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Scottish Civil War: Battle of Dunbar

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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The execution of King Charles I on January 30, 1649, was a dramatic episode in the English Civil War, but it did not mark the end of armed strife in the British Isles. Unfortunately, the war entered a new phase lasting from 1650 to 1652. Known as the Third English Civil War, it was essentially a conflict between England and Scotland, distinctly more nationalistic in tone than the preceding struggles.

Charles was a member of the House of Stuart, a Scottish dynasty that had ruled both England and Scotland since 1601. Although the countries shared a king, they maintained separate national identities and distinct bodies of law. They also maintained different established religions and separate parliaments. When Charles acceded to the throne in 1625 he tried to rule as an absolute monarch. This policy brought him swiftly into conflict with England's Parliament, whose members strongly preferred a more flexible system of parliamentary monarchy. Between 1642 and 1648, Charles fought the English Parliament–which raised an army against him–but ultimately lost, was captured and put on trial.

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During the 1640s, radical religious and political changes were occurring in Scotland as well. The Scots were deeply loyal to their national church–the Kirk, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. When Charles tried to interfere with the internal affairs of the Kirk, Scottish nobles and many commoners in 1638 signed a document called the National Covenant, by which they agreed to resist Charles' proposed reforms. The power of the 'Covenanters' grew over the next decade. In September 1648, the Kirk Party, a fanatical branch of the Covenanters, seized power.

Religion and politics were inseparable in 17th-century Europe. Religious conscience dictated one's actions and compromise with the established church's conceptions was regarded as heresy. Although steadfast faith could bolster confidence in one's thoughts and actions, it could also lead to dangerous narrow-mindedness in policy. An example is the Act of Classes, passed by the Kirk Party in Scotland's Parliament on January 4, 1649, which barred the Kirk's political opponents from service in the government and the army. Many men who were barred were veterans of the Civil Wars. Loyalty to the Kirk, it seemed, was more valuable to the country than military experience.

Then an event took place in England which set that country and Scotland on a collision course. A party called the Independents took power on December 6, 1648. Better known as the 'Puritans,' the Independents wanted to purify the Church of England and confer religious toleration on all Protestants. On January 1, 1649, the Independents declared England to be a commonwealth, or republic, and established a Council of State as the premier ruling body of the country. The Council brought Charles to trial on January 20, accused him of crimes against his people, and within 10 days found him guilty and had him executed.

On February 5, the Scots, furious that the English had committed an act of regicide against one of their own, declared Charles' son, Charles II, king. Since the Kirk Party's influence at that time was far from secure, its members championed Charles II in hopes that he would adhere to the National Covenant, be converted to Presbyterianism and submit to their control. That would secure the Kirk's sway over Scotland. The Kirk's ultimate goal was the conversion of England to Presbyterianism.

For 18 months, Charles negotiated the conditions for his return while exiled in France. He finally accepted the Covenanters' terms, signing an agreement at Breda on May 1 and reaffirming it by oath just before his ship arrived in Scotland on June 23, 1650. The 20-year-old Charles publicly tolerated the Kirk Party's control because he needed its members' support. But once he regained the English throne, he planned to repudiate his agreements with them on the grounds that they had been made under duress.

This unstable situation constituted a basic problem for Anglo-Scottish relations. Presumably, Scotland was free to crown Charles, just as England had the right to become a republic. Leaders on both sides of the border, however, had divined Charles' true intentions. Coincidentally, the English Council of State met on the same day Charles landed in Scotland. The Council cited Charles as the enemy–not the Kirk Party or the Scottish people–and decided to strike at Charles in an attempt to eliminate him and establish a pro-English government in Scotland.

Despite the apparent threat from Charles, England's chief military leader and hero of the Civil Wars, Lord General Thomas Fairfax, opposed an invasion of Scotland, a former close ally. He therefore voluntarily resigned command of the army. The Council then chose another parliamentary military leader, Oliver Cromwell, to lead the proposed invasion.

