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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 21 — The Thirty Years' War

Chapter 7 — Fall of Magdeburg and victory of Leipsic

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Magdeburg – Its Wealth and Importance – Coveted by both Parties – It declares against the Imperialists – Its Administrator – Count von Tilly – His Career – Personal Appearance – Magdeburg Invested – Refuse a Swedish Garrison – Suburbs Burned – The Assault – The Defense – Council of War – The Cannonading Ceases – False Hopes – The City Stormed and Taken – Entry of Tilly – Horrors of the Sack – Total Destruction of the City – Gustavus Blamed for not Raising the Siege – His Defense – The Electors of Brandenburg and Saxony now Join him – Battle of Leipsic – Plan of Battle – Total Rout of the Imperialists – All is Changed.

WHILE the convention of Leipsic was making boastful speeches, and the Jesuits were firing off derisive pasquils, and Ferdinand of Austria was maintaining a haughty and apparently an unconcerned attitude in presence of the invading Swedes, Gustavus Adolphus was adding victory to victory, and every day marching farther into the heart of Germany. His advance at last caused alarm to the imperial generals, and it was resolved to trifle no longer with the matter, but to adopt the most energetic measures to oppose the progress of the northern arms. This brings us to one of the most thrilling incidents of the war – the siege and capture of Magdeburg.

This ancient and wealthy city stood on the left bank of the Elbe. It was strongly fortified, being enclosed on its land sides by lofty walls and broad ditches. The commerce on its river had greatly enriched the citizens, and the republican form of their government had nourished in their breasts a spirit of independence and bravery. In those days, when neither trade nor liberty was widely diffused, Magdeburg had fewer rivals to contend with than now, and it surpassed in riches and freedom most of the cities in Germany. This made it a prize earnestly coveted by both sides. If it should fall into the hands of the Swedes, its situation and strength would make it an admirable storehouse and arsenal for the army; and, on the other hand, should the imperialists gain possession of it, it would give them a basis of operations from which to threaten Gustavus Adolphus in his rear, and would put it into their power to close against him one of his main exits from Germany, should defeat compel him to retreat towards the Baltic. Its government was somewhat anomalous at this moment. It was the capital of a rich bishopric, which had for some time been in possession of the Protestant princes of the House of Brandenburg.

Its present administrator, Christian William, had made himself obnoxious to Ferdinand, by taking part with the King of Denmark in his invasion of the empire; and the chapter, dreading the effects of the emperor's anger, deposed Christian William, and elected the second son of the Elector of Saxony in his room. The emperor, however, disallowed this election, and appointed his own son Leopold to the dignity; but Christian William of Brandenburg, having made friends with the magistrates and the citizens, resumed his government of the city, and having roused the inhabitants by pointing to the devastations which the imperial troops had committed on their territory, and having held out to them hopes of succor from the Swedes, whose victorious leader was approaching nearer every day, he induced them to declare war against the emperor. They joined battle with small bodies of imperialists, and succeeded in defeating them, and they had even surprised the town of Halle, when the advance of the main army under Tilly compelled them to fall back and shut themselves up in Magdeburg.

Before entering on the sad story of Magdeburg's heroic defense and tragic fall, let us look at the man who was destined to be the chief actor in the scenes of carnage about to ensue. .Count von Tilly was born in Liege, of a noble family. He received his military education in the Netherlands, then the most famous school for generals. By nature cold, of gloomy disposition, and cherishing an austere but sincere bigotry, he had served with equal zeal and ability in almost all the wars of the period against Protestantism. His sword had been drawn on the bloody fields of the Low Countries; he had combated against the Protestant armies in Hungary and Bohemia, and when the wars came to an end in these countries, because there were no more Protestants to slay, he had been appointed to lead the armies of the League. When Wallenstein was dismissed he was made generalissimo of the Emperor Ferdinand, and it is in this capacity that we now find him before the walls of Magdeburg. Schiller has drawn his personal appearance with the power of a master. "His strange and terrific aspect," says he, "was in unison with his character. Of low stature, thin, with hollow cheeks, a long nose, a broad and wrinkled forehead, large whiskers, and a pointed chin; he was generally attired in a Spanish doublet of green silk, with slashed sleeves, with a small and peaked hat upon his head, surmounted by a red feather, which hung down his back. His whole aspect recalled to recollection the Duke of Alva, the scourge of the Flemings, and his actions were by no means calculated to remove the impression." [1]

Tilly knew too well the art of war to despise his great opponent. "This is a player," said he of Gustavus Adolphus, "from whom we gain much if we merely lose nothing."

