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Recommended Reading


The Cossacks: An Illustrated History


The Cossacks 1799-1815

The Zaporozhian Cossack Battle at Korsun
The Zaporozhian Cossack Battle at Korsun
by Michael Meusz

In the mid 17th century unrest in the steppes of Ukraine was on the rise. The Polish-Lithuanian empire dominated an area from Warsaw to Moscow, and the Ukrainians were tired of their exploitation and abuse. At the little town of Korsun, virtually in the middle of nowhere, an army of Zaporozhian Cossacks supported by Crimean Tatars overwhelmed a Polish army sent to crush them, and started a revolutionary fire that would sweep across the steppes and make Ukraine a nation.

Click Image to Enlarge

Historical Atlas of Ukraine (Cossack State after 1649)
From the book: "Ukraine: A Historical Atlas" By Paul Robert Magocsi Pub 1985 Toronto Press.

The Zaporozhian Cossacks were not your typical disorganized horde or "cannon fodder" as described during Napoleon’s time. These Cossacks were defined by their horsemanship, proficiency with the saber and their level of organization during time of oppression. An analogy could be made between the Zaporozhian Cossacks and the American Indians. They knew the terrain, and how to use it to ambush or evade their enemies. They were very religious in there belief in God. The Zaporozhian’s were known for their exceptional honesty. "According to the Catholic priest Kitovich, in the Zaporozhian Sich "(meaning-"clearing beyond the rapids") one could leave his money out in the street, not worrying that it would be stolen".(1)  With this reputation, it’s not surprising that the Polish crown hired them to maintain order within the vast open spaces of the Ukrainian steppes.

The weaponry of the Zaporozhian’s consisted of mainly muskets, swords and knives-often acquired from raids on traveling caravans between the Tatars and Turks or between Polish regions. The Zaporozhian musket did not have a bayonet, so a five-foot lance was also carried. Cannons were of small caliber and portable enough that they can be carried by horses within the army. Both wheels and the cannon itself could be easily mounted on the backs of horses and carried to battle with ease. The typical cannon in those days would cost the Zaporozhian Cossack 442 head of cattle and one cannon ball with powder a mere 9 heads of cattle. So, purchases of such magnitude would typically be done by other means such as gold, food or trade of nobleman from raids. It would be very difficult to herd some 4,500 cattle to a stronghold for an exchange of 10 cannons and munitions.

Figure 1: Left: Depiction of the hairstyle for a Zaporozhian. Center: Typical Zaporozhian Cossack soldier. Right: Re-enactor in full garb.

The dress of the Zaporozhian’s was light. To keep cool during hot summer days loose baggy pants were worn. They were colorful varying from red, blue, black, or yellow. They were matched with an off white loose shirt over top. At times a vest or light jacket accompanied the look. This was complimented with a large sash around their waste. The sash color typically depicted a rank within the Cossack order. Black being the most common and Red being one of nobility or stature within the group. This light clothing made the Cossacks very agile when in combat or conducting duels. The Cossack’s would shave their heads only leaving a long lock of hair to one side depicting the brotherhood of the Zaporozhian’s and dawning of the long burly moustache. A symbol to which today distinguishes the true Zaporozhian Cossack from other Cossacks. (See figure 1).

The Cossack army typically fought with their men in a mass, formed around a unit called a mobile camp. Zaporozhian’s would fight by surrounding themselves with a moving perimeter of wagons. At every other wagon a small cannon was positioned for support. The cannons were not only small but could be moved around quickly and easily to other wagons. Within the mobile camp were the Cossack foot soldier armed with musket, pike or swords. Mobile reserves were formed from the different groups of cavalry armed with sword, lance or pistol. The way the Cossack mobile camp would operate is that the entire camp would move in unison. They would approach their enemy, using the wagons as both a shield and to move the artillery closer to fire as opportunities presented themselves. As the mobile camp moved closer to a charge range, certain wagons would be pulled away and the cavalry and/or foot would then proceed to attack. If the attack was unfavorable to the Cossacks they would simply retreat back into the mobile camp and the wagons would close like doors to a fort. The Cossack’s would then immediately take up a defensive position. As the enemy would approach they would unleash a hail of cannon and musket fire. If the enemy retreated then the wagons can be pulled away at any point within the perimeter and another attack could be launched. (See figure 2).