Born in 1599, Cromwell came from minor gentry in Huntingdon and had served in Parliament before the wars, during which he commanded the Ironsides, a cavalry regiment famous for its discipline and tenacity. Although he had had no previous military experience, he showed amazing courage and tactical brilliance, particularly at the Battle of Marston Moor on July 2, 1644. By 1650, he had acquired a formidable reputation as a commander, and the Council had every cause to regard him as the best man to lead the invasion. On June 28, he set off for Scotland at the head of an army of 16,354 men.

The commander of the Scottish army that Cromwell would face was a professional soldier–and a former comrade in arms. David Leslie, 1st Lord of Newark, had fought in the Swedish army during the Thirty Years' War. During the First English Civil War, both Leslie and Cromwell had led Scottish cavalry on the Parliamentarian army's left flank at Marston Moor. Leslie also destroyed the Royalist army of James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, at Philiphaugh on September 13, 1645, ending Montrose's legendary string of victories.

David Leslie had an excellent adviser. His uncle, Alexander Leslie, 1st Earl of Leven, had also fought with great distinction in the Swedish army during the Thirty Years' War and led victorious Scottish armies during the 1640s. Although he was the Scottish commander in chief on the eve of invasion, old age and failing health caused the elder Leslie to step down in favor of his nephew.

Scotland's army had less than 6,000 regular soldiers in June 1650. Although that number was swiftly raised to 22,000 by enlisting short-term levies, David Leslie knew they would not be well-trained enough to match their English counterparts in open battle. Instead he planned to draw Cromwell to Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, and force the English to storm his well-fortified army. Between the city of Leith on the coast and Edinburgh, he built a network of entrenchments and fortifications. He also burned all crops and supplies between Edinburgh and the border, forcing Cromwell to rely on provisions from England. On July 22, the English crossed the border and were astounded by the devastation. One officer, Lieutenant John Hodgson, wrote that 'though Scotland hath been often compared to a wilderness, yet it was never so like one as then.' Aware of the Scots' scorched earth tactics, Cromwell had arranged for supply by sea, but contrary winds frequently delayed the ships.

The English army arrived near Edinburgh on July 29. Not wanting to risk a direct assault, Cromwell tried to maneuver the Scots out of their entrenchments. While his ships shelled the Scots' left flank at Leith, his ground troops captured Arthur's Seat, a large hill dominating the field in front of Edinburgh. He then placed artillery there. A Scottish infantry regiment assaulted the hill and captured the guns, but a counterattack drove them off. The main Scottish army remained in its trenches, however, and on the following day, Cromwell fell back to the town of Musselburgh for resupply.

Leslie sent out cavalry detachments to harass Cromwell's rear guard. During one engagement, Maj. Gen. John Lambert, one of Cromwell's cavalry commanders, was wounded and captured temporarily. That night, another Scottish cavalry detachment raided the English, but was driven off. The invaders would get no rest.

Cromwell retreated to Dunbar a few days later because Musselburgh Harbor was too small for his ships. Dunbar had a good harbor and Cromwell thought the town 'a place for a good magazine [ammunition depot].' He remained there until August 11. Asserting that the king and not the Scottish people was his enemy, he pleaded with the Kirk Party: 'I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.' Cromwell's attempt to accomplish his objective without bloodshed failed.

Cromwell then reverted to a military strategy. He would draw Leslie out by moving behind the Scots' defensive line and threatening their rear. On August 27 and 28, he occupied good defensive positions in the towns of Corstorphine and Gogar. Although Leslie moved out of his trenches, he did not give battle. Frustrated, Cromwell ordered a withdrawal to Musselburgh and held a council of war on the night of August 30. For the third time since the invasion began on July 22, his senior officers decided to retreat to Dunbar, to fortify it and to await reinforcements and supplies.

At that point, the English situation was grim. The 'flux' (dysentery) plagued the army and hunger and bad weather eroded the troops' morale. The summer was especially rainy but the army did not even have tents until mid-August. 'Our bodies enfeebled with fluxes,' one English soldier complained, 'our strength wasted with watchings; want of drink, wet, and cold, being our continual companions.' Lieutenant Hodgson described the English at Dunbar as 'a poor, shattered, hungry, discouraged army.' By September, Cromwell had lost a quarter of his force.

