The late 16th and early 17th centuries were the Golden Age of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. During this time, the Commonwealth was a “republic of nobles” with the gentry, known as the “Szlachta”, able to vote for their king. The nobility and gentry of the Commonwealth differed from many other nations in Europe with the Szlachta making up about 10% of the population, the upper and most of the middle classes, compared to 2%, or just the upper classes, across the rest of Europe. In the first decade of the seventeenth century, the elected king of the Commonwealth was Sigismund III Waza, from the Swedish royal house of Vasa. The Commonwealth throne was just a step to attaining his true objective, regaining the Swedish throne. In 1605, Sigismund III saw his chance to increase the Commonwealth’s power at the expense of his troubled neighbor, Muscovy. Sigismund planned to incorporate it into the Commonwealth with Poland and Lithuania, or at least place his son on Muscovy’s throne. The might of the three most powerful nations in Eastern Europe would be enough to seize the Swedish crown, turning the Baltic into a Commonwealth lake under Wasa rule.
With the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1589, Muscovy entered the Time of Troubles, specifically the “Dmitriad” or the time of the three false Dimitris who vied against Boris Godunov and Vasili IV Shuysky for the title of Tsar of all Russians. The Time of Troubles greatly weakened Muscovy. In 1609, Sigismund just finished putting down a nobles’ rebellion, and with his power consolidated, he made no attempt to hide his next target – Moscow. Sigismund III invaded Muscovy after the weakened Vasili IV made an alliance with Sweden to oppose the inevitable Commonwealth invasion.
In September, 1609, Sigismund III invested the Muscovite fortress at Smolensk with the help of Russian boyars supporting Dmitry II. But Smolensk, the gateway to Moscow, was well defended, well-armed, and well supplied. The siege continued all winter. In the spring of 1610, Vasili IV dispatched an army under his younger brother Dmitry Shuysky and Swedish general Jacob De la Gardie.
Shuysky commanded about 48,000 Russian troops and 11 cannon, supported by De la Gardie’s 5,000 Flemish, French, German, Spanish, Scottish, and Swedish mercenaries. Sigismund sent 12,000 Commonwealth troops, including 5500 of the famed Polish winged Husaria, under Hetman (warlord) Stanisław Żółkiewski to intercept them. Żółkiewski’s scouts found Shuysky’s 8,000 strong advanced guard at the villages of Tsaryovo and Zaymishche. The Muscovites fortified the town to secure their lines of communication against raids by the Commonwealth’s cavalry heavy army. Żółkiewski attacked and trapped the Muscovites in the fort. Żółkiewski left 6,000 men, which included most of his infantry and some cavalry, to isolate the Muscovites. On the evening of 2 July under the cover of a heavy rain, Żółkiewski slipped away with the bulk of his cavalry, his cannon, and some supporting infantry. Confident in the power of the Husaria, he silently galloped off to strike the overwhelming numbers of the Muscovite main body while they were strung out on the march.
The next night, Polish scouts spotted their adversaries in two fortified camps about five miles from the town of Kłuszyn, one for Shuysky’s Russian troops and a separate for De la Gardie’s mercenaries. Żółkiewski sent a spy with a letter to the mercenary camp offering them better pay to switch sides. Taking advantage of the bad weather, Żółkiewski attempted to sneak his army around the Russian camp to strike at them the next morning from behind when they resumed the march.
De la Gardie got wind of the letter and ended any conspiracy to switch sides en masse, but the letter’s damage was already done. The mercenaries’ military efficacy was greatly diminished by the prospect of greater pay in the service of what was thought to be a superior Commonwealth force. They fragmented on national lines: some switched sides, some refused to fight, some fought half heartedly, while others honored their contracts fully.
Żółkiewski’s hussars were spotted strung out on a narrow and muddy trail attempting to infiltrate behind the Russian camps. With his movement uncovered and unable to immediately attack, Żółkiewski consolidated his army opposite Shuysky’s camps. He rested his men who had been on the march for almost 48 hours straight, and cleared some obstacles from the future battlefield.
Formed in the dark, both armies faced each other as the sun rose on 4 July 1610. 30,000 of Shuysky’s Russians occupied their center and left, with De la Gardi’s foreign mercenaries on the right. They frantically reinforced fence lines and dug redoubts as Żółkiewski’s 5,500 Husaria supported by 1000 Cossacks on their left cantered forward. The masses of Russians in the redoubts and behind the fence lines were enough to prevent an outright charge by the Husaria, who resorted to the caracole tactic to break the lines, albeit one specifically suited to the Husaria.
In a traditional caracole, the dense mass of riders moved forward slowly. At pistol range the front rank discharged their firearms, and then made way for the next rank to do the same while they went to the rear and reloaded. Thus the cavalry formation either moved forward or backwards slowly by rank while maintaining continuous fire. A Husaria caracole differed and was more akin to the ancient Cantabrian Circle. The Husaria would leave their lances behind and charge forward. At pistol range they’d quickly turn and fire their brace, and then continue to move out of the way. They moved to the rear as the next unit followed up. The movement never stopped and the circle flowed seamlessly. Once at the back end of the circle, they’d pull their carbines and repeat the process. Once the carbine circle was completed, the Husaria charged with their lances, with the hope that the firearms broke up the dense formations, leaving them vulnerable to their terrible charge. As their lances shattered on the Russians, if no break out immediately occurred they’d then turn, and pull their sabers. The momentum of the charge carried them back out of the enemy formation. The Husaria would then retire to reload their pistols and carbines, and begin the maneuver again. The Husaria caracole required immense discipline and exquisite horsemanship just to maintain the timing. At any given moment there were at least four groups of Husaria in the caracole: one moving forward, one charging, firing, or fighting, one retiring, and one reloading. Some Husaria completed this maneuver 8-10 times over the course of the day.
The reinforced hedges and fence lines blunted the worst of the Husaria charges, but the continuous Polish caracoles gave the impression that the Commonwealth’s numbers were much greater than they were. For next five hours, the Husaria caracoles smashed against the Russian defenses of the center and left, while the Cossacks fixed the reluctant mercenaries on Shuysky’s right. The Husaria’s discipline, armor, and firepower were offset by the greater Russian numbers.
The turning point of the battle was a counterattack by Russian reiters (Muscovite boyars equipped as German or Swedish riders) in the center. Sensing the Husaria’s charges diminishing, Shuysky ordered his still fresh reiters forward against the exhausted Poles. The reiters began their own traditional caracole with their pistols, in front of the beleaguered, but still solid, Russian defensive lines. The Poles rushed at the chance to fight the Russian riders. The Husaria abandoned their caracole and charged the exposed Russian reiters with their lances and sabers. The Russians quickly broke in the melee. The routing Muscovite reiters did what the Husaria could not, break the Russian lines. As the defeated reiters pushed their way back through the Russian defenses, the Husaria victoriously followed, and Shuysky’s center collapsed.
Seeing the Russian center break, De la Gardi withdrew back to his fortified camp with men guarding his flank in the woods at the edge of the battlefield. Shuysky and his shattered center withdrew to the Russian camp, while the left held strong. However the timely arrival of the Commonwealth cannon and infantry, which had marched all night after being left behind by the cavalry, were deployed against the remaining Russian lines. (In the haste to form the battle lines in the predawn darkness, Shuysky left his 11 cannon in his camp.) The Commonwealth infantry and cannon broke the Russian left, and the Husaria followed them back to the Russian camp. The Russians routed through the camp and prevented Shuysky from rallying his troops. They abandoned their fortified camp. The exhausted Cossacks and Husaria could not pursue far though, and many looted Shuysky’s extravagant camp and its wagon loads of valuables.
Żółkiewski’s army could not take the remaining mercenary camp with force. De la Gardi’s mercenaries had a much higher ratio of harquebusiers and much better training than the Stuysky’s Russians. Żółkiewski’s men were exhausted and disorganized. So under a flag of truce, he offered the mercenaries the same deal as before, and many switched sides. The remainder were given free passage out of the country on their word never to take up arms against the Commonwealth again.
Żółkiewski took the captured banners and prisoners back to the fort at Tsaryovo and Zaymishche which prompted its defenders to surrender. The Commonwealth victory at Kłuszyn did not however convince Smolensk to surrender. While Sigismund III maintained the siege at Smolensk, his son Wladyslaw IV Wasa advanced on Moscow with the Żółkiewski’s reinforced army. On 3 August they arrived at the gates of Moscow to find that the Russian boyars overthrew Tsar Vasili IV Shuysky. For the next three weeks, the boyars negotiated with Prince Wladyslaw IV and Hetman Żółkiewski.
