jacobites now turned back, moving south past Newtownbutler, leaving the village burning in their wake. The Williamites pursued through the remnants of the village. The chase did not continue for too long, as Mountcashel turned and made his stand around a mile south, on another hill overlooking bogland, this time his full strength arraigned, with cavalry up high and the infantry nearer to the base. The Jacobite cannon was carefully arranged so that they could sweep the road that went straight down the middle of the field.

The Williamites advanced in much the same order as they had before, with Berry’s cavalry moving down the road in the centre, while wings of infantry navigated the bogland on either side. But now they were advancing against much greater opposition, which poured fire down the hill and made the advance a much dicier prospect.

The cavalry could make little headway in the face of the cannon fire down the road, and so the fight was left to the infantry. Advancing at first slowly through the bog, they resisted the onslaught of fire from the Jacobite infantry long enough to reach firmer ground, from which they dashed forward and engaged the enemy in a wild melee. The Jacobites were forced back, and the cannon that had been guarding the road was captured.

Berry saw his chance and charged down the road. At this moment, the battle was decided when the Jacobite cavalry on the top of the hill turned and rode away south, leaving the battlefield at speed. Speculation exists that, in the heat of the skirmish, a misheard order caused the cavalry to turn about and ride off when Mountcashel actually wanted them to come to the assistance of the right flank. Either way, the cavalry left the field.

The sight of this caused what elements of the Jacobite infantry that were still holding some kind of shape to break apart and flee southwards as well. The rout was a bloody affair for Mountcashel’s force, with the pursuing Williamite cavalry and infantry having an easy time picking off the individuals and small bands of men who were trying to escape. Many of them were trapped by the waters of the Erne, either forced to face the pursuing Williamites or drown in an attempt to cross it. The Jacobite cavalry was mostly able to escape, but the infantry were nearly all killed or captured. The losses are not recorded with any great accuracy, but the majority of Mountcashel’s army was destroyed: it is likely at least 2’000 men died at Newtownbutler, or left as prisoners of the enemy. The Williamite loses were comparatively low.

One of the prisoners was Mountcashel himself, who had refused to flee the field when the rest of his army was doing so. Concealing himself and a few others until the majority of the Williamite army had moved on in their pursuit of the routing Jacobites, he launched a sudden desperate attack on the rearguard that had been left to watch the captured cannon. Mountcashel was shot for his trouble, but was taken into custody and survived, with one account describing his motivations as somewhat suicidal, not wanting to bear the shame of the defeat. He spent the next five months at Enniskillen, before managing to escape.

His command at Newtownbutler had been a disaster. Leading ill-trained and badly armed troops, he had been outdone by opposing militia several times, culminating in a damp squib of a defence in the final engagement. It is almost difficult to describe Newtownbutler as a battle, save for the large casualties in its aftermath. The Jacobite’s again demonstrated their poor cohesion and will in the face of an enemy advance, and Mountcashel had been  unable to rally his disintegrating army. On the other side, the Williamites pressed their attack with purpose, and gained another remarkable victory.

The effects of the battle were immediate. Sarsfield and his force withdrew into Sligo, no longer able to provide a threat in being now that his was the only Jacobite unit in the area. His time for greater fame would come. In line with the Jacobite defeat at the Siege of Londonderry, Newtownbutler essentially ended any pretensions that King James had of conquering Ulster, with nearly all of his forces, save for a few garrisons that soon found themselves beleaguered, now left outside the northern province, the majority encamped around Dundalk.

The War of the Two King’s had reached a transition point. Up to now, nearly all of the major offensive moves had been taken by the Jacobites in pursuit of conquering Ulster. But the tables had decidedly turned: the Williamites were the undisputed masters of Ulster, poised to take the offensive themselves thanks to the incoming reinforcements from England. Only two weeks after Newtownbutler, William’s chosen man to lead his armies in Ireland would be arriving.

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

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5 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Newtownbutler

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