Peter’s conquests and newly founded cities disturbed Charles XII but little. “Let him build towns; there will be all the more for us to take!”
Continuing The Battle of Poltava,
our selection from Peter the Great by Kazimierz Waliszewski published in 1898. The selection is presented in eight 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 Battle of Poltava.
Place: Poltava. Central Ukraine
Before long this boldness began to reap its own reward. To begin with, Charles XII made no immediate attempt to pursue his advantage on Russian soil; Peter had the joy of seeing him plunge into the depths of the Polish plains. The King of Sweden’s decision, which, we are told, did not tally with his generals’ opinion, has been severely criticized. Guiscard thought it perfectly justifiable, so long as the King had not rid himself of Augustus, by means of the peace which this Prince appeared more than willing to negotiate, through the mediation of Guiscard himself. But Charles turned a deaf ear to the French diplomat’s prayers and remonstrances. He feared, declared Guiscard, “he might run short of enemies,” and as he could not advance on Russia and leave the Saxons and Poles in his rear, he desired — and here doubtless he was right — first of all to insure his line of communication, and of possible retreat. Thus, by his own deed, he strengthened and cemented an alliance which had already been shaken by common defeat.
Augustus, repulsed by the Swedish King, threw himself into Peter’s arms, and in February, 1701, the common destinies of the Czar and the King of Poland were once more bound together. A fresh treaty was signed at the Castle of Birze, close to Dunaburg.
The year 1701 was a hard one for Peter. The junction between the army, which he had contrived after some fashion to put on a war footing, and the Saxon troops of Augustus, only resulted in the complete defeat of the allied forces under the walls of Riga, on July 3d. In the month of June the Moscow Kremlin caught fire; the state offices (prikaz) with their archives, the provision-stores, and palaces, were all devoured by the flames. The bells fell from the tower of Ivan the Great, and the heaviest, which weighed over a hundred tons, was broken in the fall. But in midwinter Sheremetief contrived to surprise Schlippenbach with a superior force, and defeated him at Erestfer, December 29th.
Peter’s delight, and his wild manifestations of triumph, may easily be imagined. He did not content himself with exhibiting the few Swedish prisoners who had fallen into his hands at Moscow, in a sort of imitation Roman triumph; his practical mind incited him to make use of them in another way, and Cornelius von Bruyn, who had lived long enough in the country to be thoroughly acquainted with its customs, calmly reports that the price of war captives, which had originally been three or four florins a head, rose as high as twenty and thirty florins. Even foreigners now ventured to purchase them, and entered into competition in the open market.
On July 18, 1702, Sheremetief won a fresh victory over Schlippenbach — 30,000 Russians defeated 8000 Swedes. According to Peter’s official account of the battle, 5000 of his enemies were left dead on the field, while Sheremetief lost only 400 men. This report made Europe smile, but the Livonians found it no laughing matter. Volmar and Marienburg fell into the hands of the victor, who ravaged the country in the most frightful fashion. The Russians had not as yet learned any other form of warfare, and, as we may suppose, the idea that he might ever possess these territories had not yet occurred to Peter. His mind, indeed, was absorbed elsewhere. His old fancies and whims were strong upon him, and he left Apraxin to rage on the banks of the Neva, in Ingria, on the very spot where his future capital was to stand, while he himself gave all his time and strength to the building of a few wretched ships at Archangel. It was not till September, when the ice had driven him out of the northern port, that he returned to the west and took up his former course. He reached the Lake of Ladoga, sent for Sheremetief, and the end he was to pursue for many a long year seems at last to have taken firm root in his hitherto unstable mind. He laid siege to Noteburg, where he found a garrison of only four hundred fifty men, and on December 11, 1702, he rechristened the little fortress he had captured, by a new and symbolic name, “Schluesselburg” (Key of the Sea).
Next came the capture of Nienschantz, at the very mouth of the Neva, in April, 1703, a personal success for the captain of Bombardiers, Peter Mikhailoff, who there brought his batteries into play. A month later the artilleryman had become a sailor, and had won Russia’s first naval victory. Two regiments of the guard manned thirty boats, surrounded two small Swedish vessels, which, in their ignorance of the capture of Nienschantz, had ventured close to the town, took possession of them, and murdered their crews. The victor’s letters to his friends are full of the wildest and most childish delight, and there was, we must admit, some reason for this joy. He had reconquered the historic estuary, through which, in the ninth century, the first Varegs had passed southward, toward Grecian skies. On the 16th of the following May wooden houses began to rise on one of the neighboring islets. These houses were to multiply, to grow into palaces, and finally to be known as St. Petersburg.
Peter’s conquests and newly founded cities disturbed Charles XII but little. “Let him build towns; there will be all the more for us to take!” Peter and his army had so far, where Charles was concerned, had to do only with small detachments of troops, scattered apart and thus foredoomed to destruction. The Russians took advantage of this fact to pursue their successes, strengthening and entrenching themselves both in Ingria and Livonia. In July, 1704, Peter was present at the taking of Derpt. In August he had his revenge for his disaster at Narva, and carried the town after a murderous assault. Already in November, 1703, a longed-for guest had appeared in the mouth of the Neva, a foreign trading-vessel laden with brandy and salt. Menshikoff, the Governor of Piterburg, entertained the captain at a banquet, and presented him with five hundred florins for himself, and thirty crowns for each of his sailors.
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