Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

Gustavus Adolphus on the Field of Leipsic

With the accession to the throne of Sweden in 1611 of Gustavus Adolphus, grandson of Gustavus Vasa, that country gained its ablest king, and the most famous with the exception of the firebrand of war, Charles XII., of later date. For courage, judgment, administrative ability, generous devotion to the good of his country, and military genius this great monarch was unequalled in his time and won a renown which has placed his name in the roll of the great rulers of mankind.

The son of Charles IX., the third and ablest son of Gustavus Vasa to fill the throne, he was carefully educated in all the lore of his time and when a boy of sixteen won a brilliant victory over a Danish invading army. During the same year he ascended the throne, his father dying on November 30, 1611.

During the preceding reigns Sweden had taken a prominent part in the affairs of northern Europe, having frequent wars with Russia, Poland, and Denmark, and the young king fell heir to these wars, all of which he prosecuted with striking ability. But a conflict soon broke out that threatened all Europe and brought Sweden into the field as the arbiter of continental destinies. This was the famous "Thirty Years' War," the greatest and most ferocious religious war known in history. Into it Sweden was drawn and the hand of Gustavus was potent in saving the Protestant cause from destruction. The final event in his career, in which he fell covered with glory on the fatal field of Lutzen, is dealt with in the German "Historical Tales." We shall here describe another equally famous battle of the war, that of Leipsic.

It was in 1629, when Denmark was in peril from the great armies of Ferdinand II. of Austria, and Sweden also was threatened, that Gustavus consented to become the champion of the Protestants of northern Europe, and in June, 1630, he landed in Pomerania at the head of eight thousand men. Here six Scottish regiments joined him, under the Duke of Hamilton, and he marched onward, taking towns and fortresses in rapid succession and gaining large reinforcements from the German states.

Three great leaders headed the Austrian armies, the famous Wallenstein, the able but ferocious Tilly, and the celebrated cavalry leader Pappenheim. All these skilled soldiers Gustavus had to face alone, but he did so with the support of the best-drilled army then in Europe, a body of soldiery which his able hands had formed into an almost irresistible engine of war.

What spurred Gustavus to the great battle to be described was the capture by Tilly on May 20, 1631, of the city of Magdeburg, and the massacre of its thirty thousand citizens, men, women, and children. From this scene of frightful outrage and destruction Tilly failed to call off his men until the city lay in ruins and its people in death. A tall, haggard, grim warrior, hollow-cheeked, and wild-looking, with large bright eyes under his shaggy brows, Tilly looked capable of the deeds of ferocity with which the world credited him.

[Illustration] from Historical Tales - Scandinavian by Charles Morris


While all Christendom shuddered with horror at the savage slaughter at Magdeburg, the triumphant Tilly marched upon and captured the city of Leipsic. Here he fixed his headquarters in the house of a grave-digger, where he grew pale at seeing the death's-head and cross-bones with which the owner had decorated his walls. These significant emblems may have had something to do with the unusual mildness with which he treated the citizens of that town.

The cause of Protestantism in Germany was now in serious jeopardy and Gustavus felt that the time had come to strike a hard blow in its behalf. The elector of Saxony, who had hitherto stood aloof, now came to his aid with an army of eighteen thousand men, and it was resolved to attack Tilly at once, before the reinforcements on the way to join him could arrive. These statements are needful, to show the momentous import of the great battle of September 7, 1631.

In the early morning of that day the two armies came face to face, Tilly having taken a strong and advantageous position not far from Leipsic, where he hoped to avoid a battle. But he was obliged, when the enemy began to move upon him, to alter his plans and move towards the hills on his left. At the foot of these his army was drawn up in a long line, with the artillery on the heights beyond, where it would sweep the extensive plain of Breitenfeld in his front. Over this plain the Swedes and Saxons advanced in two columns, towards a small stream named the Lober, which ran in Tilly's front.

To prevent this crossing Pappenheim had early moved at the head of two thousand cuirassiers, a movement which Tilly reluctantly permitted, though strictly ordering him not to fight. Disregarding this order Pappenheim charged the vanguard of the Swedes, only to find that he had met an impregnable line and to be driven back in disorder. To check pursuit he set fire to a village at the crossing-point, but this had no effect upon the movement of the advancing troops nor his own disorderly retreat.

The army of Gustavus was organized for the coming battle in the following manner. On the right the Swedes were drawn up in a double line; the infantry being in the centre, divided into small battalions that could be rapidly manoeuvred without breaking their order; the cavalry on the wings, similarly drawn up in small squadrons, with bodies of musketeers between; this being done to make a greater show of force and annoy the enemy's horse. On the left, at a considerable distance, were the Saxons.

It was the defeat of Pappenheim which obliged Tilly to abandon his first strong position and draw up his army under the western heights, where it formed a single extended line, long enough to outflank the Swedish army; the infantry in large battalions, the cavalry in equally large and unwieldy squadrons; the artillery, as stated, on the slopes above. The position was one for defence rather than attack, for Tilly's army could not advance far without being exposed to the fire of its own artillery. Each army numbered about thirty-five thousand men.

