Benburb: The Historic Battle

The header illustration is from Douglas Carson’s “Benburb 5 June 1646” via The Eglish Historic Society.

I have closely followed Clive Hollick’s excellent (and probably definitive) account, The Battle of Benburb 1646, and the contemporary account found in The History of the Warr of Ireland by “a British officer of Sir John Clottsworhy’s regiment”. Further information about the battle can be found in an early post.

O’Neill’s native Irish army (The Irish Confederation Army of Ulster) was well rested, well feed, well trained, well equipped, well motivated and, above all, well led. They were probably the best ever fielded by the Irish during the Confederate Wars. Most of the material advantages had been provided by Rome (including pay for the soldiers!) and their resolve stiffened by many veterans of the continental wars.

Their opponents, by and large, were no less sound soldiers working together in a coalition of Scots, Scots/Irish and Anglo/Irish forces. For convenience I simple refer to them as the Protestant Army (although they also represented the last sizable field army under the Solemn League and Covenant). Monro had force marched over the last three days to catch the Irish in hopes of finally bringing them to a pitched battle and they were likely tired and hungry when they arrived at Benburb. As we have seen they were also harassed by the Irish during their approach march.

O’Neill had had time to carefully deploy his army on Drumflugh Hill, using a classical checkerboard arrangement in which the first and second lines could easily interleave with each other. Across the Wet Hollow, I am guessing that the Scots deployed first, either passing through the Anglo/Irish van as they cleared the Irish ambush on the Benburb road or, perhaps more likely, simply swing north of the road to come into position on Derrycreevy Hill. The picture below is from Drumflugh Hill looking west toward the Protestant army on Derrycreevy. While the overall dispositions are known, most of the details of unit locations are not. The picture gives a guess at the Irish positions by unit:

The Scots anchored their left on Killnagrue Bog then used a similar arrangement to O’Neill to allow their first and second lines to easily maneuver. Because of this spreading, the Anglo/Irish had less room to position their forces between the Scots right flank and the heavy woods above the Blackwater just south of the road. This caused them to be more tightly bunched than would have been the usual practice.

Because of the relatively narrow front, Monro took the unusual step of deploying his horse in a third line behind the foot. Likely seeing his opponent’s weakness in horse, he felt he would need it only for the coup d’grace and pursuit. The picture below shows the general deployment of the Protestant army. As with the Irish the specific location of most of these units is conjectural:

Lord Blaney, the Protestant ordinance commander, deployed his several light guns in range of the Irish (they having no guns to reply). The picture shows their forward position above the wet hollow that separated the two armies. Lord Blaney’s Foot is behind and to the left and and Robert Monro’s Foot almost directly behind. The division line between the two armies making up the Protestant coalition is marked by the guns:

In the late afternoon, Monro opened with a typical cannonade of the period achieving the typical results (meager). It was perhaps the sound of these guns firing that drew Col. Brien O’Neill back from the northeast with a portion of the detached horse.

The two armies were positioned on opposite hills divided by a small water course which deepened more and more as it ran into the Blackwater. The Benburb road crossed a ford located in some of the rougher ground through which the stream flowed and this was perceived by both sides as an important position to control.

The Protestants sent musketeers forward to secure it and the Irish responded in kind:

Perhaps impulsively, Lord Hamilton, the Anglo/Irish commander, sent in mounted support for the musketeers, a move again matched by the Irish.

After some sharp fighting, the Protestants were driven off with their horse leading the retreat.

Clearly Owen Roe at this point saw (or sensed) something. Something that changed his mind about waiting for the Protestant assault. Perhaps the repelling of the Protestant horse at the ford or the bunched formations on the Protestant right but most likely that special sense a competent general has about the faltering state of the enemy and the growing confidence of his own men. Maybe it was simply that the sun had finally dipped below the horizon and was no longer shining in their faces (the opposite of what the famous song says).

He had chosen his position well, relying on Monro’s overarching desire to bring the the Irish to battle to force him to cross some difficult ground and attack up hill. Now Owen Roe decided to give up that advantage and do exactly what he had wished Monro to do. He attacked.

Probably since the ground was easier, he concentrated his attack on the enemy center and left. Brien O’Neill’s return with the horse added to the weight of the Irish assault on the Protestant left.

Surprised by the sudden Irish onslaught, Monro moved his front line forward and sent in his horse to blunt the attack only to have them lose coherence in the swirling melee’ (and others hesitated to commit):

The Protestant horse started rapidly retreating through their own foot causing considerably more confusion:

The fighting was particularly fierce in the center where the Irish finally took the guns and pushed back the covering foot, with a wounded Lord Blaney refusing quarter and dying with his men.

At this point everything began to collapse for the Protestant army. While the Irish could bring up their second line to add to the weight of the attack, the Protestants were jammed even closer together and maneuver became difficult. The Scots, having their flank turned, were pushed back into the Anglo/Irish and both forces packed into a small area between the Irish and the woods with the Blackwater just beyond.

Monro managed to escape with some of his horse. The luckiest portion of the Protestants (perhaps half) also manage to get away to the west (although some were caught and killed in the Irish pursuit). The rest either died in the early stages of the fighting or were slaughtered in the killing ground along the Blackwater (or drowned trying to swim away):

In the end, the Irish lost about 300 killed, the Protestants perhaps 3000 or more (most of whom were killed in the post-battle pursuit and massacre). It was the greatest victory ever won by a native Irish army over a British one, but in the end gained little for the Confederation.

3 thoughts on “Benburb: The Historic Battle

  1. Thanks for the comment, Simon. I think it is less well known because while it was a decisive tactical victory it had little strategic value. The Confederation was strongly divided between joining the Royalist cause and those intent on becoming a Catholic nation. Owen Roe, a strong Catholic and Nationalist, ended up marching his victorious army south to support that cause. If I recall correctly he died of illness on his way south. There are certainly some alternate history wargaming possibilities, however!

    Like

  2. Pingback: War of the Worlds | Leaden Ships and Tin Men

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