On The Field Of Pultava
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The great object of interest to all who visit Pultava is the famed field of battle where Charles XII., after years of glory, at last was humbled by his rival Peter the Great. There has been probably but one battle fought within the last 150 years whose consequences can compare in importance with those of the battle now named; for from the moment that Charles fled from the Ukraine—wounded, deserted, loaded with every misfortune but dishonor—Sweden, which since the great Adolph's time had played such a mighty part in the affairs of Europe, began to dwindle into the obscurity of a second-rate power, and Russia got rid of the only rival that could have effectually barred her way to the attainment of the high position which she now holds. Nor have the full consequences of that victory yet been seen. The future history of Europe, the encroachments which Russia is still to make on her civilized neighbors, will alone show the full extent arising from her triumph on the spot which, from these considerations, we were now about to visit with feelings of no common interest.
The scene of action, now covered with rich cornfields, lies to the southwest of the town, on a plain about four miles from the principal gate. In going to it, we first followed the road to Kieff, but soon struck off to the right, by a path leading through fields where nothing was left by the reaper but some patches of buckwheat. A little hill, if we apply the term to an artificial height, rising not much above thirty feet from the ground, with a large, white cross on its summit, which had for some time attracted our attention, proved to be the mound which marks the burial-trenches of the enemy. On ascending the naked sides of this funeral mount—for even the green sod has never flourished on its mold—we found an inscription in Russian, painted on the transverse part of the cross, stating, without any pompous exaggeration, in less than a dozen of words, "Here are interred the Swedes who fell in the great day of Pultava."
At this point, then, we are in the center of the battle. The white towers of Pultava, and of the convent near it, are seen; but except these, not a single object, house or hill, is within sight, to break the dead level spreading on every side. Some woods, indeed, are seen, and there is a deep ravine, partly between us and the town, opening into the bed of Vorskla, which skirts the battle field on the west; but neither ravine nor river-bed is much seen from where we stand. In fact, on witnessing the extreme uniformity of the surrounding country, it struck us all that the ground was ill suited for the small army of the royal Swede to make a decisive stand upon. The military chief of our party, in particular, whose experience gave him a right to speak on the subject, was surprized at the nature of the scene. In the 127 years which had elapsed since this famed engagement took place, the surface of the ground may have been considerably altered; but that it can have been materially changed in any of its great features is impossible.
The mound which the Russians have piled over the slain is not—like the mountain which the illustrious Belgians have so modestly and so deservedly raised to their own bravery, on the field of Waterloo—of such dimensions as to deface the adjoining ground, and render it impossible to understand the accounts of the action. Here no vain-glorious feeling has been at work; and the spade and the plow, in their ordinary rounds of industry, leave the general aspect of a country unchanged from century to century.
Altogether the field looks more like a place where friendly kings would marshal their armies, to witness a festive tournament, than one where thcy would join in deadly combat. The woods, however, of which, as we have said, there were probably more in other days, may have yielded some shelter to the Swedes. Looking toward the town, there is one of some extent on the right, near the high road, with a smaller one at our back; a line may have extended between these. There is another wood, advancing toward Pultava, on the left, above the ravine; but make even the best of these, and the ground still appears very unfavorable to Charles. If there be any truth, however, in the traditions of the place; which state that he had been driven from the monastery which occupies such a conspicuous height outside Pultava, it is probable that the fighting began on the winding ravine in front toward the town, and that he with-drew by degrees till he reached this extensive flat, favorable for the operation of his small band of cavalry.
The Russians, besides having the strong town of Pultava at their back, were three times more numerous than the Swedes, who, including 12,000 Cossacks, were never more than 30,000 strong. Of the Swedish force, 24,000 entered the field, including 8,000 Cossacks. Besides 9,000 of all descriptions slain, 6,000 were made prisoners, of whom at least 1,000 were Swedes. The remnant of the army made good their retreat to the Dniepr, at the mouth of the Vorskla, but were compelled to surrender three days after the battle. Leave was granted to the Swedes to inter their slain, on the spot where we mused upon all that had passed; and it is highly to the honor of the Russians that to this hour they show every respect to the memory of their brave foes. A religious service is performed every year on the little mount, when great processions come out, with priests and funeral hymns, from the city; and when the emperor was last here, he gave orders that a church should be raised on the field, where mass will be duly said for the repose of the fallen Swedes.
The fate of Charles himself in this battle has been made the frequent theme both of the historian and the poet.* Too brave to flee from the danger into which he had brought them, he did not leave his gallant army till the very last necessity. When violently carried from the field, none accompanied him but Poniatowsky, a brave Pole, Colonel Gieta, and Mazeppa, the renowned chief of the Cossacks, who remained faithful to Charles, and soon after died by his side, in his seventieth year. The fugitive king found his way to the banks of the Dniepr, there bade adieu to the shattered remains of his army, and at last arrived in safety on the Turkish side of the Bog at Oczakow, where he was safe from pursuit.
From being situated in such a commanding position, Pultava must in former days have been a place of great strength; now it is merely a showy town, with abundance of green domes and crowding pinnacles, scattered along the extensive height. An ill-kept rampart still surrounds the most exposed parts; but, finding only six hundred soldiers here, we inferred that little importance is attached to it in a military point of view.