Charles XII of Sweden

Charles  XII. was born on the 27th June, 1682. He was the son of Charles XI., a harsh and despotic prince. From his earliest years, he glowed to imitate the heroic character of Alexander, and, in his eagerness to reign, caused himself to be declared king of Sweden at the age of fifteen. At his coronation, he boldly seized the crown from the hands of the archbishop of Upsal, and set it on his own head.

His youth seemed to invite the attacks of his neighbors, of Poland, Denmark and Russia; but Charles, unawed by the prospect of hostilities, and though scarcely eighteen, determined to assail his enemies, one after the other. He besieged Copenhagen, and, by his vigorous measures, so terrified the Danish monarch, that, in less than six weeks, he obliged him to sue for peace.

From humbled Denmark, he marched against the Russians; and though at the head of only eight thousand men, he attacked the enemy who were besieging Narva with one hundred thousand men. The conflict was dreadful; thirty thousand were slain, twenty thousand asked for quarter, and the rest were taken or destroyed; while the Swedes had only twelve hundred killed, and eight hundred wounded. From Narva, the victorious monarch advanced into Poland, defeated the Saxons who opposed his march, and obliged the Polish king, in suing for peace, to renounce his crown and acknowledge Stanislaus for his successor.

It was a disgraceful condition of the treaty made with Augustus that he should give up Reinhold Patkul, a Polish nobleman, to the Swedish king. This patriot had nobly defended the liberties of his country against its enemies, and to escape the consequences, when Poland had fallen, went to Russia, and entered into the service of the Czar. Peter sent him as ambassador to Poland, and Augustus delivered him up to Charles. He was taken to Stockholm, tried as a rebel and traitor, and broke on the wheel. Such was the justice, such the mercy, of the chivalrous Charles XII.!

Fixing his head quarters near Leipsic, with a victorious army of fifty thousand veteran Swedes, he now attracted the attention of all Europe. He received ambassadors from the principal powers, and even the Duke of Marlborough paid him a visit to induce him to join the allies against Louis XIV. But Charles had other views, which were to dethrone his rival, Peter of Russia. Accordingly, after adjusting various matters, he proceeded to the north, with forty-three thousand men, in September, 1707.

In January, he defeated the Russians in Lithuania, and in June, 1708, met Peter on the banks of the Berezina. The Swedes crossed the river, and the Russians fled. Charles pursued them as far as Smolensk; but in September he began to experience the real difficulties of a Russian campaign. The country was desolate, the roads wretched, the winter approaching, and the army had hardly provisions for a fortnight. Charles, therefore, abandoned his plan of marching upon Moscow, and turned to the south towards the Ukraine, where Mazeppa, hetman or chief of the Cossacks, had agreed to join him against Peter.

Charles advanced towards the river Desna, an affluent of the Dnieper, which it joins near Kiew; but he missed his way among the extensive marshes which cover a great part of the country, and in which almost all his artillery and wagons were lost. Meantime, the Russians had dispersed Mazeppa's Cossacks, and Mazeppa himself came to join Charles as a fugitive with a small body of followers. Lowenhaupt, also, who was coming from Poland with fifteen thousand men, was defeated by Peter in person.

Charles thus found himself in the wilds of the Ukraine, hemmed in by the Russians, without provisions, and the winter setting in with unusual severity. His army, thinned by cold, hunger, fatigue and the sword, was now reduced to twenty-four thousand men. In this condition, he passed the winter in the Ukraine, his army subsisting chiefly by the exertions of Mazeppa. In the spring, with eighteen thousand Swedes and as many Cossacks, he laid siege to the town of Pultowa, where the Russians had collected large stores. During the siege, he was severely wounded in the foot; and soon after, Peter himself appeared to relieve Pultowa, at the head of seventy thousand men. Charles had now no choice but to risk a general battle, which was fought on the 8th of July, 1709, and ended in the total defeat of the Swedes.

At the close of the battle, Charles was placed on horseback, and, attended by about five hundred horse, who cut their way through more than ten Russian regiments, was conducted, for the space of a league, to the baggage of the Swedish army. In the flight, the king's horse was killed under him, and he was placed upon another. They selected a coach from the baggage, put Charles in it, and fled towards the Borysthenes with the utmost precipitation. He was silent for a time, but, at last, made some inquiries. Being informed of the fatal result of the battle, he said, cheerfully, "Come then, let us go to the Turks."

While he was making his escape, the Russians seized his artillery in the camp before Pultowa, his baggage and his military chest, in which they found six millions in specie, the spoils of Poland and Saxony. Nine thousand men, partly Swedes and partly Cossacks, were killed in the battle, and about six thousand were taken prisoners. There still remained about sixteen thousand men, including the Swedes, Poles and Cossacks, who fled towards the Borysthenes, under conduct of General Lowenhaupt.

He marched one way with his fugitive troops, and the king took another with some of his horse. The coach in which he rode broke down by the way, and they again set him on horseback. To complete his misfortune, he was separated from his troops and wandered all night in the woods; here, his courage being no longer able to support his exhausted spirits, the pain of his wound became more intolerable from fatigue, and his horse falling under him through excessive weariness, he lay some hours, at the foot of a tree, in danger of being surprised every moment by the conquerors, who were searching for him on every side.