The sorry state of the English army was common knowledge, emboldening Leslie to leave his trenches in pursuit. While the English rearguard marched through Haddington at night, the Scots attacked. Clouds moved across the moon and gave the English a chance to move off. When the clouds cleared, the Scots resumed their attacks without success.

Leslie arrived at Dunbar before Cromwell on September 1 and took up position on Doon Hill, two miles south of the town. The hill made an excellent defensive position because it commanded the road south into England. The road was on a narrow pass between the hill and the sea. There, as Cromwell described it, 'ten men to hinder are better than forty to make way.'

Cromwell's dispirited army had three options. The English could surrender, fight their way south and probably take horrific casualties, or they could sail away on the waiting fleet. If they evacuated by sea, they would have to abandon their baggage train, horses and the rear guard. Cromwell had already embarked 1,400 sick and wounded men for transport south.

Leslie, too, faced major difficulties. He had fielded a mostly Lowland army of 6,000 horse and 16,000 foot soldiers. Of these, about 16,500 men were short-term levies. The Kirk added to his troubles by conducting purges in the army to eliminate possible 'Malignants,' their word for Royalists and other political enemies. They filled the army with ministers' sons, clerks, and other religiously and politically reliable personnel with little or no military experience. In short, the army did not contain many of Scotland's most capable soldiers.

Leslie also misjudged Cromwell's intentions. When the Scots spied the English moving some artillery, Leslie concluded that all or most of Cromwell's guns were aboard the ships, and that he was planning to depart by sea.

Contrary to Leslie's supposition, Cromwell had no intention of abandoning Dunbar by sea. He recognized that he had few options while the Scots were on Doon Hill, but Leslie's position there was difficult to resupply. The Scots could only stay there for a few days before they would have to withdraw–unless Cromwell's own army gave out first. 'Our lying here daily comsumeth our men, who fall sick beyond imagination,' he wrote. He didn't believe that he would be victorious 'without almost a miracle.' The miracle arrived the next day.

On September 2, Leslie held a council of war. Assuming that the English were as good as beaten, his officers voted to leave the hill and finish them off. As Leslie redeployed at the base of Doon Hill, Cromwell and Lambert, seeing an opportunity, immediately reconnoitered for weaknesses in Leslie's new position.

Many historians claim that the Scots' abandonment of Doon Hill caused their defeat. It seems clear, however, that from a purely tactical point of view Leslie's crucial mistake was in expecting Cromwell to wait for an attack. In this, he overlooked the possibility that Cromwell might attack first. There has also been historical debate over the extent to which Leslie was solely responsible for the decision. Some have blamed a council of fanatical ministers who traveled with the Scottish army. Leslie never blamed them publicly for this afterward, though he insinuated that their purges diminished the quality of his army. It is clear that the clergy held great sway over the army, and strongly supported Leslie's plan.

Whatever the source of the decision, had Leslie deployed his men in a less vulnerable fashion, he might have still carried the battle. Leslie planned an envelopment. He positioned his cavalry on both flanks and his infantry in the center. The infantry would engage the English center and the cavalry would turn the flanks and surround the enemy. It was an excellent plan in theory, but he moved his men in daylight, allowing Cromwell to see what he had in mind.

The terrain was not friendly to Leslie's new position. A stream called Brox Burn ran in front of the hill. It was fordable, though swollen from rain, but its upper banks were steep and presented a formidable obstacle. Leslie's left flank, wedged between the hill and the burn, had no room to maneuver or to assist the rest of the army in an emergency. Cromwell realized that 'guns might have fair play at their left wing while we were fighting their right.'

The stream banks became lower as the burn approached the ocean. A cottage, Broxmouth House, and a crossing over the burn lay at this end, and there was enough room between the cottage and the sea for troop movements. Cromwell saw that the Scottish right flank was most vulnerable there, and could be turned.

With the hill to their backs, the Scots' ability to retreat and re-form was also limited. Recognizing that too, Cromwell noted that 'if we beat their right wing, we hazarded their whole army, for they would be all in confusion, in regard [to the fact that] they had not great ground to traverse their regiments between the mountain [Doon Hill] and the clough [Brox Burn)]'

In the evening, two troops of Scottish lancers attacked Broxmouth House, drove off the English who occupied it and brought in some prisoners for interrogation. A one-armed soldier was brought before Leslie.