In return for electing Wladyslaw the new Tsar, the boyars demanded that Muscovite territory remain intact and the Commonwealth would respect Russian social and political institutions, e.g. the rights of the boyars and the Orthodox faith. And finally, as Tsar of “The Third Rome”, Wladyslaw would have to accept the Orthodox faith.
Wladyslaw IV agreed. On 27 August 1610, he was elected Tsar of all Russians. On 3 September, Tsar and Grand Prince Vladislav Zigimontovych of all Russia triumphantly entered Moscow at the head of Hetman Stanislaw Żółkiewski’s Husaria and occupied the Kremlin.
Unfortunately, the Wasa dynasty in Muscovy was short lived. Wladyslaw sent his father the agreement, and Sigismund rejected it outright, despite it securing Muscovy’s support for the Commonwealth. Sigismund wanted to Catholicize Muscovy, which the Russian boyars would never agree to. Furthermore, he refused to abandon the siege of Smolensk. Smolensk had been part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which had only been lost to Muscovy in the last century. It was the key to any advance on Moscow. With Smolensk in Commonwealth hands under Lithuanian control, the heartland of Muscovy would be open to invasion at any time, and Muscovite politics easy to influence. Moscow would be at the Poles’ and Lithuanians’ mercy. The permanent loss of Smolensk would keep the notoriously finicky Russians in line, and secure Muscovy for the upcoming campaign for the Swedish throne. However, Sigismund didn’t understand that the boyars understood this also. They would never stop fighting while Smolensk was in foreign hands.
Sigismund’s rejection of Wladyslaw’s agreement infuriated the Russian boyars, and turned them against the Commonwealth. Smolensk fell in 1611, but the boyars refused to sign a peace treaty. Tsar Wladyslaw IV and his army were unwelcome foreigners whose control extended little beyond Moscow and the Kremlin. In late 1611 Tsar Wladyslaw departed Moscow never to return, and the Commonwealth troops were trapped in the Kremlin. After a brutal siege in which there were reports of cannibalism among the Commonwealth’s troops, the Russians retook the Kremlin in November of 1612. In 1613, the boyars chose Shuysky’s 16 year old cousin, Mikhail Romanov, as the new Tsar. Tsar Mikhail Romanov ended the Time of Troubles and the Romanov Dynasty ruled Imperial Russia for the next 300 years, until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.
Wladyslaw IV would eventually be elected, as had his father, king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He would reign for the next 38 years through what remained of the Commonwealth’s Golden Age, until The Deluge began in 1648. He was one of Europe’s most beloved and successful rulers, though as King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, and not as Tsar of all Russians.
In early 1520, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez’ conquest of the Aztec Empire fared poorly. The Aztecs no longer thought he was a god and lost their fear of the Spanish guns, steel, and horses. Increasing Spanish demands of gold, food, and women grated on the Aztecs. Especially chafing was the ban on human sacrifice, which was central to Aztec religion and society. Just prior to initial Spanish contact, the Aztecs held a ceremony during which 80,000 captive men, women, and children had their hearts torn out and eaten. These ceremonies were held regularly, though those so large were reserved for special occasions. To the Aztecs, all of the ills that had befallen their empire and people since European contact were due to the Spanish prohibition on human sacrifice. The Aztecs felt the gods were punishing them since they couldn’t be appeased with human blood.
Exacerbating the volatile situation with the Aztecs was Cotrez’ problems with the Spanish governor of Cuba. Their relationship had deteriorated to the point where the governor sent an expedition to arrest Cortez. Cortez was forced to leave the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, to confront the interlopers.
Tenochtitlan was one of the largest cities in the world with a population of over a million. Tenochtitlan by all accounts was absolutely massive, easily larger than the largest European cities at the time, London and Constantinople, both of which topped out at 200,000. Tenochtitlan was even larger before the mumps epidemic (which one of Cortez’ men brought in 1519) that killed about 100,000. Cortez’ kept a tenuous hold on the city with just a few thousand conquistadors and non-Aztec Indian allies.
Cortez left a subordinate to maintain the delicate relations with the Aztecs, while he left the city to deal with the governor’s expedition. Cortez managed to coopt his would-be captors, but he lost Tenochtitlan while he was away. In his absence, the lieutenant whom he left in the capital had arbitrarily slaughtered some Aztec nobles. Their deaths were the final humiliations. The entire city rose against the Spanish. The Aztecs swarmed the conquistadors, despite their technological advantage. The Spanish had harquebuses, crossbows, pikes, halberds, steel breastplates, small cannon, dogs of war, and armored knights on horseback – the very best of early 16th century military technology to fight the Stone Age equipped Aztecs. Dismissing the odds, the 1000 conquistadors in Tenochtitlan killed 30 for every loss. Nonetheless, the Aztecs still came on. The remaining 200 conquistadors were besieged in the emperor’s palace with the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, held captive.
Cortez heard of the news as he returned to Tenochtitlan. He had 1200 conquistadors and 3000 Tlaxalan allies recruited from one of the many Aztec enemies in the region. Cortez felt it was enough to chastise the Aztecs. He entered the city and the Aztecs allowed him to make it to the palace. They then closed the causeways behind him. Montezuma attempted to parley with the besiegers but the Aztecs had had enough. The Aztecs disavowed their emperor, denounced him a traitor, and killed him.
The next day Cortez sent 400 conquistadors to break out. Although the Aztecs took 20,000 casualties, all 400 Spaniards were killed or captured. Cortez was trapped.
On the night of 30 June/1 July 1520, the Spaniards attempted to sneak out, but they were spotted by an old woman fetching water. Soon the city descended upon the expedition and a running battle was fought through the streets. The Aztecs destroyed the causeways to trap the conquistadors but the Spanish filled the gaps with dead Aztecs and crossed over the bodies. The Aztecs disregarded the losses and continued to attack, especially targeting the stragglers. Cortez gave permission for each man to take as much gold as he could carry and the greedy ones were the first to die when they couldn’t keep up. The more gold the individual conquistadors took, the less likely they were to loie to spend it.
Cortez’ entire expedition would have been wiped out but the Aztec way of war centered on capturing not killing. They kept trying to take the Spaniards captive in order to sacrifice and eat them later, particularly Cortez. The Aztecs knew that without his leadership the expedition would have certainly broke up. But each time he was swarmed and hauled off, his men charged and rescued him. Despite grievous losses, the Spanish reached the mainland where the conquistadors could finally unleash the full power of their armored knights. The final charge by the last 20 knights routed the blocking Aztec force of 40,000. The thundering horsemen cut down every warrior with many colorful plumes, a symbol of Aztec status, eventually killing their commander. Only about 250 conquistadors and 1000 Tlaxalans managed to escape what the Spanish would call “La Noche Triste” or “The Sad Night”.
The next morning, the Aztecs resumed their practice of human sacrifice, and many a Spanish and Tlaxalan heart was consumed by the jubilant Aztecs.
The Aztecs would not enjoy their victory for long though. One of the conquistadors who arrived to arrest Cortez eventually joined with him. This particular conquistador was killed on a causeway during La Noche Triste. He fell behind, not because he carried too much gold, but because he was sick and weakened. He had smallpox.
The resulting smallpox epidemic caused by this initial vector killed 250,000 Aztecs in the coming months. When Cortez returned, he found the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan much easier to reconquer.
For more than a month, the 1500 Knights of St John, Spanish and Italian knights, and Maltese militia held the exposed Fort St. Elmo across the harbor from the Maltese Knights’ main defenses at Fort St. Michael, Fort St Angelo, and the towns of Birgu and Senglea. Ft St Elmo was an anchor point for the great chain that blocked the harbor’s entrance and the Turks had to take it.
Forty great siege guns pounded the fort but the Knights were able to repair and reinforce St Elmo by boat at night from across the harbor. On 3 June 1565, Dragut Reis, the greatest of the Turkish commanders, managed to get trenches and guns to cover the water approach. Furthermore, he lashed galleys together and built a platform on the great chain over which he could pass small galliots packed with archers. This completely cut off the fort and made any resupply a major operation using resources the Knights could no longer afford. On 9 June, its commander said it would fall within days and asked that the position be evacuated. Jean Parisot La Vallette, the indomitable commander of the Order, knew that every day Fort St Elmo held was another day closer to the Spanish relief, wrote back, “If you cannot find it in yourself to die for Jesus Christ and St John, then I will send men who will.” The Fort of St. Elmo held strong for another two weeks.
