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Jacob Abbott

The Battle of Narva

T HE reader will perhaps recollect how desirous Peter had long been to extend his dominions toward the west, so as to have a seaport under his control on the Baltic Sea; for at the time when he succeeded to the throne, the eastern shores of the Baltic belonged to Poland and to Sweden, so that the Russians were confined, in a great measure, in their naval operations to the waters of the Black and Caspian Seas, and to the rivers flowing into them. You will also recollect that when, at the commencement of his tour, he arrived at the town of Riga, which stands at the head of the Gulf of Riga, a sort of branch of the Baltic, he had been much offended at the refusal of the governor of the place, acting under the orders of the King of Sweden, to allow him to view the fortifications there. He then resolved that Riga, and the whole province of which it was the capital, should one day be his. The year after he returned from his travels—that is, in 1699, he country being by that time restored to its ordinary state of repose after the suppression of the rebellion—he concluded that the time had arrived for carrying his resolution into effect.

So he set a train of negotiations on foot for making a long truce with the Turks, not wishing to have two wars on his hands at the same time. When he had accomplished this object, he formed a league with the kingdoms of Poland and Denmark to make war upon Sweden. So exactly were all his plans laid, that the war with Sweden was declared on the very next day after the truce of the Turks was concluded.

The King of Sweden at this time was Charles XII. He was a mere boy, being only at that time eighteen years of age, and he had just succeeded to the throne. He was, however, a prince of remarkable talents and energy, and in his subsequent campaigns against Peter and his allies he distinguished himself so much that he acquired great renown, and finally took his place among the most illustrious military heroes in history.

The first operation of the war was the siege of the city of Narva. Narva was a port on the Baltic; the situation of it, as well as that of the other places mentioned in this chapter, is seen by the adjoining map, which shows the general features of the Russian and Swedish frontier as it existed at that time.


Map of the Russian and Swedish Frontier.

Narva, as appears by the map, is situated on the sea-coast, near the frontier—much nearer than Riga. Peter expected that by the conquest of this city he should gain access to the sea, and so be able to build ships which would aid him in his ulterior operations. He also calculated that when Narva was in his hands the way would be open for him to advance on Riga. Indeed, at the same time while he was commencing the siege of Narva, his ally, the King of Poland, advanced from his own dominions to Riga, and was now prepared to attack that city at the same time that the Czar was besieging Narva.

In the mean while the news of these movements was sent by couriers to the King of Sweden, and the conduct of Peter in thus suddenly making war upon him, and invading his dominions, made him exceedingly indignant. The only cause of quarrel which Peter pretended to have against the king was the uncivil treatment which he had received at the hands of the Governor of Riga in refusing to allow him to see the fortifications when he passed through that city on his tour. Peter had, it is true, complained of this insult, as he called it, and had sent commissioners to Sweden to demand satisfaction; and certain explanations had been made, though Peter professed not to be satisfied with them. Still, the negotiations had not been closed, and the government of Sweden had no idea that the misunderstanding would lead to war. Indeed, the commissioners were still at the Swedish court, continuing the negotiations, when the news arrived that Peter had at once brought the question to an issue by declaring war and invading the Swedish territory. The king immediately collected a large army, and provided a fleet of two hundred transports to convey them to the scene of action. The preparations were made with great dispatch, and the fleet sailed for Riga.

The news, too, of this war occasioned great dissatisfaction among the governments of western Europe. The government of Holland was particularly displeased, on account of the interference and interruption which the war would occasion to all their commerce in the Baltic. They immediately determined to remonstrate with the Czar against the course which he was pursuing, and they induced King William, of England, to join them in the remonstrance. They also, at the same time, sent a messenger to the King of Poland, urging him by all means to suspend his threatened attack on Riga until some measures could be taken for accommodating the quarrel. Riga was a very important commercial port, and there were a great many wealthy Dutch merchants there, whose interests the Dutch government were very anxions to protect.

The King of Sweden arrived at Riga with his fleet at just about the same time that the remonstrance of the Dutch government reached the King of Poland, who was advancing to attack it. Augustus, for that was the name of the King of Poland, finding that now, since so great a force had arrived to succor and strengthen the place, there was no hope for success in any of his operations against it, concluded to make a virtue of necessity, and so he drew off his army, and sent word to the Dutch government that he did so in compliance with their wishes.