Magdeburg was first invested by Count Pappenheim, an ardent supporter of the House of Austria, and accounted the first cavalry general of his age. He was soon joined by Tilly at the head of his army, and the city was more closely invested than ever. The line of walls to be defended was extensive, the garrison was small, and the citizens, when they saw the imperialist banners on all

sides of them, began to repent having declined the offer of Gustavus Adolphus to aid in the defense with a regiment of his soldiers. Faction, unhappily, divided the citizens, and they refused to admit the Swedish garrison within their walls; nor, wealthy though they were, would they even advance money enough to levy troops sufficient for their defense. The Swedish monarch was pained at the course they chose to adopt, but the city was now shut in, and all he could do was to send Count Falkenberg, a brave and experienced officer, to direct the military operations, and aid with his counsel the Administrator Christian William.

All during the winter of 1630-31, Magdeburg continued to be invested; but the siege made slow progress owing to the circumstance that the two generals, Tilly and Pappenheim, were compelled to withdraw, to withstand the advance of Gustavus Adolphus, leaving inferior men to command in their absence. But in March, 1631, the two great leaders returned, and the operations of the siege were resumed with rigor. After the first few days the outposts and suburbs were abandoned, and, being set fire to by the imperialists, were reduced to ashes. The battle now advanced to the walls and gates. During all the month of April the storm of assault and resistance raged fiercely round the fortifications. The citizens armed themselves to supplement the smallness of the garrison, and day and night fought on the walls. Daily battle thinned their numbers, want began to impair their strength, but their frequent sallies told the besiegers that their spirit and bravery remained unabated. Their detestation of the tyranny of Ferdinand, their determination to retain their Protestant faith, and their hopes of relief from Gustavus Adolphus, who they knew was in their neighborhood, made them unanimous in their resolution to defend the place to the last.

The approach of the Swedish hero was as greatly dreaded in the camp of Tilly, as it was longed for in the city of Magdeburg. A march of three days, it was known., would bring him before the walls, and then the imperialists would be between two fires; they would have the Swedes, flushed with victory, in their rear, and the besieged, armed with despair, in their front. Tilly often directed anxious eyes into the distance, fearing to discover the Swedish banners on the horizon. He assembled a council of war, to debate whether he should raise the siege, or attempt carrying Magdeburg by storm. It was resolved to storm the city before Gustavus should arrive. No breach had yet been made in the walls, and the besiegers must add stratagem to force, would they take the place. It was resolved to follow the precedent of the siege of Maestricht, where a sudden cessation of the cannonading had done more to open the gates than all the fire of the artillery. On the 9th of May, at noon, the cannon of Tilly ceased firing, and the besiegers removed a few of the guns. "Ah!" said the citizens of Magdeburg, joyfully, "we are saved; the Swedish hero is approaching, and the hosts of Tilly are about to flee." All that night the cannon of the besiegers remained silent. This confirmed the impression of the citizens that the siege was about to be raised. The danger which had so long hung above them and inflicted so fearful a strain on their energies being gone, as they believed, the weariness and exhaustion that now overpowered them were in proportion to the former tension. The stillness seemed deep after the nights of fire and tempest through which they had passed. The silver of morning appeared in the east; still all was calm. The sun of a May day beamed forth, and showed the imperial encampment apparently reposing.

One-half of the garrison, by order of Falkenberg, had been withdrawn from the walls, the wearied citizens were drowned in sleep, and the few who were awake were about to repair to the churches to offer thanks for their deliverance, when, at seven of the morning, sudden as the awakening of a quiescent volcano, a terrific storm broke over the city.

The roar of cannon, the ringing of the tocsin, the shouts of assailants, blending in one frightful thunder-burst, awoke the citizens. Stunned and terrified, they seized their arms and rushed into the street, only to find the enemy pouring into the town over the ramparts and through two of the gates, of which they had already gained possession. Falkenberg, as he was hurrying from post to post, was cut down at the commencement of the assault. His fall was fatal to the defense, for the attack not having been foreseen, no plan of resistance had been arranged; and though the citizens, knowing the horrors that were entering with the soldiers, fought with a desperate bravery, they were unable – without a leader, and without a plan – to stem the torrent of armed men who were every minute pouring into their city. It was easy scaling the walls, when defended by only a handful of men; it was equally easy forcing the gates, when the guards had been withdrawn to fight on the ramparts. Every moment the odds against the citizens were becoming more overwhelming, and by twelve o'clock all resistance was at an end, and Magdeburg was in the hands of the enemy.