At last, on the 10th July, at night, Charles reached the banks of the Borysthenes. Lowenhaupt had just arrived with the shattered remains of his army. It was with a mixture of joy and sorrow that the Swedes beheld their king, whom they had supposed dead. The victorious enemy was now approaching. The Swedes had neither a bridge to pass the river, nor time to make one, nor powder to defend themselves, nor provisions to support an army which had eaten nothing for two days. But more than all this, Charles was reduced to a state of extreme weakness by his wound, and was no longer himself. They carried him along like a sick person, in a state of insensibility.

Happily there was at hand a sorry calash, which by chance the Swedes had brought along with them; this they put on board a little boat, and the king and General Mazeppa embarked in another. The latter had saved several coffers of money; but the current being rapid, and a violent wind beginning to blow, the Cossacks threw more than three fourths of his treasure overboard to lighten the boat. Thus the king crossed the river, together with a small troop of horse, belonging to his guards, who succeeded in swimming the river. Every foot soldier who attempted to cross the stream was drowned.

Guided by the dead carcasses of the Swedes, that thickly strewed their path, a detachment of the Russian army came upon the fugitives. Some of the Swedes, reduced to despair, threw themselves into the river, while others took their own lives. The remainder capitulated, and were made slaves. Thousands of them were dispersed over Siberia, and never again returned to their country. In this barbarous region, rendered ingenious through necessity, they exercised trades and employments, of which they had not before the least idea.

All the distinctions which fortune had formerly established between them before, were now banished. The officer, who could not follow any trade, was obliged to cleave and carry wood for the soldier, now turned tailor, clothier, joiner, mason, or goldsmith, and who got a subsistence by his labors. Some of the officers became painters, and others architects; some of them taught the languages and mathematics. They even established some public schools, which in time became so useful and famous, that the citizens of Moscow sent their children thither for education.

The Swedish army, which had left Saxony in such a triumphant manner, was now no more. Three fourths had perished in battle, or by starvation, and the rest were slaves. Charles XII. had lost the fruit of nine years' labor, and almost one hundred battles. He had escaped in a wretched calash, attended by a small troop. These followed, some on foot, some on horseback, and others in wagons, through a desert, where neither huts, tents, men, beasts, nor roads were to be seen. Everything was wanting, even water itself.

It was now the beginning of July; the country lay in the forty-seventh degree of latitude; the dry sand of the desert rendered the heat of the sun the more insupportable; the horses fell by the way, and the men were ready to die with thirst. A brook of muddy water, which they found towards evening, was all they met with; they filled some bottles with this water, which saved the lives of the king's troops.

Triumphing over incredible difficulties, Charles and his little guard at last reached Benda, in the Turkish territory. He was hospitably received by the governor; and the sultan, Achmet III., gave orders that he should have entertainment and protection. He now attempted to induce the sultan to engage in his cause, but the Russian agents at the Turkish court produced an impression against him, and orders were sent to the governor of Benda, to compel the king to depart, and in case he refused, to bring him, living or dead, to Adrianople.

Little used to obey, Charles determined to resist. Having but two or three hundred men, he still disposed them in the best manner he could, and when attacked by the whole force of the Turkish army, he only yielded step by step. His house at last took fire, yet the king and his soldiers still resisted. When, involved in flames and smoke, he was about to abandon it, his spurs became entangled, and he fell and was taken prisoner. His eyelashes were singed by powder and his clothes were covered with blood. He was now removed to Demotica, near Adrianople. Here he spent two months in bed, feigning sickness, and employed in reading and writing.

Convinced, at last, that he could expect no assistance from the Porte, he set off, in disguise, with two officers. Accustomed to every deprivation, he pursued his journey on horseback, through Hungary and Germany, day and night, with such haste, that only one of his attendants was able to keep up with him. Exhausted and haggard, he arrived before Stralsund, about one o'clock, on the night of the 11th November, 1714.

Pretending to be a courier with important despatches from Turkey, he caused himself to be immediately introduced to the commandant, Count Dunker, who questioned him concerning the king, without recognising him till he began to speak, when he sprang, joyfully from his bed, and embraced the knees of his master. The report of Charles' arrival spread rapidly through the city. The houses were illuminated, and every demonstration of joy was exhibited.

A combined army of Danes, Saxons, Russians and Prussians now invested Stralsund. Charles performed miracles of bravery in its defence, but was obliged, at last, to surrender the fortress. Various events now took place, and negotiations were entered into for pacification with Russia. In the mean time, Charles had laid siege to Friedrichshall, in Norway. On the 3d of November, 1718, while in the trenches, and leaning against the parapet, examining the workmen, he was struck on the head by a cannon ball, and instantly killed. He was found dead in the same position, his hand on his sword; in his pocket were the portrait of Gustavus Adolphus, and a prayer-book. It is probable that the fatal ball was fired, not from the hostile fortress, but from the Swedish side; his adjutant, Siguier, has been accused as an accomplice in his murder.

The life of Charles XII. presents a series of marvellous events, yet his character inspires us with little respect or sympathy. He aspired only to be a military hero, and to reign by the power of his arms. He had the bravery, perseverance, and decision suited to the soldier, and that utter selfishness, and recklessness of human life and happiness, which are necessary ingredients in the character of a mere warrior. His cheerfulness in adversity, and his patient endurance of pain and privation, were counterbalanced by obstinacy, amounting almost to insanity. Charles had, indeed, the power of attaching friends strongly to his person; and there is something almost sublime in the utter disregard of comfort, pleasure, and even life, displayed by his soldiers and officers, in their care of his person, and their obedience to his commands. Yet, however elevating may be the sentiment of loyalty, we cannot feel that, in the present instance, it was bestowed upon a worthy object.