Figure 2: Cossack Mobile camp.
Illustrations from "How Kozaks Fought " by C. Mitsik, I. Cteshenko, C. Plokhi Pub. 1990 ( In Ukrainian)

The Polish army had numerous functions throughout the steppes such as squashing local rebellions, escorting nobility and guarding caravans between regions. Polish domination became very harsh and punishment came quickly. It was not uncommon for peasants to be slain or beaten. To appease such concerns to local nobility in Ukraine the Polish crown would hire Cossacks as mercenaries and attach them to their army. They were given the task to help the Poles in maintaining order throughout the steppes. These were known as registered Cossacks. Allowing the presence of Cossacks ensured some stability. Registered Cossacks were not only paid but had an opportunity to own land and be given recognition when retired from service.

Bohdan Khmelnitsky, a young lieutenant was a wealthy landowner who kept to himself. However, he was not isolated against the harsh Polish rule under the local regent Czaplitski. In a retaliatory raid, the regent ordered his troops to punish several local peasants by burning their homes and taking their livestock. This incursion was to subdue recent Cossack raids within the area. But the raid fell upon Bohdan Khmelnitsky’s land. Czaplitski’s troops burned his farm, killed his son and abducted his wife. (This story sounds similar to the movie "Gladiator") Khmelnitsky sought justice through the Polish government’s courts but was rebuked and rejected for his claim. He escaped and found refuge in the Zaporozhian Sich along the Dnepro River where he once learned all the ways of the Cossack in his earlier career.

"The basis of authority in Zaporozhye was peace, fellowship of Cossacks. When there was a need to solve some important issues, kettledrums summoned all the Cossacks to the Sich square, where Rada (Council) or the Host Council would take place. During Rada every Cossack, regardless of his rank or means, could openly tell his opinion and had a right to vote. But after the decision was taken by the majority of votes, every Zaporozhian and all the hosting generals had to abide by it." (2). Thus through the Rada, Khmelnitsky became the Hetman of the Cossacks. He successfully rallied for Cossack support in 1647 and raised an army of over 20,000 Cossacks. His cause was not only for revenge but also for the social and religious persecutions of all Cossacks. His political savvy even won him favor with the Crimean Khan, Tuhai-Bey, he convinced Tuhai-Bey that the Poles were going to attack and force the Tatars out of the Crimea. Khmelnitsky would send the Khan gifts of wine, mead, gold, and cattle to persuade Tuhai-Bey to become an ally. For Tuhai-Bey too disliked the Polish crown. With this the Khan gathered over 20,000 Tatars to support the Zaporzhian’s in their quest for revenge. And the battles to follow would catch the Polish Crown by surprise.

On the morning of May 26, 1648 near the town of Korsun, The Polish Grand-Hetman Mukola Pototcki had learned of the death of his son, Stephan Pototcki, at the battle of Yellow River two weeks before. Worse, 6000 Registered Cossacks defected to Bohdan Khmelnitsky’s and 40 Polish Nobles and other leaders were taken prisoner. The Cossacks taunted and starved the nobles to gain valuable information, and later sell them to the Tatars as slaves. Later on the morning of the 26th, M. Pototcki camped across the River Rosh just 10Km east of Korsun. His encampment across the Rosh gave his army some terrain advantage if attacked. Pototcki knew that a large force was moving from the south and Pototcki was desperately reorganizing and gathering other Polish troops within the region.

On the Cossack side, Khmelnitsky knew he had to make another strike in order to maintain his momentum. He sent forward a detachment of 6,000 Cossack cavalry 6Km ahead of his main 20,000-man force. The Khan, Tuhai-Bey, broke up his 20,000-man army into three cavalry detachments and then proceeded to move Northeast of Korsun. Hidden, Tuhai-Bey hoped for surprise. M. Pototcki reviewed his situation and decided to split his army in two giving of 1200 horse and 10000 foot to one of his Nobles and keeping some 8000 for himself. But before the command was issued. The Tatars began moving into position (See Map 1). At that time a small Cossack scouting detachment of 50 men arrived and formed up in front of the Polish army.(3)

Figure 3: Painting of Cossacks on the move.
From http://www.pinakoteka.zascianek.pl/Brandt/Index.htm

Khmelnitsky’s main force was still 12 kilometers away. The Polish army began forming a defensive camp surrounded by wagons. In the middle of all the maneuvering the skirmishing Zaporozhians would disperse and begin taunting the Polish nobles. They would yell out insults to them, such as: "You cavaliers ride on asses as your mighty steeds!" or called them "cowards hiding behind your mother’s apron".

For the Polish nobleman to tolerate such insults was a fate worse then death. The Cossacks would begin laughing at them, egging them on to come out and conduct personal duels or jousts. Some Cossacks would dance in front of the Polish army and roll around on the ground laughing at the Poles. Some would play flutes or parade around taunting the soldiers. The Cossacks would display their derriere and whistle at the Polish Cavaliers. Some Poles found this so insulting that few did break ranks to go forth and honor the duel set forth only to be killed quickly by the Cossacks swordsmanship. Not only did this become a morale booster for the Cossacks but a demoralizing scene for the Polish troops.