Tilly now entered with the army. He took possession of the principal streets with his troops, and pointing his shotted cannon upon the masses of the citizens, compelled them to retire into their houses, there to await their fate. Regiment after regiment poured into Magdeburg. There entered, besides the German troops, the pitiless Walloons, followed by the yet more terrible Croats. What a horde of ruffianism! Although an army of wolves or tigers had been collected into Magdeburg, the danger would not have been half .so terrible as that which now hung over the city from this assemblage of men, inflamed by every brutal passion,

who stood wailing the signal to spring upon their prey.

Silence was signal enough: even Tilly dared not have withstood these men in their dreadful purpose. "And now began a scene of carnage," says Schiller, "which history has no language, poetry no pencil, to portray. Neither the innocence of childhood nor the helplessness of old age, neither youth, sex, rank, nor beauty could disarm the fury of the conquerors. Wives were dishonored in the arms of their husbands, and daughters at the feet of their parents." Infants were murdered at the breast, or tossed from pike to pike of the Croats, and then flung into the fire. Fifty-three women were found in a single church, their hands tied and their throats cut. Some ladies of wealth and beauty were tied to the stirrups of the soldiers' horses, and led away captive. It were a wickedness even to write all the shameful and horrible things that were done: how much greater a wickedness was it to do them! Some of the officers of the League, shocked at the awful sights, ventured to approach Tilly, and beg him to put a stop to the carnage. "Come back in an hour," was his answer, "and I shall see what can be done. The soldier must have some recompense for his danger and toils." The tempest of shrieks, and wailings, and shoutings, of murder and rapine, the rattling of musketry and the clashing of swords, continued to rage, while the general stood by, a calm spectator of the woes and crimes that were passing around him.

The city had been set fire to in several places, and a strong wind springing up, the conflagration raged with a fury which no one sought to control. The roar of the flames was now added to the other sounds of terror that rose from the doomed spot. The fire ran along the city with great rapidity, and swept houses, churches, and whole streets before it; but amid the smoke, the falling buildings, and the streets flowing with blood, the plunderer continued to prowl, and the murderer to pursue his victim, till the glowing and almost burning air drove the miscreants back to their camp. Magdeburg had ceased to exist; this fair, populous, and wealthy city, one of the finest in Germany, was now a field of blackened ruins.

Every edifice had fallen a prey to the flames, with the exception of a church and a convent, which the soldiers assisted the monks to save, and 150 fishermen's huts which stood on the banks of the Elbe. "The thing is so horrible," says a contemporary writer, "that I am afraid to mention it further. According to the general belief here, above 40,000 of all conditions have ended their days in the streets and houses by fire and sword." [2]

The same German party who had declined, with an air of offended dignity, the help of Gustavus Adolphus, now blamed him for not having extended his assistance to Magdeburg. This made it necessary for the Swedish monarch to explain publicly why he had not raised the siege. He showed conclusively that he could not have done so without risking the whole success of his expedition, and this he did not feel justified in doing for the sake of a single city. He had resolved, he said, the moment he heard of the danger of Magdeburg, to march to its relief: but first the Elector of Saxony refused a passage for his troops through his dominions; and, secondly, the Elector of Brandenburg was equally unwilling to guarantee an open retreat for his army through his territory in case of defeat. The fate of Magdeburg was thus mainly owing to the vacillating and cowardly policy of these two Electors, who had, up to that moment, not made it plain to Gustavus whether they were his friends or his enemies, and whether they were to abide with the League or join their arms with his in defense of Protestantism.

But the fall of Magdeburg was helpful to the Protestant cause. It sent a thrill of horror through Germany, and it alarmed the wavering Electors of Brandenburg and Saxony, who began to see that the end of that neutrality which they thought so dexterous would be that they would be the last to be devoured by the imperial arms. Accordingly, first the Landgrave of Hesse made a firm compact with Gustavus Adolphus, and ever after continued his staunchest friend. A raid which Tilly made into his territories after leaving Magdeburg helped powerfully to this alliance with the Swedish king. The next to become the ally of Gustavus was the Elector of Brandenburg – not, however, till the Swedes had marched to Berlin, and Gustavus, pointing his cannon at the palace, demanded of the Elector that he should say whether he was for him or against him. Last of all, the Elector of Saxony, who had endured such distress and irresolution of mind, and who now received a visit from Tilly and his marauders – their track marked, as usual, by frightful devastation – came at length to a decision, and joined his arms with those of Gustavus. This opened the way for the crowning victory of the campaign, which established the fortunes of Gustavus, and broke in pieces the army of the emperor.

