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Jacob Abbott

The Battle of Pultowa

I N the mean time, while these transactions had been taking place among the Russians, the King of Sweden had been gradually making his way toward the westward and southward, into the very heart of the Russian dominions. The forces of the emperor, which were not strong enough to offer him battle, had been gradually retiring before him; but they had devastated and destroyed every thing on their way, in their retreat, so as to leave nothing for the support of the Swedish army. They broke up all the bridges too, and obstructed the roads by every means in their power, so as to impede the progress of the Swedes as much as possible, since they could not wholly arrest it.

The Swedes, however, pressed slowly onward. They sent off to great distances to procure forage for the horses and food for the men. When they found the bridges down, they made detours and crossed the rivers at fording-places. When the reads were obstructed, they removed the impediments if they could, and if not, they opened new roads.

Sometimes, in these cases, their way led them across swampy places where no solid footing could be found, and then the men would cut down an immense quantity of bushes and trees growing in the neighborhood, and make up the branches into bundles called fascines. They would lay these bundles close together on the surface of the swamp, and then level them off on the top by loose branches, and so make a road firm enough for the army to march over.

Things went on in this way, until, at last, the farther progress of King Charles was arrested, and the tide of fortune was turned wholly against him by a great battle which was fought at a place called Pultowa. This battle, which, after so protracted a struggle, at length suddenly terminated the contest between the king and the Czar, of course attracted universal attention at the time, for Charles and Peter were the greatest potentates and warriors of their age, and the struggle for power which had so long been waged between them had been watched with great interest, through all the stages of it, by the whole civilized world. The battle of Pultowa was, in a word, one of those great final conflicts by which, after a long struggle, the fate of an empire is decided. It, of course, greatly attracted the attention of mankind, and has since taken its place among the most renowned combats of history.

Pultowa is a town situated in the heart of the Russian territories three or four hundred miles north of the Black Sea. It stands on a small river which flows to the southward and westward into the Dnieper. It was at that time an important military station, as it contained great arsenals where large stores of food and of ammunition were laid up for the use of Peter's army. The King of Sweden determined to take this town. His principal object in desiring to get possession of it was to supply the wants of his army by the provisions that were stored there. The place was strongly fortified, and it was defended by a garrison; but the king thought that he should be able to take it, and he accordingly advanced to the walls, invested the place closely on every side, and commenced the siege.

The name of the general in command of the largest body of Russian forces near the spot was Menzikoff, and as soon as the King of Sweden had invested the place, Menzikoff began to advance toward it in order to relieve it. Then followed a long series of manœuvres and partial combats between the two armies, the Swedes being occupied with the double duty of attacking the town, and also of defending themselves from Menzikoff; while Menzikoff, on the other hand, was intent, first on harassing the Swedes and impeding as much as possible their siege operations, and, secondly, on throwing succors into the town.

In this contest Menzikoff was, on the whole, most successful. He contrived one night to pass a detachment of his troops through the gates of Pultowa into the town to strengthen the garrison. This irritated the King of Sweden, and made him more determined and reckless than ever to press the siege. Under this excitement he advanced so near the walls one day, in a desperate effort to take possession of an advanced part of the works, that he exposed himself to a shot from the ramparts, and was badly wounded in the heel.

This wound nearly disabled him. He was obliged by it to confine himself to his tent, and to content himself with giving orders from his couch or litter, where he lay helpless and in great pain, and in a state of extreme mental disquietude. His anxiety was greatly increased in a few days in consequence of intelligence which was brought into his camp by the scouts, that Peter himself was advancing to the relief of Pultowa at the head of a very large army. Indeed, the tidings were that this great force was close at hand. The king found that he was in danger of being surrounded. Nor could he well hope to escape the danger by a retreat, for the broad and deep river Dnieper, which he had crossed to come to the siege of Pultowa, was behind him, and if the Russians were to fall upon him while attempting to cross it, he knew very well that his whole army would be cut to pieces.

He lay restless on his litter in his tent, his thoughts divided between the anguish of the wound in his heel and the mental anxiety and distress produced by the situation that he was in. He spent the night in great perplexity and suffering. At length, toward morning, he came to the desperate resolution of attacking the Russians in their camp, inferior as his own numbers were now to theirs.

He accordingly sent a messenger to the field-marshal, who was chief officer in command under himself, summoning him to his tent. The field-marshal was aroused from his sleep, for it was not yet day, and immediately repaired to the king's tent. The king was lying on his couch, quieted calm, and, with an air of great serenity and composure, he gave the marshal orders to beat to arms and march out to attack the Czar in his intrenchments as soon as daylight should appear.

