The red-haired O'Neill was in truth a greater, because
a better trained, soldier than his clansmen Hugh and Shane.
His Benburb was the revenge for Kinsale. But while Kinsale
decided a war, Benburb was only a battle. Yet it was a classic
battle, a textbook military operation, brilliantly conceived
and executed. Neither the proud Shane nor the intuitively
clever Hugh could have fought Benburb.
The time was May, 1646. Ulster was
seething with evicted Irish rebels, and Protestant planters
evicted in turn by the rebels. The Confederation in Kilkenny,
under the direction of the Papal Nuncio, had subsidised
Eoghan Ruadh O'Neill, and given him the task of preventing
the Scots armies in the North from marching on Kilkenny.
The continental-trained and experienced O'Neill had spent
the winter training more than five thousand men near Lough
Sheelin in Co. Cavan. In May, three armies from the North
began to move Southward with the intention of converging
at Glaslough in North Monaghan, destroying O'Neill on the
way, and then marching on Kilkenny. One of these armies
came from the valley of the Foyle, a second came from the
Coleraine area, and the third and strongest
came from Antrim and was under the command of the competent
Toward the end of May, O'Neill moved
into an offensive that seemed to trap him. He opted for
Charlemont, across the river from the present town of Moy,
the one fort -in the North held by the Confederation. Monroe
had already gone South as far as Poyntzpass, near Newry,
but he was far too wise a soldier to leave so large a force
about as large as his own in his rear, although he did underestimate
Monroe, it should be added, despised
the Irish and could not bring himself to believe that they
would fight a pitched battle. He marched quickly from Poyntzpass,
with the intention of cutting off O'Neill before the latter
reached Charlemont. He arrived at Armagh on June 4th and
discovered that he was too late. And now we see the genius
of O'Neill : he did not underestimate his opponent, but
relied on the proven courage and shrewdness of Monroe to
draw the latter into a battle that suited himself.
On the evening of June 4th O'Neill
moved up the Northern bank of the river, but without going
too far from Charlemont in case things went against him.
Next morning Monroe moved Northward from Armagh, but he
wisely decided not to attempt a crossing over the sharp
slopes of the Benburb section of the Blackwater. He drew
back to Armagh and then went Westward to the nearest ford,
Caledon. The move was intelligent. It was correct military
procedure, and for that reason O'Neill had been able to
anticipate it. But O'Neill waited on; while Monroe forced
his marches, O'Neill rested his forces.
The delay had another advantage for
O'Neill, although Monroe saw it at the time as an advantage
for himself. The Coleraine force, under Monroe's son-in-law,
was coming from the North via Dungannon. This could mean
a trap for O'Neill. But he knew, as well as Monroe did,
the proximity of the men of Derry. And while Monroe was
making his Caledon detour, O'Neill sent most of his cavalry
to Dungannon where they intercepted and defeated the army
In the afternoon Monroe crossed the
river and moved down the left bank, i.e. on the same side
as Eoghan Ruadh. The latter watched the manoeuvre, and sent
one or two small detachments to harass and delay the Scots-English
opponents. About six in the evening Monroe crossed the Oona,
which joins the Blackwater just above the present Battleford
bridge. Having climbed Thistle Hill, Monroe continued Eastward,
and a mile further on arrived at the elevation known as
Derrycreevy. And there, across the valley in Drumfluch,
and much to his astonishment, he saw the Irish drawn up
Much has been written on the tactics
of the battle which ensued. It should suffice here to say
that the Irish columns were widely spaced, thus leaving
room for retreat. The Scots-English, on the other hand,
were packed in a manner that made orderly retreat impossible.
This was the one strictly military mistake that Monroe made.
His cannons which were placed on top of the hill, were virtually
ineffective. Yet it was their booming which recalled the
victorious Irish contingent from Dungannon. Seeing the Irish
horses coming over the hill on the Irish right, the enemy
must have presumed that the Coleraine reinforcement was
at hand. At any rate, Monroe first tried a sally close to
the river with the apparent intention of breaking through
the Irish flank so as to cut off retreat to Charlemont.
This was repulsed.
The sun was still shining in the eyes of the Irish, but
toward eight o'clock Eoghan Ruadh, having addressed his
troops, pressed his right flank against Monroe's left, forcing
the enemy to swing, as on an axis, till his back was toward
the river, with the last rays of the setting sun in his
eyes. The wind also, it is believed, was blowing the cannon
smoke down toward the river. The tactics and strategy were
extremely successful. The enemy was tired, out-manoeuvred
and trapped. The battle itself was won before it began.
To escape the attack on their left, the Scots turned to
the right, and of course were drowned in the Blackwater.
There was almost a bridge of bodies floating in the water.
Of those who fled back the way they
had come, many were lost in the Oona, the marshes, or Tultygiven
Lake and the other lakes around Knocknacloy.
No other Irish victory had ever resulted
in so complete an annihilation. Very few of the enemy got
back to Poyntzpass. Caesar, one feels, would have been proud
of such a victory as Benburb.