The King of Sweden had, of course, nothing now to do but to advance from Riga to Narva and attack the army of the Czar.

This army was not, however, commanded by the Czar in person. In accordance with what seems to have been his favorite plan in all his great undertakings, he did not act directly himself as the head of the expedition, but, putting forward another man, an experienced and skillful general, as responsible commander, he himself took a subordinate position as lieutenant. Indeed, he took a pride in entering the army at one of the very lowest grades, and so advancing, by a regular series of promotions, through all the ranks of the service. The person whom the Czar had made commander-in-chief at the siege of Narva was a German officer. His name was General Croy.

General Croy had been many weeks before Narva at the time when the King of Sweden arrived at Riga, but he had made little progress in taking the town. The place was strongly fortified, and the garrison, though comparatively weak, defended it with great bravery. The Russian army was encamped in a very strong position just outside the town. As soon as news of the coming of the King of Sweden arrived, the Czar went off into the interior of the country to hasten a large re-enforcement which had been ordered, and, at the same time, General Croy sent forward large bodies of men to lay in ambuscade along the roads and defiles through which the King of Sweden would have to pass on his way from Riga.

But all these excellent arrangements were entirely defeated by the impetuous energy, and the extraordinary tact and skill of the King of Sweden. Although his army was very much smaller than that of the Russians, he immediately set out on his march to Narva; but, instead of moving along the regular roads, and so falling into the ambuscade which the Russians had laid for him, he turned of into back and circuitous by-ways, so as to avoid the snare altogether. It was in the dead of winter, and the roads which he followed, besides being rough and intricate, were obstructed with snow, and the Russians had thought little of them, so that at last, when the Swedish army arrived at their advanced posts, they were taken entirely by surprise. The advanced posts were driven in, and the Swedes pressed on, the Russians flying before them, and carrying confusion to the posts in the rear. The surprise of the Russians, and the confusion consequent upon it, were greatly increased by the state of the weather; for there was a violent snow-storm at the time, and the snow, blowing into the Russians' faces, prevented their seeing what the numbers were of the enemy so suddenly assaulting them, or taking any effectual measures to restore their own ranks to order when once deranged.

When at length the Swedes, having thus driven in the advanced posts, reached the Russian camp itself, they immediately made an assault upon it. The camp was defended by a rampart and by a double ditch, but on went the assaulting soldiers over all the obstacles, pushing their way with their bayonets, and carrying all before them. The Russians were entirely defeated and put to flight.

In a rout like this, the conquering army, maddened by rage and by all the other dreadful excitements of the contest, press on furiously upon their flying and falling foes, and destroy them with their bayonets in immense numbers before the officers can arrest them. Indeed, the officers do not wish to arrest them until it is sure that the enemy is so completely overwhelmed that their rallying again is utterly impossible. In this case twenty thousand of the Russian soldiers were left dead upon the field. The Swedes, on the other hand, lost only two or three thousand.

Besides those who were killed, immense numbers were taken prisoners. General Croy, and all the other principal generals in command, were among the prisoners. It is very probable that, if Peter had not been absent at the time, he would himself have been taken too.

The number of prisoners was so very great that it was not possible for the Swedes to retain them, on account of the expense and trouble of feeding them, and keeping them warm at that season of the year; so they determined to detain the officers only, and to send the men away. In doing this, besides disarming the men, they adopted a very whimsical expedient for making them helpless and incapable of doing mischief on their march. They cut their clothes in such a manner that they could only be prevented from falling off by being held together by both hands; and the weather was so cold—the ground, moreover, being covered with snow—that the men could only save themselves from perishing by keeping their clothes around them.

In this pitiful plight the whole body of prisoners were driven off, like a flock of sheep, by a small body of Swedish soldiery, for a distance of about a league on the road toward Russia, and then left to find the rest of the way themselves.

The Czar, when he heard the news of this terrible disaster, did not seem much disconcerted by it. He said that he expected to be beaten at first by the Swedes. "They have beaten us once," said he, "and they may beat us again; but they will teach us in time to beat them."

He immediately began to adopt the most efficient and energetic measures for organizing a new army. He set about raising recruits in all parts of the empire. He introduced many new foreign officers into his service; and to provide artillery, after exhausting all the other resources at his command, he ordered the great bells of many churches and monasteries to be taken down and cast into cannon.