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The Battle of the Yellow Ford (Irish: Cath Bhéal-an-Átha-Buí)


The Battle of the Yellow Ford (Irish: Cath Bhéal-an-Átha-Buí) was fought in western County Armagh, Ulster, in Ireland, near the river Blackwater on 14 August 1598, during the Nine Years War (Ireland). It was fought between the Gaelic native Irish army under Aodh Mór Ó Néill and Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill and a crown expeditionary force from Dublin under Henry Bagenal.The crown forces were marching from Armagh town to re-supply a besieged fort on the Blackwater when they fell into an ambush and were routed with heavy losses.


Background context of the battle


In 1597, field commander Lord Burgh on behalf of the Dublin government had built a new fort on the river Blackwater five miles northwest of the government's garrisoned town Armagh. The river Blackwater defines the border between counties Armagh and Tyrone. The Blackwater fort was intended to facilitate later military excursions into county Tyrone. Soon after it was built the Earl of Tyrone (O'Neill) laid siege to it. In 1598, with the besieged garrison still intact but running precariously low on supplies, the Dublin government debated at length whether to abandon the fort, for the reason that its location was too far into O'Neill's home territory to be sustainable. It was located only a few miles from the O'Neill headquarters at Dungannon on the other side of the river. Commander Bagenal, who was very experienced at fighting Ulstermen, argued the fort should be re-supplied, and eventually won the argument in early August 1598, and was appointed to lead the expedition. About 4,000 troops were assigned to the expedition, a large number in those days.


According to the Annals of the Four Masters: "When O'Neill had received intelligence that this great army was approaching him, he sent his messengers to O'Donnell, requesting of him to come to his assistance against this overwhelming force of foreigners who were coming to his country. O'Donnell proceeded immediately, with all his warriors, both infantry and cavalry, and a strong body of forces from Connacht, to assist his ally against those who were marching upon him. The Irish of all the province of Ulster also joined the same army, so that they were all prepared to meet the English before they arrived at Armagh." Besides the forces raised from the Ulster clans, O'Neill also had a substantial number of mercenaries in his pay, many of them from the Highlands of Scotland. Although historians don't have good records about the number of troops O'Neill had on battle day, an estimate of roughly 5,000 troops is generally accepted; i.e., the number of O'Neill troops was about the same and modestly larger than the number on the opposing side.


Bagenal's troops marched from Dublin to the Armagh-town garrison without incident. But O'Neill's troops had not been idle. They had dug trenches along and across parts of the road and countryside between Armagh town and the Blackwater fort, and blocked the pathways with felled trees, and set up brushwood breastworks, etc. The countryside had some bog and woodland, and was hilly with drumlins, but some cornfields were also in the area. In Armagh town, Bagenal was aware that the five miles separating him from the besieged fort were laced with ambush-supporting works. But in common with most other crown commanders of the day, and based on his own experience, he was confident that he would be victorious in any pitched battle with O'Neill's forces. The main obstacle to true victory, in Bagenal's view, was that the enemy declined to engage in a decisive battle. As his troops set off down the road with drums beating, he expected the troops would be able to handle the hit-and-run tactics they would be subjected to. To sidestep some of the ambush works, the troops did not go down the main road; they partly used another road and also used unpathed countryside.


Bagenal, the son of Nicholas Bagenal, who had settled at Newry and later achieved high office, was army commander in chief (marshall) of Ulster for a decade (beginning in 1587 as his father's deputy), in which role he had acquired extensive experience fighting against the Maguires and other "traitors" before the O'Neill rebellion broke out. He had a bitter personal grudge against O"Neill, who some years earlier had eloped with his sister Mabel. He was intimately familiar with county Armagh territory. On this occasion he commanded 3500 footsoldiers, more than half of whom were Irishmen but also included a contingent of footsoldiers recently arrived in Dublin from England, and also a core group of footsoldiers from England that had more Irish experience. Begenal's footsoldiers were armed with the standard weapons of the day, pikes and muskets. Standard formation when marching through dangerous territory was musketeers in outside columns, able to fire out, and pikemen in the inside columns able to relieve the musketeers in the event of a sustained charge against the column. Begenal also had 350 cavalry and several pieces of artillery.


O'Neill's troops carried their traditional arms of swords, axes and javelins but also pikes and muskets, especially calivers, which were a lighter and more portable version of the standard musket. O'Neill had several English and Spanish military advisors in his pay, who trained his troops in the use of modern weaponry. Many Irish horsemen carried their spears over-arm, either thrusting or throwing them at close quarters in the traditional manner.


The battle


The crown forces were organized in six regiments—two forward, two center, and two rear, and with cavalry at center. As soon as they left Armagh garrison, they were all harassed with musket fire and thrown spears from rebel forces concealed in the woods. As a result the different regiments became separated from one another as they paused to deal with the hit and run attacks. This problem was accentuated when one of their ox-drawn artillery pieces became stuck in the bog with a damaged wheel and a rear regiment got left behind guarding it as it was slowly coaxed through the bog. The regiment at the front of the march encountered a mile-long trench, 4 feet wide and 5 feet deep. The regiment succeeded in crossing this trench but then came under heavy attack from large forces and decided to retreat back behind the trench again, and it suffered significant losses during that retreat. This regiment in disarray then merged into the ranks of the other forward regiment. Standardly at the time, it was desirable for a marching army to take on a more compact, less elongated form when large enemy forces were present.


At this point, Henry Bagenal was killed by a shot through the head. In post-mortems in Dublin, Bagenal was criticized for being near the vanguard of the march, instead of keeping himself in a more protected position near the center. Command of the army was taken over by Thomas Maria Wingfield. Further demoralising the crown troops and causing chaos, their gunpowder store exploded, apparently ignited accidentally by the fuse of a matchlock musket. Daunted, Wingfield decided to retreat to Armagh. But the commander of the forward part (Evans) either didn't get the command or refused to obey it, or was unable to execute an orderly retreat and judged it necessary to maintain his forward position. Anyway, seeing their enemy in confusion, the O'Neill cavalry rushed at the head of the forward part, followed by swordsmen on foot. Crown troops in this part of the field (at the "yellow ford" from which the battle gets its name) were cut to pieces, and any wounded survivors left on the field after the battle were slain as well. The rest of the crown forces had to struggle their way back to the Armagh garrison. They reached it largely intact, but were harried all the way by the Irish.


Crown forces lost about 900 killed at the battle. This included 18 "captains" or officers dead. Several hundred soldiers deserted to the rebels, and many hundreds more deserted back to their families, or went astray in the Armagh drumlins. Out of 4,000 soldiers who had set out from Armagh, just over 2,000 reached the town after the battle. Those who did reach Armagh were virtual prisoners inside. The cavalry broke out and dashed south escaping the Irish. After three days negotiations, it was agreed that the crown troops could leave Armagh as long as they left their arms and ammunition behind them. They were evacuated by sea from Newry to Dublin. O'Neill's forces lost perhaps 200 to 300 killed in the battle, though sources for the number lost on O'Neill's side are very scanty. In light of the battle's result, the court at London undertook to greatly and rapidly increase its military forces in Ireland; and simultaneously many in Ireland who had been neutral on the sidelines undertook to support the rebellion. Thus the ultimate outcome of the battle was an escalation of the war.