The insults and thirst for revenge from the loss at Yellow River finally caused the Polish Nobles to move their troops to attack the skirmishing Cossacks. A volley of musket fire failed to scatter the Cossack rabble-rousers. The forced Polish response led to the morning attack of three detachments of the Tatar cavalry from the west of Korsun. As the Tatars closed, the Cossack skirmishers withdrew allowing the Tatars to fire their bows. The first volley proved deadly, striking down hundreds of Polish foot and cavalry. The Polish nobles would then fill the ranks and begin firing into the oncoming Tatar cavalry. But the gunfire did not stop the Tatars. The Tatars engaged the Polish foot and began fighting man to man. Some Poles were purposely decapitated and Tatar soldiers would place the heads on their lances to display their prize. Also, during the frenzy of the fight some would toss the heads back into the Polish lines to demoralize the troops.

By midday there was no clear victor until Khmelnitsky arrived on the battlefield. He moved his mobile camp east of the main Polish army, across the Rosh River, and began engaging the Polish right flank. This was far too much for the Polish army to endure. They were now facing a force twice their size. Immediately Pototcki ordered his wagons to be moved to force a breakout. They maneuvered the wagons such to create a corridor for the soldiers to move north into the cover of woods. By late afternoon the entire Polish army successfully moved into the wooded area. It was a short triumph. Tatar and Cossack soldiers harassed them continually, both sides, now exhausted after a day of fighting, settled in the wooded area north-east of Korsun. Fighting slowed with the exception of some minor skirmishes entering into the evening hours.

Unknown to Pototski one of Khmelnitsky’s general, Maxim Krivonic (means - Crooked nose), took 6000 Zaporozhians with their artillery at midday and made his way north, guessing correctly that if the Polish army withdrew, he would cut off their escape route. By early evening Krivonic was able to place guns on an embankment and through the night harass the Polish position by lobbing shells into the woods. The cannon fire kept the Poles on edge and further demoralized the remaining army.

On the morning of May 27, 1648 the Polish army tried to attack the embankment to make way for another breakout, with a plan to take the high ground. Yet the Cossacks and Tatars resumed their assault. Khmelnitsky began his attack in line formation and harassed the right flank while the Tatars harassed the left flank. Krivonic supported both assaults and rushed his Cossacks in a pincer maneuver to deliver the final blow. (Map 3) It did not take long to smash through the Polish wagons and lines. causing the Polish army to rout, essentially eliminating the Polish army as a fighting force. Both Cossacks and Tatars captured weapons, food and clothing within the camp. Some Polish soldiers were killed when they offered to surrender.

Mukola Pototcki and many Polish noblemen were killed that day. Those that did survive were put into chains. The Polish Corp was decimated after the second day. Some 8,500 massacred and the rest routed. The Zaporozhian Cossacks and Tatars sent a chilling message to the Polish crown, forecasting a change in balance. Bohdan Khmelnitisky became a hero to the Cossack, and the victory lured peasants to join the ranks of the Cossacks. The Zaporozhian and Tatar armies, strong and well supplied, soon became unstoppable.

The revolution had received such a momentum that it was difficult to stem it. It would take several more years of fighting and negotiations before Poland would finally recognize Cossack independence and to restore ancient privileges, bestow Cossack independence, and recognize Khmelnitsky as Hetman.

The battle cemented Khmelnitsky as one of the fathers of the Ukrainian nation. His Campaign freed Ukraine from Polish domination, and, in the process, fulfilled his quest for personal revenge. Although stability in Ukraine would take many more decades, the birth of a nation had begun.(4)

Click Image to Enlarge

Figure 4: Map 1 Opening battle (North is top of page)

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Figure 5: Midday Battle Near Korsun

Click Image to Enlarge

Figure 6: Second Day Battle Near Korsun
 

(1)  Webpage http://artiom.home.mindspring.com/cossacks/sech.htm.  Photos from http://www.cossacks.kiev.ua/ and http://www.infohub.com/TRAVEL/SIT/sit_pages/7244.html
Center picture is a purchased postcard.
(2)  Website http://www.cossack.com.
(3)  "How Cossacks Fought" by C.Mitsik,I.Cteshenko.C, Plokhi Pub 1990. Illustrations and information.  Painting from Warsaw museum Website.
(4)  "History of Zaporozhian Kozaks" by D.I. Yavrintsbki Vol II Pub 1991(In Ukrainian)

Copyright © 2002 Michael Meusz

Written by Michael Meusz. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Michael Meusz at: MMeusz@GI.com.
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