The Battle of Dunbar took place on the 3rd of September, 1650.
The 1650 Battle of Dunbar was the second battle to take place at Dunbar; at least the second worthy of the name and the common theme for both battles was a defeat for the Scottish forces. The previous battle had been a victory for Edward I, in 1296. This one was effectively a defeat for Charles II, although he wasn’t there in person, unlike the warlike Edward Longshanks. This was a defeat for Charles’ Covenanter army, led by David Leslie against the Puritan Roundhead Oliver Cromwell. Funny how things worked out; Leslie had been Cromwell’s ally at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644 and there he was six years later, leading the Scottish Army of the Covenant against Ironsides and his by now no longer pristine New Model Army. Cromwell’s army had dirtied its hands in Ireland during 1649-50 and fresh from having sent every Catholic in Ireland to Hell or Connacht, the veteran butchers arrived in Scotland in May, 1650, with Irish curses ringing in their ears.
The ‘Curse of Cromwell’ didn’t have any affect during his time in Scotland, but early signs were promising, when at first, the campaign went badly. Cromwell’s army of 16,000 men, crossed the Scottish border on the 22nd of July, 1650. Whatever experience it had gained in Ireland was more related to butchery than bakery as the bread the soldiers had to eat was described as “very well baked bread”, which was a euphemism for ‘virtually unbreakable and almost everlasting’ i.e., inedible. It also lacked tents and any sensible protection against the Scottish weather. General Leslie, of course, was on home ground and was an excellent and very experienced military commander, not given to rashness or arrogance. His tactic was to wage a classic guerrilla campaign, letting the terrain fight for the Scots and against the English who were frustrated at every turn. Leslie’s Dragoons perfected the mountain pass ambush and played hide and seek, leading the Roundhead army a merry dance through the glens. The Scots also laid waste to the countryside in their wake and that scorched earth policy in East Lothian meant Cromwell was fast running out of supplies. When the weather turned, the lack of tents meant thousands of his men went down with disease and were unable to fight. The Lord Protector might have thought his Puritan God had also turned – nah, I guess not; fanatics don’t have doubts.
By early August, Cromwell had retreated to Musselburgh and after ferrying out sick and wounded soldiers by the boat load, continued south-eastwards. The Scots’ incessant guerrilla attacks continued, like wasps at a picnic, except sometimes it was a midnight feast. Cromwell’s army was described by one officer as “a poor, shattered, hungry, discouraged army.” By the end of August, the 11,000 English troops, still a decent number for a remnant, were boxed into a narrow strip of coastal land near Dunbar, with Leslie in a commanding position on the top of Doon Hill escarpment, the last outpost of the Lammermuirs. Leslie was now offering a fight, but on his terms. The route south was blocked and Cromwell, experienced General that he was, recognised he was in a tight corner. So how come the Scots lost at Dunbar?
There were several factors, which contrived to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory for Leslie. The first had been the inconceivably mad purge of around 3000-5000 of Leslie’s best professional soldiers, including many of his officers. These ‘Engagers’, who in the past had supported Charles I and his Bishops and served with distinction under Montrose, were deemed by the Clerics, led by Sir Archibald Johnston of Warriston, Lord Clerk Register, the Kirk’s principle legal luminary, to be ‘malignants’ and unfit to draw the “sword of the spirit” against the ‘Sectaries’, namely Cromwell and his puritanical hordes. The ‘advisory council’ of Presbyterian ministers, with the joint authority of the Covenanting Parliamentary Committee of Scotland and God, had decided that Cromwell was the anti-Christ and had to be “driven from Canaan by the swords of the righteous.” One angry Scottish colonel said the religious fanatics had left Leslie with an army of “nothing but useless clerks and ministers’ sons, who have never seen a sword, much the less used one.” But they had God on their side as the battle flag of the Covenanters showed in its motto – ‘For Christ's Crown and Covenant’. Unfortunately, that Deity was more apparently on Cromwell’s side.
The second mistake was again of the Covenanting Ministers’ doing as, on the morning of Monday, the 2nd of September, their religiously-imbued arrogance and impatience to be at the Puritans caused them to overrule Leslie. These ‘military strategists’ demanded Leslie advance from his impregnable position on Doon Hill to the ground below, opposite the Brox Burn in readiness for an attack the following morning. When Cromwell saw what was happening, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Up to that point, his only options would have been to charge uphill against the much superior Scottish army or wither and die on the coast. “The enemy hath blocked up our way to Berwick at the pass through which we cannot get without almost a miracle,” he said.
Cromwell ordered an audacious pre-dawn attack across the Brox Burn and fired up his troops by reminding them of their version of God “Put your trust in God, my boys and keep your powder dry!” He perhaps didn’t know it, but keeping their powder dry was the third problem for the Scottish army. Its inferior matchlocks relied on a spluttering fuse, whereas the New Model Army was equipped with flintlocks. When Generals Lambert and Monck drove into the Scots right wing sometime before 6.00am on the morning of the 3rd of September, it was a surprise attack. Suddenly, Leslie’s unprepared men had to contend with waking up, forming up and being able to return any kind of fire with their powder damp and the thin smirr of rain in their faces. What followed became the rout that Cromwell later regarded as his greatest military victory. Despite initially rallying and putting up a ferocious defence, effectively halting Lambert and Mock in their tracks, Leslie’s army was thrown into disarray by the charge of Cromwell’s Ironsides on his right flank. Leslie’s ‘attacking’ position had left him insufficient room to manoeuvre and counteract Cromwell’s last throw of the dice; the charge of his reserves against Leslie’s exposed right, which won the day. Cromwell had his miracle.
The defeat at Dunbar became known sardonically as the “Race of Dunbar” as the Scots fled by the thousands and were chased down, killed or captured by Cromwell’s cavalry. Three thousand Scots lay dead on the field and ten thousand more were captured and force-marched to Durham. Those poor unfortunates, the ones who didn’t die on route or in Durham Cathedral, were banished to the ‘Plantations’, which is altogether another tragic story. Cromwell, it is reported, burst into uncontrollable laughter after the victory, with one Puritan preacher describing him as “drunken of the spirit and filled with holy laughter.” That should’ve been “unholy laughter as from the De’il himsel’.”