The constant bombardment reduced Fort St Elmo to rubble, and repeated Turkish assaults captured its entirety except for buildings of the inner courtyard and church. On 23 June 1565, Pasha Mustapha, who replaced Dragut Reis when he was mortally wounded by a cannonball, ordered the final assault. The Janissaries assembled within yards of the Knights, just out of pike range, because the Knights had long been out of powder for their harquebuses. The Knights sold themselves dearly as La Vallette watched from St Angelo. The last thing La Vallette saw through his telescope, was the Italian knight Francesco Lanfreducci laying about with a massive two handed sword underneath the banner of St. John. Lanfreducci managed to light the fire signaling the imminent fall of the fort before being swarmed by Turks, and the banner was quickly replaced by the Ottoman standard.
That night, the Turks mutilated and killed any survivors, less several knights for interrogation, and only a few Maltese militiamen escaped by swimming across the harbor. Mustapha ordered 1000 bodies nailed to makeshift crosses in a grim parody of the Crucifixion, and floated them across the harbor to demoralize the remaining defenders. On the morning of 24 June, the feast day of the Order’s patron, St John the Baptist, the bodies came ashore near St Angelo. But it did not have the promised effect. The infuriated La Vallette ordered all Turkish prisoners marched to the walls and beheaded in full view of the Turkish siege lines. And then their heads were fired out of cannons into the Turkish trenches.
The Great Siege of Malta would not be a repeat of the relatively chivalrous and “civilized” Siege of Rhodes. Both sides knew the stakes involved and there would be no quarter.
After the capture of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Turks took up the banner of Sunni Islam and their jihad exploded across Europe, Asia, and Africa for the next 100 years. By 1565, Ottoman expansion by land had slowed considerably. After conquering the Balkans, the Ottomans ran into the powerful Hapsburg Empire and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to the north. To the south lay the Sahara Desert and jungles of Central Africa. And to the east were the powerful Shia Safavid Persians. These obstacles required more deliberate preparations. Only to the West, via the Mediterranean Sea, would an advance prove relatively easier. In 1564, the greatest of the Ottoman sultans, Suleiman the Magnificent, authorized the seaborne invasion of Italy.
The Eastern Mediterranean was already an Ottoman lake, but to cut off Italy from Hapsburg Spain (flush with gold from the New World) required the domination of the Western Mediterranean. Once done, the isolated warring city states and petty kingdoms of the Italian peninsula would be easy prey. There was only one problem: the tiny island of Malta. Malta was situated in the narrowest part of the Sea between Sicily and Tunisia, which blocked any real access for large fleets to the West. Malta was like a fishbone stuck in the throat of the Mediterranean, doubly so because it was the possession of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, or the Knights Hospitaller, the last of the crusading orders.
The Knights of Malta, as they were known, were Christianity’s rear guard in the disastrous crusades of the last 500 years. Created to protect Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land during the First Crusade, they were at the forefront of every major battle and present at every major retreat. They were thrown out of the Holy Land, off the island of Rhodes, and found their new home on the island of Malta, from which they continued the fight against Muslim expansion.
In the sixteenth century, the Knights of Malta no longer went to war on horses, but in galleys. The white cross on blood red background was a feared sight to Ottomans, whose warships were given no quarter, and merchant ships were turned over to their newly freed galley slaves (which invariably meant the slaughter of the Muslim crew). Moreover, they were on the forefront of sixteenth century military efficacy. The Maltese Knights blended a unique mix of Western land technology and Eastern naval technology. Though few in number, they were the Pope’s and Christianity’s first and only reliable defense against the Ottomans in the Mediterranean.
In May 1565, the Knights of Malta were on their own. Their leader, the indomitable 71 year old Jean de La Valette amassed 700 Maltese Knights, 600 Spanish and Italian knights, 2700 men at arms, and 3000 armed Maltese civilians to defend island. They occupied the three forts, Fort St. Michael, Fort St. Angelo, and the exposed Fort St. Elmo, that guarded the all-important harbor on the north side of the island (Valetta Harbor today). On 18 May 1565, La Valette’s archrival, the Ottoman corsair admiral Dragut-Reis, arrived off Malta with Grand Vizier Mustapha Pasha and 213 ships and 48,000 warriors, including 8000 of the Sultan’s own Janissaries.
The last land battle of the Crusades had begun.
In 1704, Louis XIV reigned over France’s Golden Age. France was at its most influential, and he was easily the most absolutely powerful man on the planet. With the death of Spain’s Carlos V, Louis was poised to place his grandson, Charles, on the vacant thrown. This paved the way for a Franco-Spanish Union which would marry French military strength with Spanish New World gold and create the world’s first hyperpower. The rest of Europe could not allow this, and they declared war in what was called The War of Spanish Succession, or Queen Anne’s War (after the British monarch) in North America.
In the Spring of 1704, Louis ordered an invasion of Austria, one of the key members of the opposing Grand Alliance. Prince Eugene of Savoy, knowing his army could not face the Franco-Bavarian horde alone, asked for aid from his life long friend: John Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough.
Through a simple deception operation, Marlborough disengaged from the French in the Low Countries and marched his Anglo-Dutch army 500 miles into Bavaria, picking up troops from allied German principalities of the Holy Roman Empire along the way. On 13 August 1704, Marlborough and Savoy’s Anglo-Austro-Dutch-German-Prussian-Imperial Army met Marshal Tallard’s Franco-Bavarian Army at the village of Blenheim on the Danube.
In the linear tactics of the day, the fight on the flanks was usually decisive, and Tallard reinforced his to the detriment of his center. Marlborough recognized the flaw and tied down most of the French with Savoy on the right and the rest pinned in the village on the left. By the afternoon, Tallard was sufficiently committed, and Marlborough struck at the center much as Napoleon would do 100 years later at Austerlitz. The French broke, Tallard was killed, and his army was destroyed.
The Battle of Blenheim was the turning point of the War of Austrian Succession. The war would be carried into France the next year. Louis would eventually fight the war to a draw and still place his grandson on the Spanish throne, but France’s power would be broken and Spain’s decline as a world power accelerated rapidly, giving rise to a global British empire. Finally, and most importantly, the Battle of Blenheim was the high watermark for Divine Absolutism as a viable form of government, at least until the rise of Socialist dictatorships in the 20th Century.
On 7 June, 1654, Louis the XIV was crowned King of France. Louis the Great would go on to rule France for 70 years, the longest of any European monarch. More importantly, he would have an assemblage of advisors and subordinates of such remarkable economic, military, and political ability and talent that it is only seen so very rarely in history. (Only the Diadochi, Genghis Khan’s generals, the Founding Fathers, and Napoleon’s Marshals come to mind.) His advisors included Cardinal Richelieu’s protégé Cardinal Jules Mazarin, the engineering mastermind Vauban, two of the best commanders of the 17th century the Great Conde and Marshal Turenne, the Queen-Mother Anne of Austria, and the diplomatic and financial geniuses of the Colbert brothers, Jean-Baptist and Charles. Led by Louis, they ruled France through her Golden Age. “French” would become the first “lingua franca” of Europe.
In the first half of the 17th Century, great changes were happening in Europe and the people wanted more say in how they were governed. In both England and France horrible civil wars occurred between those who supported royal power and those who supported parliamentarian power. In the English Civil War the Parliamentarians won and left a legacy of self-rule. But in France, the Fronde, as their civil war was called, the parliamentarians and their noble allies were crushed in 1653. A young Louis did not forget its lessons. He would be crowned king the next year.
Louis and his inordinately talented advisors spent the entirety of his reign expanding the power of the monarch. He blamed the Parliament of Paris for the Fronde and limited its power every chance he could, until he could abolish it permanently. He couldn’t do the same with the nobility so he neutralized them. He built the magnificent palace of Versailles, and then forced all of the heads of the noble families to live there. This effectively separated them from their lands and power, and prevented them from expanding any further. The competent ones he used to form Europe’s first bureaucracy, and the others he gave titles and duties, such as “The Royal Glovebearer” or “the Royal Cupbearer”. Louis kept the historically troublesome nobles close by, out of trouble, and carefully watched.
