Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

Schamyl the Hero of Circassia

In the region lying between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea rise the rugged Caucasian Mountains, a mighty wall of rock which there divides the continents of Europe and Asia. Monarch of those lofty hills towers the tall peak of Elbrus, called by the natives "the great spirit of the mountains." Farther east Kasbek lifts its lofty summit, and at a lower level the whole jagged line, "the thousand-peaked Caucasus," rises into view. Below these a lower range, dark with forests, marks its outline on the snowy summits beyond. Fruitful clearings appear to the height of five thousand feet on the western slopes; garden terraces mount the eastward face, and the valleys, green with meadows or golden with grain, are dotted with clusters of cottages. Sheep and goats browse in great numbers on the hillsides; lower down the camel and buffalo feed; herds of horses roam half wild through the glades, and from the higher rocks the chamois looks boldly down on the inhabited realms below.

In these mountain fastnesses dwells a race of bold and liberty-loving mountaineers who have preserved their freedom through all the historic eras, yielding only at last, after years of valiant resistance, when the whole power of the Russian empire was brought to bear upon them in their wilds. For years the heroic Schamyl, their unconquerable chief, braved his foes, again and again he escaped from their toils or hurled them back in defeat, and for a quarter of a century he defied all the power of Russia, yielding only when driven to his final lair.

In the aoul  or village of Himri, perched like an eagle's nest high on a projecting rock, this famous chief was born in the year 1797. The only access to this high-seated stronghold was by a narrow path winding several hundred feet up the slope, while a triple wall, flanked by high towers, further defended it, and the overhanging brow of the mountain guarded it above. Such is the character of one of the strongholds of this mountain land, and such an example of the difficulties its foes had to overcome.

There are no finer horsemen than the daring Circassian mountaineers, who are ready to dash at full speed up or down precipitous steeps, to leap chasms, or to swim raging torrents. In an instant, also, they can discharge their weapons, unslinging the gun when at full gallop, firing upon the foe, and as quickly returning it to its place. They can rest suspended on the side of the horse, leap to the ground to pick up a fallen weapon, and bound into the saddle again without a halt. And such is the precision of their aim that they are able to strike the smallest mark while riding at full speed.

Such were some of the arts in which Schamyl was trained, and in which he became signally expert. In the hunt, the trial of skill, all the labors and sports of the youthful mountaineers, he was an adept, and so valiant and resourceful that his admiring countrymen at length chose him as their Iman, or governor, during the defence of their country against the Russian invaders.

The first battle in which Schamyl engaged was behind the walls of his native village. Himri, well situated as it was, was hurled into ruin by the artillery of the foe, and among its prostrate defenders lay Schamyl, with two balls through his body. He was left by the enemy as dead, and in after-years the mountaineers looked upon his escape and recovery as due to miracle.

Schamyl was thirty-seven years of age when he became leader of the tribes. Of middle stature, with fair hair, gray eyes shadowed with thick brows, a Grecian nose, small mouth, and unusually fair complexion, he was one of the handsomest and most distinguished in appearance of the mountaineers. He was erect in carriage, light and active in tread, and had a natural nobility of air and aspect. His manner was calmly commanding, while his eloquence was at once fiery and persuasive. "Flames sparkle from his eyes," says one, "and flowers are scattered from his lips."

In 1839 the Russians made one of their most determined efforts to crush the resistance of the mountaineers. Schamyl's headquarters were then at Akhulgo, a stronghold perched upon the top of an isolated conical peak around whose foot a river wound. Strong by nature, it was well fortified, trenches, earthworks, and covered ways now taking the place of those stone walls which the Russian cannon had so easily overturned at Himri.

Other fortified works were built on the road to Akhulgo, which was retained as a last resort, behind whose defences the mountaineers were resolved to conquer or die. Its garrison was composed of the flower of the Circassian warriors, while some fifteen thousand men beside stood ready to take part in the fight.

In the month of May the Russians advanced, with such energy and in such force that the anterior works were soon taken, and the mountaineers found themselves obliged to take refuge in their final fortress of defence. The fight here was fierce and persistent. Step by step the Russians made their way, pushing their parallels against the intrenched works of their foes. Point after point was gained, and at length, in late August, the crisis came. A sudden charge carried them into the fort, and the defenders died where they stood, leaving only women and children to fall as prisoners into the Russians' hands.

But Schamyl had disappeared. Seek as they would, the chief was not to be found. The fortress, the approaches, every nook and corner, were explored, but the famous warrior, for whom his foes would have given half their wealth, had utterly vanished, no one knew how. To make sure of his death they had scarcely left a fighting man alive, yet to their chagrin the redoubtable Schamyl was soon again in the field.

How the brave mountaineer escaped is not known. Of the stories afloat, one is that he lay concealed until night in a rock refuge, and then managed to swim the river while some of his friends attracted the attention and drew the fire of the guards. All that can be said is that in September he reappeared, ready for new feats of arms, and was seen again at the head of a gallant body of mountain warriors.

His headquarters were now fixed at Dargo, a village in the heart of the mountains and in the midst of the primeval forest. But the chief had learned a lesson from his late experience. The Circassians were no match for the Russians behind fortifications. He resolved in the future to fight in a manner better suited to the habits of his followers, and to wear out the foe by a guerilla warfare.