Leslie asked, 'Do you intend to fight?'

The soldier replied, 'What do you think we are here for?'

'Soldier, how do you intend to fight when you have shipped half of your men and all your great guns?'

'Sir,' the soldier replied, 'if you please to draw your army to the foot of the hill, you shall find both men and great guns also.'

The Scottish attack was scheduled to begin at dawn on Tuesday, September 3. Leslie expected the battle to be over early. Ironically, he would prove to be right.

Still brimming with confidence, the Scots considered offering Cromwell terms of surrender. Some opted for demanding that the English soldiers merely abandon their arms and ammunition. Others, one of the Scots later wrote, 'had thought of sending those they should take prisoners beyond the sea.'

Cromwell knew Leslie would not expect an attack, so he maintained that advantage by maneuvering at night. Wind and rain helped to mask the noise of his deployment. Cromwell, wrote an eyewitness, 'rid all the night…upon a little Scots nag, biting his lip till the blood ran down his chin without his perceiving it, his thoughts being busily employed to be ready for the action now in hand.'

Despite Cromwell's stealth, several alarms were raised in the Scottish camp; nevertheless, troops were ordered to stand down. The hungry soldiers spent the night trying to find cover from the 'drakie nycht full of wind and weit,' as one of the Scottish soldiers described it. Some made shelter under the newly reaped cornstalks. It was the second night they had slept without tents.

Cromwell planned to use his artillery to keep the Scots' left flank pinned down. He dispatched three infantry regiments under General George Monck to engage the Scottish center. Six cavalry regiments under Lambert and Lt. Gen. Charles Fleetwood would assault the Scottish right. Two foot regiments under Colonel Thomas Pride would seize the crossing and support the cavalry. Cromwell held his own cavalry regiment and three dragoon regiments in reserve.

That overall deployment displayed two points of tactical brilliance. First, the main weight of the attack would hit the enemy's weakest flank. Second, Cromwell could utilize all of his soldiers while denying Leslie the chance to use his greater numbers.

At that time, the English army was probably the best in Europe. During the Civil Wars, Cromwell and Fairfax forged an army with good organization and soldiers who were well-trained. But of the 16,354 men Cromwell had led across the Scottish border in July, only 3,500 horse and 7,500 foot soldiers remained combat effective at Dunbar. His opponents outnumbered him 2-to-1. However, most of the English, unlike their opponents, were veterans.

Under cover of darkness at about 4 a.m., the English charged the sleeping Scots. Severely beaten to the punch, the Scots barely had time to scramble into position. Cromwell nevertheless later wrote in praise of his foes, 'The enemy made gallant resistance and there was a very hot dispute at the sword's point between our horse and theirs.'

Although the stunned horsemen were driven back, the Scots recovered. Colonel Archibald Strachan then led a counterattack. Some of Strachan's cavalry carried lances, and they pushed the English back to the burn.

A seesaw struggle dominated at the center. The Scottish infantry under Sir James Lumsden moved forward to engage Monck's foot regiments. Infantry regiments at the time were usually made up of about 40 percent pikemen, who could repel cavalry charges and force back enemy infantry. Musketeers exchanged fire while the foot battle, the so-called 'push of pike,' began. 'Our first foot, after they discharged their duty, received some repulse which they soon recovered,' Cromwell wrote. Highlanders in the Campbell of Lawers regiment charged at one point, but a counterattack repulsed them. The scrum between pikemen went in favor of the Scots, who advanced downhill. The entire English assault had been blunted.

Cromwell was aware of the stalemate, but unlike Leslie he retained control of his army's maneuverability. Realizing that his reserve troops could make the difference, he moved them between the Broxmouth cottage and the sea, coming onto the extreme right of the Scottish flank. Lambert and Fleetwood re-formed their cavalry, and their counterattack added further pressure to the Scots' right flank.

'The horse…did with a great deal of courage and spirit beat back all opposition,' Cromwell wrote, 'charging through and through the bodies of the enemy's horse and their foot; who were, after the first repulse given, made by the Lord of Hosts as stubble to their swords.'

