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Battle of Sedgemoor
The Rebel Attack
The rebels might still have had a chance of success because the enemy camp was now less than ¾ mile (1200m.) away across the moor. The cavalry commander, Lord Grey, was sent ahead with the main body of cavalry to take the crossing of the Bussex Rhyne. But he seems to have rushed off without the local guide and thus in the darkness he failed to find the Upper Plungeon, the fording point where a cattle drove way crossed the drainage dyke, which was the only realistic crossing of the rhyne with so many cavalry.
At no point during the action did cavalry, either royalist or rebel, apparently attempted to cross the Rhyne other than at the plungeons. Indeed when royal infantry regiments later had to cross the rhyne in line of mach they seem to have done so by the plungeons. Desperately looking for the plungeon Grey rode along the north side of the Rhyne right across the front of the royal infantry deployment.
Once the royal infantry realised that this was the enemy they opened fire and, mounted on horses unused to combat, Grey’s cavalry were soon put to flight. By the time the second division of cavalry arrived, under Captain Jones, who did locate the upper plungeon it was already defended by about 150 of Compton’s cavalry. Jones tried either to take the plungeon or to hold back the royal cavalry from advancing across it.
As a veteran of Cromwell’s Ironsides he knew how important it was that the royal cavalry were unable to engage the infantry. It is unclear how fierce an action this was but Jones was later spared from execution because of the great courage he had shown leading his men in the cavalry engagement, earning the respect of his royal opponents. But such bravery was now in a hopeless cause. The key opportunity had been lost through this failure to take out the royal artillery, which would still have been totally vulnerable to Grey’s cavalry had he found and crossed the upper plungeon.
The royal infantry had all by now deployed between the two plungeons, a distance of probably about half a mile (800 metres), close by the rhyne on the south side and facing the moor. When the rebel infantry finally arrived they mounted their attack on the right flank of the royal army, held by Dumbarton’s, the only royal troops using the old matchlock muskets, who could be seen in the darkness by the glow of their lighted match.
It was Wade’s intention when he arrived with the first rebel battalion to cross the rhyne in battle formation once the three battalions were deployed, because the drain was shallow enough for such a crossing. But when the second rebel battalion arrived, deploying on Wade’s left, it immediately opened fire, as did the third battalion. They were deployed about 30 yards from the rhyne and with the fire-fight underway Wade could not persuade his men to advance any further. While an attack across the Rhyne, even if opposed, would have offered some chance of success, to stand off and settle into a fire-fight sealed the rebel fate. Their last hope had been to get to close quarters because in hand to hand fighting all their men, many of whom lacked firearms, could have been thrown into the action.
Wade did make an error in deploying his infantry too far to the left, with the result that the rebel infantry could only engage with the right wing of the royal infantry. But Lord Grey earned Wade’s contempt as the main architect of the rebel defeat. Not only had he failed in the first and most important strike, his cavalry had fled the field after a very short time leaving the rebel infantry to stand with no flanking cavalry protection when the royal cavalry finally appeared. And to compound his failures, as detachments of Grey’s cavalry fled the field they reserve units of the advancing rebel infantry into chaos before they could even reach the action. Dummer in his plan of the second stage of the engagement describing the ‘confused posture’ of the rebel infantry as the infantry engagement began.