The field-marshal was astonished at this order, for he knew that the Russians were now far superior in numbers to the Swedes, and he supposed that the only hope of the king would be to defend himself where he was in his camp, or else to attempt a retreat. He, however, knew that there was nothing to be done but to obey his orders. So he received the instructions which the king gave him, said that he would carry them into execution, and then retired. The king then at length fell into a troubled sleep, and slept until the break of day.

By this time the whole camp was in motion. The Russians, too, who in their intrenchments had received the alarm, had aroused themselves and were preparing for battle. The Czar himself was not the commander. He had prided himself, as the reader will recollect, in entering the army at the lowest point, and in advancing regularly, step by step, through all the grades, as any other officer would have done. He had now attained the rank of major general; and though, as Czar, he gave orders through his ministers to the commander-in-chief of the armies directing them in general what to do, still personally, in camp and in the field of battle, he received orders from his military superior there; and he took a pride and pleasure in the subordination to his superior's authority which the rules of the service required of him.

He, however, as it seems, did not always entirely lay aside his imperial character while in camp, for in this instance, while the men were formed in array, and before the battle commenced, he rode to and fro along their lines, encouraging the men, and promising, as their sovereign, to bestow rewards upon them in proportion to the valor which they should severally display in the coming combat.

The King of Sweden, too, was raised from his couch, placed upon a litter, and in this manner carried along the lines of his own army just before the battle was to begin. He told the men that they were about to attack an enemy more numerous than themselves, but that they must remember that at Narva eight thousand Swedes had overcome a hundred thousand Russians in their own intrenchments, and what they had done once, he said, they could do again.

The battle was commenced very early in the morning. It was complicated at the beginning with many marches, countermarches, and manœuvres, in which the several divisions of both the Russian and Swedish armies, and the garrison of Pultowa, all took part. In some places and at some times the victory was on one side, and at others on the other. King Charles was carried in his litter into the thickest of the battle, where, after a time, he became so excited by the contest that he insisted on being put upon a horse. The attendants accordingly brought a horse and placed him carefully upon it; but the pain of his wound brought on faintness, and he was obliged to be put back in his litter again. Soon after this a cannon ball struck the litter and dashed it to pieces. The king was thrown out upon the ground. Those who saw him fall supposed that he was killed, and they were struck with consternation. They had been almost overpowered by their enemies before, but they were now wholly disheartened and discouraged, and they began to give way and fly in all directions.

The king had, however, not been touched by the ball which struck the litter. He was at once raised from the ground by the officers around him, and borne away out of the immediate danger. He remonstrated earnestly against being taken away, and insisted upon making an effort to rally his men; but the officers soon persuaded him that for the present, at least, all was lost, and that the only hope for him was to make his escape as soon as possible across the river, and thence over the frontier into Turkey, where he would be safe from pursuit, and could then consider what it would be best to do.

The king at length reluctantly yielded to these persuasions, and was borne away.

In the mean time, the Czar himself had been exposed to great danger in the battle, and, like the King of Sweden, had met with some very narrow escapes. His hat was shot through with a bullet which half an inch lower would have gone through the emperor's head. General Menzikoff had three horses shot under him. But, notwithstanding these dangers, the Czar pressed on into the thickest of the fight, and was present at the head of his men when the Swedes were finally overwhelmed and driven from the field. Indeed, he was among the foremost who pursued them; and when he came to the place where the royal litter was lying, broken to pieces, on the ground, he expressed great concern for the fate of his enemy, and seemed to regret the calamity which had befallen him as if Charles had been his friend. He had always greatly admired the courage and the military skill which the King of Sweden had manifested in his campaigns, and was disposed to respect his misfortunes now that he had fallen. He supposed that he was unquestionably killed, and he gave orders to his men to search every where over the field for the body, and to guard it, when found, from any farther violence or injury, and take charge of it, that it might receive an honorable burial.

The body was, of course, not found, for the king was alive, and, with the exception of the wound in his heel, uninjured. He was borne off from the field by a few faithful adherents, who took him in their arms when the litter was broken up. As soon as they had conveyed him in this manner out of immediate danger, they hastily constructed another litter in order to bear him farther away. He was himself extremely unwilling to go. He was very earnest to make an effort to rally his men, and, if possible, save his army from total ruin. But he soon found that it was in vain to attempt this. His whole force had been thrown into utter confusion; and the broken battalions, flying in every direction, were pursued so hotly by the Russians, who, in their exultant fury, slaughtered all whom they could overtake, and drove the rest headlong on in a state of panic and dismay which was wholly uncontrollable.