Louis the Great’s transition to absolute monarchy only succeeded because of his and his advisors complete dedication to France. He “gleamed like the Sun” through France’s Golden Age, but also sowed the seeds of its destruction. The Sun King slowed the development of parliamentary rule in Great Britain, and Louis’ dedication to France was not shared by his successors. The inevitable corruption and incompetence that results from absolute rule eventually brought about the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and the Napoleonic Wars.
By the 1750s, the status of the Ohio Country was nebulous. Great Britain, France, the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Connecticut and the Ohio Indians themselves all had claims to the lands bordered by Appalachians Mountains in the east and southeast, the Ohio River in the south, and the Great Lakes in the North. The Ohio, Iroquois for “good”, wasn’t always named so. Known as the “beautiful river” by its previous Algonquin and Sioux inhabitants, the Ohio and its tributaries teemed with one the 17th century’s most precious commodities: beaver.
In the 17th century the fur trade dominated Indian politics, but was still seconded to the demographic disaster that heralded the arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere. At the end of the 16th century, European childhood diseases swept through the Ohio Country, greatly reducing the Indian population. Most Indians spread out to take advantage of the increased space. One Indian nation did the opposite: the Iroquois Confederacy. Instead of breaking apart and spreading out, the Iroquois consolidated and centralized. Exploiting the insatiable demand by first Dutch and then British merchants for beaver pelts, the unified and powerful Iroquois embarked on seventy years of conquest, extermination, and expansion in order to secure the beaver trade and replace the population lost to disease.
The Iroquois and British formed the Covenant Chain, in which the Iroquois only attacked Indian tribes hostile to Britain or friends of the French. However, they struck a hard wall along the St Lawrence River against the Huron and Wabanaki Indians equipped by the French, so the Iroquois turned south and west against the Ohio Indians. Dutch and British trade goods, particularly muskets, fire strikers, and metal pots, hatchets and arrowheads, gave the Iroquois an asymmetric advantage over the Ohio Indians. These items greatly simplified the logistics for the ranging bands of Iroquois. No longer were hunting and war parties limited to the range at which they could carry a hot rock for fire starting, the amount of dried meat they could carry, or the length of time they could sleep cold and hungry in the elements. Fire starters could produce fire on demand to quickly cook game in metal pots efficiently killed by metal arrowheads and butchered by metal knives. But the Beaver Wars weren’t just about the all-important pelts but also the replacement of the Iroquois population killed by European diseases.
Small pox in particular took a toll on Indians nations. For the Iroquois, capture, enslavement and assimilation were the answers to mitigating their reduced population. Most nations defeated in battle disappeared. Men, wounded and anyone unable to make the increasingly longer trip back to the Five Nations, such as the elderly, infants and young children, were killed, while women and older children were taken back to the Iroquoian homeland. There they endured an initial period of brutal enslavement bookended by a gauntlet to enter the town when they arrived to an assimilation ceremony into the nation. If they survived they were welcomed into their clan as a full member. Many Indian nations disappeared, never to be heard of again, lost to history. The lucky ones were recorded by an intrepid European traveler or trader, and left in a dusty tome to be discovered by some future historian. The luckiest have a town or street named after them. The Erie Indians dominated the southern shore of the lake that bears their name, but that doesn’t change the fact that we know virtually nothing about them, so complete was their destruction at the hands of the Iroquois.
The decades of warfare became central to Iroquoian identity as young warriors wanted to emulate their elders, but had to range further and further afield for captives. Later, war was being conducted for its own sake, in many cases just to replace losses from previous wars. Consequently, Iroquoian conquests were so vast that they could not effectively control their own territory. Their hunting grounds were preyed upon by the southern Indians, such as the Cherokee. The Iroquois took to establishing buffer nations from their defeated foes, most notably the Shawnee, to protect the hunting grounds. To keep these subjects in line, Iroquois “half-kings” were appointed.
The half-kings were answerable only to the Five Nations council fire at Onondaga and lived among their vassal nations. However, the language differences and the animosity generated from the half-kings and their families choosing the best women for wives and the strongest and fastest boys for assimilation caused them to grow apart from their wards. The half-kings’ families and entourages eventually formed their own tribe, known as the Mingo.
As the Mingo were slowly forming their own identity in the Ohio country, the Beaver Wars were brought to an abrupt end. In 1697, the British Empire made a separate peace with France to end King William’s War, something they pledged the Iroquois never to do. It was the first break of the Covenant Chain. France and their Indian allies turned their full fury onto the Iroquois decisively defeating them. At the Great Peace of Montreal in 1701, the Iroquois pledged fealty to France, and to remain neutral in any future conflicts between France and England.
The Iroquois had no intention of remaining neutral and abdicating their commanding position as arbiter of all things Indian between the French and British Empires. They planned to play both sides. Barely three years after Montreal, the easternmost of the Five Iroquois Nations, the Mohawk, went to war as an ally of France during the War of Spanish Succession, or Queen Anne’s War in America. The other four nations remained neutral in order to continue trade with the British. The war ended in 1713 with a British victory. At the Treaty of Utrecht, the negotiations of which the Iroquois did not participate in since it was signed in the Netherlands, France gave their nominal sovereignty over the Iroquois Confederacy to the British, who were not so hands off as the French were.
The Iroquois had a few problems with their new status; the least of which was their new “Great White Father” across the sea, because militarily, the edict could not be enforced: the English traversed Confederation land only because the Iroquois permitted them. The problem was the Treaty of Utrecht could be enforced economically. The Iroquois could not go back to their traditional way of life. The trade goods had permanently altered daily life and the traditional skills of their great-grandparents were gone. Moreover, they had no industrial base to produce their own muskets, metal tools, and woven clothes. Even their currencies, little beads called wampum, were now manufactured abroad. The Iroquois had no choice but to reluctantly accept the terms.
There were further problems. The neutrality of the westernmost of the Five Nations, the Seneca, and the Mingo and Ohio Indians, allowed the British to successfully court the Cherokee to fight Spain’s Indian allies in the south. The Cherokee and their allies defeated the Tuscarora in 1713. The Tuscarora were an Iroquoian speaking people, and sought refuge from the Cherokee with the Five Nations. The Tuscarora were vehemently anti-British, and the elders gave them new lands east of the Mohawk to prevent British encroachment. They became the Sixth Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy, but they were very problematic for the council and caused no end of trouble with their new British overlords.
Nonetheless, the unique Iroquois position allowed them to effectively maintain their sovereignty, if not in name but in practice. They were more powerful than any two other English colonies and were masters of their territories. They settled into a power broker role, and played everyone against each other to maintain their position: the British against the French, the Crown against the colonies, colony against colony, the colonies against the French, and the colonies against other Indians.
During “the Long Peace” between 1713 and 1744, the Iroquois were colonial muscle against recalcitrant Indians that bordered the English colonies. Several English colonies bought land from the Iroquois that was occupied by one of their subject nations, and the Iroquios sent them west to the Ohio country at colonial request. All for some extra trade goods to key elders which could be given to followers for their loyalty. Pennsylvania in particular routinely called on the Mohawk to enforce treaties. The Quakers in the Pennsylvania Assembly refused to fund a militia and outsourced the colony’s defense to the Mohawk, again just for some extra trade goods. In 1737, the Delaware Indians rightfully balked at the duplicitous “Walking Purchase” for the remainder of the Delaware River valley. The Assembly appealed to the Mohawk and the Delaware were quickly sent packing. Even worse, in the 1744 Treaty of Lancaster, the Iroquois sold all of the Ohio Country land south of the Ohio River, at least in Virginian eyes. The Iroquois thought they sold just the Shenandoah Valley. The dispute would have probably ended in the Six Nations’ favor had war not broken out again.
The thirty years of “peace” ended when another European war spilled over into North America. The War of Austrian Succession was known as King George’s War in the colonies. At the start of the conflict in 1744, the Iroquois decided to exert their sovereignty and stayed neutral, despite British protestations.
The closest Iroquois nation and the one that could offer the most immediate assistance, the Tuscarora in the east, wanted nothing to do with the British. New York and the New England colonies routinely used the Iroquois to keep their Indian neighbors in line, and when they decided to stay neutral, the British could find few Indian allies to fight the French and Wabbanaki in New England. The British got the worst of it, about ten percent of the male population of New York and New England were killed. Due to factors outside New England, the British won the war, and did it without the Iroquois assistance. The colonists who suffered during the war wouldn’t forget Iroquois neutrality.
