Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

Suwarrow the Unconquerable

Of men born for battle, to whose ears the roar of cannon and the clash of sabres are the only music, the smoke of conflict their native atmosphere, Suwarrow (Suvarof, to give him his Russian name) stands among the foremost. A little, wrinkled, stooping man, five feet four inches in height and sickly in appearance, he was the last to whom one , would have looked for great deeds in war or mighty exploits in the embattled field. Yet he had the soul of a hero in his diminutive frame, and even as a boy the passion for military glory fired his heart, Caesar and Charles XII. of Sweden (from which country his ancestors came) being the heroes worshipped by his youthful imagination. Born in 1729, he entered the army as a private at seventeen, but rapidly rose from the ranks, made himself famous in the Seven Years' War and in the Polish war of 1768-71, and from that time until death put an end to his career was almost constantly in the field. Napoleon, against whose armies he fought in his later days, was not more enraptured with the breath of battle than was this war-dog of the Russian army.

Diminutive and sickly as he looked, Suwarrow was strong and hardy, and so inured to hardship that the severity of the Russian climate failed to affect his vigorous frame. Disdaining luxury, and ignoring comfort, he lived like the soldiers under his command, preferring to sleep on a truss of hay, and accepting every privation which his men might be called on to endure. He was a man of high intelligence, a clever linguist, and a diligent reader even when on campaign, and religiously seems to have been very devout, being ready to kneel and pray before every wayside image, even when the roads were deep with mud.

In his ordinary manners he carried eccentricity to an extravagant extent, was brusque and curt in speech, often to the verge of insult, laconic in his despatches, and—a soldier in grain—treated with stinging sarcasm all whose lack of activity or of courage invited his contempt. It was by this spirit that he incurred the enmity of the Emperor Paul, when, in his half-mad thirst for change, the latter attempted to change the native dress of the Russian soldier for the ancient attire of Germany. His fair locks, which the Russian was used to wash every morning, he was now bidden to bedaub with grease and flour, while he energetically cursed the black spatter-dashes which it took him an hour to button every morning. Orders to establish these novelties among his men were sent to Suwarrow, then in Italy with the army, the directions being accompanied with little sticks for models of the tails and side curls in which the soldiers' hair was to be arranged. The old warrior's lips curled contemptuously on seeing these absurd devices, and he growled out in his curt fashion, "Hair-powder is not gunpowder; curls are not cannon; and tails are not bayonets." This sarcastic utterance, which forms a sort of rhyming verse in the Russian tongue, got abroad, and spread from mouth to mouth through the army like a choice morsel of wit. The czar, to whose ears it came, heard it with deep offence. Soon after Suwarrow was recalled from the army, on another plea, and on his return to St. Petersburg was not permitted to see the emperor's face. This injustice may have been a cause of his death, which occurred shortly after his return, on May 18, 1800. No courtier of the Russian court, and no diplomatist, except the English ambassador, followed the war-worn veteran to the grave.

Suwarrow was the idol of his mien, whose favorite title for him was "Father Suvarof," and who were ready at command to follow him to the cannon's mouth. In all his long career he never lost a battle, and only once in his life of war acted on the defensive. With a superb faith in his own star, the inspiration of the moment served him for counsel, and rapidity of movement and boldness and dash in the onset brought him many a victory where deliberation might have led to defeat.

A striking instance of this, and of his usual brusque eccentricity, took place in 1799 in Italy, where Suwarrow was placed in command of all the allied troops. This raising of a Russian to the supreme command excited the jealousy of the Austrian generals, and they called a council of war to examine his plans for the campaign. The members of the council, the youngest first, gave their views as to the conduct of the war. Suwarrow listened in grim silence until they had all spoken, and had turned to him for his comment on their views. The wrinkled veteran drew to himself a slate, and made on it two lines.

"Here, gentlemen," he said, pointing to one line, "are the French, and here are the Russians. The latter will march against the former and beat them." This said, he rubbed out the French line. Then, looking up at his surprised auditors, he curtly remarked, "This is all my plan. The council is ended."

In war he is said to have been averse to the shedding of blood, and to have been at heart humane and merciful. Yet this hardly accords with the story of his exploits, it being said that twenty-six thousand Turks were killed in the storming of Ismail, while in that of Praga at Warsaw more than twenty thousand Poles were massacred.

Such was the character of one of the men who aided to make glorious the reign of Catharine of Russia, and whose merit she—unlike her weak son Paul—was fully competent to appreciate. With this estimate of the greatest soldier Russia has ever produced, and one of the ablest generals of modern times, we may briefly describe some of the most striking exploits of Suwarrow's career.

In 1789, during one of the interminable wars against Turkey, in which on this occasion the Austrians took part with the Russians, the Prince of Coburg was at the head of an Austrian force, which he was strikingly' incapable of commanding. The prince, advancing with sublime deliberation, found himself suddenly threatened by a considerable Turkish army. Filled with alarm at the sight of the enemy, he sent a hasty appeal to Suwarrow to come to his aid.

The Russian general had just rejoined his army after recovering from a wound. The news of Coburg's peril reached him at Belat, in Moldavia, between forty and fifty miles away, and these miles of mountains, ravines, and almost impassable wilds. Suwarrow at once broke camp, and with his usual impetuosity led his army over its difficult route, reaching the Austrians in less than thirty-six hours after receiving the news.

It was five o'clock in the evening when he arrived. At eleven he sent his plan of attack to the prince. An assault on the enemy was to be made at two in the morning. Coburg, who had never dreamed of such rapidity of movement and such impetuosity in action, was utterly astounded. In complete bewilderment, he sought Suwarrow at his quarters, going there three times without finding him. The supreme command belonged to him as the older general, but he had the sense not to claim it, and to act as a subordinate to his abler ally. In an hour after the advance began the allied armies were in the Turkish camp, and the Turks, though much outnumbering their assailants, were in full flight. All their stores, a hundred standards, and seventy pieces of artillery fell into the hands of the victors.