These forces were small in view of the momentous nature of the struggle before them and the fact that two great generals, both hitherto invincible, were now to be matched in a contest on which the fate of the whole war largely depended and to which the two parties battling for the mastery looked forward with fear and trembling. But of the two, while Gustavus was cool and collected, Tilly seemed to have lost his usual intrepidity. He was anxious to avoid battle, and had formed no regular plan to fight the enemy when forced into it by Pappenheim's impetuous charge. "Doubts which he had never before felt struggled in his bosom; gloomy forebodings clouded his ever-open brow; the shade of Magdeburg seemed to hover over him."

The lines being ready for action, King Gustavus rode to the centre of his front, reined in his horse, took off his hat, and with the sword in his right hand lowered to the ground, offered in a loud voice the following prayer:

"Almighty God, Thou who holdest victory and defeat in the hollow of Thine hand, turn Thine eye unto us Thy servants, who have come from our distant homes to fight for freedom and truth and for Thy gospel. Give us victory for the honor of Thy holy name. Amen!"

Then, raising his sword and waving it over his head, he commanded:

"Forward in the name of the Lord!"

"God with us!" was the battle-cry as the Swedes, inspired by his words, prepared for the fatal fray.

The battle, which had lulled after the defeat of Pappenheim, was now resumed with the thunder of the cannon, which continued for two hours, the west wind meanwhile blowing clouds of smoke and dust from ploughed and parched fields into the faces of the Swedes. To avoid this they were wheeled to face northwards, the movement being executed so rapidly and skilfully that the enemy had no time to prevent it.

The cannonading ending, Tilly left the shelter of the heights and advanced upon the Swedes. But so hot was their fire that he filed off towards the right and fell impetuously upon the Saxons, whose ranks quickly broke and fled before the fierce charge. Of the whole force of the elector only a few regiments held their ground, but these did so in a noble manner that saved the honor of Saxony. So confident now was Tilly of victory that he sent off messengers in all haste to Munich and Vienna with word that the day was his.

He was too hasty. The unbroken army of Sweden, the most thoroughly drilled body of soldiers then in Europe, was still to be dealt with. Pappenheim, who commanded the imperial left, charged with his whole force of cavalry upon the Swedish right, but it stood against him firm as a rock. Here the king commanded in person, and repulsed seven successive charges of the impetuous Pappenheim, driving him at last from the field with broken and decimated ranks.

In the meantime Tilly, having routed the small remnant of the Saxons, turned upon the left wing of the Swedes with the prestige of victory to animate his troops. This wing Gustavus, on seeing the repulse of his allies, had reinforced with three regiments, covering the flank left exposed by the flight of the Saxons.

Gustav Horn commanded here, and met the attack with a spirited resistance, materially aided by the musketeers who were interspersed among the squadrons of horse. While the contest went on and the vigor of the attack was showing signs of weakening, King Gustavus, having put Pappenheim to rout, wheeled to the left and by a sharp attack captured the heights on which the enemy's artillery was planted. A short struggle gave him possession of the guns and soon Tilly's army was being rent with the fire of its own cannon.

This flank attack by artillery, coming in aid of the furious onset of the Swedes, quickly threw the imperial ranks into confusion. Hitherto deemed invincible, Tilly's whole army broke into wild disorder, a quick retreat being its only hope. The only portion of it yet standing firm was a battalion of four veteran regiments, which had never yet fled the field and were determined never to do so.

Closing their ranks, they forced their way by a fierce charge through the opposing army and gained a small thicket, where they held their own against the Swedes until night, when only six hundred of them remained. With the retreat of this brave remnant the battle was at an end, the remainder of Tilly's army being then in full flight, actively pursued by the Swedish cavalry, which kept close upon their tracks until the darkness of night spread over the field.

On all sides the bells of the villages pealed out the tidings of the victory, and the people poured forth in pursuit of the fleeing foe, giving short shrift to the unhappy fugitives who fell into their hands. Eleven thousand of Tilly's men had fallen and more than five thousand, including the wounded, were held as prisoners. On the other side the Saxons had lost about two thousand, but of the Swedes only about seven hundred had fallen. The camp and artillery of the enemy had fallen into the hands of Gustavus, and more than a hundred standards had been taken. The rout was so complete that Tilly had left with him only about six hundred men and Pappenheim less than fifteen hundred. Thus was destroyed that formidable army which had long been the terror of Germany.

As for Tilly himself, chance alone left him his life. Exhausted by his wounds and summoned to surrender by a Swedish captain of horse, he refused. In an instant more he would have been cut down, when a pistol shot laid low the Swede. But though saved in body, he was lost in spirit, utterly depressed and shaken by the defeat which had wiped out, as he thought, the memory of all his past exploits.

Though he recovered from his wounds, he never regained his former cheerfulness and good fortune seemed to desert him, and in a second battle with Gustavus on the Lech he was mortally wounded, dying a few days later.

As for Gustavus, he had won imperishable renown as a military leader. All Germany seemed to lie open before him and it appeared as if nothing could prevent a triumphant march upon Vienna. He had proved himself the ablest captain and tactician of the age, his device of small, rapidly moving brigades and flexible squadrons being the death-blow of the solid and unwieldy columns of previous wars. And his victory formed an epoch in history as saving the cause of Protestantism in Germany.

The emperor, in despair, called again into his service the disgraced and disgruntled Wallenstein, granting him extraordinary powers. But this great captain also was beaten by Gustavus on the field of Lutzen, where the career of the Swedish hero came to an untimely end. His renown as a great soldier will live long in history.