King George’s War had a different effect in the Ohio Country. In the 1730s, the colonies were expanding, especially Pennsylvania and Virginia, and colonial settlers were pushing west over the Appalachian Mountains. The settlers and traders brought cheap trade goods to the Ohio Indians. French trade goods were three times more expensive and of an inferior quality. The French tried to entice the Ohio Indians to attack British trading posts but with the exception of a few gruesome examples, the Ohio Indians refused. Despite Iroquois sovereignty, and thus supposedly British control over the Ohio country stemming from the Beaver Wars, the French used the river systems at will. The Ohio and its tributaries were vital in linking Quebec and the St Lawrence River basin to Detroit, the Illinois country and Mississippi Valley to New Orleans. In 1739, Baron De Longueuil led an expedition into the Ohio country where he met with the Ohio Indian nations to secure French use of the Ohio waterways. When King George’s War broke out in 1744, the French flooded the Ohio Indians with gifts and trade goods at great expense to themselves, securing treaties to assist with fighting the British.
Flush with French trade goods, the Delaware, Shawnee and even the Mingo rolled back the frontier. The threat to settlers east of the Appalachians broke Quaker resistance to a militia. With no Iroquois help with Indian issues as they traditionally had, the Pennsylvania Assembly, led by Benjamin Franklin, approved the construction of a number of forts along the frontier and a large number of militia mostly composed of recent German and Scots-Irish immigrants who had no love for neither Quakers nor Indians. The threat never really materialized east of the Appalachians, but that didn’t stop the colonists from believing that they won the war without Iroquois help.
The Iroquois recognized that they might have over played their hand and wished to get back into King George’s good graces. They just needed a way to do so without losing any more sovereignty and without angering the French; the balance of power needed to be maintained. The actions of the Ohio Indians gave them the perfect opportunity to do exactly that. The elders at the council fire at Onondaga were furious with Ohio Indians for directly negotiating with the French, and toward the end of the war, with the British and colonies. All diplomacy was supposed to go through them. But after decades of absentee rule even the Mingo had grown weary of and chaffed at subjugation from the far away Iroquois Six Nations. The Iroquois would have none of it. They forcefully re-exerted control and to add insult to injury sold their land out from under them.
The dispute with Virginia over the Treaty of Lancaster wasn’t pursued. Even worse were the actions by the Iroquois at the Albany Congress in 1748. Though famous for Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” proposition to unite the colonies, more importantly was the fact that the Iroquois sold even more Ohio country land to the colonies, sometimes selling the same land to several colonies. There’s a portion of present day Pennsylvania that was claimed by four colonies, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, and Connecticut, due to “shady bush deals” with Iroquois elders at the Albany Congress. None of this endeared the Iroquois with the Ohio Indians.
After the defeat of the French in King George’s War, the Ohio Indians were left out to rot, not just by the Iroquois but also by the French. French gifts and trade goods, plentiful in 1748, dried up completely in 1749, despite French insistence that they were subjects, as per the claims made by LaSalle in the 17th century and their agreements in 1744. Like the Iroquois after the Treaty of Utrecht, the Ohio Indians were forced to crawl back to the British and colonies for trade goods, if the French could not or would not provide. Their daily life depended on them and the Ohio Indians had no capacity to produce their own. The Virginians formed the Ohio Company to exploit and speculate the land sold to them in the Treaty of Lancaster and the Ohio Indian invited them and Pennsylvania to establish a trading post at Logstown (present day Ambridge, PA) on the Ohio River, which ironically the French built for the Ohio Indians in 1747 to stage raids out of.
The French were incensed. Later that year, the governor of New France sent Celeron de Blainville with 300 troops to reestablish control. He planted lead markers along the rivers and when he reached Logstown expelled the traders and confiscated their goods. De Blainville then berated the inhabitants for not resisting British expansion as subjects of New France should. Feeling that the Ohio Indians were sufficiently chastised, De Blainville returned to Quebec.
Enter Tanacharison, a Mingo half-king with dreams of a sovereign Ohio Indian nation free of French, Iroquois and (eventually) British influence. But the pragmatic Tanacharison knew he needed British trade goods, so taking a page out of the Iroquois playbook, he decided to set everyone against each other and profit. After an abortive attempt in 1751, Tanacharison’s council at Logstown in May 1752 was a who’s who of frontier fixers assembled to hammer out a treaty to keep the trade goods flowing. Marylander Christopher Gist and Virginian William Trent of the Ohio Company, Joshua Fry from Virginia, George Crogan from Pennsylvania, and Miami, Seneca, Delaware, Shawnee, and Mingo chiefs, all of whom were upset with the way they were treated by the De Blainville. To establish his authority and magnanimity, Tanacharison declared the 1744 Treaty of Lancaster voided but that any Virgina settlements south of the Ohio would be left in peace. Tanacharison’s statement raised an eyebrow from the Seneca chiefs, but as the Mingo chief had by far the most warriors, they chose to let it slide for the time being. He further stated that Pennsylvania and Virginia were allowed to reestablish their trading posts, but at different more defensible location, 19 miles upriver where Chartiers Creek empties in the Ohio(present day McKees Rocks, PA). As a representative of the Ohio Company, William Trent enthusiastically volunteered to build a fort there to protect against a repeat of De Blainville’s expedition. Tanacharison agreed as it was below the Ohio-Monongahela River boundary that he considered the southern boundary of his realm. The Ohio Company had been trying to get Iroquois approval for a fort there since DeBlainville threw them out in 1749 and Tanacharison just delivered on it. One Delaware chief told Gist that “You English claim the south of the (Ohio) river, and the French the north. Where is the Indian land?” So Tanarcharison added his only stipulation that the British limit colonial settlement to south of the Ohio River. The French claims to the north were void and Trent’s Fort would protect everyone’s claims. Finally, Tanacharison renewed his fealty to King George and expected to be treated no different than any other colonial governor. The Treaty of Logstown was approved by all parties, though the Seneca quickly returned to Onondaga to report the half-king’s usurpation of their authority and for violating their expressed orders to maintain strict neutrality between the French and British.
The French and their Indian allies were not idle while Tanacharison met with the British and colonials. In June 1752, Chippewa and Ottawa Indians under Charles Langlade descended on Pickawillany, (present day Pique, OH) where the Miami chief Memeskia attempted a similar arrangement with Pennsylvania. The town’s inhabitants were slaughtered and Memeskia was ritually boiled and eaten by the warriors. As they got wind of the Treaty of Logstown, the French established a chain of forts in 1753 securing their water transportation routes in the Ohio country. The first was Fort Presque Isle on Lake Erie, (present day Erie, PA) in May. In July, they built Fort Le Bouef (on present day French Creek at Waterford, PA). Then at the mouth of the creek where it empties into the Allegheny River, they confiscated a British trading post called Venango (good guess: Venango, PA) and converted it into Fort Machault. Tanacharison and other Ohio Indian leaders travelled to Fort Presque Isle to demand the French leave, but needless to say, the French threw them out.
In January 1754, William Trent was commsioned by Robert Dinwiddie, the governor of Virginia, a captain in the militia and ordered to raise a hundred men to defend the new fort. He finally arrived at the proposed site in February 1754, after cutting a road form Cumberland, Maryland to the junction Redstone Creek and the Monongahela River (US Route 40 to Brownsville, PA). But at the suggestion of another captain of the Virginia militia, a young 21 year old George Washington, Trent decided to move the fort to the far superior Forks of the Ohio about a mile away across the Monongahela. Trent was loath to break the Logstown Treaty but fortifications on that site made the Chartier’s creek position redundant in friendly hands and untenable in French hands. Moreover, Trent, a fur trader himself, had a small post there and he would be able to stay out of the elements at night as the weather got colder without having to row across the river twice a day. Trent broke ground on “Fort Saint George” at the Forks of the Ohio (present day Pittsburgh, PA) on 17 February, 1754. Tanacharison laid the first log of the first building: the storehouse.
George Washington wasn’t a part of Trent’s expedition, but was just returning from his mission to warn the French to leave. Tanacharison reported the French response to his ultimatum to the Ohio Company of which Robert Dinwiddie, Virginia’s governor was a member. In September 1753, Dinwiddie received word from the King that he was authorized to use force to expel the French from the Ohio Country. Dinwiddie charged Washington to formally declare the British possession of the Ohio Country and then respectfully demand their withdrawal. Washington enthusiastically left Williamsburg on 31 October and slowly made his way north.