Suwarrow returned to Moldavia, and Coburg looked quietly on while the Turks collected a new army. In less than two months he found himself confronted by a hundred thousand men. In new alarm, he hastily sent again to Suwarrow for aid.

In two days the Russian army had reached the Austrian camp, which the enemy was just about to attack. The Turks had neglected to fortify their camp before offering battle. Of this oversight the keen-eyed Russian took instant advantage, attacked them in their unfinished trenches, and, as before, took their camp by storm,—though after a more stubborn defence than in the previous instance. The Turkish army was again dispersed, immense booty was taken, and Suwarrow received for his valor the title of a count of the Austrian empire, while the empress Catharine gave him in reward the honorable surname of Rimniksky, from the name of the river on which the battle had been fought.

The next great exploit of Suwarrow was performed at Ismail, a Turkish town which Potemkin had been besieging for seven months. The prime minister at length grew impatient at the delay, and determined on more effective measures. Living in a luxury in his camp that contrasted strangely with the sparse conditions of Suwarrow, Potemkin was surrounded by courtiers and ladies, who made strenuous efforts to furnish the great man with amusement. One of the ladies, handling a pack of cards, from which she laughingly pretended to be able to read the secrets of destiny, proclaimed that he would be in possession of the town at the end of three weeks.

"You are not bad at prediction," said Potemkin, with a smile, "but I have a method of divination far more infallible. My prediction is that I will have the town in three days."

He at once sent orders to Suwarrow, who was at Galatz, to come and take the town.

The obedient warrior, who seemed to be always at somebody's beck and call, quickly appeared and surveyed the situation. His first steps seemed to indicate that he proposed to continue the siege, the troops being formed into a besieging army of about forty thousand men, while the Russian fleet was ordered up to the town. But the deliberation of a siege never accorded with Suwarrow's ardent humor. His real purpose was to take the place by storm. He had taken Otchakof in this way the previous year with heavy loss, and with the slaughter of twenty thousand Turks. He now, on the 21st of September, twice summoned the city to surrender, threatening the people with the fate of Otchakof. They refused to yield, and the assault began at four o'clock of the following morning.

Battalion after battalion was hurled against the walls: the slaughter from the Turkish fire was frightful, but the stern commander hurled ever new hosts into the pit of death, and about eight o'clock the summit of the walls was reached. But the work was yet only begun. The city was defended street by street, house by house. It was noon before the Russians, fighting their way through a desperate resistance, reached the market-place, where were gathered a body of the Tartars of the Crimea. For two hours these fought fiercely for their lives, and after they had all fallen the Turks kept up the conflict with equal desperation in the streets. At length the gates were thrown open and Suwarrow sent his cavalry into the city, who charged through the streets, cutting down all whom they met. It was four o'clock in the afternoon when the butchery ended, after which the city was given up for three days to the mercy of the troops. According to the official report, the Turks lost forty-three thousand in killed and prisoners, the Russians forty-five hundred in all; the one estimate probably as much too large as the other was too small.

We may conclude with the story of Suwarrow's career in Italy and Switzerland against the armies of the French republic. The plan which the Russian conqueror had marked out on the slate for the Austrian generals was literally fulfilled. In less than three months he had cleared Lombardy and Piedmont of the troops of France. He forced the passage of the Adda against Moreau and his army, compelling the French to abandon Milan, which be entered in triumph. His next success was at Turin, a depot of French supplies, towards which Moreau was hastily advancing. The Russians took the city by surprise, driving the French garrison into the citadel, and capturing three hundred cannons and enormous quantities of muskets, ammunition, and military stores. The French army was saved from ruin only by the great ability of its commander, who led it to Genoa In four days over a mountain path.

The czar Paul rewarded his victorious general with the honorable designation of Italienski, or the Italian, and, in his grandiloquent fashion, issued a ukase commanding all people to regard Suwarrow as the greatest commander the world had ever known.

We cannot describe the whole course of events. Other victories were won in Italy, but finally Suwarrow was weakened by the jealousy of the Austrians, who withdrew their troops, and subsequently was obliged to go to the relief' of his fellow-commander, Korsakof, who, with twenty thousand men, had imprudently allowed himself to be hemmed in by a French army at Zurich. He finally forced his way through the enemy, losing all his artillery and half his host.

Of this Suwarrow knew nothing, as he made his way across the Alps to the aid of the beleaguered general. He attempted to force his way over the St. Gothard pass, meeting-with fierce opposition at every point. There was a sharp fight at the Devil's Bridge, which the French blew up, but failed to keep back Suwarrow and his men, who crossed the rocky gorge of the Unerloch, dashed through the foaming Reuss, and drove the French from their post of vantage.

At length, with his men barefoot, his provisions almost exhausted, the Russian general reached Muotta, to find to his chagrin that Korsakof had been defeated and put to flight. He at once began his retreat, followed in force by Massena, who was driven off by the rear-guard. On October 1 Suwarrow reached Glarus. Here he rested till the 4th, then crossed the Panixer Mountains through snow two feet deep to the valley of the Rhine, which he reached on the 10th, having lost two hundred of his men and all his beasts of burden over the precipices. Thus ended this extraordinary march, which had cost Suwarrow all his artillery, nearly all his horses, and a third of his men.

These losses in the Russian armies stirred the czar to immeasurable rage. All the missing officers—who were prisoners in France—were branded as deserters, and Suwarrow was deprived of his command, ostensibly for his failure, but largely for the sarcasm already mentioned. He returned home to die, having experienced what a misfortune it is for a great man to be at the mercy of a fool in authority.