Of course some escaped, but great numbers were taken prisoners. Many of the officers, separated from their men, wandered about in search of the king, being without any rallying point until they could find him. After suffering many cruel hardships and much exposure in the lurking-places where they attempted to conceal themselves, great numbers of them were hunted out by their enemies and made prisoners.

In the mean time, those who had the king under their charge urged his majesty to allow them to convey him with all speed out of the country. The nearest way of escape was to go westward to the Turkish frontier, which, as has already been said, was not far distant, though there were three rivers to cross on the way—the Dnieper, the Bog, and the Dniester. The king was very unwilling to listen to this advice. Peter had several times sent a flag of truce to him since he had entered into the Russian dominions, expressing a desire to make peace, and proposing very reasonable terms for Charles to accede to. To all these proposals Charles had returned the same answer as at first, which was, that he should not be ready to treat with the Czar until he arrived at Moscow. Charles now said that, before abandoning the country altogether, he would send a herald to the Russian camp to say that he was now willing to make peace on the terms which Peter had before proposed to him, if Peter was still willing to adhere to them.

Charles was led to hope that this proposal might perhaps be successful, from the fact that there was a portion of his army who had not been engaged at Pultowa that was still safe; and he had no doubt that a very considerable number of men would succeed in escaping from Pultowa and joining them. Indeed, the number was not small of those whom the king had now immediately around him, for all that escaped from the battle made every possible exertion to discover and rejoin the king, and so many straggling parties came that he soon had under his command a force of one or two thousand men. This was, of course, but a small remnant of his army. Still, he felt that he was not wholly destitute of means and resources for carrying on the struggle in case Peter should refuse to make peace.

So he sent a trumpeter to Peter's camp with the message; but Peter sent word back that his majesty's assent to the terms of peace which he had proposed to him came too late. The state of things had now, he said, entirely changed; and as Charles had ventured to penetrate into the Russian country without properly considering the consequences of his rashness, he must now think for himself how he was to get out of it. For his part, he added, he had got the birds in the net, and he should do all in his power to secure them.

After due consultation among the officers who were with the king, it was finally determined that it was useless to think for the present of any farther resistance, and the king, at last, reluctantly consented to be conveyed to the Turkish frontier. He was too ill from the effects of his wound to ride on horseback, and the distance was too great for him to be conveyed in a litter. So they prepared a carriage for him. It was a carriage which belonged to one of his generals, and which, by some means or other, had been saved in the flight of the army. The route which they were to take led across the country where there were scarcely any roads, and a team of twelve horses was harnessed to draw the carriage which conveyed the king.

No time was to be lost. The confused mass of officers and men who had escaped from the battle, and had succeeded in rejoining the king, were marshaled into something like a military organization, and the march, or rather the flight, commenced. The king's carriage, attended by such a guard as could be provided for it, went before; and was followed by the remnant of the army. Some of the men were on horseback, others were on foot, and others still, sick or wounded, were conveyed on little wagons of the country, which were drawn along in a very difficult and laborious manner.

This mournful train moved slowly on across the country, seeking, of course, the most retired and solitary ways to avoid pursuit, and yet harassed by the continual fear that the enemy might at any time come up with them. The men all suffered exceedingly from want of food, and from the various other hardships incident to their condition. Many became so worn out by fatigue and privation that they could not proceed, and were left by the road sides to fall into the hands of the enemy, or to perish of want and exhaustion; while those who still had strength enough remaining pressed despairingly onward, but little less to be pitied than those who were left behind.


Flight of the King of Sweden.

When at length the expedition drew near to the Turkish borders, the king sent forward a messenger to the pasha in command on the frontier, asking permission for himself and his men to pass through the Turkish territory on his way to his own dominions. He had every reason to suppose that the pasha would grant this request, for the Turks and Russians had long been enemies, and he knew very well that the sympathies of the Turks had been entirely on his side in this war.

Nor was he disappointed in his expectations. The pasha received the messenger very kindly, offered him food, and supplied all his wants. He said, moreover, that he would not only give the king leave to enter and pass through the Turkish territories, but he would give him efficient assistance in crossing the river which formed the frontier. This was, indeed, necessary, for a large detachment of the Russian army which had been sent in pursuit of the Swedes was now coming close upon them, and there was danger of their being overtaken and cut to pieces or taken prisoners before they should have time to cross the stream. The principal object which the Czar had in view in sending a detachment in pursuit of the fugitives was the hope of capturing the king himself. He spoke of this his design to the Swedish officers who were already his prisoners, saying to them jocosely, for he was in excellent humor with every body after the battle, "I have a great desire to see my brother the king, and to enjoy his society; so I have sent to bring him. You will see him here in a few days."