In mid-November, Washington slipped on a rock while crossing a small creek and soaked himself in the cold water (present day Slippery Rock, PA) so he had to stay there a day to warm up and dry off. He reached Fort La Boeuf, but was told to go on to Venango which he reached on 4 December. He made his proclamation, but was rebuffed. He dined with the French officers that night, when they reiterated that the Ohio Country was French and had been for almost a hundred years. Washington returned to Dinwiddie with the response.
Upon Washington’s return, Dinwiddie promoted him to major and authorized him to raise 100 more men to assist and resupply Trent, and take over construction and garrison of the fort. However, Washington was delayed while recruiting and by the middle of March, Trent was running out of provisions. So Trent left the fort to travel back down the road to request more supplies from Dinwiddie, leaving his second in command, Lt John Fraser.
John Fraser was also a fur trader, but he only accepted his commission on the condition he was able to conduct his business simultaneously. As soon as Trent departed, Fraser also left for his own trading post eight miles up the Monongahela leaving young Ensign Edward Ward in charge. Work proceeded quickly but not quick enough. In early April a French spy spotted the work reported back. In the meantime, belts were being tightened when Gist arrived and informed Ward that he had provisions at the Redstone post, if he just sent some men to gather them and bring them back. Ward dispatched half his men. The next day he was informed the French were enroute. Ward attempted to convince Fraser to come back but he was busy making money and couldn’t be bothered. Ward and Tanacharison constructed a hasty palisade around the completed storehouse but couldn’t do anymore because the French arrived quicker than expected. On 17 April 600 French regulars and another 400 militia and Indians under Captain Claude-Pierre Pecaudy Contrecoeur landed just outside musket range.
Ward and Tanacharison’s 41 men were no match and they surrendered that day. Contrecoeur tore the fort down and began building a new one. Tanacharison was furious, not that they surrendered but that the French would dare dismantle a structure in which he laid the first log. Ward and the Virginia militia departed the next day, but Tanacharison and his men stayed to observe the French.
Ward met Washington and his men on the way back and informed him of the loss. Washington was determined to retake the fort and sent a letter to Dinwiddie for artillery. He also sent a letter Tanacharison thanking him for his loyalty and asking him to recruit more men to help take the fort. Washington moved his force to Great Meadows (Farmington, PA) to await the artillery from Dinwiddie.
A French fort at the forks of the Ohio made all of the colonial trading posts on any of its tributaries untenable and unprofitable. This was an unacceptable situation for Tanacharison. The French had to be removed and Tanacharison did not personally command enough men to do it himself, and he would receive no assistance from his erstwhile superiors, the Iroquois. In fact he was probably going to be killed for what he had already done. Tanacharison needed a war between Britain and France.
Washington and Tanacharison exchanged several letters about the progress of the new fort the French were building. Named after the most recent governor of New France, Fort Duquesne was a proper star fort in the latest style and nearly impregnable against any small force if properly garrisoned. By the end of May, Dinwiddie promoted Washington again, this time to Lieutenant Colonel, and reinforced him with more Virginians and a company of South Carolina militia. On 24 May, 1754, Washington received a letter from Tanacharison that the French were on their way to defeat him and that he needed to strike first. Washington dispatched two groups, one under Gist and another under a Captain Hog to protect trading nearby trading posts and ambush any French attempts to torch them. On 27 May, Tanacharison gave Washington the location of a French camp of about 40 men, and that he should meet him there so they could both attack at the same time. Washington, who assumed hostilities between the French and British empires had already commenced with the loss of Fort Saint George the month before, agreed and decided to attack.
To the French this was not the case. The capture of the forks of the Ohio was bloodless affair and therefore not the opening salvo of a war. The camp described by Tanacharison was that of Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville accompanied by 40 French marines and Canadian militia. Jumonville was enroute to Washington, not to attack him, but demand his withdrawal from French territory, an identical mission to the one Washington made to Venango. Tanacharison almost certainly knew this, but did not pass this information to Washington.
That day, Washington took 40 men of Wagoner’s Company to meet Tanacharison outside the French camp. He was surprised to find Tanacharison had just twelve Mingo warriors with him, two of whom were little more than boys. Nevertheless, the young Washington was committed as he didn’t want to lose face in front of the much older and wiser half-king. They surrounded the glen where Jumonville had his camp and attacked at dawn.
The Battle of Jumonville’s Glen lasted less than 15 minutes. Washington and Tanacharison’s men fired two volleys into the exposed French, which prompted a wounded Jumonville to surrender. As the prisoners were sorted, Tanacharison found Jumonville, and in front of Washington, their men and the prisoners, planted his tomahawk in Jumonville’s skull, killing him. He then scalped him.
Tanacharison got his war.
The loss of Trent’s Fort, or Fort Saint George as it was known to the Ohio Company, was arguably the first act of war between Britain and France that would eventually grow into the Seven Years War or the French and Indian War as it was known in North America. What cannot be argued was that the murder of Jumonville by Tanacharison was the act that led to French to seek revenge, and eventually Washington’s defeat and surrender at Fort Necessity in July. The two battles convinced the prime minister of Great Britain, the Duke of Newcastle, to dispatch and expeditionary force led by General Edward Braddock, to North American to dislodge the French. Braddock’s defeat and the French alliance with Austria caused the war to expand to Europe. Frederick the Great’s Prussia launched a preemptive war against the Austrians, which cemented a British-Prussian alliance. The Seven Year’s War raged around the globe until 1763 and caused permanent split in Indian-American relations from which “they shall never come to peace again”.
Tanacharison didn’t live long enough to see his dream of an independent Ohio Indian nation, or even the rest of the war. He was scornful of Washington’s Fort Necessity at Great Meadows and took his men and departed before the French surrounded them. Cut off from his people in the Ohio Country, Tanacharison sought refuge with the ardently pro-British Seneca Queen Aliquippa, who had also broken with the Iroquois. However, he took ill late that summer with pneumonia. Aliquippa took him to the farm of the Susquehanna ferryman John Harris (present day Paxtang, PA, just outside Harrisburg) where he died on 4 October 1754.
The murder of Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville by Mingo half-king Tanacharison while under George Washington’s care was one of the seminal moments in Atlantic history, everything that happened before it led up to it and everything that happened after it was caused by it.
After the Ottoman threat to the Hapsburg Holy Roman Empire diminished in the late 1680s, the Holy League turned its attention to Louis XIV’s France, who seized territory at the expense of the Christian nations of Europe fighting the Turks. They wanted to curb and roll back France’s expansion into the Low Countries and territories beyond the east bank of the Rhine, and solidify William of Orange’s victory in the Glorious Revolution to prevent Louis XIV from restoring James II to England’s thrown. To this end they formed the League of Augsburg, better known as the “Grand Alliance” in 1688 of the Holy Roman Empire, England, Scotland, the Dutch Republic, Sweden, and eventually Spain and the Italian state of Savoy. The War of the League of Augsburg, better known in North America as “King William’s War”, was fought over the next nine years and involved fighting on five continents and on the seas in between
Though Louis XIV’s massively expanded army won magnificent sieges and glorious battles, his marshals failed to reap any decisive reward. (Tis the problem with offensive operations by a force operating with interior lines of communication. See the Army of the Potomac after Gettysburg, spoiler: Lee escaped.) The Dauphin’s operations in Swabia in the spring of 1693 sputtered, and Louis’ advisors convinced the king to support newly promoted Marshal Catinat across the Alps in Italy. Catinat was then organizing an army to relieve the operationally vital city of Pinerolo in the Piedmont then invested by Duke Victor Amadeus II of Savoy, who was himself reinforced by Imperial troops. Louis agreed and sent his elite Gendarme galloping south.
On the morning of 4 October 1693, the Duke of Savoy lined up his polyglot army against the French relief force outside the village of Marsaglia. Savoy’s pan-European army included Milanese cavalry and Hungarian hussars (the first hussars in Western Europe, and soon adopted by all nations), Bavarian and German infantry, Savoyard, Spanish, Lombard and Neapolitan troops, Waldensian and Huguenot refugees, and Swiss, English and Flemish mercenaries. However, the language difficulties and uneven quality of Savoy’s troops allowed Catinat the time to organize his army so it could target specific points in Savoy’s line. Prior to the battle, Catinat meticulously arranged his line so there was overmatch by professional French units against lesser Allied formations. That morning, Savoy assaulted the French line, and was handily repulsed by the new regimental efficiency of the reformed French army.