Three years passed before the Russians again sought to penetrate the mountains in force. Then General Grabbe, the victor at Akhulgo, attempted to repeat his success at Dargo. But the experience he gained proved to be of a less agreeable type. At the close of the first day's march, when the soldiers had eaten their evening meal and stretched their limbs to rest after a hard day's march, they were suddenly brought to their feet by a rattling volley of musketry from the surrounding woods. All night long the firing continued, no great damage being done in the darkness, but the soldiers being effectually deprived of their rest. When 'day dawned there was not a Circassian to be seen.

Near noon, as the column wound through a ravine in the forest, the firing sharply recommenced, a murderous volley pouring upon the vanguard from behind the trees. The number of wounded became so great that there were not wagons enough for their transportation. Still General Grabbe kept on, despite the advice of his officers, only to be attacked again at night as his weary men lay in a small open meadow among the hills. All night long the whiz of bullets drove away repose, and at every step of the next day's march the woods belched forth the leaden messengers of death.

The goal of the march was near at hand. The little village of Dargo could be seen on a distant hill-top. But it was to be reached only by a path of death, and the Russian commander was at length forced to give the order to retreat. On seeing the column wheel and begin its backward march the Circassians grew wild with excitement and triumph. Slinging their rifles behind their backs, they rushed, sabre in hand, upon the enemy's centre, breaking through it again and again, while a deadly hail of rifle-shots still came from the woods. In the end, of the column of six thousand, two thousand were left dead, the remainder reaching the fortress from which they had set out in sorry plight.

For several years Schamyl made Dargo his headquarters. Not until 1845 did the Russians succeed in taking it, their army now being ten thousand strong. But it was a village in flames they captured. Schamyl had fired it before leaving, and the Russians were so beset in coming and going that their empty conquest was made at the cost of three thousand of their men.

In the spring of the following year the valiant chief repaid the enemy in part for these invasions of his country. He had now under his command no less than twenty thousand warriors, largely horsemen, and in the leafy month of May, taking advantage of a weakening of the Russian line, he dashed suddenly from the highlands for a raid in the neighboring country of the Kabardians.

Two rivers flowed between the mountain ranges and the Kabardas, and two lines of hostile fortresses guarded the frontier, containing in all no less than seventy thousand men. Between the forts lay Cossack settlements, and beyond them the Kabardians, an armed and warlike race. Schamyl had no artillery, no fortresses, no depots of provisions and ammunition. All be could do was to make a quick dash and a hasty return.

Down upon the Cossacks he rode, followed by his thousands of daring riders. Plundering their villages, he halted to take no forts except those that went down in the whirl of his coming. Before the garrisons in the strongholds fairly knew that he was among them he was gone; and while the Kabardians believed that he was lurking in the mountain depths, he suddenly dashed into their midst. Sixty populous Kabardian villages were plundered, and the mountaineers proudly refused to turn till they had watered their horses in the Kuban and even reached the more distant banks of the Laba.

But how were they to return? Thousands of horsemen had gathered in the way. Long battalions of infantry had hurried to cut off the raiders on their retreat. Schamyl knew that he could not get back by the way he had come; but, turning southward, he galloped at headlong speed through the Cossack settlements in that quarter, and, with his cruppers laden with booty and his saddle-bows well furnished with food, evaded his foes and reached the mountains again. May seemed to bloom more richly than ever as the wild riders dashed proudly back to the doors of their homes and heard the glad shouts of joy that greeted their safe return.

The whole story of the exploits of the famous Circassian chief is too extended and too full of stirring incidents to be here given even in epitome. It must suffice to say, in conclusion, that ten years after his escape from Akhulgo that stronghold was again attacked and taken by the Russians, and as before Schamyl mysteriously escaped. Completely baffled, nothing was left for the Russians but to wear out the chief and his people by continued invasions of their mountain land. Again and again their armies were beaten by their indomitable foe, but the continuance of the struggle slowly exhausted the land and its powers of resistance.

The Circassians were helped during the Crimean War by the foes of Russia, who supplied them with arms and money, but after that war the Russians kept up the struggle with more energy than ever, and, by opening a road over the mountains, cut off a part of the country and compelled its submission. At length, in April, 1859, twenty-five years after the struggle began, Weden, Schamyl's stronghold at that time, was taken, after a seven weeks' siege. As before, the chief escaped, but the country was virtually subdued, and he had only a small band of followers left.

For months afterwards his foes pursued him actively from fastness to fastness, determined to run him down, and at length, on September 6, 1859, surprised him on the plateau of Gounib. Here the devoted band made a desperate resistance, not yielding until of the original four hundred only forty-seven remained alive. Schamyl, the lion of the Caucasus, was at length taken, after having cost the Russians uncounted losses in life and money.

With his capture the independence of Circassia came to an end. It has since formed an integral part of the Russian empire, and its subjugation has opened the gateway to that vast expansion of Russia in Central Asia which since then has taken place. The captive chief had won the respect of his foes, and was honorably treated, being assigned a residence at Kaluga, in Central Russia, with an annual pension of five thousand dollars. He, like his countrymen, was a Mohammedan in faith, and removed to Mecca, in Arabia, in 1870, dying at Medina in the following year.