Fehrbellin is an inconsiderable Town still standing in those peaty regions, some five-and-thirty miles northwest of Berlin, and had for ages plied its poor Ferry over the oily-looking, brown sluggish stream called Rhin, or Rhein in those parts, without the least notice from mankind till this fell out.
Continuing The Great Elector Grows Prussia,
our selection from History of Friedrich II of Prussia by Thomas Carlyle published in 1858. The selection is presented in five easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in The Great Elector Grows Prussia.
Place: Fehrbellin, Prussia
Old Johann Casimir, not long after that Peace of Oliva, getting tired of his unruly Polish chivalry and their ways, abdicated, retired to Paris, and “lived much with Ninon de l’Enclos and her circle” for the rest of his life. He used to complain of his Polish chivalry that there was no solidity in them, nothing but outside glitter, with tumult and anarchic noise; fatal want of one essential talent, the talent of Obeying; and has been heard to prophesy that a glorious Republic, persisting in such courses, would arrive at results which would surprise it.
Onward from this time Friedrich Wilhelm figures in the world, public men watching his procedure, Kings anxious to secure him, Dutch Printsellers sticking up his Portraits for a hero-worshipping Public. Fighting hero, had the Public known it, was not his essential character, though he had to fight a great deal. He was essentially an Industrial man; great in organizing, regulating, in constraining chaotic heaps to become cosmic for him. He drains bogs, settles colonies in the waste places of his Dominions, cuts canals; unweariedly encourages trade and work. The Friedrich-Wilhelm’s Canal, which still carries tonnage from the Oder to the Spree, is a monument of his zeal in this way; creditable, with the means he had. To the poor French Protestants in the Edict-of-Nantes Affair, he was like an empress Benefit of Heaven: one Helper appointed, to whom the help itself was profitable. He munificently welcomed them to Brandenburg; showed really a noble piety and human self-pity, as well as judgment; nor did Brandenburg and he want their reward. Some twenty thousand nimble French souls, evidently of the best French quality, found a home there; made “waste sands about Berlin into pot-herb gardens”; and in the spiritual Brandenburg, too, did something of horticulture, which is still noticeable.
Certainly this Elector was one of the shiftiest of men; not an unjust man either; a pious, God-fearing man rather, stanch to his Protestantism and his Bible; not unjust by any means, nor, on the other hand, by any means thin-skinned in his interpretings of justice: Fairplay to myself always, or occasionally even the Height of Fairplay. On the whole, by constant energy, vigilance, adroit activity, by an ever-ready insight and audacity to seize the passing fact by its right handle, he fought his way well in the world; left Brandenburg a flourishing and greatly increased Country, and his own name famous enough.
A thickset, stalwart figure, with brisk eyes, and high, strong, irregularly-Roman nose. Good bronze Statue of him, by Schlueter, once a famed man, still rides on the Lange-Bruecke (Long Bridge) at Berlin; and his Portrait, in huge frizzled Louis-Quatorze wig, is frequently met with in German Galleries. Collectors of Dutch Prints, too, know him; here a gallant, eagle-featured little gentleman, brisk in the smiles of youth, with plumes, with truncheon, caprioling on his war-charger, view of tents in the distance; there a sedate, ponderous wrinkly old man, eyes slightly puckered (eyes busier than mouth), a face well plowed by Time, and not found unfruitful; one of the largest, most laborious potent faces (in an ocean of circumambient periwig) to be met with in that Century. There are many Histories about him, too, but they are not comfortable to read. He also has wanted a sacred Poet, and found only a bewildering Dryasdust.
His two grand Feats that dwell in the Prussian memory are perhaps none of his greatest, but were of a kind to strike the imagination. They both relate to what was the central problem of his life — the recovery of Pommern from the Swedes. Exploit First is the famed Battle of Fehrbellin (Ferry of Belleen), fought on June 18, 1675. Fehrbellin is an inconsiderable Town still standing in those peaty regions, some five-and-thirty miles northwest of Berlin, and had for ages plied its poor Ferry over the oily-looking, brown sluggish stream called Rhin, or Rhein in those parts, without the least notice from mankind till this fell out. It is a place of pilgrimage to patriotic Prussians ever since Friedrich Wilhelm’s exploit there. The matter went thus:
Friedrich Wilhelm was fighting, far south in Alsace, on Kaiser Leopold’s side, in the Louis XIV War — that second one, which ended in the Treaty of Nimwegen. Doing his best there, when the Swedes, egged on by Louis XIV, made war upon him; crossed the Pomeranian marshes, troop after troop, and invaded his Brandenburg Territory with a force which at length amounted to sixteen thousand men. No help for the moment; Friedrich Wilhelm could not be spared from his post. The Swedes, who had at first professed well, gradually went into plunder, roving, harrying at their own will; and a melancholy time they made of it for Friedrich Wilhelm and his People. Lucky if temporary harm were all the ill they were likely to do; lucky if — — He stood steady, however; in his solid manner finishing the thing in hand first, since that was feasible. He then even retired into winter-quarters to rest his men, and seemed to have left the Swedish sixteen thousand autocrats of the situation, who accordingly went storming about at a great rate.
Not so, however; very far, indeed, from so. Having rested his men for certain months, Friedrich Wilhelm silently, in the first days of June, 1675, gets them under march again; marches his Cavalry and he as first installment, with best speed from Schweinfurt, which is on the River Mayn, to Magdeburg, a distance of two hundred miles. At Magdeburg, where he rests three days, waiting for the first handful of Foot and a field-piece or two, he learns that the Swedes are in three parties wide asunder, the middle party of them within forty miles of him. Probably stronger, even this middle one, than his small body (of “Six thousand Horse, Twelve hundred Foot, and three guns”) — stronger, but capable, perhaps, of being surprised, of being cut in pieces before the others can come up? Rathenau is the nearest skirt of this middle party: thither goes the Kurfuerst, softly, swiftly, in the June night (June 16-17, 1675); gets into Rathenau by brisk stratagem; tumbles out the Swedish Horse regiment there, drives it back toward Fehrbellin.
We want to take this site to the next level but we need money to do that. Please contribute directly by signing up at https://www.patreon.com/history