Soon thereafter, the French counterattack broke Savoy’s army.
On the left, the heavy cavalry of the Gendarme under the Duke de Vendôme in a legendary countercharge scattered the Allies to their front in the midst of their own charge and then, without breaking stride, fell upon the Allied center in the flank. In the center, the Irish Brigade, consisting of Irish soldiers under French command by treaty (for an equal number of French soldiers fighting the English in Ireland), smashed through the Allied line. Concurrently, the entire French line surged forward in the first massed bayonet charge with socketed bayonets in history. Savoy’s army was destroyed in detail.
Duke Victor Amadeus II of Savoy lost 11,000 men compared to less than two thousand under Marshal Catinat. The Battle of Marsaglia was the single most lopsided victory of the War of the League of Augsburg and salvaged French martial prestige after a year of disappointment for Louis XIV. However, like most battles of the war, the French were unable to capitalize on the victory. The siege of Pinerolo was lifted, but since the battle happened so late in the fighting season, Catinat had to withdraw back across the Alps to winter in France. The Battle of Marsaglia did induce the young 29 year old Eugene of Savoy to seek reform of the Imperial armies, and he would become the Holy Roman Emperor’s greatest leader of men in the early 18th century.
However in 1693, the Battle of Marsaglia changed little – The War of the League of Augsburg/the Nine Years’ War/the War of the Grand Alliance/King William’s War dragged on inconclusively for another four years.
Under the pretext of assisting Protestant Hungarian rebels against the Catholic Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire sent a massive army of over 200,000 to seize the southern gateway to Central Europe, the Austrian capital of Vienna. As in the Siege of Vienna in 1529, Emperor Leopold I assumed that the Ottomans needed to seize the fortresses in Hungary along the Danube in order to float their heavy artillery down the river to successfully besiege the city. He fortified and reinforced Vaag, Raab and Commore downstream from Vienna, only to have the Ottoman army under Grand Vizier Kara Mustapha Pasha surprisingly move overland from Belgrade and strike directly at the heart of Christian resistance to Ottoman expansion in Europe, Vienna. “The head of the snake”, in Kara Mustapha’s words.
In the late 17th century the Ottoman Empire was both simultaneously the splendid and all-powerful Caliphate of Islam, and showing the first signs of becoming the “Sick Man of Europe” as the Ottoman Empire was known later in the 19th century. In the late 17th century Ottoman society stagnated and further conquests had been checked and rolled back in the Northeast and East by an aggressive Imperial Russian Tsardom, in the Middle East by the Safavid Persians, in the Indian Ocean by Portuguese sailors, and in the Mediterranean by the galleys of Spain, Italy, and the Maltese Knights. Only in Transylvania, Hungary and the Ukraine had the viziers of the sultan had any success conquering territory in the name of Islam.
Kara Mustapha was the latest of a long line of the aggressive and competent Albanian Köprülü viziers, and he was by far the most ambitious. He recognized that the Ottoman Empire must expand or its internal governmental and organizational fallacies would bring the Empire down. He saw himself as the future ruler of the heartland of Europe in the name of the sultan. He boasted that he “would water his horses in St. Peter’s Square” and “turn the Basilica into a mosque”. Sultan Mehmed IV, who was enjoying the fruits of being the most powerful man in Islam (his personal hunting grounds were larger than modern day Bulgaria and his personal harem was in the tens of thousands) gave a green silk cord tied as a noose to Kara Mustapha: seize Vienna or strangle yourself. Kara Mustapha wore it around his neck, day and night.
By advancing overland, Mustapha gambled that he could take Vienna before reinforcements from the Empire’s Circles (Circles were an administrative unit of the Holy Roman Empire e.g. Franconian Circle, Bavarian Circle etc.) or a relief force from Poland arrived. Although the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was normally a staunch ally of the Holy Roman Empire’s arch rival, France, the Commonwealth’s elected King Jan III Sobieski signed the Treaty of Warsaw that spring and vowed to come to Vienna’s aid if the Turk’s besieged it, as Leopold was if the same befell Krakow. But Krakow was a long way from Vienna and it took time to assemble a large enough army to do battle with Mustapha and relieve the city. Kara Mustapha’s surprise overland move on Vienna would have been successful had it not been for three men: Prince Hieronim Lubomirski, Count Ernst von Starhemberg, and the Capuchin friar Marco d’Aviano.
When Mustapha’s Tartar foraging parties were spotted just two day’s ride from Vienna in early July, Emperor Leopold I hastily departed for Linz, entrusting the defense of city to Starhemberg, the military governor of Vienna, and Leopold’s spiritual advisor Marco d’Aviano. Although Vienna was unprepared for a siege, Starhemberg leveled Vienna’s vulnerable suburbs, quickly evacuated most of citizenry, tallied and secured the arms and stores, and tirelessly established the defense and organized the remaining civilians into a militia. The Imperial commander, Charles V Duke of Lorraine gave Starhemberg 1/3 of the Imperial army, about 12,000 men, to defend the walls and man Vienna’s 380 cannon, before he withdrew further into Austria with the remainder to await and gather further reinforcements. The first reinforcements were 3000 Poles under Lubomirski who immediately forced marched from Poland upon news of Mustapha departing Belgrade, and arrived in Vienna just before the Turks invested the town on 15 July 1683.
Mustapha sent the traditional offer of submission to Islam to spare Vienna, but Starhemberg refused, and would have even if he wasn’t just recently informed of the slaughter at Perchtoldsdorf, a town just south of Vienna which had accepted Mustapha’s offer, whose inhabitants were massacred anyway. The Turks then tried to bombard Vienna into submission, but without their heavy artillery, was outgunned by the numerous cannon protruding from Vienna’s Walls. Mustapha settled into a siege, and on the advice of his French mercenary engineers and artillerists, ordered his men to dig trenches and his sappers to dig mines. He aimed to break the walls of Vienna from below, the defenders with constant assault, and the will of the population with isolation and propoganda.
Marco d’Aviano was the rock upon which the morale of Vienna sat. Under his leadership, he and the Catholic priests of Vienna gave twice daily sermons to the troops and civilians in the city extolling the virtues of continued resistance. They were the front line in the war against treachery from within and broke up at least one plot to secretly open a small gate to a force of elite Turkish Janissaries. D’Aviano and Starhemberg took Turkish propaganda head on and read aloud leaflets proclaiming promises from Mustapha if the city was surrendered. They had only to point at Perchtoldsdorf and the other broken promises of the Ottoman Empire.
Most able bodied citizens were formed into a militia which Starhemberg skillfully intermixed with his Imperial professionals. Every day and night he visited the sentries on the walls. When Mustapha’s trenches crept closer and the countermining failed to prevent the Turks from breaching the walls, the tireless Starhemberg was there to plug the gap or oversee the repairs. One furious assault in early September was thrown back only because of a desperate countercharge by Starhemberg at the head of a company of shoemaker apprentices. Usually, at his side was the stalwart Lubomirski, whose Poles formed the shock troops that sealed the breaches from the inside. His men were used to the deprivations of a city under siege and provided a stoic example for the citizens of Vienna to emulate. More importantly, Lubomirski and his Poles represented a concrete manifestation of King Sobieski’s promise to come to the city’s aid. No matter how cunning and steadfast the defense of the city, Vienna would eventually fall without assistance from the outside.
In the beginning of September, King Sobieski arrived with his army at Hollabrunn, Austria, where he took command of the 24,000 strong Imperial army under the Duke of Lorraine and 28,000 Germans from Swabia, Bavaria, Saxony and Franconia under Georg Frederich, the Prince of Waldeck to form a united coalition to relieve Vienna. Though the Duke of Lorraine, as the senior representative of Emperor Leopold and the host nation, was entitled to the command (He also narrowly lost the election to the Polish throne to Sobieski years before), and Price Waldeck brought the most troops, both agreed that Sobieski was the most qualified to defeat the Turks. The Turks referred to Sobieski as “The Lion of Lechistan” for his victory at the Battle of Chocim and had defeated all comers, Islam and Christian, for the past decade and a half. Just twenty years before, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was subsumed by its enemies in a period known as “The Deluge”, when the armies of Sweden, Brandenburg, Austria, Transylvania, Ottomans, Cossacks, Tartars, and Russians completely overran the country. Sobieski was instrumental in the Commonwealth clawing back from that catastrophe. In the late summer of 1683, King Jan III Sobieski was at the head of a coalition army trying to save Christendom from the advances of the Islamic Caliphate.