The force dispatched for this purpose had been gradually gaining upon the fugitives, and was now very near, and the pasha, on learning the facts, perceived that the exigency was very urgent. He accordingly sent off at once up and down the river to order all the boats that could be found to repair immediately to the spot where the King of Sweden wished to cross. A considerable number of boats were soon collected, and the passage was immediately commenced. The king and his guards were brought over safely, and also a large number of the officers and men. But the boats were, after all, so few that the operation proceeded slowly, and the Russians, who had been pressing on with all speed, arrived at the banks of the river in time to interrupt it before all the troops had passed, and thus about five hundred men fell into their hands. They were all made prisoners, and the king had the mortification of witnessing the spectacle of their capture from the opposite bank, which he had himself reached in safety.

The king was immediately afterward conveyed to Bender, a considerable town not far from the frontier, where, for the present, he was safe, and where he remained quiet for some weeks, in order that his wound might have opportunity to heal. Peter was obliged to content himself with postponing for a time the pleasure which he expected to derive from the enjoyment of his brother's society.

The portion of the Swedish army which remained in Russia was soon after this surrounded by so large a Russian force that the general in command was forced to capitulate, and all the troops were surrendered as prisoners of war. Thus, in all, a great number of prisoners, both of officers and men, fell into Peter's hands. The men were sent to various parts of the empire, and distributed among the people, in order that they might settle permanently in the country, and devote themselves to the trades or occupations to which they had been trained in their native land. The officers were treated with great kindness and consideration. Peter often invited them to his table, and conversed with them in a very free and friendly manner in respect to the usages and customs which prevailed in their own country, especially those which related to the military art. Still, they were deprived of their swords and kept close prisoners.

One day, when some of these officers were dining with Peter in his tent, and he had been for some time conversing with them about the organization and discipline of the Swedish army, and had expressed great admiration for the military talent and skill which they had displayed in the campaigns which they had fought, he at last poured out some wine and drank to the health of "his masters in the art of war." One of the officers who was present asked who they were that his majesty was pleased to honor with so great a title.

"It is yourselves, gentlemen," replied the Czar; "the Swedish generals. It is you who have been my best instructors in the art of war."

"Then," replied the officer, "is not your majesty a little ungrateful to treat the masters to whom you owe so much so severely?"

Peter was so much pleased with the readiness and wit of this reply, that he ordered the swords of the officers all to be restored to them. It is said that he even unbuckled his own sword from his side and presented it to one of the generals.

It ought, perhaps, to be added, however, that the habit of drinking to excess, which Peter seems to have formed early in life, had before this time become quite confirmed, and he often became completely intoxicated at his convivial entertainments, so that it is not improbable that the sudden generosity of the Czar on this occasion may have been due, in a considerable degree, to the excitement produced by the brandy which he had been drinking.

Although the swords of the officers were thus restored to them, they were themselves still held as prisoners until arrangements could be made for exchanging them. In order, however, that they might all be properly provided for, he distributed them around among his own generals, giving to each Russian officer the charge of a Swedish officer of his own rank, granting, of course, to each one a proper allowance for the maintenance and support of his charge. The Russian generals were severally responsible for the safe-keeping of their prisoners; but the surveillance in such cases is never strict, for it is customary for the prisoners to give their parole  of honor that they will not attempt to escape, and then they are allowed, within reasonable limits, their full personal liberty, so that they live more like the guests and companions of their keepers than as their captives.

The King of Sweden met with many remarkable adventures and encountered very serious difficulties before he reached his own kingdom, but it would be foreign to the subject of this history to relate them here. As to Mazeppa, he made his escape too, with the King of Sweden, across the frontier. The Czar offered a very large reward to whoever should bring him back, either dead or alive; but he never was taken. He died afterward at Constantinople at a great age.

One of the most curious and characteristic results which followed from the battle of Pultowa was the promotion of Peter in respect to his rank in the army. It was gravely decided by the proper authorities, after due deliberation, that in consequence of the vigor and bravery which he had displayed on the field, and of the danger which he had incurred in having had a shot through his hat, he deserved to be advanced a grade in the line of promotion. So he was made a major general.

Thus ended the great Swedish invasion of Russia, which was the occasion of the greatest and, indeed, of almost the only serious danger from any foreign source, which threatened the dominions of Peter during the whole course of his reign.