As the Scottish cavalry fell back, the English cavalry, with Colonel Pride's infantry regiments behind them, pounded on the flank of the Scottish infantry. Pride wrote, 'My own regiment did come seasonably in and at the push of the pike did repel the stoutest regiment the enemy had there merely with the courage the Lord was pleased to give; which proved a great amazement to the residue of their foot.'

With its flank being rolled up, Leslie's retreating army found itself packed between Doon Hill and the burn. The Scots' superior numbers now hindered them.

The Scottish cavalry on the right flank fled in all directions, and the units on the left flank abandoned the battle they had not even joined. English pressure prevented units from retreating and re-forming. Most Scots panicked and ran or surrendered where they stood.

Some Scottish foot regiments stood their ground. 'Onely Lawers his regiment of Highlanders made a good defense,' Monck reported. 'They stood to the push of the pike and were all cut in pieces.'

According to an anonymous Scottish chronicler, Sir John Haldane of Gleneggies' regiment also'stood very stiffly to it' and 'would not yield though at the push of pike and butt-end of musket, until a troop of horse charged from one end to another of them, and so left them to the mercy of the foot.' All its senior officers were killed. Another Scottish chronicler, who had apparently interviewed some of Cromwell's troops after the battle, wrote that Gleneggies' and Alexander Stewart's two 'regiments of foot fought it out manfully, for they were all killed as they stood (as the enemy confessed).' Nevertheless, by the time the sun had evaporated the morning mists, Cromwell had shattered Leslie's army.

'I profess they run,' Cromwell shouted. His soldiers later remembered him laughing 'as if he had been drunk, and his eyes sparkled with spirits, carried on as with a divine impulse.'

As the Scots broke, the English soldiers, while singing the two-verse Psalm 117, quickly regrouped. Then Cromwell unleashed them to hound and butcher the fleeing survivors for eight miles. Most of the estimated 3,000 Scots killed at Dunbar were probably slain in the final rout. Cromwell claimed to have 'lost not above thirty men,' though that is probably a low estimate. The English commander also stated he had captured 10,000 prisoners, then released half because they were 'almost starved sick and wounded.'

He did send 5,100 prisoners south to Newcastle because he didn't have enough food to feed them. There was no accepted common policy on the treatment of prisoners in the 17th century. They could be ransomed, killed, exchanged or even recruited by the conquering side. In this instance, Cromwell turned them over to the governor of Newcastle. No food was provided to them for the march south. At Morpeth, the prisoners spent the night in a cabbage field and ate raw cabbages, roots and all. Sickness and hunger killed hundreds, and within two months only half were still alive. The English government shipped the survivors to the North American colonies of Virginia and New England. Sixteen-year-old John Cragin, an ancestor of the author, was one of those shipped to Massachusetts as an indentured servant.

The battle led to disaster for Scotland. Once reinforced, Cromwell quickly captured Edinburgh, though the castle there held out until December 23. The Scottish government, less firmly controlled by the radical Presbyterians, abolished the Act of Classes and raised another army. In 1651, Charles II and David Leslie led their new army into England to draw Cromwell's out of Scotland and gain English support. Cromwell, however, defeated Charles and Leslie at Worcester on September 3, exactly one year after the Battle of Dunbar. Leslie was captured afterward and imprisoned until 1660. Charles again fled into exile. In the autumn of 1651, Scotland was absorbed into the English Commonwealth, and for many years was ruled as an occupied state.

The English, too, paid a high price for trusting Cromwell. In April 1653, he turned against his political backers, dismissed the Council of State and Parliament and ruled as 'Lord Protector'–in essence, a military dictator–until his death on September 3, 1658. Chastened by the horrors of arbitrary rule, the English reverted to a system that promised stability. In 1660, they offered Charles II the English crown. Thus the Stuart monarchy was restored and England and Scotland split apart once again.

The Battle of Dunbar was an aberration in Anglo-Scottish warfare in that the two sides were fairly evenly matched. A victory would have given the Scots a resonating moment of pride like the Battles of Stirling Bridge in 1297 and Bannockburn in 1314.

Instead, the battle was a triumph for Cromwell, perhaps his greatest. To commemorate the victory, he awarded everyone in his army a medal that bore his own likeness–the first time common soldiers received such a reward.

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