On 6 September 1683, the army inexplicably crossed the Danube with no resistance at Tulin just 30km from Vienna, even though Mustapha’s Tartar light cavalry under his greatest cavalry commander, Khan Murad Giray of Crimea, observed their every movement. Any delay at this point would have been fatal. Just two days later, Mustapha’s sappers breached the wall and his Janissaries occupied the Burg bastion and the Burg ravelin, and were poised to break through the Löbel bastion. The final tunnels under the Löbel bastion were nearing completion; their detonation would doom Vienna. No matter how valiant the defense by Starhemberg and Lubomirski, the loss of two bastions would allow Mustapha to overwhelm the exhausted and beleaguered garrison. However, a Ruthenian noble under Lubomirski, Jerzy Kulczycki, volunteered to sneak through the Turkish lines to contact Lorraine and returned with news of Sobieski’s imminent arrival, which redoubled Starhemberg’s countermining efforts.
Mustapha gambled again that his sappers could blow the Löbel bastion and take Vienna before the coalition army could relieve the siege. It was a good bet. Sobieski still had to make the approach, and then traverse the ravine and stream crossed Wienerwald (Vienna Wood) before he could attack. Moreover, as Sobieski was granted the position of honor in the line, the right, the Polish army had to climb the Kahlenburg, a steep, rocky hill that Mustapha assumed was impassable to cavalry and cannon.
On the 9th and 10th of September, Polish peasants and soldiers dragged their 131 cannon over the Kahlenburg not wanting to waste the horses on such an arduous task. Two ropes were tied to each gun with 20-30 men pulling on each while an equal number pushed the spokes of each wheel. It was painful and backbreaking work which even the nobles, including the King, participated in. On the afternoon of 11 September, the Polish army lit fires and shot flares into the air to alert the garrison of Vienna that salvation was near. That evening, Sobieski and his Poles came down the Kahlenburg, again without harassment from the Tartars.
Murad was held back by Mustapha, who was preoccupied with the sappers’ progress and refused to believe the Tartar reports. The Khan, offended by his treatment, took his men and rode home, on the eve of the battle.
At 4 am on 12 September, 1683, the Polish cannon with their commanding position on the Kahlenburg fired into the Turkish camp signaling the beginning of the Battle of Vienna. On the left of the coalition line, Lorraine’s Imperial troops were the first to engage, followed quickly by Waldeck in the center. The Poles, reorganizing after the trip over the Kahlenburg, engaged soon thereafter. The battle was a slow process as the ground was cut by vineyards and low walls, each of which was stoutly defended by the Turks. However, Mustapha held back his best troops, the Sipahi’s and Janissaries, from the battle in anticipation of the imminent breach of Vienna’s walls.
The coalition pounded forward. Nevertheless, the Turk’s still outnumbered the attacking Christians. The battle continued all morning and all afternoon. Sobieski counseled his commanders that the objective of the day was to establish an advantageous position from which to begin the next day’s battle. He informed them that no battle of this magnitude could possibly be won in a single day. The broken terrain they were fighting over must be cleared before Sobieski’s trump card, the famed Polish Winged Hussars, could be unleashed to break the Turks.
All afternoon Lorraine and Waldeck begged Sobieski to charge as the Turks begrudgingly relinquished yard by painful yard. Sobieski wouldn’t relent: a premature charge would waste the striking power of the Hussars, who so far had never lost a battle. In a land that prided itself on its cavalry, the Husaria were a cut above. Only the richest and most competent of horsemen could afford and handle the accouterments of the Husaria. Armoured in a thick Sarmatian breastplate and a Germano/Roman helmet on the heaviest warhorse in Europe, the Polish Hussars were dedicated to the shock value of the charge. Heavily armed with an 18ft lance, a longsword like the knights of old, a sabre like any good Polish nobleman, a battle axe or Cossack warhammer for the melee, and a carbine and a brace of pistols like their contemporaneous French musketeers, the Husaria were meant for one thing and one thing only – to break an army with their charge.
The Husaria’s most distinctive feature was not their armour or weaponry, but their panoply. On his back, the well-to-do Husaria could afford a bear, lion, tiger, or even an exotic leopard or jaguar skin. This exotic cape fluttered between wooden poles on which flew hawk, eagle, falcon, and even ostrich feathers: The “wings” of the Polish Hussars. The purpose of the Husaria’s wings are a subject of much scholarly debate. Originally it was thought that the whistling of the wings unnerved enemy troops and horses. Also, the wooden uprights to which the feathers were attached were thought to prevent Turkish lassos from pulling riders from their saddles. More recent scholarship has accepted that that they just looked bad ass and scared the living shit out of those they were about to break. Whatever the reason, when the Polish Husaria charged, the enemy that survived took notice and usually fled – that is a historical fact.
The German, Imperial, and Polish infantry and cavalry pounded the Turkish lines, but still Sobieski would not release his hussars, much to the dismay of those who had fought face to face with the determined Turkish defense for almost twelve straight hours. At 4 pm, just an hour or so before the sun set which would bring an end to the fighting, the first breakthroughs occurred. Both Waldeck and then Lorraine reported that the walls and vineyards were cleared, followed closely by Sobieski’s own Poles. However, was there enough daylight to finish the battle before Mustapha’s sappers blew the mines under the Löbel bastion?
Sobieski, observing the disorganization in the Turkish lines and camp before him, gambled that there was. He ordered the Polish Hussars to charge, and every Pole, Austrian, and German with a horse to follow.
At 4:30 pm, 12 September 1683, 3000 Polish Winged Hussars, followed by 20,000 Polish Panzerini and Kozacy, Austrian and German Ritters, and any coalition fighter with a horse, charged the Turkish lines. The battle was in doubt for but minutes. The largest cavalry charge in history passed through the Turkish lines, then the Turkish camp, and didn’t stop until it was at the Gates of Vienna, five miles away. Upon seeing the effects of the charge, Starhemberg and Lubomirski sortied with the entire garrison and struck the elite Turkish Janissaries and Sipahis as they formed to stop the Husaria. The starving civilians of Vienna followed closely behind, fell upon the Turkish camp, especially the herds of cow and buffalo which they butchered on the spot, and ate their fill.
For but a brief moment, all of Christendom was united in celebration of the victory over the Ottoman Turks at the Gates of Vienna. King Jan III Sobieski was accompanied by Starhemberg and Lubomirski around the city to the rousing crowds of jubilant Viennese. The Viennese bakers created a fluffy crescent shaped pastry in honor of the victory over Islam which we know today as the “croissant.” And for the hardier folk, the Jewish bakers boiled some dough in a circle in honor of the stirrups of the Polish cavalry. Today, we call them “bagels”. Kulczycki would eventually go on to open Vienna’s first cappuccino café after the battle with 200 sacks of coffee beans captured from the Turkish camp. With the all the magnificent plunder about, no one wanted the beans but Kulczycki. Vienna had coffee cafés previously, but Kulczycki’s was the first to serve the bitter liquid with sweetened steamed milk. He opened the “Blue Bottle Coffee House” and it was an immediate hit. (The café is still there, and yes, I’ve been there.) Word of the victory sparked wild celebration in Rome, Krakow, Hamburg and Frankfurt, and even London and Paris. But it was not to last.
Lorraine quickly sent word to Emperor Leopold that he needed to return promptly so that Sobieski wasn’t recognized as the savior of Vienna. German and Austrian contemporary accounts and later German historians would roll Lubomirski’s exploits into Starhemberg’s, and excise him completely from the historic record. Leopold was offended at Sobieski’s triumphal parade through Vienna and forbade any monument dedicated to him in the city. Waldeck was relegated to a Hapsburg puppet, instead of the leader of a large contingent of fiercely independent Germans who took on the brunt of Kara Mustapha’s defense and allowed the Polish cavalry to seize the day.
The Christian participants went on to form the Holy League against the Turks and reconquered Hungary, Transylvania, and parts of Serbia from the Ottomans. The battle signaled the Ottoman Empire’s irrevocable decline and they would never again threaten Europe.
Kara Mustapha Pasha, the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, did not escape his green cord – the Sultan’s assassins strangled him in Belgrade on Christmas Day, 1683.