Leslie had taken up his position between the Calton and Leith, in order to guard Edinburgh, to keep Cromwell out of the port of Leith, and out of touch with his own supply ships as much as possible. It was a strong position, and for weeks Oliver tried to draw the Scottish general out of it. But wary Leslie would not come. There were skirmishes, assaults, and sallies, but no real battle.
Meanwhile both generals wrote letters to each other full of Bible texts. Both were sure that God was on their side, and would fight for them. From both camps rose the sounds of prayer and preaching, and the singing of psalms might be heard amidst the roar of cannon. Never were there stranger camps opposed to each other. It was as if two churches had come out to battle.
The weather became horribly wet. As the weeks passed the Ironsides suffered dreadfully. Sickness and famine thinned their ranks. Round and round Edinburgh prowled Oliver. Now he moved to the Pentland Hills, now to the village of Corstorphine, then again back to Musselburgh. At last, seeing the uselessness of it, he marched away again to Dunbar. His men were hungry, ragged, weary, and disheartened as they started upon their homeward march. It was a moonlight night, the 31st of August, and they did not go without some fighting, for the Scots fell upon them. "But the Lord by His providence put a cloud over the moon," and so the Ironsides reached the shelter of Dunbar in safety.
But next morning, on the hills around them, lay Leslie and his army, blocking the way south-ward. So here, on a little rocky point, between the sea and a deadly foe, lay Oliver and his men. "We are upon an engagement very difficult," he writes. "The enemy hath blocked up our way at the pass at Cockburnspath, through which we cannot get without almost a miracle. He lieth so upon the hills, that we know not how to come that way without great difficulty; and our lying here daily consumeth our men, who fall sick beyond imagination."
The case seemed almost desperate. Yet Oliver did not despair. "Indeed, we have much hope in the Lord," he says.
Then Leslie made his grand mistake.
Instead of waiting and watching, as he had done at Edinburgh, he began to move down hill. When Oliver saw what the enemy was about, he cried out, it is said, "Now hath the Lord delivered them into our hands." Then he made ready to fight.
All that night the armies lay opposite each other under the cloudy sky, where the harvest moon shone fitfully. The sea roared, and the shrill wind shrieked and whistled about them, and sudden dashes of rain soaked them, as they lay upon the bare ground, and now and again might be heard a soldier praying in the night.
At last morning came, and by four o'clock Oliver and his men were astir. Like ghosts they moved about quickly and silently in the dim shadowy light, getting into battle array. Soon they stood ready. "The Lord of Hosts!" was their battle cry, and so shouting, they rushed upon the foe.
At first the fight was fierce and stern. The silence of early dawn was broken by the roar of cannon, the crack and rattle of guns, and the clash of steel on steel. And over the tumult of war rose the strange battle cries, "The Covenant!" and "The Lord of Hosts!" Soon in the grey of dawn, the field lay red. Gallantly the Scotsmen fought, but they were for the most part untrained men. They could not stand against the Ironsides. Before an hour had passed their lines were broken.
"They run. I profess they run," cried Oliver.
At that moment the sun flung its first red beams across the grey and misty sea, and turning to it, in the joy of victory, Oliver cried, "Now, let God arise, and His enemies shall be scattered."
And so, shattered and broken, the Scots army fled in utter rout and confusion. The day was lost ere ever the sun was up.
Out of the depths Oliver had risen to a height of exultation. Calling a halt, he rallied his men, and bade them sing the 117th Psalm. For a moment the noise and clamour of battle was stilled, and through the quiet morning air came the sound of men's voices, hushing the groans of the dying, and rising upward a fit requiem for the dead.
"O all ye nations of the world
Praise ye the Lord always;
And all the people everywhere
Set forth His noble praise.
"For great His kindness is to us,
His truth doth ever live;
Then to the Lord give praises great,
Praise to Him ever give."
Then once more, the louder and more hideous for the pause, the roar of battle and chase broke forth.
It was a fearful rout. A thousand lay dead upon the field. Ten thousand more were taken prisoner. Much spoil, too, fell into the hands of the victors—colours, arms, guns, both great and small, indeed the whole baggage and train of the army.