Strengthened by these alliances, Gustavus crossed the Elbe. The next day his forces were joined by the Saxon army, 35,000 strong. At a council of war which was held here, it was debated whether the confederated host was strong enough to risk a battle, or whether the war should be protracted. "If we decide upon a battle," said Gustavus, "a crown and two electorates are at stake." The die was cast in favor of fighting. Gustavus put his army in motion to meet Tilly, who lay encamped in a strong and advantageous position near Leipsic. On the evening of the 6th September, 1631, Gustavus learned that he was within

half a dozen miles of the imperialists. That night he dreamed that he had caught Tilly by the hair of his head, but that all his exertions could not secure his prisoner before he had succeeded in biting him on the left arm. [3] Next morning the two hostile armies were in sight of each other. Gustavus had seen the dawn of this day with deep anxiety. For the first time he was in presence of the whole imperial host, under its hitherto unconquered leader, and the issue of this day's battle would decide whether the object for which he had crossed the Baltic was to be attained, and Germany set free from her chains, or whether defeat lowered over himself, and political and religious bondage over the Fatherland. Christendom waited with anxiety the issue of the event.

The army of Tilly was drawn up in a single far-extending line on a rising ground on the plain of Breitenfeld, within a mile of Leipsic. The cannon were planted on the heights which rose behind the army, so as to sweep the plain, but making it impossible for the imperial troops to advance without coming within the range of their own fire. The infantry was placed in the center, where Tilly himself commanded; the cavalry formed the wings, with Furstenberg on the right, and Pappenheim on the left. The Swedish army was arranged into center and. wings, each two columns in depth. Teuffel commanded in the center, Horn led the left wing, and the king himself the right, fronting Pappenheim. The Saxon troops, under the Elector, were stationed a little in the rear, on the left, at some distance from the Swedish main body, the king deeming it prudent to separate Saxon from Swedish valor; and the event justified his forethought. The battle was joined at noon. It began with a cannonading, which lasted two hours. At two o'clock Pappenheim began the attack by throwing his cavalry upon the right wing of the Swedes, which was commanded by the king. The wind was blowing from the west, and the dust from the new-ploughed hind was driven in clouds in the face of the Swedes. To avoid the annoyance the king wheeled rapidly to the north, and the troops of Pappenheim, rushing in at the void which the king's movement had left between the right wing and the center, were met in front by the second column of the wing, and assailed in the rear by the first column, led by the king, and after a desperate and prolonged conflict they were nearly all cut in pieces. Pappenheim was driven from the field, with the loss of his ordnance. While this struggle was proceeding between the two confronting wings, Tilly descended from the heights, and attacked the left wing of the Swedish army. To avoid the severe fire with which the Swedes received him, lie turned off to attack the Saxons, who, mostly raw recruits, gave way and fled, carrying the Elector with them, who stopped only when he had reached Eilenburg. [4] Only one division under Arnim remained on the field, and saved the Saxon honor.

Deeming the victory won, the imperialists raised the cry of pursuit. Some 8,000 or 9,000 left the field on the track of the flying Saxons, numbers of whom were overtaken and slaughtered. Gustavus seized the moment to fall upon the flank of the imperial center, and soon effectually routed it, with the exception of two regiments concealed by the smoke and dust. The center of the imperialists had been broken, and their left wing driven from the field, when the troops under Furstenberg, who had returned from chasing the Saxons, assailed with desperate fury the left wing of the Swedes. The conflict had almost ceased on the other parts of the field, and the last and most terrible burst of the tempest was here to discharge itself, and the fate of the day to be decided. Foot and horse, cuirassier, pikeman, and musketeer were drawn hither, and mingled in fearful and bloody conflict. The sun was now sinking in the west, and his slanting beam fell on the quiet dead, scattered over the field, but still that heaving mass in the center kept surging and boiling; cuirass and helmet, pike-head and uplifted sword, darting back the rays of the sun, which was descending lower and lower in the horizon. The mass was growing perceptibly smaller, as soldier and horse fell beneath saber or bullet, and were trampled into the bloody mire. Tills and his imperialists were fighting for the renown of a hundred battles, which was fast vanishing. The most obstinate valor could not long hold out against the overwhelming odds of the Swedish warriors; and a remnant of the imperialists, favored by the dusk of evening, and the cloud and dust that veiled the battle-field, escaped from the conflict – the remnant of those terrible battalions which had inflicted such devastation on Germany. [5]

When Gustavus Adolphus rode out of the field, all was changed. He was no longer "the little Gothic king;" he was now the powerful conqueror, the terror of the Popish and the hope of the Protestant princes of Germany. The butchers of Magdeburg had been trampled into the bloody dust of Breitenfeld. The imperialist army had been annihilated; their leader, whom some called the first captain of the age, had left his glory on the field from which he was fleeing; the road into the center of Germany was open to the conqueror; the mighty projects of the Jesuits were menaced with overthrow; and the throne of the emperor was beginning to totter.

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